In this featured article, Rett gives a charming overview of locally filmed movies. Who knew that Hollywood magic was right up the road?
Often when we think of movies our minds drift away to famous celebrities filming on Hollywood sets way out west. However, sometimes that Hollywood magic has come to North Carolina. Several of my favorite films were extensively filmed on my home turf. From Asheville to Wilmington, here are five memorable films which highlight the best of our Tar Heel state—even if the plots themselves might not appear to take place here.
1. Bull Durham (1988) — Directed by Ron Shelton
To start off, sports comedy classic Bull Durham was filmed right down the street from our lovely campus. This iconic film follows the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team and the antics of two new players. The young Ebby Calvin Laloosh (Tim Robbins), nicknamed “Nuke”, is the team’s talented, but very erratic, new pitcher who comes to be mentored by veteran minor league player Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). All the while a baseball groupie named Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) selects “Nuke” to be her man for the season. This smartly written comedy follows the trio of characters as they maneuver the complicated but hysterical world of minor league baseball and sex. Ron Shelton was even nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay.
Most of the movie was filmed at the former stadium of the Bulls at the Durham Athletic Park downtown. Other locations include “The Green Room” bar on Broad Street—where Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins share a powerful scene—and “Mitch’s Tavern” in Raleigh—where many of the characters meet for the first time. Ballparks from other cities in-state are briefly shown throughout the film, including locations in Greensboro, Wilson, and Asheville. If you haven’t yet seen Bull Durham, you’re missing out on some fun and relatable laughs.
2. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) — Directed by Martin McDonagh
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is an enthralling dramatic-comedy, one I consider to be among the best films of the past decade. The narrative follows Mildred Hayes, portrayed expertly by Frances McDormand. Haynes puts up three billboards outside of her hometown calling for the arrest of her daughter’s killer, a killer who still hasn’t been brought to justice after seven months. Such brazen actions places her into direct conflict with police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson in an Oscar Nominated role) and the erratic and bigoted Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell).
Having been nominated for seven Oscars—including best picture—and winning two for both McDormand and Rockwell, this film had my esteem even before learning of its true set locations. The crew filmed in the Appalachian Mountains, outside of Asheville ,in the small town of Sylva. Downtown Sylva was completely transformed into Ebbing, Missouri with buildings completely transformed into sets such as the film’s iconic police station, advertising agency, and dive bar. Although most of the locations seen in the movie are on Main Street in downtown Sylva, other locations included the towns of Cullowhee and Dillsboro. If you haven’t checked out this emotionally riveting film yet, you’re missing out on a film with some of the best performances of the last decade.
3. The Fugitive (1993) — Directed by Andrew Davis
In this 90’s action thriller Harrison Ford plays Dr. Richard Kimble, a man wrongly accused of killing his wife and subsequently sentenced to death. After escaping detainment whilst en route to prison, Kimble quickly becomes the focus of a team of U.S. marshals headed by Deputy Samuel Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones in an Oscar winning role). As Dr. Kimble tries to evade capture, he must discover the identity of his wife’s killer before it’s too late.
Though not all of this film was filmed in North Carolina, some of its more iconic and riveting scenes took place in the western part of the state. The train crash early in the film was filmed in Dillsboro, and the remnants of the original train wreckage can still be found in the town to this day. Kimble evades capture by running through many locations in Sylva—I guess filmmakers just love this town—and escapes to Cheoah Dam near Robbinsville. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and winning one for Tommy Lee Jones’ performance, this memorable thriller is one of the quintessential action movies ever made.
4. Being There (1979) — Directed by Hal Ashby
This often overlooked satirical comedy, spends a great portion of its time at one of North Carolina’s most iconic landmarks: the Biltmore Mansion. In this film, we follow a simple-minded gardener (Peter Sellers in an Oscar nominated role) who has resided in the house of his employer in Washington, D.C. for his entire life. After the caretaker dies, he is forced out into the real world dazed and confused—having only been educated through television his entire life. After wandering DC, Chance is eventually mistaken for a wealthy gentleman, and soon his simple gardening wisdom touches some of the most powerful people in America, including the president.
Though the film does a fair job mimicking the D.C. area, Rand’s mansion is none other than one of our famous landmark, located right outside of Asheville. Build by George Vanderbilt, grandson of famed business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, the estate stands today as the largest privately owned house in the United States. The vast splendor of the mansion is displayed throughout Being There, including the dazzling entrance hall, library, banquet hall, and many bedrooms. Outdoor areas like the vast gardens, the lagoon, and the high hill located in front of the mansion are also featured. Being There is a funny and insightful look into how we perceive politics and life. Having served as a kind of blueprint for films like Forest Gump (1994) and Sling Blade (1996) years later, Being There is a film the truly deserves more attention.
5. Blue Velvet (1986) — Directed by David Lynch
David Lynch has long been a widely celebrated director, but Blue Velvet is a film ahead of its time. In this surreal and seductive mystery, college student Jeffery Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton, NC because his father has just suffered a stroke. After making the chilling discovery of a severed ear in a field, Beaumont teams up with Sandy, a detective’s daughter played by Laura Dern, to solve the mystery. From there, the narrative winds the pair down a dark path, on which they encounter a range of memorable characters, from nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) to psychotic criminal Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Most of the filming took place in the nearby coastal town of Wilmington. Many of the locations—including Vallens’ apartment building, Sandy’s high school, and the police headquarters—are still standing today close to Wilmington’s more downtown areas. Earning David Lynch his second Oscar nomination for Best Director, Blue Velvet is a thrilling mystery masterpiece that still intrigues and disturbs audiences to this day. If you’re looking for an ideal starting point to launch into Lynch’s filmography, this might just be it.