Asheville Area Filmmaking Legacy Lives On - TribPapers

Asheville Area Filmmaking Legacy Lives On

Last of the Mohicans (1992) showcased mountain vistas in its combat scenes shot in Chimney Rock State Park.

Asheville – The impressive tradition of movie-making in the Asheville area continues with the Hallmark Channel’s A Biltmore Christmas, which is being filmed this month at the Biltmore Estate and on Jan. 27 at the Historic Train Depot in Hendersonville.

North Carolina emerged in the early Nineties as a vibrant location for shooting major productions and smaller-budget independent films. The Tar Heel State joined California, New York State and Toronto, Ontario, Canada as preferred sites in North America. Production expenses were lower in North Carolina, such as for housing and renting locations. Wilmington, N.C. in particular became an epicenter for casting companies and bases for filming.

Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest is a scenic backdrop for a Hunger Games (2012) scene with survivalists Katnis (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest is a scenic backdrop for a Hunger Games (2012) scene with survivalists Katnis (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Western North Carolina with its spectacular natural beauty also rose to prominence a generation ago, as the main or secondary site for many premier films. Most locally-made movies were filmed in the late Eighties to early 2000s. They often show off mountain scenery, and in the massive Biltmore Estate’s case the luxury of a bygone era.

Films at Biltmore

Some films were filmed largely on Biltmore Estate grounds, with interior shots of the Biltmore House which is the world’s largest privately-owned house. The 255-room chateau opened in 1895 with 35 bedrooms, 75 acres of gardens, and magnificent views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Such excessive luxury fits the comedy Richie Rich (1994) about the “world’s richest boy.” Macaulay Culkin portrays the spoiled heir who has to fend off a plot to swipe the family fortune, in his final role as a child actor. Being There (1979) was also filmed at the Biltmore Estate. This comedy features comic British actor Peter Sellers in his last role before he died. He plays a simplistic gardener. By twists of fate, he rises to be a close advisor to a powerful businessman and is even touted as a presidential candidate.

Academy Award-winning Forrest Gump (1994) had scenes in Asheville, at Biltmore Estate, and outdoor running scenes on curvy road at Grandfather Mountain and elsewhere in WNC. Hannibal (1999) was also filmed at Biltmore Estate. It stars Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal the cannibal. He intrigues, teases and tortures Jodie Foster’s character. Foster portrayed a girl isolated in wilderness in Nell (1994), with scenes in Robbinsville.

The Biltmore House debuted on film as the home of Grace Kelly as a princess in The Swan (1952), before she was crowned the actual princess of Monaco. Other films showing the Biltmore House include Patch Adams (1998) with comic Robin Adams as a quirky and unconventional physician, comedy Mr. Destiny (1990) with Jim Belushi who gets a magical wish to live in a huge house and run the company he works for, zany The Private Eyes (1980) co-starring Tim Conway and Don Knots, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012).

Hunger for Mohicans

Two blockbusters wow the audience with local nature imagery. The Hunger Games (2012) stars Jennifer Lawrence as one of several adults who compete in wilderness to survive each other and other dangers. It features eye-riveting views of Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest in Transylvania County, and Black Mountain terrain.

Last of the Mohicans (1992) stars Daniel Day Lewis as a noble Native American, in 1757 during the French and Indian War. It features majestic scenes of Chimney Rock State Park cliffside and DuPont’s waterfalls. Some scenes were filmed on Biltmore Estate grounds. Local terrain stood in for New York State’s Adirondack Mountains.

Dirty Dancing Still Pulsates

Area hills also stood in for those in New York in Dirty Dancing (1987), set in the Catskills Mountains in 1963. It was filmed there, and at Lake Lure such as for dancing inside a rec hall. John and Pat Shepherd (founder of Pat’s School of Dance) danced together as extras. Lead extras performed close-contact, gyrating “dirty dancing” moves.

Lake Lure was a frigid 40 degrees when Patrick Swayze lifted up Jennifer Grey, as their characters practice their famed move for a dance contest in Dirty Dancing (1987).
Lake Lure was a frigid 40 degrees when Patrick Swayze lifted up Jennifer Grey, as their characters practice their famed move for a dance contest in Dirty Dancing (1987).

The romantic adventure vaulted to cult status with provocative dancing and its chart-topping, award-winning soundtrack featuring the duet “The Time of My Life.” The legacy continues with the Town of Lake Lure’s yearly Dirty Dancing Festival. Its Lake Lift competition mirrors the late Patrick Swayze holding up Jennifer Grey in a bold, climactic dance move. The two actors also frolicked in Lake Lure when it was a cold 40 degrees in mid-October. The film’s 2017 remake was also filmed locally.

Patrick’s younger brother Don Swayze supported Bo Hopkins in Trapper County, about locals chasing a young couple through woods. It was filmed in Madison County in early 1988, with frigid midnight outdoor scenes. Some extras got to drive their cars near downtown Asheville. They played table tennis in a YMCA, while waiting for hours until called for filming.

Parade Onlookers

More local residents likely got into the final cut of My Fellow Americans (1996) than other movies filmed locally. Extras crowded along downtown Asheville streets, watching a supposed gay rights parade. The Western Carolina University Marching Band is in drag as the All Dorothy (of Oz) Marching Band. One Dorothy is a secret service agent. He aids two former presidents, portrayed by co-stars Jack Lemmon and James Garner.

Those two bickering rivals-turned-cohorts encounter veteran Flat Rock Playhouse actor Steve Carlisle. He plays a hick wowed by meeting them, as they urinate in the Dillsboro train depot men’s room. Other scenes were at the Biltmore Estate, in Marshall for the presidents fleeing in a stolen car, and along the Broad River flowing into Lake Lure.

The dark comedy 28 Days (2000) starring Sandra Bullock had extras as visitors to the drug rehab center, which was actually the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly in Black Mountain.

Mountain Musicians

Songcatcher (2000) is about Appalachian folk music. It includes local musicians such as Josh Goforth, Sheila Kay Adams, Carol Rifkin, and Don Pedi. It was shot in Barnardsville.

Heavyweights (1995) was filmed for two months in 1994 in Flat Rock at Camp Pinnacle and Camp Ton-a-Wandah, and at famed Jump Off Rock in Laurel Park. Ben Stiller plays a fitness trainer who bullies chubby camper children in this farce. Camp Sequoyah, a boys’ camp in Buncombe County, was the main location for The Clearing (2004). The film about a kidnapping stars Robert Redford and William Dafoe.

Harrison Ford stars in The Fugitive (1993). Its dynamic train-bus crash was filmed near Sylva on the Historical Smoky Mountain Railway’s land. It remains an attraction on train rides. Comical hit Bull Durham (1988) has Kevin Costner as veteran minor league catcher “Crash” Davis. Crash goes from Durham to the Asheville Tourists, and plays at McCormick Field. Scenes were shot in downtown Asheville and the River Arts District.

Winter People (1989) co-stars Kurt Russell and Kelly McGillis, and has Asheville scenes. It is based on Asheville novelist John Ehle’s book about a small town during the Depression. The romantic drama All the Real Girls (2003) helped launch Zooey Deschanel’s career. It was filmed in Marshall and Asheville on a budget of merely $1 million, yet won a Sundance Film Festival award. Sci-fi thriller Alien Abduction (2014) interprets WNC’s supposed Brown Mountain ghost lights as signs of aliens. Its locations include Asheville and Boone.

Recent Films Shot Here

Two films were recently shot in WNC. Masterminds (2016) was mostly filmed in Asheville. The comedy is set in Jacksonville, N.C. It turns the actual robbery of a Loomis Fargo truck in 1997 into a farcical comedy co-starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Jason Sudeikis.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) is an offbeat dark comedy starring Frances McDormand as a rebellious mother. She rents three billboards. Her messages on them implicate the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) in her daughter’s murder. These billboards were in Black Mountain. Weaverville also made the cut.

Thunderous Action

Filming in the Asheville area started over a century ago with about 50 silent films, among an estimated 400 state-wide. The most heralded one, Conquest of Canaan, was released in 1921. It was filmed at what is now Pack Square, bringing Pulitzer Prize-winning Booth Tarkinton’s novel to life.

The movie hailed as an early classic shot in WNC is Thunder Road (1958) starring Robert Mitchum. The groundbreaking “muscle car” action film is from an era of social rebels portrayed by Marlon Brando, James Dean and Mitchum. Mitchum beat out Elvis Presley for the lead, as a rough bootlegger. His high-powered 1957 Ford Fairlane and 1951 Ford (posing as a 1950 model) outrace the 1957 Chevrolet that a federal revenuer (Gene Barry) chases him in on hilly roads.

For Thunder Road, a stuntman drove the Chevy off of the top of Lake Toxaway Falls along U.S. 64 West in Transylvania County. The car tumbles down the falls and explodes. All cars in the film were authentic moonshine vehicles with hidden compartments. Reportedly, Asheville area moonshiners sold those cars to the film company, drove the cars in the film, then bought newer and faster vehicles for their moonshining.

The actual Thunder Road goes through the Cumberland Gap, from Kentucky to eastern Tennessee. The film was shot locally on U.S. 19, Reems Creek Road, and Sugar Creek Road; also in Woodfin, in the Beech Community Center east of Weaverville, and in Asheville for the explosion of a moonshine car.