Arts & Culture

NC Museum of History salutes state’s celluloid past

Textile conservator Paige Myers transports costumes from the television show “Dawson’s Creek” to a display case at the N.C. Museum of History.
Textile conservator Paige Myers transports costumes from the television show “Dawson’s Creek” to a display case at the N.C. Museum of History. jleonard@newsobserver.com

You probably couldn’t pick two more dissimilar movies than “Blue Velvet” and “Dirty Dancing.” The former was a profoundly unsettling psychodrama, with Dennis Hopper in one of his signature roles as a crazed killer; the latter, a love story between Patrick Swayze and pre-nose-job Jennifer Grey that yielded up the immortal line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

“Dirty Dancing” and “Blue Velvet” do, however, have one thing in common. Both were made in North Carolina in the mid-1980s – in Lake Lure and Wilmington, respectively – and they figure prominently in the new “Starring North Carolina!” exhibit, on display at the state Museum of History in Raleigh for the next 10 months.

From “Dawson’s Creek” to “Bull Durham,” around 3,000 movie and television productions have been made in the state over the past century.

The roll call includes high-class Oscar bait like 1992’s “The Last of the Mohicans” and 1979’s “Being There”; 2012’s “The Hunger Games,” the 1990 car-racing film “Days of Thunder” and other blockbusters; and hordes of smaller-budgeted independent movies, 2005’s Oscar-nominated “Junebug” and the upcoming “The World Made Straight” among them.

“Starring North Carolina!” has more than 500 artifacts, everything from the No. 26 Wonder Bread race car from the 2006 Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” to the human ear that Kyle MacLachlan found at the beginning of “Blue Velvet.”

The latter item is not a real ear, of course, although it’s plenty creepy. Makeup artist Jeff Goodwin made it out of silicone.

“At first, he tried molding it off his own ear,” said Katie Edwards, one of the exhibit curators. “But it was too small. (Director) David Lynch told him, ‘That’s great, but we need an adult ear.’ Later, Goodwin added some of Lynch’s hair from a haircut to it.”

The “Blue Velvet” corner of “Starring North Carolina!” also has the heavy fake eyebrows worn by Hopper (made by cutting a fake mustache into two pieces) and a broken prosthetic leg to go with what Goodwin called “Mr. Ear.”

“There’s, um, a warning sign before you get to the ‘Blue Velvet’ part,” said exhibit team leader Camille Hunt. “Advising parental discretion.”

Getting started

“Starring North Carolina!” began coming together two years ago. The first installment of “The Hunger Games” (shot mostly in and around Charlotte) was on its way to grossing nearly $700 million worldwide, so museum management decided to assemble an exhibit of North Carolina movie artifacts even though its permanent collection of film-related objects contained a grand total of two items.

“We have the wedding gown Holly Hunter wore in ‘Once Around’ and a signed basketball from ‘One Tree Hill,’ ” said museum director Ken Howard. “So we had to borrow a lot of things. Almost everything, in fact.”

They set to work, researching to identify as many made-in-North-Carolina films as they could. The oldest one they found was “The Heart of Esmeralda,” a silent film from 1912.

Then they started borrowing artifacts such as the coonskin cap worn by Fess Parker in 1955’s “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” which is on loan from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. But the biggest contributor of all was Wilmington’s Cape Fear Museum, which is fitting, because Wilmington played a major part in the growth of modern North Caroling filmmaking.

Filmed in Wilmington

Three decades ago, the newly created N.C. Film Office recruited movie producer Dino De Laurentiis to come to Wilmington to make “Firestarter,” a 1984 sci-fi thriller starring Drew Barrymore (then 9 years old) as a young girl with pyrokinetic powers. It went well enough for De Laurentiis to open a studio in Wilmington (which was later bought by Carolco).

Other productions followed, as did behind-the-camera professionals, turning Wilmington into a movie boomtown by the 1990s. “The Crow,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Forrest Gump” were among the movies to emerge. With its varied topographies, North Carolina could stand in for bucolic New England in 1991’s “Once Around,” or even a big city in 1990’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“People are always shocked that ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ was filmed here and not New York,” Hunt said. “There’s one corner of the exhibit I want to stand by just to see the looks on people’s faces when they come in and see that one.”

One that got away

Filmmaking is a lucrative and prestigious business, and other states and countries wanted a piece of North Carolina’s action. Lured by financial and tax incentives, movie producers started going elsewhere in the early 2000s – even for movies that by all rights should been filmed here.

Chief among the ones that got away was “Cold Mountain,” the big-budget adaptation of Raleigh novelist Charles Frazier’s 1997 epic set in Civil War-era North Carolina. Director Anthony Minghella acquired the film rights thinking he’d film “Cold Mountain” in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains, only to discover it was going to be too expensive because of local salaries and construction costs.

“I was devastated, to be honest,” Minghella said in a 2003 News & Observer interview. “We had spent month after month scouting North Carolina, found all the locations, did a great deal of designs. Then the budget came in and we were faced with a dilemma. Do we not make it at all, or find another way?”

That other way led to Romania, where costs were lower. “Cold Mountain” was mostly shot there, saving tens of millions of dollars on a final budget of $83 million. More than a decade later, the mention of “Cold Mountain” still rankles the Museum of History’s Hunt.

“One of Charles Frazier’s inspirations to write ‘Cold Mountain’ was a gun he saw in this museum’s permanent collection when he was a kid,” she said. “How could that one not be filmed here? It still bothers me.”

Luring filmmakers

Spurred by the erosion of the state’s moviemaking business, the N.C. General Assembly began offering state tax credits about a decade ago to entice filmmakers back. They’ve taken advantage, to the tune of about $60 million a year in tax credits since the rebate rate went up to 25 percent in 2010.

The peak was 2012, when film and television producers spent more than $376 million in North Carolina ($200 million of it on “Iron Man 3”). North Carolina-produced films coming in 2015 include “The Longest Ride,” based on Nicholas Sparks’ 2013 novel; and “The Disappointments Room,” starring Kate Beckinsale.

Beyond that, however, it’s not clear what might be in a future “Starring North Carolina!” exhibit. North Carolina’s lawmakers chose not to extend the tax credit beyond its 2014 expiration date, and it will no longer be offered after this year, replaced by a much smaller grant program.

“We’ll continue to deal with the cards we’re dealt to try and do stuff that’s beneficial for the state,” said Guy Gaster, director of the N.C. Film Office. “While the tax credits may have been a leading reason why film companies come here, there are still other benefits the state offers – various locations as well as workforce. Those still make us a contender for projects.”

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