Quiet On the Set

Hollywood stars may film their flicks in Wilmington, but locals keep it laid-back.

Quiet on the Set in Wilmington North Carolina
Photo: J. Savage Gibson

Some people call Wilmington, North Carolina, "Hollywood East" because of all the movies and TV shows filmed here. In the last three decades, more than 400 feature films, documentaries, and television series have been shot and edited around town, drawing notable actors from Andy Griffith to Richard Gere. The city's historic downtown and the state's coastal dunes do make great sets. But rarely will you see a cobblestone street blocked off for filming. This is a local's town.

Wilmington, which predates the Revolutionary War, exudes a strong sense of place ―something that has attracted Hollywood. Visitors who come to tour historic home museums or lounge at nearby Wrightsville Beach feel it, too. Soon, most realize that part of the fun is exploring the neighborhoods and strolling the Cape Fear River waterfront.

Movie producer Francine DeCoursey says there's no better time to wander the former port than late afternoon. Filmmakers love that time of day. "It's the quality of light in the sky, our twilight, that is the cinematographer's dream," she says. "We call it the magic hour."

On a spring evening, downtown Wilmington presents a mix of candlelit bistros, oyster houses, and bookshops where tar sheds, ice shacks, and warehouses once stood. The Barbary Coast is the town's most colorful watering hole, complete with crusty bartender. Monday is movie night, when locals bring in homemade films to show on the big-screen TV. The bar attracts plenty of salty dogs, both citizens and their Labradors. Travelers are welcome, if they don't mind the pets. Another stop to consider: the Water Street Restaurant, which offers entertainment by local musicians as well as nighttime views across the river to the battleship North Carolina.

A stroll up Castle Street leads to a grocery-turned-art-showcase, the Era Gallery. A lively crowd fills the old building, celebrating an exhibition by James Coleman, an up-and-coming painter from Washington, D.C. "These are all locals," owner Chet Fisher says, pointing to the black-and-white portraits lining the white walls. "Most came here to work in the movies and never left."

Guest Dan Brawley owns a local theater that is home to the Cucalorus Film Festival, a favorite on the indie circuit. He points out fellow partygoers who help make Wilmington a movie town. A 1960s TV star trades jokes with a popular "One Tree Hill" actress. Studio maven Frank Capra Jr., son of the It's a Wonderful Life creator, chats with a local documentary maker.

It feels charmed, all right, with the entertainers adding a bit of glitter to the festival. And for the time being at least, Wilmington's magic hour stretches late into the evening.

 All Set for Wilmington 
 Lodging: Front Street Inn room and suite rates range from $135 to $235; 800/336-8184 or frontstreetinn.com. The Verandas room rates range from $169 to $249; 910/251-2212 or verandas.com.

 Dining: The George; 910/763-2052 or thegeorgeontheriverwalk.com. YoSake Sushi; 910/763-3172 or yosake.com. Water Street Restaurant; 910/343-0042 or 5southwaterstreet.com. Circa 1922; 910/762-1922 or circa1922.com.

 Activities: Kayak tours from Salt Marsh Kayak Company start at $45 per person; 866/655-2925 or saltmarshkayak.com. Tours of the battleship North Carolina are $12; 910/251-5797 or battleshipnc.com.

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