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

By Taylor Bruce
March 04, 2008
J. Savage Gibson

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

Wilmington, which predates the Revolutionary War, exudes astrong sense of place ―something that has attractedHollywood. Visitors who come to tour historic home museums orlounge at nearby Wrightsville Beach feel it, too. Soon, mostrealize that part of the fun is exploring the neighborhoods andstrolling the Cape Fear River waterfront.

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

On a spring evening, downtown Wilmington presents a mix ofcandlelit bistros, oyster houses, and bookshops where tar sheds,ice shacks, and warehouses once stood. The Barbary Coast is thetown's most colorful watering hole, complete with crusty bartender.Monday is movie night, when locals bring in homemade films to showon the big-screen TV. The bar attracts plenty of salty dogs, bothcitizens and their Labradors. Travelers are welcome, if they don'tmind the pets. Another stop to consider: the Water StreetRestaurant, which offers entertainment by local musicians as wellas nighttime views across the river to the battleship NorthCarolina.

A stroll up Castle Street leads to agrocery-turned-art-showcase, the Era Gallery. A lively crowd fillsthe old building, celebrating an exhibition by James Coleman, anup-and-coming painter from Washington, D.C. "These are all locals,"owner Chet Fisher says, pointing to the black-and-white portraitslining the white walls. "Most came here to work in the movies andnever left."

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

It feels charmed, all right, with the entertainers adding a bitof 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. TheVerandas 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 StreetRestaurant; 910/343-0042 or 5southwaterstreet.com.Circa 1922; 910/762-1922 or circa1922.com.

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