Lights, Camera...

Lights, Camera... Richmond

Movie-themed tours capture the star power of the capital city


by Rosemary Dietrick, Contributing Columnist

The New World, filmed in Tidewater Virginia and Richmond, stars Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith. Photo courtesy of The Virginia Film Office

Guests at the Hotel Jefferson were startled when Anthony Hopkins sat down to play the piano in the lobby. Richmonders in Carytown, an eclectic shopping center, told Kevin Bacon that he “looked a lot like Kevin Bacon.”

Filmmakers covered Broad Street with dirt, transforming it into Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, circa 1920. Down on Canal Street, they “built” a “hospital” on a parking lot. Out at Tuckahoe Plantation, a racetrack magically appeared.

Helene Wagner created Virginia Film Tours to explain the magic: the transformation of local sites and the presence of famous actors in the capital city. Working with the Virginia Film Office, the award-winning screenwriter and film teacher founded the tours to educate the movie-going public about the wealth of films, TV shows, and documentaries being made in Virginia, especially in historic Richmond. Helene says, “We should learn to appreciate the professionalism of these creative people – on each side of the camera.”

Because of its history, its natural beauty, and the preservation of its architecture, Hollywood is drawn to this sprawling city on the banks of the James River. Here antebellum grandeur and sleek skyscrapers coexist, side by side. Featured in such films as The New World, Cold Mountain, Hannibal, and The Contender, Richmond can also be sophisticated or gritty according to the demands of a script.

Richmond's Broad Street stands in for D.C.'s Pennsylvania Avenue in Iron Jawed Angels, starring Hilary Swank. Photo courtesy of The Virginia Film Office.

Mary Nelson of the Virginia Film Office says, “We have a lot to show off in Richmond. Movies have the power to bring visitors to an area. Even locals have no idea where a movie was filmed. Perplexed, they ask, ‘Was that Broad Street? Was that the old John Marshall Hotel? Where was that?’”

Helene and her husband, Tom, provide all the answers on their bus and van tours that range from three hours to all-day excursions. The itinerary includes locales for Civil War epics, love stories, political thrillers, comedies, historical dramas, and tales of mayhem and murder.

Movie tours, a growth business in places as diverse as New York City, Boston, San Francisco, London, and Kauai, Hawaii, evoke the thrill factor. Visiting locations where films were shot is a boon to tourism. Dishing tidbits of trivia such as actors’ favorite restaurants or shopping haunts adds to the fun.

At each stop, the Wagners spice up their tours with clips of scenes filmed at that exact spot. At Tredegar Iron Works, Hampton, Virginia, comes alive on the video monitor as you watch and listen in on President Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Union troops. (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln starred Law and Order’s Sam Waterston as Lincoln and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Lincoln.) The site is now the Civil War Visitor Center.

“As a venue for movie-making, Virginia ranks among cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and the District of Columbia,” says Helene. “From 1980 to 2004, the state realized $1.5 billion in revenue from the film industry.”

Along the way, Helene’s behind-the-scenes stories give passengers insight into the challenges of filmmaking. At Belle Isle, in the James River, the crew of Cold Mountain spent 23 days preparing for a river scene with actor Jude Law; actual filming lasted a little over a minute. In an adventure film like The New World with Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith, weather worries were always present: Will the war paint on the Native Americans fade in the sun or run in the rain? Is it too cold for loincloths?

With tour operators, Helene and Tom Wagner, participants explore Richmond points of interest where movies were made; watch film clips and hear behind-the-scenes stories. Photo courtesy of The Virginia Film Office.

When the plot calls for a congressional or presidential theme, film buffs recognize Richmond’s Capital Square as a familiar stand-in. Set high on a hill, the classical Capitol building with its Ionic columns fits the bill for a Washington, D.C., backdrop in films like Dave, The Contender, G.I. Jane, First Kid, and the mini-series, A Woman Named Jackie.

Locals play the game: “Wasn’t that the House of Delegates? Isn’t that the Houdon statue of Washington?” Disney Studios donated the Oval Office set, constructed for First Kid, to Virginia; it’s now housed in Petersburg at New Millennium Studios, owned by actors, Tim Reid and his wife, Daphne Maxwell Reid.

Another favorite of filmmakers is the turreted Jefferson Hotel (circa 1895) with its broad marble staircase fit for an entrance by Scarlett O’Hara. In The Love Letter, a hoopskirted Jennifer Jason Leigh dances with Campbell Scott in its elegant ballroom. In Lincoln, an angry Mary Lincoln berates an aide in the lobby.

Film buffs ready to board Virginia Film Tours motorcoach for up-close visits to Hollywood shooting locations in historic Richmond.  Photo courtesy of The Virginia Film Tours.

As the bus climbs up Broad Street to Church Hill, you realize what a bonanza this historic neighborhood offers Hollywood. Here the past is present in houses built over a century and a half ago. Fences of fancy ironwork frame tidy gardens in front of row after row of homes, Federal and Victorian in style – a ready-made set for a period movie.

Nearby at St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry declared, “Give me liberty or give me death,” there’s an intermission and the opportunity for a pleasant stroll. In Hallmark’s TV film, The Love Letter, a poignant scene takes place in the cemetery.

At Shockoe Bottom, Helene identifies the Farmer’s Market as the setting for a scene in Hannibal, starring Anthony Hopkins. On the bus’s TV screen, co-star, Julianne Moore, as an F.B.I. agent, chases criminals; fruit and vegetables fly as well as bullets.

In Iron Jawed Angels, Broad Street stars as the parade route for suffragists seeking the right to vote. In a rousing scene, Hilary Swank as Alice Paul leads a march down “Pennsylvania Avenue” toward a computer-generated Capitol. In a review, Mike McDaniel of the Houston Chronicle wrote, “… the re-creation of Richmond, Virginia, into Washington, D.C., is spectacular.”

The city of Richmond has shared the spotlight with local actors such as Irene Ziegler and Mark Joy who’ve been cast members in several productions filmed locally. Audiences will recognize Ziegler as the wife of a congressman (Gary Oldman) in The Contender. Joy, a familiar face in television commercials, appeared in The Legacy, a TV series about post-Civil War horse breeders.

Joy will produce and act in Final Witness, a historical murder mystery involving the Randolph family of Virginia that will be filmed at Berkeley plantation, Hanover Tavern, and Tuckahoe plantation. Los Angeles-based co-producer, Maura Soden, says, despite suggestions from others, the company’s first choice for filming was always Virginia. Soden says, “I was grateful to Sissy Spacek, the star of Final Witness, when she defended our position by saying ‘other places can’t pull off Virginia’s look.’”

Virginia Film Tours knows how to showcase the Richmond “look” as seen  through the eyes of Hollywood. What filmmakers see is the capital city of Virginia – a location always ready for its close-up.


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