HILDEBRAN -- With their rusty tin roofs and boarded-up windows, the rickety mill houses of Hildebran look like they might fall over in a stiff wind.
They sat empty for decades, relics from a village that turned cotton into yarn, where workers who toiled 16-hour shifts for dimes a day and families that survived on goods from the company store – purchased with company-minted money.
Few would imagine this Burke County outpost, just west of Hickory, as the setting for a movie – let alone the biggest movie of the year. But starting Friday, millions of eyes will see this corner of Hildebran transformed into District 12, the hardscrabble, coal-mining home to Katniss Everdeen, heroine of “The Hunger Games.”
North Carolina hosts many movies: “Blue Velvet” in Wilmington, “Dirty Dancing” at Lake Lure, “Bull Durham” all over. But this film’s impact is already being compared to “Harry Potter,” playing on the cover of national magazines weeks before the first showing. And more than the others, “The Hunger Games” builds its scenery out of North Carolina’s past – telling its story through the skeletons of its forgotten places. A mill in nearby Rhodhiss, after all, made fabric for the American flag Neil Armstrong planted on the moon.
The benefit of playing backdrop to a major movie is immediate: an estimated $60 million spent in the state, along with roughly 5,000 people employed, many of them locals who appear on-screen as extras making $150 a day.
But the greater good can be seen through the cameo appearance of long-dead trades and long-abandoned mills – glimpsed again through the camera’s lens. In a state reinventing itself after the decline of textiles and tobacco, “The Hunger Games” set provides a look back.
Weeks before the movie opened, curious travelers were stopping in Hildebran to see the ramshackle outhouses and the huge brick company store that serves as Peeta Mellark’s bakery in District 12 – even though the land is privately owned and marked with “No Trespassing” signs.
“My little niece was up here and her Daddy told her they filmed a movie,” said Hildebran Mayor Karen Robinson. “So I took her out there, and her Daddy mentions it was The Hunger Games. She got that camera phone out and she went crazy. It’s going to be big, judging by her reaction. All the kids. It’s going to be big.”
Nothing big has happened here in a long time.
Drive to the town’s nearby museum and you see the company-issued coins that mill workers used. You see scales for weighing cotton and tongs for adding machines for tallying totals.
You learn that a mill worker named Guy Livert occupied Katniss’ house between 1958 and 1977, and that Bud Rudisill was the last worker to live in the Henry River village. His quote from a local newspaper appears in large type on the wall:
“Used to be a lot of drinking going on around here. A lot of it. But back then, there wasn’t much that you had to do.”
“The Hunger Games” books are young-adult fiction by definition, classified as science fiction and as post-apocalyptic fantasy. But sales have pushed deep into the millions since the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy was published in 2008. Still appearing as a New York Times best-seller, the list of people waiting to check out “The Hunger Games” from the Wake County library stands at 841.
The plot is dark, much of its scenery grim. In a future world, North America is divided into 12 districts ruled by a totalitarian Capitol, (Charlotte, in the movie.) To keep the districts from revolting, the Capitol demands an annual tribute of two children from each district, all of whom must fight to the death on national television.
Katniss, the book’s heroine, volunteers for District 12 and gets dropped into a wilderness arena, (DuPont State Forest, about 30 miles south of Asheville), along with Peeta, her love interest-enemy. There she must forage for food, dodge deadly traps and outlast two dozen competitors bent on killing her. The plot makes much of primitive survival skills: bow-hunting, plant identification and shelter found in treetops.
For the movie, North Carolina provided all three settings: industrial wasteland, shining metropolis and majestic backwoods. Even in the previews, you can glance inside Charlotte’s Knight Theater, see rows of shacks in Hildebran and, in a pivotal scene, see the District 12 children chosen by lottery around the cotton warehouses of Shelby – once a thriving mill town in Cleveland County, 45 miles west of Charlotte.
In an open letter, Collins praised the director Gary Ross for creating a faithful narrative and a powerful vision. “His world building’s fantastic,” she wrote, “whether it be the Seam (the poorest part of District 12) or the Capitol. It’s amazing to see things that are suggested in the book fully developed and so brilliantly realized through the artistry of the designers.”
Made of brick, cinder block and rusty sheet metal, the warehouses of Shelby make a gray and forlorn movie set – a perfect stand-in for District 12. Decades past their prime, used only for storage, their windows are broken and their paint peeling.
Just last summer, more than 300 actors performed on this lot – several of whom will be famous by the end of this week. But walk through there today, and your feet kick up old bolts and screws from the dirt.
“We just needed a gritty place,” said NC Film Office Director Aaron Syrett. “Something with a lot of texture to it. The bones of something.”Walking down South Morgan Street, down railroad tracks that dead-end at an old warehouse, where workers are burning trash in a barrel, it is hard to imagine the paparazzi camped out on nearby rooftops. Entertainment Weekly stalked these streets, along with celebrity gossip-hounds from TMZ.com.
The warehouses are private property, and not easily visited. Already, the town is planning to put up “District 12 – Restricted Area” signs, anticipating curious visitors, along with signs along U.S. 74. Interest in this sleepy place is humming. One Shelby news reporter posted Hunger Games tidbits on Twitter during filming and soon found himself with 9,000 followers worldwide.
“I can’t say how excited I am to take people to Shelby,” said Margo Metzger, public relations manager for the N.C. Division of Tourism. “That’s not something I get to do very often: promote the little places.”
Shelby has lured films before. “Blood Done Sign My Name” shot here in 2008. But a movie expected to easily gross $100 million on its first weekend is still a coup for a town best known for its livermush festival.
Actors, trying for anonymity, bought Dale Earnhardt hats to better blend in. They dined at Pleasant City Wood-Fired Grille nearly every day.
Set pieces all got bought at Shelby hardware and antique stores. Crewmen built a train out of plywood, and made coal out of lighter chunks of charcoal. Hotels in Shelby were filled. Off-duty police officers got work. Extras on the set topped 1,000. More than $1 million got spent here.
“We had what they needed,” said Jackie Sibley, executive director of tourism for Cleveland County. “They needed vacant warehouse space.”Tourism spark?
But the hidden parts of North Carolina showing up on screen this week aren’t all skeletons of its industrial past.
Most of the action – the arena where the actors fight – takes place in the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially DuPont State Forest, which isn’t well-known.
Starting in 1996, DuPont sold the state these 10,000 acres of woods between Henderson and Brevard, having abandoned the plant where it manufactured x-ray paper.
The park already brings in 188,000 people a year, but rangers expect that to surge on Hunger Games tourism. People are already asking how to get to Triple Falls, the 120-foot trio of waterfalls with boulders the size of minivans. It’s welcome but nerve-wracking. People die on these waterfalls every year.
During filming last year, the crew build a wooden plank where Katniss could scamper across the top, attached to a safety wire, rapids surging underneath.
“It’s pretty neat,” said Bruce MacDonald, assistant forest supervisor. “I’ve never gotten to run across the top of Triple Falls.”
Falls in DuPont have appeared on screen before, notably in “Last of the Mohicans.”
The people in nearby Brevard once relied on the Dupont forest for jobs. Now they’re hoping the movie will spark a new round of eco-tourism. They’re building a trail to connect downtown with the highly rated mountain bike tracks in a nearby section of Pisgah National Forest, and the hope around these sidewalks is that the Hunger Games is going to bring droves of people into the woods.
It’s just a movie.
But Durham picked up a special status after its namesake movie filmed there. “Bull Durham” helped kindle interest in the old ballpark even after a larger replacement had been built. The Queen Anne-style house where Annie Savoy lived, and where “Crash Davis” delivered his speech about the small of a woman’s back and the hanging curvevall has not only been restored, but is still known as “The Bull Durham House.” It can be argued that the film helped employers see the romance in the once-empty American Tobacco complex, now home to Burt’s Bees, Tyler’s Taproom and many others.
And once “The Hunger Games” comes out, they’ll be saying the same thing about Hildebran, pulling off Interstate 40 to point out where Katniss met Peeta at the Henry River Mill.
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