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The Mountain State’s Best on Screen

By Staff | Jun 30, 2010

Once upon a dream, too many years ago, I fantasized about the imagination and magic of filmmaking. A peek into cinematic fantasyland appeared a long reach, unless I took a trip to California.

Not having a muse to open doors and show me around, the thought of seeing a movie made stayed out of reach. I had to be content with reviewing the works of others and, occasionally, interviewing an actor or director who made their way in or near West Virginia. 

My desire to stand along the sidelines of a major Hollywood production first came within reach when Robert DeNiro, John Savage, Christopher Walken and director Michael Cimino shot scenes of “The Deer Hunter” in a little steel making burg called Mingo Junction, not far from Wheeling. 

An accumulation of review and interview clippings brought me the good news — come watch. 

On a decidedly hot and humid Saturday morning, three friends and I began a journey to a cinematic Holy Grail. Unfortunately, the hot weather and a finicky water pump turned the would-be triumph into a journey along the River Styx. 

Since the publicist said, “We’ll be shooting all day and night,” we inched toward the goal, where a roped off sidewalk and a distant factory became a place to park. I didn’t get to see much that day. The real action was a scene with DeNiro inside a bar. The interior was off limits.

 What I did see were 50 or 60 extras trudging back and forth to work in front of the watering hole. All wore parkas, toboggans and gloves. When the director yelled, “cut,” the parkas came off to show Matthew McConaughey bare chest and lots of sweat beads.

These hot extras would be vaguely viewed through the bar’s window in what would be honored as the year’s best picture of the year about inhabitants of an industrial town coping with the effects of the Vietnam War. 

The heat cut short the day of shooting. Our visit to the set lasted about 45 minutes. Worse, we did not know if the vehicle would make it back to Huntington. Although we brought a Pentax and recorder, Dennis Farrell, who managed the Huntington theatres, sent a poster of DeNiro on the faint chance of an autograph opportunity.

DeNiro exited the bar and headed hurriedly past others and us politely, yet arrogantly declining autographs or answering questions. Until?  The normally shy and quiet pure “country girl” straight from a “Norma Rae” sewing factory that I dated vented her boiling frustration — “We’ve been driving for seven hours and the car broke down three times. We don’t know if we can get home. And you won’t sign…”

 DeNiro interrupted his squeaky plea, “Have you got a pen?”

The practice of Hollywood expanding “on location” shooting instead of building sets, eventually, allowed me to see and hear glimpses of movies — studio and independent — being made without traveling far from West Virginia.

My interest in theatre architecture and showmanship promoting movies led to a gig as a regional correspondent with a movie industry business journal, Boxoffice. To steal a phrase from the state’s glassmaking industry, soon the initial barriers that filtered non-serious reporters would often crumble. I had opportunities to “see it [them] made.”

I still feel a sense of wanderlust nostalgia for a few of those “Deer Hunter’s,” which blazed the Mountain State movie making trails.  And, obviously, nothing compares to the caravan of Penske rental trucks rolling in as a fleet bringing a dream factory to Marshall and Huntington soil.

Fortunately, the experience covering the behind the scenes making of indie, “Burning Annie,” imparted enough knowledge (stop everything on the set when you hear “film speed,” don’t wait for “action”) to gain some toleration and blending favors from director McG during the location shooting of “We Are Marshall.”

My prejudices now revealed, a list of the best films shot in West Virginia quickly conjures a corresponding list of those set in the Mountain State, even when another state stood in.

• FOOL’S PARADE: Shot in and near Moundsville (when the prison still had men behind bars), James Stewart (a man with a glass eye named Appleyard) and two ex- cons (Strother Martin, Kurt Russell) board the B & O after release from the pen for Glory, W.Va., where they plan to open a general store.

The next morning Stewart enters the town’s bank with sticks of dynamite taped around his chest. (The flick originally had the title: “Dynamite Man from Glory Jail.” Full of thrills, twists and colloquialisms, a popular film website called it a “film that deserves to be seen.”)

Written by David Grubb, a state native, his  “Night of the Hunter,” a suspense chiller was also shot in 1955  in Moundsville. “Night of the Hunter” starred Robert Mitchum, Shelly Winters, Charles Laughton, Lillian Gish and James Gleason.

MATEWAN: I was rebuffed obtaining set access, but a one-on-one with John Sayles was the closest to Nirvana. Shot with the abandoned town below the New River Gorge Bridge standing in for “Matewan,” this film was about union miners set against scabs, with racial tensions tossed in for a historically accurate look at how the labor movement battled coal corporations. James Earl Jones and David (he played MU President Donald Deadman) Stratham star.

OCTOBER SKY: Actually, they wanted to shoot the Homer Hickam story in Coalwood, but access via narrow and mountainous roads proved too difficult for the tons of movie making equipment that arrives by truck. In fact, the filmmakers also require quick access to major air carriers for not just travel considerations but to get “rushes” to the studio.  Thus, Tennessee is the setting for the “Rocket Boys” inspirational tale of a coal miner’s son inspired by the Russian Sputnik launch to experiment with rocketry and enter the science fair.

PATCH ADAMS: Laugh and you’ll get well. Robin Williams did not set foot on Mountain State soil, but Ron Howard’s account of Dr. Hunter “Patch” Adams founding the Gesundheit Institute in Hillsboro (Pocahontas County) where the physician offers a holistic approach to healing — mostly humor and pathos. Shot in Asheville, N.C.

SWEET DREAMS: Jessica Lange plays the sharp and sweet-tongued bored housewife who becomes one of Nashville’s biggest singing sensations. A portion of the film was shot in Martinsburg, as well as the iconic Ryman Auditorium. Ed Harris plays her jealous husband. Unlike biographies of Loretta Lynn and other former country super-stars, like Johnny Cash, “Dreams” emphasizes Cline’s family life and relationship trauma, more than her singing career. 

WE ARE MARSHALL: You know the story. The insider version too. It’s one of the top, but technically, I should recluse myself due to pre-determined favorable attitude.

This is a catchall delineation for made in West Virginia, smaller-budgeted flicks that have found a national audience through the festival process and eventual sale to a distributor or sold direct to DVD.

Place Danny Boyd’s collection (“Chillers,” “Invasion of the Space Preachers,” “Paradise Park”) in here, but BURNING ANNIE heads the list due to its intimacy, performances and expression of love to the great Woody Allen.

It’s both a college romance and a film buff’s tribute to “Annie Hall.” David Smith made a zombie variation, “Maneater,” about a dude who will do anything for a girlfriend, including supplying her cannibalistic eating habits with friends and foes alike.

Although not yet in full release, “Two Fireflies” has screened at the Appalachian Film Festival and Baltimore Women’s Festival. Rainelle native Dani Englander stars as Claire, who helps a new widower (Roger Wilson) find a wife. She plays a waitress who takes him under her wings of empathy after watching him “interview” an assembly line of prospective “first dates” from the personals.

Unlike a May–December older man younger woman or cougar (older woman younger man) romance, “Fireflies” depicts how the two friends of opposite gender help each other through life’s turmoil.

• Super Size Me, On the River’s Edge, Dancing Outlaw.

• RAIN MAN: Dustin Hoffman studied a high functioning autistic man from Huntington (Joe Sullivan) to maintain accuracy. The filmmakers rewarded his mom, Dr. Ruth Sullivan with a benefit premiere at the Keith Albee.

Interestingly, Sullivan’s autistic services would become the second and third floor tenant for the office portion of the theatre, which has helped provide a revenue stream for the historic Thomas Lamb palace. Hoffman thanked the Sullivans in his Oscar acceptance speech.

• TEENAGE STRANGLER: Made in Huntington as a cheesy ’50s/’60s teen rebellion/ quasi-slasher film, no one wins any awards for acting/filmmaking, but the sights and sounds are pure nostalgia. The story’s not so bad, if you were a “Mystery Science Theatre” fan.

• STAGE STRUCK: Studio feature shot in 1925 in New Martinsville, which starred Gloria Swanson, Lawrence Gray, Gertrude Astor. 

(Editor’s Note: The writer has NOT had an opportunity to view ALL of the films shot in and/or about WV, so the list is based on those he’s seen or in the case of certain documentaries or Special Mentions heard cool buzz.)

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com