The 13th Floor

Wilmywood: How FIRESTARTER Sparked DAWSON’S CREEK

As a proud North Carolinian, I can say that my home state has it all: Mountains, beaches, a perfectly-measured dosage of metropolitan culture, small-town bucolic charm, and a pretty impressive dossier of film locations. However, back in the early 1980s, all of these except the last one rang true — I can’t say absolutely nothing had been filmed there, but I can say none included covert government research facilities, werewolves, homicidal machines, or Kandarian demons. (I hope I’ve piqued some interest with that last line.)

Any fan of film in general will recognize the name Dino De Laurentiis. Dino was a pivotal figure in Italian cinema, and produced such notable American classics as BARBARELLA, SERPICO, DEATH WISH, THE SHOOTIST, the 1982 classic CONAN THE BABARIAN, and one of my first film experiences — the 1976 version of KING KONG, starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange (it turns out I was a fan of Dino’s output even before I knew who he was), and too many more to list here.

What made De Laurentiis such a catalyst for the story I’m about to tell was that he shared that same endearing love of movie-making with his peers Roger Corman and Cannon’s Golan & Globus. Whether it was an art-house Fellini film or a B-movie knockoff of a major studio picture, Dino was all in. I owe absolutely all of my superfluous film knowledge to the producers and directors who could appreciate the cinematic equivalent of filet mignon as much as that of a grease-soaked cheeseburger.

In the early ’80s, De Laurentiis was given the opportunity to bring some classic literary works of Stephen King into the celluloid realm. King was a very bankable name, with such hits as CARRIE, SALEM’S LOT, CHRISTINE and THE SHINING all adapted to great acclaim; all of these adaptations had been helmed by visionary directors of their time, so when Dino made THE DEAD ZONE, he brought in a young fringe director from Canada named David Cronenberg. King was known to be hands-on with adaptations of his work, and since this one went well, he and De Laurentiis would form an alliance that had a ripple effect on the film industry for decades after.

De Laurentiis’ next King adaption was FIRESTARTER. Legendary director John Carpenter was on tap to direct, but when 1982’s THE THING did not perform to expectations at the box office, Universal drastically slashed the budget and the project lost Carpenter. This marked a turning point in the direction of not only the film, but also the tone of future Stephen King adaptions until the early 1990s.

FIRESTARTER’s scaled-down budget made the Wilmington, NC area a perfect location, due to a variety of regional possibilities — such as the stately Orton Plantation, which doubled as the U.S. Department of Scientific Intelligence (a.k.a. “The Shop”). Some pretty big names were also attached to the project — including George C. Scott, Martin Sheen and Drew Barrymore (fresh off the box-office smash E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL). It was a pretty big deal for a state that, up to that point, was mostly known for tobacco and NASCAR. Things went so well that De Laurentiis put down roots in Wilmington, founded the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), and built a bona fide film studio there. The Corman comparison comes into play here, with the continuation of the FIRESTARTER formula — to direct, Dino hired Mark L. Lester, a veteran of genre films like ROLLER BOOGIE and CLASS OF 1984.

For the King anthology CAT’S EYE, De Laurentiis brought aboard Lewis Teague, who not only directed 1980’s monster flick ALLIGATOR, but had successfully adapted King’s novel CUJO. Barrymore joined the CAT’S EYE cast as well. Absolutely no attempt was made to hide that the film’s feline hero was on a pilgrimage back to Wilmington from New York to clear his good name and punish a (literal) troll for the crime of stealing children’s breath. It was a fun flick with tongue-in-cheek references to past King films, and featured James Woods getting fingered for smoking on the very same bridge I’d once crossed in the backseat of a 1986 Pontiac Bonneville headed to Carolina Beach about two years later. I was the only one in the car that would’ve appreciated this detail, so I kept it to myself… but relished it nonetheless.

From there on out, King adaptations took more of an awesome B-movie tone. Some may say this was a slump, but I always saw it as King bringing in a guy like Dino to help him turn his own bolts, rather than taking the car to the mechanic. The feel became more blue collar and visceral, instead of mystical and ambiguous. It was, and has always been, an interesting place-card in the King filmography.

SILVER BULLET arrived around the same time, followed by arguably the most perfect exploitation film or vanity project ever made: MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE.

I’m a die-hard King fan, and I embrace this one unapologetically as King testing his wings. This film had the pedigree of King himself directing — after getting pointers on the set of CAT’S EYE — and the score was provided by AC/DC songs and the best PSYCHO riff that Angus Young could muster on the electric guitar. The aforementioned bridge was used again, this time for totaling an AC/DC van — while the actual band AC/DC played extras in a boat below. It was absolute pure gold, set in Wilmington, and even mentioning my own town of Greensboro as where the killer trucks might be heading. I couldn’t believe it… and I’m still in awe of one of the most unusual King films ever, shot in a place I actually visit regularly.

The Wilmington area served as the setting for many more DEG productions — including quintessential ’80s rock ‘n’ roll horror film TRICK OR TREAT; the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring RAW DEAL; horror classic EVIL DEAD II (filmed almost entirely in a school gymnasium); David Lynch’s iconic BLUE VELVET; and the very first Hannibal Lecter adaptation, MANHUNTER.

DEG eventually would declare bankruptcy, but the studio’s legacy of filmmaking in Wilmington left its mark, earning the city the nickname “Wilmywood.” The former DEG facilities are still there, now under the moniker of Screen Gems Studios. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, any WB series featuring an intro song from an up-and-coming artist (who would forever be remembered by that song) was probably filmed at Screen Gems —  including, of course, DAWSON’S CREEK — and many TV shows like SLEEPY HOLLOW have been filmed there. Several big-budget movies have used Wilmington as a stand-in for another city, and on one trip to Wilmington, I just missed seeing Robert Downey Jr. filming IRON MAN 3. Not too shabby.

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