At first glance, it's like you've stepped into a super-villain's trophy room. One vitrine houses Iron Man's shattered helmet, glove and chest-plate. Another displays the severed head of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, flanked by the curved prongs of a Japanese sai and a Foot Clan ninja in full regalia. Other suits of clothes are less instantly identifiable but still radiate familiarity and heroism.
But fear not: You are safe within the confines of the North Carolina Museum of History's new yearlong show, Starring North Carolina!, which celebrates a century of film industry in our state. Work on the exhibit began about two years ago, following the popularity of the museum's Gone With the Wind show. Presented in partnership with the N.C. Film Office, this is one of the biggest exhibits that NCMH has ever produced, with upward of 450 artifacts, displays and interactive elements covering about 8,000 square feet of space. A film screening series runs throughout the year and the Longleaf Film Festival on May 2 features international submissions with an emphasis on the local.
Of all the arts in North Carolina, film is the one that can feel most like it's coming from somewhere else. The multiplexes are full of Hollywood, while the art-houses teem with Europe and New York. But this exhibit tells a different story—one where North Carolina is a hotbed of national film talent, locations and infrastructure. It tells this story through props, costumes, film clips, posters, interactive games and prodigious wall texts. It spans the birth of the moving image at the end of the 19th century and 2013's Iron Man 3, in which some key scenes were shot at Epic Games in Cary. Arranged in rough chronological order, it unrolls an educational narrative, though the viewer sometimes has to tease it out from the sheer inundation of trivia. Installed with the high-impact pizzazz of a summer blockbuster, it's sure to be a field-trip hit.
You get a teaser of the fun stuff as you enter and are greeted by a prototype of the "Stark Bunny" from Iron Man 3, a costume from TV's Sleepy Hollow and a giant egg from Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Just beyond this foyer display, there is a mini-theater where you can get in the mood, with a few rows of movie seats (rescued from the dearly departed Galaxy Cinema in Cary) in front of a screen showing a montage of clips.
But before you get into the bonanza of artifacts from films and TV shows such as Last of the Mohicans, Dirty Dancing, The Hunger Games, Dawson's Creek, The Conjuring, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and, of course, Bull Durham, you've got a bit of learning to do. The show begins with a display on early filmmaking, less a crash course than a basic primer that checks off all the requisite boxes: The Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, D.W. Griffith, Eadweard Muybridge. There are several early projection devices, such as a zoetrope, and a copy of Shelby native Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, which infamously paved the way for the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and inspired Griffith's seminal silent film The Birth of a Nation. But mostly, this early-film history is told through clips, images and text.
Other smaller sections surrounding the heart of the show deal with the changing movie-going experience, the world of film crews, the obsessions of movie-buff collectors and other auxiliary parts of the movie gestalt. You learn about nickelodeons, drive-ins and the glamour of cinemas such as Durham's Carolina Theatre at a time when people dressed up to go to the movies. You are also reminded of the less glamorous aspects in a display of segregated seats from the Colonial Theater in Tarboro. And you brush up on the succession of technologies that changed the way we watch movies, from TVs to Betamax to smartphones.
Early films were used for education, propaganda, business promotion and proto-documentaries called "actualities." A costume and a clip from 1921 educational film The Lost Colony, produced in Manteo, shines a light on a groundbreaking female filmmaker, the producer and actor Mabel Evans Jones. Distributed to public schools, it was screened in places that lacked electricity using a Model T generator. You also learn about the role of African-Americans in early film production and about George C. Strong, known as "the father of N.C. public television."
But narrative overtook film in the golden age of Hollywood, which was not a golden age for N.C. filmmaking. The '50s were the era of epic musical blockbusters that required huge soundstages. Our state had seas and mountains, forests and plains, urban and rural areas, which made it adaptable and attractive to the film industry. But before it could really thrive, it needed infrastructure.
There is a display on forerunner Earl Owensby, Shelby's own version of Roger Corman, who founded a movie studio in the small N.C. town and kept drive-ins stocked with low-budget action films throughout the '70s. But the real turning point in the local industry came with the 1984 release of the film adaptation of Stephen King's Firestarter.
King gets his own section, as many of the early-'80s films based on his books were shot in N.C. Famed Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis chose Wilmington to film Firestarter after sending Frank Capra to scout the location. (By the way, you can see the desk where Capra supposedly wrote It's a Wonderful Life in the exhibit.) De Laurentiis built EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, bringing in talent that trained locals and establishing a filmmaking community in "Hollywood East" that continues to this day.
After a burst of activity in the '80s, N.C. filmmaking flagged again in the '90s as productions moved to other less expensive locales. But at the same time, TV production ramped up (Dawson's Creek, One Tree Hill), and soon enough, N.C. movie-making was back in full swing, as you can see in the dazzling variety of films represented in the modern section. Each display has its own interactive touch-screen that gives you behind-the-scenes information and shows you the props and costumes you are looking at in action on the silver screen.
Many of the interactive elements seeded throughout the exhibit are simple, including trivia questions on sports, car and horror movies (in the latter, you lift a knife out of a very non-gory representation of a cadaver to reveal the answer). But a couple of them stand out. In "Casting Call," you go behind a partition and act out a script with your image projected into the main space, primed for social-media sharing. And an exhibit on Foley effects is basically a live-action rhythm game in the style of Guitar Hero. As a screen plays a generic horror or action movie clip, patrons take one of four stations—a slap board, voice, a crash box and a pair of shoes—to provide sound effects when an icon scrolls into their field.
Though entertaining and informative, the exhibit occasionally feels busy to the point of being overwhelming, and the onslaught of factoids can dilute the bigger picture. Indeed, though Starring North Carolina! achieves its stated goals—to entertain, educate and compress information—it does so in descending order of thoroughness.
But you will learn a lot if you take the time to read the wall texts, and even if you don't, there is plenty to geek out over. My personal highlight was seeing the severed ear from David Lynch's Blue Velvet, which was shot in Wilmington. If you are even remotely interested in movies—and who isn't?—you'll find yours in no time.
This article appeared in print with the headline, "Shot on location."