After a year of celebrity sightings, aerial stunts over the Cape Fear River, late-night filming at the Port of Wilmington and the nearby National Gypsum site, and months of work in the sound-stage privacy of EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the biggest production ever to be filmed in Hollywood East—“Iron Man 3”—is finally hitting theaters, officially, today.
Many in Wilmington have seen the film already, as many were involved in the multi-million-dollar production last year—and as such were invited to an advance screening Sunday of the latest installment in the Marvel movie canon.
Since then, the first public showings of the film were offered Thursday night, just hours ahead of the movie’s official release date. And with the film projected to rake in more than $150 million in its opening weekend, having already doubled that in one week internationally, it seems many more will head out to see Tony Stark—the billionaire playboy-superhero played by Robert Downey Jr.—suit up once again.
But don’t be surprised if you don’t see much of Wilmington, even if a lot of the film was in fact shot in Wilmywood. Apart from some glimpses of local landmarks, like the port and New Hanover Regional Medical Center, if you didn’t know it was filmed here, you wouldn’t know by the movie, noted Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, who saw the film at Sunday’s screening.
But, Griffin assures: even if you don’t see Wilmington, the movie will indeed show Wilmington to Hollywood, as far as showing moviemakers what Wilmington can do.
“You won’t really recognize a lot of Wilmington in it,” said Griffin, whose role with the film commission helps market the area and accommodate productions that choose to film here.
Recalling the film, Griffin added, “The ports were a bunch of cranes above a ship at night, and a warehouse along the waterfront—could’ve been anywhere. There were some shots in front of New Hanover hospital, and you hardly recognize that.
“There were the scenes that they shot down on the Cape Fear River, with all the people dangling from the cranes and the cables, and everybody saw that,” he said. “But the way it’s married with this footage in the film, it’s made to look like it’s in Florida somewhere.”
As a result, unlike other recent productions like “Safe Haven” and the current “Under the Dome” that prominently showcase nearby Southport—which expects to see tourism increase accordingly—Griffin said the impact of “Iron Man 3” will not be seen through tourism dollars, other than to be able to say the film was shot here.
But that doesn’t mean the city’s biggest movie will have no effect on Wilmington, he said.
Noting the studios’ tours for the public, which Griffin said it hopes to start up again soon, Griffin pointed out: “To be able to say, ‘This is where they shot “Iron Man,”’ and to get your picture in front of the Screen Gems logo and say, ‘This is where Robert Downey Jr. and “Iron Man” was located,’ and to go down to Stage 10 and say, ‘This is where Tony Stark’s house was built’—to know that that took place there adds to the caché of it.
“You won’t be able to recognize a lot of it, and it’s not as if you’re going to be able to pinpoint something in the movie and say: ‘I was there; I saw that.’ But yet it just adds to the caché of what we’ve been able to do here.”
And in that regard, Griffin acknowledged, “Iron Man 3” will very much serve as a calling card for Wilmington, showing the world what the local film industry is capable of accomplishing.
“There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done here through the years. We’ve done small independent projects—$5 million—that have done very well. We’ve had long-running series here like ‘Dawson’s Creek,’ ‘One Tree Hill.’ We’ve had all sorts of different projects,” he said.
“But to all of a sudden get something like ‘Iron Man,’ which is just a whole ‘nother level of project,” he said, “and to be able to pull that off here and have location shooting, stage work, set construction, visual effects—all this different stuff that they needed—and to have them use our local vendors, local crew, and to see the support of the community, shows other big films that you can pull those things off in North Carolina: ‘They do have the capabilities; they do know what they’re doing.’
“Everybody from Marvel says that they would like to come back there again,” Griffin said. “For them to go back and tell other people that this is a great place, the crews are great, we had wonderful people there, wonderful experience, then it does kind of complete our résumé, as far as the types of projects that we’re capable of doing.
“Every project is always different; every project always presents a new type of challenge, because it’s never been done before. But I think, before, we could truly say what we’d never done was a huge, big, over-$100-million blockbuster kind of film. Now we can put a check in that box and say, ‘Okay, we’ve done that too, and it was a success for everybody.’”
It’s been more than a year since the Wilmington Regional Film Commission listed on its website a curious project called “Caged Heat”—soon widely known as the codename for “Iron Man 3.”
When word got out that Tony Stark was coming to town, along with Pepper Potts—played by Gwyneth Paltrow—and the evil Mandarin—played by Sir Ben Kingsley, who toured the Battleship North Carolina while he was here—Wilmington was abuzz with “Iron Man” fever.
At the same time, Screen Gems was preparing for the biggest production the studios had hosted—on top of other, relatively smaller projects that were also filming in town. Griffin said the year was a mix of excitement and cautious optimism.
“You’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “A project of that scale—it’s like any business that does normal business every day, and then you get one client that’s a giant that’s going to come in, and you’re excited that you’ve got that piece of business. But you also realize the challenge that, ‘Okay, we’ve got to be able to service this client in such a way that they’re bringing such a huge piece of business to us, that we can actually take care of them, keep them happy, give them what they need.’
“It’s a huge piece of business you’re excited about, but it’s also a big challenge to be able to pull it off and make sure that you can make it happen and be successful where—when it’s all said and done—everybody looks back and says, ‘Wow, you know what? That was a great experience.’ Not that the client says, ‘You know what? We totally overwhelmed them. We came in and they couldn’t live up to the challenge.’
“Marvel left here saying: ‘You know what? The community lived up to the challenge. The studio lived up to the challenge. The crew lived up to the challenge. And given the right project, we’ll be back there. It’s a great place to be.’”
Griffin said he is hopeful that similar projects come here again, though he notes that multiple factors—locations needed, set work desired, accommodations available, stars’ and directors’ preferences, and, of course, tax incentives—play into such a decision.
“Captain America 2,” another Marvel movie, was reportedly looking at Wilmington but decided on Los Angeles, which Griffin described as more expensive for filming than doing business in North Carolina. Griffin chalked that up to a corporate decision that he said went beyond what Wilmington has to offer.
“Those projects a lot of time are driven by special factors,” he said, “one being location. Any of those big, huge, box-office blockbuster films are usually shot either in a recognizable city that sort of plays one of the characters, or a lot of times in a big urban location with lots of different, unique, individual locations that they need for the project.
“What we do well here is what we refer to as just ‘Any town USA.’ It’s just nondescript, small-town. You need a neighborhood, you need a high school, you need a downtown, you need some businesses, some restaurants, court house, streets—we can pull that off here. We certainly have the sound stages, which is another thing that these projects need a lot of times.
“So we would certainly like to think that we’ll still be considered for some of those projects. Those are few and far between.”
As for the film, which Griffin described as “your big tent-pole action-adventure superhero movie, good overcoming evil, with some excitement, some humor—some new bells and whistles and surprises,” Griffin said the movie worked well, though he noted he took the most joy in watching Sunday’s audience.
“To be able to walk into the theater—and those theaters were full of local crew, local vendors, local politicians. This was the working man’s premiere—for the people that actually made that film and put it together,” he said. “And so, to see those theaters filled with people that are just average people in this town, who live here and work in this industry every day—as painters, carpenters, electricians, hair-and-makeup artists, grips—was amazing, to see all those folks and realize that they had a hand in that.
“And especially for the politicians, too, that were there, to be able to look around the room and they can realize that—people talk about the incentives and big salaries that Robert Downey Jr. and all these different people make—but everybody in that room’s just making a living wage. They’re just trying to support their family working on an industry here in town.
“So to see that, it was just really rewarding,” Griffin said, “to look around that room and think, ‘These people all paid their bills by what we just saw on the screen for the past year.’
Asked what “Iron Man 3” means for Wilmington, Griffin reiterated: “The biggest thing is that we—the town, the community, the crew, the studio—everyone can basically add that to their résumé.
“The whole community—everybody that was touched by this project in any way, shape or form—really delivered to where, now, I don’t know of anybody that could leave here from that project and say it was a failure. Everybody that we have spoken to in any level of management with that production has said: ‘It was great, it was a good experience. And feel free to use us as a reference.’
“And believe me, in this business,” he said, “that’s what counts.”
Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jrspiers