Savannah Scenes #4: The Conspirator (2010)

The Conspirator was the second major project to film in Savannah after the Georgia legislature did the first useful thing it's done in years and set up a highly competitive set of incentives for filmmakers to shoot in this state. Right before The Conspirator came the Miley Cyrus movie The Last Song. (Yeah, I'll have to watch that one day. Don't rush me.) Those two movies were preceded by a decade-long stretch of nothing after The Legend of Bagger Vance wrapped up in 2000. (Guess I'll have to watch that one someday too. Ugh, golf movies.) The surrounding states, especially the Carolinas and Alabama out competed Georgia for project after project. But as soon as the legislature passed those incentives, holy moly! It was like magic! I am not even kidding. Touchstone Pictures immediately bailed out of North Carolina to film The Last Song in Georgia and The American Film Company was right on their heels late in the summer with The Conspirator, both of them high-profile feature films.

Now, the presence of Miley Cyrus on Tybee Island was exciting, I'm sure, for certain demographics. But the non-teeny-bopper inhabitants of Savannah didn't have much to fangirl about until friggin' ROBERT REDFORD showed up to direct The Conspirator! So, there was a little something for everyone that summer.

Redford's movie is about a woman named Mary Surratt. She owned the boarding house where John Wilkes Boothe and his friends plotted the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. She was hanged as a conspirator in the murder and was the first woman ever executed by the US government. Not the kind of pioneer she ever wanted to be, I'm sure. The movie is focused on the events of her trial and the emotional tribulations of her appointed attorney. He is at first reluctant to defend her, then increasingly doubtful about his government's commitment to true justice when it becomes apparent every bureaucrat around him wants to railroad Surratt into a guilty verdict for the sake of national closure, whether she actually knew what was going on in her boarding house or not.

The Conspirator was the inaugural project of a new studio called The American Film Company, whose mission is to depict true events in American history with complete accuracy. Have you ever wished you could just watch a movie instead of reading the book? Well, someone finally heard your cries. Despite being quite a small scale project with a tight budget, the movie attracted an impressive assembly of talent. Go look at the IMDB page- the cast is nothing but A-listers. Robin Wright played Surratt. James McAvoy played her lawyer Frederick Aiken. True, this is before those X-Men movies shot him into the stratosphere of superstardom, but he had already done some high-profile stuff. Kevin Kline is there too as the ever-so-slightly villainous Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War. There are even some cult favorites in the cast. Stephen Root is in this movie, for God's sake! Stephen Root! I can't remember why, but who cares? It's Stephen Root!

Now, the story takes place in Washington D.C. in 1865. As we all know, modern day D.C. bears almost no resemblance to 1865 D.C. So, when you need an authentic looking mid-to-late 19th century city that offers a variety of public and private architecture and access to interiors as well, who you gonna call? Savannah, Georgia, of course. Let's take a look at some of the local attractions standing in for D.C., shall we?

First up, and repeatedly throughout the movie, we have the Harper-Fowlkes House:

The Harper-Fowlkes House, aka The Century Club

You'll see this building a lot in the movie. It serves as The Century Club, the place where the Union soldiers and the lawyers hang out all the time for drinking and joking and impressing the ladies. It's a house museum in actuality, built as a private home in the 1840s. It was rescued from decay and restored by a woman named Alida Harper-Fowlkes. She was doing the historic preservation thing in this town way before it was cool, back in the 1920s. As an aside, this house also appears momentarily at the end of the way-more-action-packed Lincoln movie called Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. Don't worry. I'll get to that one eventually. Also, is America over its Abraham Lincoln phase now? I mean, it was just nonstop Lincoln for a few years there. Can we move on to, say, Benjamin Franklin? His biopic would basically be a porno with some lightning, a stove, and a pair of bifocals thrown in. Not nearly the kind of downer Lincoln's biography is.

This next exterior is the Owens-Thomas House:

Exterior of the Owens-Thomas House

This is where a couple of Boothe's co-conspirators attempt to kill Secretary of State William Seward. They shot those bits inside the house too, but I neglected to take a screencap of that for some reason. Maybe because it was kind of dark and there wasn't a lot to see. The Owens-Thomas House is my favorite house museum and I highly recommend touring it if you ever visit Savannah. It was the first real mansion ever built here, it's beautiful, and the tours are very high quality.

Next up, we see Lincoln's funeral train pulling into a station full of mourners. The station in question is the Roundhouse Rail Road Museum, which also served as the backdrop for much of the movie Glory. I'm not sure, but the filmmakers might have used the steam engine that already resides there. The museum does periodic train rides with it.

The Roundhouse Railroad Museum

Below is the U.S. Customs House, which sits on Bay Street at the corner of Bull. This building turns up in the movie as often as the Harper-Fowlkes House because it's where the lawyers do their serious lawyering. There is CGI D.C. just over the roof. Seeing an incomplete George Washington monument makes me giggle, for some reason.

The very top of our Customs House with pretend White House in the background

Here is a better view of the building as a whole:

A full view of the US Customs House on Bay Street

This is a shot of James McAvoy and Tom Wilkinson walking down the Customs House steps. The two of them have many important, philosophical, and very grown-up conversations about ethics and stuff inside and around the Customs House.

James MacAvoy and Tom Wilkinson

The most significant amount of filming did not take place in the Historic District, however. A lot of plot and character interaction happens when Aiken, the lawyer, goes to visit Surratt. She is, naturally, being kept in prison at a fort in D.C. Our own Fort Pulaski served the purpose very nicely.

Fort Pulaski (masquerading as a fort in 1865 Washington DC)

For the life of me, I cannot remember now if the crew built this military courtroom inside the fort or if they shot it elsewhere or on a sound stage. I've had this post on the back burner for a very long time and it's been ages since I watched the movie and listened to the commentary.

Interior courtroom scene

Another "who" to appear in the "who's who" cast is Norman Reedus right here. He has a small role as another one of the conspirators. Much like James McAvoy, he made this movie just before he achieved serious fame as fan-favorite character Daryl on AMC's The Walking Dead (which is also filmed in Georgia, in case you didn't know). And then it was the year after this or maybe in 2012, he was a special guest at the Savannah Film Festival.  

Ohai, Norman Reedus!

Another view of Fort Pulaski just because, uh, it looks nice.

Walking through the portcullis into Fort Pulaski

This scene and the exterior of Mary Surratt's boarding house gave me fits because I could not work out which row of houses that was. It was familiar, oh, so familiar, but recognition only teased at the edge of my brain. I actually stalked around a few squares on Google Street View before I thought to myself, "Wait a minute. What's a part of the Historic District I hardly ever go to and so am unlikely to recognize? Must be... Chatham Square! Quick, Robin, to the Batcave!" And so it was. The houses you see below and the next picture beneath them (of the exterior of Surratt's house) are located on the northwest corner of Chatham Square, southernmost square on Barnard Street. I almost never go anywhere near Chatham Square unless I'm meeting people at The Savannah B&B for a tour. There's nothing wrong with Chatham. It's as pretty as any other square. I'm just never over there, for some reason.

Just cover streets in dirt to get 1865

Please note that even Robert Redford cannot improve on the ancient tradition of throwing truckloads of dirt over the asphalt to make the streets look old-timey.

Mary Surratt's boarding house

Here is a beautiful sunrise shot of James McAvoy riding up the path to Fort Pulaski. I have loved Pulaski since I was a little kid and my dad would take me there and teach me about rifled cannon and the Civil War and stuff. I cannot recall anymore what I thought of all these things when I was, what, six? I think more than anything I just liked that my dad was taking me places and showing me things. That and, if we went all the way out to Fort Pulaski, odds were good we would go the next couple miles down the road to the beach! I strongly recommend a visit to Fort Pulaski, especially if you have an interest in Civil War history.

This view shows you a little of Cockspur Island around the fort. Draining the island was the first job handed to young Robert E. Lee right after he graduated from West Point. Again, we have CGI D.C. in the background. If this movie were being made in 1938 it would have been a matte painting.

A path on Cockspur Island leading up to Fort Pulaski... with fake Washington DC in the background

One of the coolest things about Pulaski when you're a little kid is that it has a moat. An honest to God moat like an actual medieval castle! With alligators in it! And there's a drawbridge with a spiky portcullis and everything! That was seriously thrilling for me when I was little. (Who am I kidding? It still fills my nerdy self with glee.)

Walk across the drawbridge and through the portcullis to enter Fort Pulaski.

The grounds inside the fort

Ok, so this guy you see in the center with the epic muttonchops? He lives around here and one day I'll learn his name, I'm sure. But he gets to be involved in every historic everything because he looks exactly right. Every reenactment, every living history presentation, every historical drama. He never shaves off those muttonchops. They are his livelihood. Until I learn his name, I shall simply call him Muttonchops.

That guy. Damn, I wish I had his mutton chops.

Ah, here we see the dining room of the Harper-Fowlkes House. It was built at a time when all the rich folk paid heaps of money for artisans to make their pine baseboards look like marble and their plaster walls look like wood paneling. Not because they couldn't afford actual marble or paneling, but because it was so much more expensive and luxurious to have someone fake those things. Artists hand painted faux wood grain over every inch of this dining room back in the 19th century. It doesn't show up well at all in this picture, and that's too bad. But it's one of the most impressive things about the house, if you ever get a chance to tour it. The chandelier you see at the top of the picture is original to the house, one of many details Alida Harper-Fowlkes rescued and restored. The house's old fixtures were designed for gas, but were long ago updated for electricity.

The reason the room might seem curiously dark is, either because of his own sense of aesthetics or The American Film Company's commitment to verisimilitude, Robert Redford shot the movie pretty much entirely using natural light. So, those candles all over the place? Not just for show. Sunlight, candles, and lanterns are what they had to work with most of the time. Probably drove the director of photography (Newton Thomas Sigel) insane.

Interior of the Harper-Fowlkes House

Below is an interior shot of the U.S. Customs house. Pictures of the Customs House usually only ever depict two parts of it: either the imposing granite facade or this elegant main staircase inside.

Interior of the Customs House

I'm pretty sure Redford shot the party scene inside the Andrew Low House. It's been a long time since I toured it, so it's not that familiar to me. However, I remember a friend of mine, an old lady named Pat, talking about the crew being there and shooting something and leaving a scratch on a wall or something. Pat is a member of the Colonial Dames of America and they own the house. It's their Georgia state headquarters.

Party inside the Andrew Low House (I think)

I snuck this little screen grab in here because the distinctive oriel window of the Green-Meldrim House is visible behind James McAvoy during this very brief scene, the house's only appearance in the movie as far as I know. I don't know of the Green-Meldrim showing up in any other movies at all- a wasted opportunity if you ask me. It's an extremely ornate Gothic Revival mansion, just crying out to be the setting for somebody's old-fashioned haunted house movie.  

James MacAvoy inside the Green-Meldrim House

Here's a nighttime photograph of the exterior I took myself a couple years ago. Look at it! Doesn't it look like Vincent Price lives there? Doesn't it look beautiful and mysterious and a little bit menacing all at the same time, like you can't resist coming close even though you're not certain you'll ever make it out again? I've toured the house; it looks like that on the inside too. A silent man with scissors for hands would seem as if he belonged there.

For no mere mortal can resist....

For no mere mortal can resist....

The following shot is one of the ramps leading down to River Street, though I'll be damned if I can work out precisely which one. But I really put it here so I could talk about the look of the movie. This scene reminds me very much of those few silent minutes in Mary Poppins when Mr. Banks knows his career at the bank is ruined and he walks through dark, still London streets to confront his fate. This looks exactly like that. Many good movies have been made in Savannah, perhaps even a handful of great movies, but I haven't seen one yet that I enjoyed looking at as much as The Conspirator. Despite its staunch commitment to historical accuracy, or maybe as a counterbalance to the weighty and sometimes dry material, the movie looks like a fairytale. It's beautiful and I love it. I don't know what process Newton Thomas Sigel used, but bless his little heart for it. Everything is just a little bit hazy and a little bit soft. Like a memory.

A ramp leading down to River Street

This here is just a tiny bit of space between the Green-Meldrim House and St. John's Episcopal Church. McAvoy's character strolls along here with Mary Surratt's priest. The church owns the Green-Meldrim and connected the two buildings with this Gothic-arch walkway years ago.

Arches and courtyard between the Green-Meldrim House and St. John's Episcopal Church

My last location image is of that very same block of houses that appeared in the movie Savannah, which I have previously written about. James McAvoy comes flying up the stairs and banging on the door to beg the judge for a stay on Mary Surratt's execution. The judge, by the way, is played John Cullum. I have a soft spot for him and it pleases me to see him here. I don't know what it is about this little stretch of Perry Street between Bull and Whitaker that every movie maker is so in love with, but there's something about it that really works.

Everything happens on Perry Street for some reason

One of the Georgia legislature's stipulations for movies that accept the tax credits here is they must include our colorful peach logo in the end credits. So, be on the lookout for this little guy any time you head to the theater because Georgia is on fire lately. Everybody wants a piece of this sweet, fuzzy, Peach State action. They are making movies here faster than I can write about them.

I stuck this in just so you'd have a complete list of all the locations used in the film.

So there you have The Conspirator. History enthusiasts will probably love it and cheer The American Film Company's refusal to clutter up the narrative with unnecessary fictionalized drama. For that same reason, the movie may not appeal to a broader audience. Movies typically follow certain formulas because the truth is those formulas have proven again and again that they can keep even the least attentive audience members engaged. What I'm saying is The Conspirator is for people who can handle a serious and mature movie going experience, but not so much for the casual viewer who just wants to be entertained. Despite its shortcomings, I count it among the better quality movies to have been filmed here.

Savannah Scenes # 3: Savannah

Ok, I've really got to pick up the pace on this project now because I'm developing a backlog of movies. The library had The Conspirator ready for me sooner than I expected, Netflix got CBGB here faster than I expected, and I still haven't watched my friend Nathanael's copy of Forces of Nature after holding it hostage for 3 months. (Sorry, Nathanael!) Now I've got plans to watch CBGB on Tuesday with my movie-and-punk-music aficionado friend, Jim. If I don't tear through this review of Savannah now, I'll start getting details mixed up, like thinking Joey Ramone was a duck hunter or something. ...God, that's a fabulous image. Savannah was filmed here in 2011 by Unclaimed Freight Productions, a very busy local studio which is also responsible for the afore-mentioned CBGB and a soon-to-be-made Gregg Allman biopic. It's based on a book called Ward Allen: Savannah Market Hunter, by Jack Cay. It's the true story of Ward Allen, a local aristocrat born and raised for the genteel lifestyle who told everyone to suck his decoys and became a duck hunter instead. He continually battled local bureaucracy for his right and the rights of other hunters to shoot and hunt along the Savannah River and sell their haul to local hotels and other businesses. Oh, and his best buddy was a black guy. In the Jim Crow south. If you're interested, here are a couple of Savannah Morning News articles about the movie, one from February 2011 and the other after a screening in March of 2012.

I remember when they were filming this three years ago. I think every actor and extra in town was involved one way or another. I have to hand it to Unclaimed Freight- they pulled in some A-list talent for this low-budget flick about a guy hardly anyone in Savannah, and no one outside of Savannah, has ever heard of. Jim Caviezel (Jesus himself!) played Ward Allen. Jaimie Alexander, now famous for playing Sif in the Thor movies, portrayed his wife Lucy. I think the frosting on this celebrity cake, though, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Ward Allen's hunting buddy Christmas Moultrie. Probably not a lot of people knew (or could pronounce) his name in 2011. But now that Ejiofor is bound to be carried out of the Academy Awards under a pile of glittering Oscars for his work in 12 Years a Slave, we can all be retroactively proud that he made a movie here first. There was also Hal Holbrook, looking like he had a great time playing a sympathetic judge. Holbrook, of course, is better than A-list- he's legendary.

So, how do I think this low-budget period piece fared? And did it make good use of our fair city? Um... well... it certainly had its good points and its... not so good points. Let's rip off the band-aid and go straight to one thing that did NOT work:

Savannah, Christmas Moultrie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Oh, hey, an unexpected bonus: I learned that if I use the PrintScreen function while watching a movie on this computer, it will automatically save a screen capture to the Dropbox folder! Anyway, back to the point I intended to make here. OH DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT? Movie making and theatre are both very dependent on illusion. You, Unclaimed Freight, were trying to create the illusion of a luxurious and well-funded period piece. While I admire your ambition and your general ingenuity on display throughout the film, this is a moment that makes your limits painfully, terrifyingly obvious. When the only old man makeup you can afford comes out of a jar labelled "Uncanny Valley Nightmare Cream," you should have the good sense to avoid close ups. Shoot him from behind or in silhouette or hire an actual old guy to stand in for Chiwetel Ejiofor, anything but this!

Ok, now that's out of the way, let's move on to recognizable locations. First up, it's

First Baptist Church, Savannah

First Baptist Church pretending to be a courthouse! The church was built in the 1830s in the Greek Revival style, which was very typical at that time. I have had people on my tours comment that Christ Church, also from the same time period and of the same style, looks like a courthouse, so I'm not surprised the production team felt this one did too. I read in one of the newspaper articles about Savannah that they shot the interiors in an actual historic courthouse in Effingham County.

Lucy, Savannah, Chippewa Square

A lot of the in-town scenes were done around Chippewa Square for some reason. Here is Ward Allen's eventual wife, Lucy, crouched in the square with his dog. You can see the pedestal of the Oglethorpe monument there just left of center.

Perry St., Savannah

Here is Ward Allen coming to deliver freshly shot fowl to Lucy's house (romantic?) on Perry Street, which, again, is right alongside Chippewa Square.

Savannah, Jim Caviezel, Perry St.

I must pause to point out one little detail that drove me nuts. See that sort of small beige box on the door frame to the right of Ward Allen's elbow? Yeah, I'm pretty sure this house actually has an intercom or something right there. I meant to go have a look myself, but never got around to it. It drives me crazy that the production team just, I don't know, stuck a box over it? It doesn't look like something that belongs there in 1918, it looks like something that's being covered up. They couldn't use a plant or swing the camera around and shoot from the other direction or something? Argh!

Savannah, Harper-Fowlkes House

Also very close to Chippewa Square is the Harper-Fowlkes House (I'd recognize that back porch anywhere!), which served as the duck market (duck monger's?). I must say, that is a very, very clean and sparsely populated open-air market. That was another small problem I had with this movie: it feels a little bit sterile and a little bit empty. I'm sure it's because they could only afford to hire and costume so many extras and there's a limit to how much dirt you can truck in to cover the street when you've only got a $1 million budget. Oh, speaking of dirt!

Savannah, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bull St.

I often tell my tourists it's so easy to shoot a period film here. You just get rid of the parking meters and cover the street in dirt and you're in business! Unclaimed Freight clearly operates under the same philosophy. This is a shot of Christmas Moultrie with the camera pointing out from behind the columns of First Baptist Courthou- I mean Church. As is the norm, they hid the asphalt with a tractor load of soil and mulch. And how fortunate most of the sidewalks downtown are herringbone brick and not concrete. I am a little insulted, however. Savannah is not so backward that we were still putting up with dirt roads after WWI. The major streets at the very least, like Bull Street there, had already been paved in brick for a few decades. Hmph.

Aside from places, I was able to spot a few people I recognized as well. Here we have Savannah's favorite ice cream man, Stratton Leopold!

Stratton Leopold, Savannah

Stratton Leopold is the owner of Leopold's Ice Cream, which has been in business since 1919, never mind a three decade hiatus. He is also a successful movie producer, so seeing him in front of the camera took me by surprise. He only has a brief scene near the end in one of Christmas Moultrie's flashbacks.

Then I got to see a much closer acquaintance of mine, or at least he is since I was in Our Town at Asbury Methodist in November:

Billy Hester, Savannah

It's the Reverend Billy Hester! He runs Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, which also has a killer theatre program. Performing in Our Town there was one of the things that distracted me through the fall and kept me from blogging for such a long time. Billy and his wife Cheri do, in fact, have professional acting resumes. Cheri was also in Our Town. I played Mrs. Gibbs and she played my neighbor Mrs. Webb. She told me a little bit about living in New York many years ago and how she used to be a hand model there for a little while. She said that was a really weird job. I think we got on that topic because I complimented her manicure. Anyway, later on she was telling some of us about Billy's involvement in Savannah and that she was kind of annoyed he ended up in this costume here-

Billy Hester, Savannah

-without any on-screen explanation. So why is Billy wearing Wickham's coat from Pride & Prejudice?

Wickham, Pride and Prejudice, 2005

According to Cheri, poor Billy is the foolish-looking victim of the editing process. There was a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor in which a bunch of these guys are involved in some kind of historical reenactment. Probably Civil War something, but I can't remember now. So, Billy's just stuck there in his last scene looking like he raided his great grandpa's steamer trunk long before Macklemore made that sort of thing trendy.

At this point, I have to give credit where it's due and show you where, I think, most of the budget went.

Savannah, marsh, aerial


Savannah, marsh, aerial

Savannah, marsh, aerial

Savannah, marsh, aerial

Savannah, marsh, aerial

I don't know how much these wheeling aerial shots cost, but I'm guessing "nearly all of the money". At first, seeing the camera swoop over the marsh every few minutes annoyed me because I thought it was gratuitous, if attractive, padding. Then I realized, "Oh, duh, Ward Allen is a duck hunter. This is the perspective of a bird in flight." Once I got it, I really appreciated these moments for their cinematic beauty and atmospheric serenity. Also, the music was really good. Then the movie had to go and vaporize my good will with one of the very last shots:


Jim Caviezel, Savannah, greenscreen

Seriously?! You've been spoiling me for nearly two hours with graceful visuals and now you offend my eyeballs with this obvious and heinous green screen? Not even Jim Caviezel is pretty enough to make up for it!

Ok, so, I would not call Savannah a failure, but it had some pretty serious shortcomings. Most of the problems are with the writing, honestly. I applaud Unclaimed Freight for choosing to make a movie about a local hero in a small(ish) city embroiled in conflicts that hardly anyone alive now can appreciate. The thing about trying to turn an extremely localized story into a successful movie is you have to find some way to universalize it, even for Savannahians like me. I didn't know a thing about Ward Allen or why he might be interesting. I still feel like I'm waiting for some kind of punchline. There were a lot of ways to tell Ward Allen's story, but this movie felt like it was trying to tell it in all directions at once. There were many themes to choose from and I really wish the writer and director had chosen one, maybe two, and developed that more fully. Is this a love story between Ward Allen and Lucy? Is it a story of stalwart devotion between a black man and white man in the racist turn-of-the-century South? Is it about a man who eschews society's expectations and chooses wildness over civility? Is it about a vanishing way of life? Sadly, Savannah tried to cover all these things, which left the finished product feeling rather shallow.

I had some problems with the structure too. Framing it as a flashback from Jack Cay's perspective is kind of ok, since the movie is based on his book. The problem there is that Ward Allen was dead long before Jack Cay came along, so Cay's recollections are actually stories that were told to him by Allen's pal, Christmas Moultrie. That mean's Cay's flashbacks are actually someone else's flashbacks. And then the characters experience flashbacks of their own within those flashbacks! It's disorienting and, frankly, sloppy. If you are not Christopher Nolan, you probably should not be creating a world with that many levels. I understand the desire to make sure Jack Cay had some kind of presence in the film, but perhaps it would have been better from a storytelling perspective to streamline things and let Christmas Moultrie alone tell it from his perspective. At any rate, no more flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, ok? And certainly not from multiple points of view.

I'm a little undecided about the acting, particularly Jim Caviezel. I read a critic's assertion somewhere that Caviezel was the only actor in Hollywood who could underplay while still overacting. It made me giggle and it may be correct. I enjoy watching him play Mr. Reese on Person of Interest, but I really watch that show for Michael Emerson. Seeing Caviezel in Savannah didn't really sway me one way or another, though. Jaimie Alexander had little enough to do in this movie, really. Lucy is a character that comes in strong already and never really grows from there. I guess it's forgivable since this movie wasn't about her. I found Chiwetel Ejiofor's Christmas Moultrie to be the most relatable and real person in the film, though there wasn't nearly enough of him. Why would you put a talent like Ejiofor in your movie and then hardly give him anything to do? Part of the problem was that Ejiofor came across so easy and natural and it made everybody else look like they were acting. Also, there were the accents. I've gone over this already and yes, the dreaded Hollywood Southern was in full, ear-bleeding force here. Poor Jaimie Alexander came off especially bad. How can that be when she was born and raised in the South?! Then again, it's happened before: see Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. Chiwetel Ejiofor sounded most natural to me and he's English! Same deal in 12 Years a Slave, which featured two other English actors as Southern plantation owners. Why are English actors so much better at this than American actors?

There you have my thoughts on Savannah. Worth watching? I guess if you're a completest (like me). It's fun picking out people and places I recognize. But if you don't live here it may not stand up too well on its own merits. If you like watching Jim Caviezel pretend to be uproariously drunk a whole lot, though- go for it!

Savannah Scenes #2: Glory

Glory 6

Ok, let's just gloss over the fact I have neglected this blog way, way too long (Look, I was in a show, then it was the holidays, and we also had to move my unwell grandma up here from Florida- my neglect is completely legitimate!) and pick up right where I left off. Luckily for me, being on a budget as I am, the library system here has many locally shot movies available for free. I watched Glory months ago and I've got another DVD sitting on the shelf that's due soon, so I need to get this post taken care of and move on to the next one.

Glory came out in 1989 and it's about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the Federal army's first all-black regiment. We're talking about the Civil War, of course. This regiment was perhaps obscure to most (white) Americans before 1989, but we live in a post-Glory world now, so you better be ashamed of your ignorance if you don't already know what I'm talking about. Much of the story's first half, training the soldiers and whatnot, is set in Massachusetts, whereas the second half, the attack, is set in South Carolina. Exactly none of the movie was shot in either one of those places. It was all shot here, near here, and down the Georgia coast.

A lot of the scenery is in some random field or woods or marsh that could be anyplace nearby, but several locations were easily recognizable to me. After the opening battle sequence, things slow down for a minute and you see all these Federal bigwigs hobnobbing inside some fancy, fancy house. Then, Matthew Broderick (as Robert Gould Shaw, the 54th's newly appointed commander) steps outside the front door and has a chat with Carey Elwes while leaning against the front gate of the house.

Mercer-Williams House, Savannah, Georgia, Mercer House

Oh, hi, Mercer-Williams House! Yeah, they used it for the interior as well as exterior shots. I knew that, yet I had kinda forgotten and it caught me by surprise for a moment. Now, some of you undoubtedly know this was the infamous residence of Jim Williams, the Savannah socialite forever immortalized in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Speaking of which, I guess I'll have to cover that one too eventually. Anyway, Williams was still alive and living at the house during the shoot. I can't remember if he had finally been acquitted of murdering Danny Hanson yet or if he was still tied up with his fourth trial. I could check THE BOOK I suppose, but I just don't feel like it. Hey, this is a blog, not an essay. Go find yourself a Grad student if you want real work.

I had a family of five for a tour recently and mentioned the movie to them when we walked by the house. One of the guys was a fan of Glory and was so pleased when I told him it had been shot here in Savannah. He had no idea. (I guess he never bothered to watch any of the extras on the DVD?) I snatched that pic up there from Flickr just so you'd know which house I was talking about. I found screen captures online for several of the other locations I'll mention, but simply could not find that one scene with Broderick in front of the Mercer House! I don't know what the deal is with that.

So then the action moves to Jones Street for a minute or two where the new recruits are signing up:

Glory, recruits, Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia

I think that's the block between Whitaker and Barnard. Remember now, this is all supposed to be in Massachusetts. It's great how Savannah can dress up as pretty much any 19th century American city. It's definitely way cheaper than filming in Boston and way warmer when you're shooting in February and March (like these guys). I often tell people on my tours all you have to do to film a period piece here is remove the parking meters, cover the street in dirt and poof! Unclaimed Freight Productions turned that formula on its head, though, when they filmed CBGB here in 2012. Don't worry Punk fans- I'll get to that one later!

So, the next location to catch my eye was the training ground for the new recruits of the 54th Mass. Their barracks was our roundhouse:

54th Mass., Glory, Savannah, Georgia, Roundhouse Railroad Museum

I am ashamed to admit this, but I have never visited the Georgia State Railroad Museum. I know, I know! Shut up. It's on my to-do list. I did attend a friend's wedding there a few years ago. According to the Coastal Heritage Society  the "Georgia State Railroad Museum is believed to be the largest and most complete antebellum railroad repair facility still in existence, in the world!" You can tell they're very excited about that. So, if trains are your thing, you'll be glad to know this place is just a couple blocks west of the Historic District, right down Louisville Rd. Even though I haven't toured the place (yes, I know- shame!), I still knew exactly what I was looking at because of the distinctive, massively recognizable round smoke stack you see in the middle there. I watched the DVD's commentary track and the director said the point of setting the barracks there was to emphasize the built-up and industrial nature of the North so it would contrast with the later scenes that take place the pastoral South.

Most of the good stuff develops in this camp. You know, it occurs to me how gutsy it is to make a Civil War movie that sets most of its action far away from the battlefield. But Glory isn't so much about fighting, it's more about becoming. Robert Gould Shaw starts off as a privileged, though diffident, gentleman and transforms into a real commander. The black men he commands go on different journeys. Thomas (Andre Braugher) learns to be a fighter, Trip (Denzel Washington) learns to stop picking fights all the time, and Morgan Freeman, um... ok, not sure on that one. He's a mentor... which he is in every movie. Well, if I owned a copy of that DVD and could watch it again, I'm sure I'd pick up on something. And the white folks all around them, um, a few of them learn to be ever so slightly less racist. A tiny bit. Keep in mind I'm talking about the movie here. I know that in reality probably nobody involved with the 54th Mass. was anywhere near so lovable. It all made for good cinema, though.

Moving on to the last location shot I want to point out:

Glory, Savannah, Georgia, River Street

Look, it's River Street! But where's the river? Since when does River Street have two sides? What black magic is this?!

I remember another tour guide (Who was it? Was it Don?) telling me about this. To shoot the scene where the army parades down a street in Boston, the production team did up the buildings on one side of River Street, then built a facade of completely fake buildings down the other side. They did a bang-up job. I had to stare at this scene pretty hard before I could spot anything I recognized. In this screencap, you can easily make out the dome of our City Hall right in the back. I don't think that's architecturally appropriate to the mid-19th century, but I bet the filmmakers shrugged and figured nobody would be looking at that anyway. Movie makers do that a lot, actually. It's funny how often they're right. In one shot of this scene, I think I also juuuuuuust made out the edge of the Hyatt behind Matthew Broderick's head during a close-up. Ah, sometimes an inch of framing is all that separates the 1860s from the 1960s.

There was shooting in other nearby locations, but nothing especially recognizable. One salt marsh or woodland looks much like another. The last part, where they attack the fort, was done on Jekyll Island, about 1 1/2 hours down the coast. I really need to get my act together and visit Jekyll Island too. That's another thing on my to-do list.

So, my opinion of Glory? I liked it more than I thought I would. I don't usually care much for war movies and I'm always bored to tears by the Civil War (bad Southerner!). I was afraid at the beginning this was going to be one of those movies that's ostensibly about black people, then the whole story is told from the perspective of some white main character. Hollywood reduces black people (or other minorities) to second-class status within their own narrative all the time because it makes the head honchos feel safer about their investment.  It looks like I was mistaken, though. It did feel like a movie about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and not about Robert Gould Shaw. I know Matthew Broderick got top billing (and that was probably a marketing strategy), but it was much more of an A-list ensemble piece. Glory shows up pretty well if you do a race-centric version of the Bechdel test on it: 1) it has at least two named black characters in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides the white characters.

All in all, Glory is a classic Savannahians can be proud of the city's involvement in. But I'm not getting too comfortable. I know I've got a whole lot of bad-to-mediocre movies coming at me. Stay tuned....

Savannah Scenes #1: Cape Fear (1962)

Forsyth Park

This seems like a good opportunity to initiate a little project I've been thinking about for a while. I'm gonna round up every movie I can get my hands on that was shot in Savannah and write about them! I bet you've watched all kinds of movies that were shot here and you didn't even know. I mean, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is kind of a giveaway, but how about Glory (which I haven't seen) or Something to Talk About (which I... also haven't seen) or The Last Song (which I'm not looking forward to seeing)? Not to mention the just-released independent film Savannah, starring Jim Caviezel, and the to-be released on October 11th CBGB with Alan Rickman! Ok, I guess it's a no-brainer a movie called Savannah would be shot here, but CBGB is about that club in New York. Savannah substituted for 1970s New York City in a movie about the birthplace of punk rock! That is hilarious and how would you ever have guessed if I didn't tell you? This project may morph into a movie-centric walking tour. There's only one movie tour in town and that's Savannah Movie Tours. I suppose I could ride along with them to snag some material, but I don't want to poach their stuff. Besides, Georgia's decade-long film making dry spell ended in about 2010 when the legislature finally put together a real sweet incentives package to lure filming back here. Worked like magic and now there are all sorts of new movie stories to assemble. I know several actors in town who have had small speaking parts in various movies or who got to be extras. I'm sure I can round up some good stuff. Hell, I was an extra myself in an episode of Ruby several years back. If you ever watched that show, by the way, my dad is a mailman and delivers the mail to her house.

So, I begin my new adventure with a silver screen classic: Cape Fear, the 1962 original starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum. I became aware of this movie last summer when SCAD's Cinema Circle screened it at the Trustees Theater. I really wanted to go because Connect Savannah did a very nice write up about it and mentioned much of the movie was shot in Savannah. Robert Mitchum was even arrested for real in this town and put on a Georgia chain gang when he was about 14. Reportedly, he was not very happy to come back to Savannah for filming. I missed the show because of work or something and have been meaning to rent a copy ever since. How lucky I am it popped up under the Free Movies heading in Comcast On Demand!

I had a great time watching it last week. It was such a surprise to see the Universal International logo, then BAM! there was the Gordon monument in the middle of Wright Square:

Cape Fear, Gordon Monument, Wright Square, 1962

Yeah, I used my iPhone to snap pictures of the screen. There was probably a slicker way to get these images, but oh well. Technology fail, yeah!

Then POOF! there was the Customs House and Bay Street (and Robert Mitchum prancing through traffic like a total fool, a very dangerous thing to do on Bay Street today).

City Hall, Cape Fear, 1962, Robert Mitchum

Then Mitchum went sailing right inside the front door of City Hall. They used the actual interior of City Hall too. God, the set designer had the easiest job in the world for the first half of this movie. That old elevator shaft on Mitchum's right is still there and still looks just like that and they still use the damn thing:

Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah City Hall interior

For Mitchum's first ominous encounter with Gregory Peck, when he reaches in the window and snatches the keys out of his car, all that was done in a Bay Street parking lot just east of City Hall in front of the Cotton Exchange. Don't worry, I don't have any cheesy pictures of that. I was puzzled for a little while, though, by this shot right here:

Boar's Head, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

It's implied that's a restaurant in town, close to the docks. There is, in fact, a restaurant on River Street called The Boar's Head Grill and Tavern, but there's no way this shot could have been done anywhere near there. You would never see exposed shore and waves washing up anywhere along the waterfront. If you do, that means you've gotten your stupid self caught here in the middle of a hurricane. I had to review these few seconds a couple of times to convince myself this was a fake. It looks so much like the actual Boar's Head and yet not quite. The real Boar's Head says on their website they originally opened up in 1959. I wonder if someone saw that restaurant and decided to recreate the exterior in a more preferable location. The interiors were certainly done on a sound stage.

Later on in the movie, we have a clear view of the old Armstrong House, which is supposed to be the girls' school Gregory Peck's daughter attends:

Armstrong House, Cape Fear, 1962, Savannah

That's it there on the left. I only just now remembered Armstrong Junior College (Armstrong Atlantic State University these days) didn't leave that location and move to the south side until 1965. I'm so accustomed to walking by that house and knowing it's been a law firm for decades, it feels weird to look at it and know it was still a college at the time.

Just as Gregory Peck's movie daughter is getting out of school, we get these shots of Robert Mitchum-

Forsyth Park, fountain, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

Robert Mitchum, Forsyth Park, Savannah, Cape Fear, 1962

-striding through Forsyth Park as sinisterly as a man can stride anywhere. Of course our signature fountain had to be in this movie somewhere. I'm beginning to wonder if that's a legal requirement for every movie that shoots in this town.

Those are most of the recognizable bits that caught my eye. I'm pretty sure the Bowden family home (Gregory Peck's character) was also somewhere around here, but I didn't recognize it. Looked like it might be on Skidaway Island or something. If I owned a DVD of this movie with a commentary track, maybe it would say. Oh yeah, and some of the shots on the beach looked like they were actually done around the Tybee Pier. I don't know about the marina scenes when Peck first takes a swing at Mitchum, but one marina looks much like another to me. I guess they probably shot the cypress swamp/river scenes around here too. They would only have to drive a few miles outside of town to put in boats at the Ogeechee. All the finale with the houseboat and everything was clearly done on a sound stage back in L.A. A very well-built one, but still a sound stage.

So, my thoughts on the experience of watching Cape Fear? It blew my mind how much downtown Savannah still looks just the same. I did spot a few background items, the facades of which have since been restored, or buildings I know were torn down later in the 60s or 70s. But really, it looked to me like someone parked a bunch of vintage cars on the street, stocked up on some black and white film, and rolled camera. That movie could have been shot yesterday. As for the movie itself, the script is tight and tense, it tackles uncomfortable subject matter without being salacious about it, all the actors hit the right pitch, and all of the characters are well-developed and smart. Thrillers these days have an awful tendency to feature characters who compound their difficulties by making obviously stupid decisions. What I love about Cape Fear is that the good guys get deeper and deeper in trouble in spite of making all the right decisions. I think this movie is a noir masterpiece and it makes me proud to know it was shot here.

If you are a Cape Fear fan, as I now am, why sit at home and admire the setting from afar? Schedule a trip down here and take a walk with me in the very footsteps of Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck! I promise not to drown you, shoot you, or hit you in the head with a rock.