On Location

From supporting roles to moments in the spotlight, Virginia has built an impressive film resume.

 Filming Turn.

Photo courtesy of Antony Platt/AMC

From the sweeping Shenandoah Valley to the stately capital in Richmond and beyond, the diverse geographic landscape of the Old Dominion is popular with production teams scouting locations for their next project. An impressive list of feature films, documentaries, and cable programs has been filmed here, both adding to our economic coffers and providing ample opportunities for local actors and production companies. 

“Virginia provides a perfect palette for storytellers,” says Andy Edmunds, the director of the Virginia Film Office (a part of the Virginia Tourism Corp.), who has been instrumental in persuading a number of companies to use Virginia as a location. “Our diverse locations and topography give us a chameleon capability.”

With locations ranging from the specific, like the national cemetery in Arlington, to the historic, like Richmond, and the usefully generic (Hopewell’s downtown is famously versatile), plus established infrastructure and some helpful financial incentives, Virginia is increasingly in demand as a filming location. 

The Color of Money

While there are many projects looking for locations, competition is fierce, Edmunds says. “In today’s entertainment market, with on demand, streaming, cable, etc., the demand for creating entertainment content is growing exponentially,” he says, but “so many countries, states, and locations are working to attract films.” 

Why? There’s a huge economic benefit. According to Edmunds, the state enjoyed a total economic impact of $860 million in 2017, providing 5,200 jobs for Virginians. Three of the newest productions—Blumhouse Productions’ The Good Lord Bird, AMC’s The Walking Dead, and Swagger, a CBS streaming project—are expected to contribute more than $120 million in nine months of activity. When the accounting is done, Harriet, which was filmed in Charles City, Petersburg, and Mathews County, is projected to have generated roughly $30 million. 

The money stems from sources as diverse as the films themselves. In addition to hiring hundreds of acting extras, AMC rented a 300,000-square-foot warehouse in south Richmond to construct sets for The Walking Dead as well as a 70,000-square-foot office downtown. The production companies that filmed Harriet hired Richmond residents for three major roles, plus hundreds of extras, and rented several locations. All of the actors and crew have to eat—whether at restaurants or through catering; anyone who’s not local requires lodging, and productions buy and rent everything from office products to helicopters. And the benefits are ongoing; film tourism is a multibillion dollar industry worldwide. Long after the crews are gone, tourists will come to see the locations where they filmed.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Edmunds’ role is to convince production companies that Virginia has everything they need to film successfully. And there’s a lot more to it than good scenery. (Although Kasi Lemmons, the director of Harriet, says she knew “within a day” that Virginia was perfect for her film.) “To bring a production to an area there is a triangle of requirements,” Edmunds explains. “You have to have locations, infrastructure—including crews—and incentives. If you are deficient in any of these areas, it just won’t happen. You have to have the whole package.” 

HBO’s epic period miniseries John Adams, filmed in 2007, built much of the infrastructure still used today for historical content, Edmunds says, but it was Lincoln in 2011 that really put the state on the filmmaking map. “We have retained historical exterior sets constructed by shows over the years and use them as a marketing tool to attract new work—it helped us attract The Good Lord Bird,” he says. AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies in 2014 fired up the engine for ongoing work, and last fall AMC came back to the capital region to film part of The Walking Dead franchise.

Edmunds worked particularly closely with the crew from Blumhouse Productions to bring The Good Lord Bird to Virginia. Based on a National Book Award-winning novel by James McBride, the eight-part miniseries starring Ethan Hawke tells the story of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and his friendship with a young African American named Henry Shackleford; it will debut on Showtime later this year. In addition to the library of historical sets, Edmunds says Virginia’s diverse geography was key to bringing the production here. The Commonwealth also offers up to $9.5 million per year in financial incentives, such as tax credits, to production companies. (If that sounds like a lot, know that other states offer much, much more: North Carolina offers $34 million, Louisiana offers $150 million, New York offers $420 million, and Georgia is one of several states with unlimited incentives.)

Far From the Madding Crowd

So, what happens when Hollywood comes to your neighborhood? Sometimes, not a lot: You might notice a few streets blocked off, noises and lights at odd hours, or unusual crowds. When Harriet was filmed at Berkeley Plantation, a circa 1726 home about 30 miles from Richmond along the James River, some areas were temporarily closed to the public, but whenever possible, crews invited guests to watch the scenes—provided they were “quiet on the set,” of course. (Berkeley is a popular location; Turn, Mercy Street, and Loving were also filmed there.) On the other hand, the crew of The Good Lord Bird recreated a western town in Powhatan, and The Walking Dead built an enormous “crashed” plane in downtown Hopewell, closing streets in the area for several days. 

The film office and the production company work hard to ensure that everything goes smoothly. Sandy Graham, a Richmond attorney, owns McIlwaine House in Petersburg, which was used for key scenes in both Lincoln and Harriet. “The film company in charge of Lincoln had to close many of the streets in Petersburg for various scenes,” Graham says, “but it was good for the economy. The Lincoln team gave compensation to property owners impacted by filming, had periodic meetings with property owners regarding filming and hours, and was very considerate of the town and its citizens. It was a win-win situation.” 

It’s a win for the guest actors and production companies, too. Actor Samuel Roukin, who portrayed villain Cpt. John Graves Simcoe in Turn: Washington’s Spies, spent about five months at a time in Richmond over four years. He says, “I’d never visited the state before and very quickly realized how warm the welcome is, how professional and fun the crews were (and how intense the pollen count is!). Some of those crew are friends of mine to this day.” Roukin credits Andy Edmunds for spearheading Virginia’s growing film industry, adding that he made his own short film here. The film “has sparked a TV project I am developing. If things line up, I would love to come back and make something else in Virginia,” says Roukin.

Ready For Our Close-Up

Filming in the state has another, more subtle positive aspect: heightened appeal and improved attendance at local film festivals. Virginia and Washington, D.C., together are home to more than 50 film festivals each year (see “And … Action!” for a partial list). The annual Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville is the oldest and largest. According to Jody Kielbasa, its director and vice provost for the arts at the University of Virginia, “The Virginia Film Festival enjoys a close working relationship with the Virginia Film Office, which is doing an extraordinary job of establishing the Commonwealth as an outstanding partner for filmmakers and studios. The VAFF was founded by Governor Gerald Baliles to throw a spotlight on filmmaking in Virginia, and over the years it has served as a platform for films that have been shot in the Commonwealth.” In October, more than 27,000 attendees gathered in Charlottesville for the film festival, where Harriet was the Saturday night Centerpiece screening and Ethan Hawke discussed The Good Lord Bird. Kielbasa notes that in past years the festival has also screened films like Loving, Big Stone Gap, and Ithaca, which were filmed entirely on location in Virginia, as well as hosting artists who worked on those films, including Meg Ryan, Colin Firth, Jeff Nichols, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Ashley Judd, Patrick Wilson, and Jenna Elfman. Filmmakers and actors are more likely to attend when a state has a robust film community, which in turn draws the public to preview movies and glimpse the stars, creating a strong festival schedule that bolsters the film community.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around Harriet, which, interestingly, also reflects well on the Commonwealth. When a production set here receives nominations and awards, it heightens Virginia’s profile. The same is true for television programs, and The Good Lord Bird could be a serious Emmy contender this year. Being associated with awards and high-quality productions definitely helps bring more projects our way—giving Virginia the win for best location in a supporting role! 

Virginia’s Film Resume 

Here are a few of the many movies and television shows filmed in Virginia, with awards notes and release years.

Giant, 1956 (Oscar: Best Director, George Stevens)

Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980 (Oscar: Best Actress, Sissy Spacek)

Dirty Dancing, 1987

Silence of the Lambs, 1992 (Oscar: Best Picture)

Cold Mountain, 2002 (Oscar: Best Supporting Actress, Renee Zellweger)

John Adams miniseries, 2008 

Lincoln, 2012 (Oscar: Best Actor, Daniel Day Lewis)

Argo, 2013 (Oscar: Best Picture)

Captain Phillips, 2014 

Turn: Washington’s Spies, 2014 

Mercy Street, 2017 

Homeland, 2017 

Harriet, 2019 

Wonder Woman 1984, coming in 2020

The Good Lord Bird, coming in 2020

The Walking Dead: World Beyond, coming in 2020

This article originally appeared in our February 2020 issue.

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