Before The Hunger Games finished shooting, it was being referred to as "Project Artemis" and was already notable for being North Carolina's largest on-location movie shoot of all time.
When the North Carolina Tourism Board offered me access to the sets of The Hunger Games, which was entirely filmed in the western part of the Tar Heel State, I jumped at the chance. There was a lot of mystery surrounding the production, which was being kept as hush hush as a movie employing 300 cast and crew and using roughly 500 locals as extras could be.
The filming locations were as diverse as the state's landscape. The abandoned cotton milling village of Henry River stood in for District 12, Katniss' home and Peeta's bakery and the ultra-modern architecture of big city Charlotte posed as the capitol. Aaron Syrett of N.C. Films told me that, when he helped make his state's pitch to Lions Gate Entertainment in 2009, the film studio was also considering taking the production to Georgia, British Columbia or even Australia. The studio was finally sold on North Carolina after finding Henry River, which was abandoned in 1971, the lush forest of DuPont State Recreational Forest, which was perfect for the Arena scenes, and an abandoned warehouse in Shelby well-suited for the Reaping scene and The Hob. The state threw in a tax incentive and the deal was done. Last of the Mohicans and Dirty Dancing would no longer be the biggest films to have been produced in state.
When the cast and crew invaded the small town of Shelby (population 21,000), they hoped that 300 extra bodies wouldn't be noticed. They were even after producers gave everyone money to shop for "typical" Shelby clothes to wear while in town and the set became crowded with Dale Earnhardt baseball caps.
The tourism board in Shelby estimates that $1 million was poured into their local economy during the shooting. The antique shops and local hardware stores were all but cleaned out and many dining establishments frequented by cast and crew began displaying an "Approved by District 12" decal in their windows. The town also plans to change their interstate highway sign to announce their involvement in the movie.
Down the street from the main part of town, an abandoned warehouse stood in for the Hallf of Justice, where The Reaping takes place, and the Hob, a black market. Extras from the Reaping scene were bussed to meals together so town folk wouldn't see their costumes. Temperatures were hovering about 104 degrees on the day that scene was shot and, according to an extra I talked to, several people fainted.
Hundreds of extras were elaborately made up and dressed for the capitol scenes as well. Part of the sequence was filmed in the Knight Theatre, which stood in for the set of Cesar Flickman's (Stanley Tucci's) talk show. Extras were "prepared" down the street at the Duke Energy Centre then bussed a block. One extra I spoke with said they were told no cameras, but that she took advantage of a quick break to zip into the washroom and capture an image of her outlandish costume to share with friends and family.
Interestingly, the Charlotte Convention Center, which will host the Democratic National Convention and a presidential address this summer, was the location chosen for the scene in which Katniss is lit on fire for her chariot ride. Most of the other scenes involving fire were shot in DuPont State Recreational Forest. Bruce MacDonald, a ranger with the N.C. Forest Service who was on site during the entire filming, told me that his job was to make sure the people didn't hurt the forest and that the forest didn't hurt the people.
"The fire scenes we had to monitor very carefully", explained MacDonald "because they're fire scenes," said MacDonald. While there were many special effects added after the filming, the scene that shows trees exploding around Katniss as she runs were in fact staged using propane powered trees made out of pipe. Rocks were made from papier mache after the local models were found to be less than ideal.
As we made our way to Triple Falls, where Katniss discovers the injured Peeta, MacDonald pointed out the waterfall that our herone runs across at one point in the movie.
"What people don't know is that she had a wire holding her from above, and boards to run on below. It is impossible to run across the top of a waterfall. You will die."
The state of North Carolina is hoping that The Hunger Games will show the world its diverse beauty. They're making sure the odds are forever in their favor.