Charleston is famously attractive to foodies, tourists and — filmmakers? More than 30 films and 14 television shows have been filmed in Charleston, one even in our backyard.
Bravo’s reality television series “Southern Charm” primarily takes place downtown, filming at popular places like Republic and Fuel. 2004’s “The Notebook,” directed by Nick Cassavetes, is one of the most notable films to utilise Charleston’s pictureqsue streets. Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) meets Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) for their first date at the American Theatre on King Street. With the vintage box office, curtained windows and manually-operated marquee, the American Theatre mimics the 1940s perfectly. One of the film’s most iconic shots takes place right outside of Bluestein’s Mens Wear — the couple lays down in the street, unafraid of traffic or the obstacles to come.
Many shots of Allie at college feature our own campus as a backdrop. Want to stage your own desperately romantic canoe trip where it rains out of nowhere? You can. The scene of Allie and Noah canoeing through the swamp with white swans, lily pads and bald cypress trees was filmed in Cypress Gardens in Moncks Corner. Better tell your boyfriends — or soon to be boyfriends — now. They can rent a wooden boat for your own excursion.
Another Nicholas Sparks classic filmed in Charleston is “Dear John,” directed by Lasse Hollstrom. The 2010 movie was filmed in numerous locations between Isle of Palms and Edisto. John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah (Amanda Seyfriend) meet at the Isle of Palms pier. They fight at Folly Beach. Sullivan’s Island and Fort Moultrie were both used for war scenes. This movie hits closer to home than you may think — an abandoned elementary school downtown was transformed into an eastern European Café. Scenes were also shot on campus. Savannah writes letters to John in the Cistern. Speaking of campus, did you know that the College was used in “The Patriot” (2000), directed by Roland Emmerich? Clearly, Charleston is favorite among the film industry.
Professor John Bruns, director of the Film Studies program at the College, said “While the tax incentives to shoot a film in Georgia are far better than they are here in South Carolina, I think filmmakers see Charleston as an ideal location. The water, the live oaks, the architecture. There probably are earlier examples, but an early film shot here is the Edison Company’s 1902 film, “Charleston Chain Gang,” which has been preserved in the Library of Congress. It shows a line of all-black prisoners marching across the grounds of a Charleston prison. On the walls in the background you can see posters advertising the Charleston Exposition. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition that says a lot about Charleston.”
The Holy City’s cinematic history is long. Bruns also mentioned some noteworthy films that were shot elsewhere but inspired by Charleston. This includes famous films like “Gone With the Wind” (1939) and D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth a Nation” (1915). Not all of Charleston’s starring roles have been complimentary — many of these early films depict the racism and segregation of South Carolina. Rhett Butler, the leading man of “Gone With the Wind,” quickly points out that all the South has is cotton, slaves and arrogance.
Professor Kay Smith, who specializes in Shakespeare and film at the College, pointed out a movie that many have never heard of. “I just finished teaching what I consider the most notable film shot in Charleston. It is a film called ‘O’ — which is a teen film based on Shakespeare’s ‘Othello,’” she said. Much of it was shot on the College’s campus. It is set in an elite boarding school, and there are many shots of the Cistern and Randolph Hall. This interesting story explores racial tensions, school shootings, suicide and sexual jealousy — and it follows the Shakespeare play surprisingly well. “Charleston works perfectly for this story,” she said.
The relationship between the film industry and Charleston is mutually valuable. One of the events Charleston hosts is the International Film Festival, which has been running for the past nine years. The International Film festival, hosted at the Music Hall, offers a variety of events, including workshops. Another event is the South Carolina Underground Film Festival (SCUFF). SCUFF welcomes indie films, filmmakers and fans. They offer a space for anyone from novice to professional, encouraging all genres and even accepting student films. The Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest, held in North Charleston in late May, has been running for the past three years. They describe themselves as the bloodiest, scariest and most exciting film festival in South Carolina. We have our own College of Charleston Student Film Festival, which also is the longest-running film festival in Charleston. The Italian Film Festival (IFF) is hosted by College of Charleston professor Giovanna De Luca and is extremely successful. De Luca says that the College is one of the best partners the festival has, and that 40 to 50 volunteers are typically students. She started the festival with a small number of films. Now, she screens more than a dozen films and hosts filmmaker panels. The IFF has had 10 successful years with multiple Italian sponsors such as Istituto Luce, Ministero Beni Culturali Cinema and Istituto Italiano Cultura Washington.
You don’t have to run off to Hollywood just yet; the film industry is right in town.
*This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Yard.