Capra had arrived in Wilmington in late 1983 looking for a Southern mansion that was a key setting for the one of De Laurentiis’ American productions, Firestarter, based on the best-selling Stephen King novel. Having already scoured Texas, Virginia and Louisiana for a match to an antebellum mansion that Dino had seen on the cover of Southern Accents magazine, Capra turned to North Carolina, where movies had often been shot because of the state’s varied locations, from mountains to beaches.
When he first saw the Orton Plantation, with 20 acres of landscaped gardens built on the Cape Fear River in Winnabow, NC in 1725, Capra had his house and De Laurentiis had his first foothold in the Tarheel State. After only a few weeks of filming at the old rice plantation, Dino began to envision the North Carolina coastal region as the ideal location to realize his longtime dream of establishing a major East Coast film studio. He purchased land on North 23rd St. in Wilmington and began building his dream studio around abandoned brick tobacco warehouse. In typical De Laurentiis style, he christened the complex DEG Studios.
When they came in, there was no infrastructure present to support filmmaking. “We had to bring everything in,” Capra recalled, shortly before his death in December, 2007.
DeLaurentiis proved prescient in analyzing what Wilmington provided: a variety of diverse locations able to portray multiple settings, a temperate climate that enabled year-round shooting, and even though no feature films had previously been shot in the coastal area, a skilled, film-savvy technical populace quickly gathered and found reasonable housing and a low cost of living. Most important, North Carolina was a right to work state, i.e. non-union, and Dino understood that non-union production was the only way he could compete with the bigger budgeted Hollywood films.
“Dino always had other projects planned,” Capra recalled in an interview I did with him for the Journal of Southern Culture. “We began to think about the potential of making [Wilmington] a headquarters. It’s the same time zone as NY. It’s a right to work state. There were abundant craftspeople to build sets. There were no crew people, but there were pretty good actors. There’s a long running opera house theater; we had a good source for secondary roles….”
Capra said that Dino felt there was there was an esprit de corps in the beach community that he recalled from his early days as a producer on the Cinecitta studio lot outside Rome, and felt it was significant that Wilmington is on about the same latitude as Los Angeles.
During the 1980s, four to five feature films a year were produced at Screen Gems. The increased employment and tax revenues caught the attention of Governor Jim Hunt, who established the first state film office in 1980. Within the next 10 years, North Carolina ranked second only to California in revenues derived from the film industry. Wilmington’s economic base became increasingly linked to the success of the DEG operation.
Firestarter, which starred David Keith, Drew Barrymore and George C. Scott, was a surprise hit in the horror genre. It was quickly followed by Cat’s Eye (1985), another Dino production with Barrymore, this time based on three stories by
Firestarter author and screenwriter Stephen King.
The most lasting of De Laurentiis’s North Carolina productions is undoubtedly Blue Velvet (1986), set in Lumberton, NC but shot in Wilmington. The high school Laura Dern’s character attends in the film is actually New Hanover High School on Market Street in downtown Wilmington. The hyper-real, glazed-eye look of Blue Velvet involves the alchemy that Lynch and his cinematographer Frederick Elmes somehow concocted with the coastal light of North Carolina.
Year of the Dragon (1985) was Michael Cimino’s paean to New York’s Chinatown and was filmed completely on the DEG lot and stages, including a brilliant translight version of the Brooklyn Bridge. Crimes of the Heart (1986) was shot in Wilmington and Southport, and Victorian house used as its central set, complete with cupola and gazebo added for the movie, still stands on Atlantic Ave. in Southport. And parts of King Kong Lives (1986), primarily interiors, were filmed at the DEG Studios.
As it often had previously, De Laurentiis’s luck ebbed at the box office (his King Kong films fell far short of the original in both commercial and critical appeal) and DEG filed for bankruptcy in 1988. Dino would go on to live more than another day as a producer , especially with the successful Hannibal series about Thomas Harris’s cannibalistic killer, but the owners of Carolco, producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja who had made the Terminator movies, took over the studio complex in Wilmington. They primarily rented the facilities to outside productions, where actor Brandon Lee was accidentally killed in a gun-firing mishap during the production of The Crow in 1993.
Dino returned to North Carolina in 2000 to produce U-571, a Cold War submarine epic, his first production in Wilmington since 1989. It was to be his last in the state whose film industry he created.