The post-apocalyptic state of Panem is closer than fans of “The Hunger Games” might initially expect. Looking for District 12? Take exit 119 off of I-40.
Throughout last summer, the expansive wilderness, abandoned warehouses and historical villages of western North Carolina helped bring the popular trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” to life. But long after shooting wrapped up and the film was released, spots now synonymous with key points in “Hunger Games” lore are attracting droves of tourists—and their dollars—to the state.
From Durham, the full sightseeing trek forms a 9.5 hour loop: down I-40W through Hildebran, Asheville and Hendersonville, then back east toward Shelby and Charlotte. Attempt to do the sightseeing in one day, and even then the journey may seem a little too much like a full-on “Hunger Games” immersion: long stretches of highway and a climb deep into DuPont State Forest can mean no time to stop for food.
The plot of the book–and film– centers around the annual Hunger Games, a two-week contest in which two children from each of the 12 districts are sent to fight to death in a remote arena as a tribute to the society’s rebellion years prior. The Capitol controls the games, and therefore controls its people.
But who decided North Carolina could best serve as this post-modern state of Panem? It was largely the trilogy’s author Suzanne Collins, said “Hunger Games” co-producer Bryan Unkeless, Trinity ’04.
“We always envisioned District 12 to be set in Appalachia and have that vibe,” he said. “It was really something that Suzanne felt was the look and the aesthetic of the movie. There are absolutely beautiful surroundings… really spectacular forests. North Carolina was a place we could very much see Katniss running around in.”
Starting in early 2011, the North Carolina Film Office began scouting locations that captured both Collins’ imagery and the producers’ vision for the film, said Aaron Syrett, director of the North Carolina Film Office. North Carolina was competing with Georgia and Louisiana as potential locations, Syrett added.
The abandoned Henry River Mill Village in Burke County, N.C. serves as Katniss’ home of District 12 and is the first stop along “The Hunger Games” loop. It was the producers’ top-priority location, and cast and crew filmed there for 3.5 days, bringing in props—including additional trees—as needed, said village owner Wade Shepherd. The village, which Shepherd is currently selling for $1.4 million, is accessible via an unassuming country road, giving visitors a sudden jolt into District 12. A small gravel driveway veers into the village, allowing passersby just enough time to pull over and take pictures.
The village is a wide, meandering 72-acre area, with faded gray look-a-like homes that used to house river mill workers in the early- to mid-20th century. Their clear abandonment preserves the somewhat eerie feeling fans and viewers of “The Hunger Games” know too well. “Private property” signs attempt to keep visitors from the cottages’ unsteady porches, but even Shepherd says he cannot prevent tourists from flocking to the area. Visitors apparently poured out in droves this past Memorial Day weekend, he said.
“I’ve been inundated with people from all over the United States, London, Australia and Canada,” he said, calling this kind of response an extreme shock to him and to the county. “It’s been good for the area, and good for the film industry.” District 12 was the hardest place to find a film location for, Syrett said. But once his office discovered the area, it completely matched the film’s vibe and later aligned with the desolate parallels in Shelby, N.C.
Although Syrett and Unkeless said it is too early to know if filming for The Hunger Games sequel “Catching Fire” will return to North Carolina, Shepherd noted that producers mentioned wanting to return to Henry River Mill Village to shoot a few more District 12 scenes. Recent news reports have confirmed that parts of “Catching Fire” will be filmed in both Atlanta and Kauai, Hawaii.
The crew took mostly everything back with them, save for a few wooden planks used on set, said Ed Phillips, executive director of Burke County Tourism Development Authority. The planks are being sold in the Burke County Visitor’s Center for $150 each. Four have sold so far.
Phillips added that since May 1, visitation to Burke County has doubled, with “hundreds of people” stopping by every weekend.
Further west of Henry River Mill Village is Asheville: the city that served as home to “The Hunger Games” cast and crew for the duration of the four-month shoot.
“We just absolutely loved Asheville as a town,” Unkeless said. “It was really a very down-to-earth friendly place with amazing restaurants and a bohemian vibe, which we found very inviting. We thought it was kind of a great place to make home.”
The principal cast members, including Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson and Josh Hutcherson stayed at the prominent Hotel Indigo, which overlooks the Appalachian mountains. Lawrence, Hemsworth and Hutcherson, whose accommodations alternated between suites and penthouse condominiums, could often be seen having a snack in the first-floor lobby café, said Susan Newton, director of sales and marketing at Hotel Indigo. Newton added that there were never any problems with the paparazzi, mostly because no one knew the actors were there.
“Everybody got very close. The staff got to know them and their families,” she said, noting that the cast’s hours were exceedingly long. “They were about as low-key as you could imagine.”
In downtown Asheville, Unkeless said some of his and the cast’s favorite spots included Lexington Avenue Brewery, the Laughing Seed Café – especially for Harrelson, a vegan – and Unkeless’ personal favorites, a tapas bar called Curate and the small Tupelo Honey Café.
Beyond Asheville are the thickly wooded forests that served as the backdrop for “The Hunger Games” arena, where the tributes battle both each other and the harsh elements. Much of the arena scenes were shot in DuPont State Forest, among the tall trees and many waterfalls easily recognizable even in the film’s trailer. Many fan websites note that the spot where Katniss finds an injured Peeta hiding under the rocks, Triple Falls waterfall, is a “short walk” from the parking lot. Readers should know it is more of a mild hike, with near 90 degree inclines for visitors to surmount.
And east of the wilderness is Shelby, N.C. – a location far from rural but arguably equally desolate. Shelby is striking but not in beauty so much as shocking disrepair. Abandoned warehouse compounds tower over the surrounding residential areas. Signs on the faded, rusted warehouse walls, which range from brick red to a lifeless gray, read “KEEP OUT.” Water run-off and the sheer lack of life reflect the dystopian themes of “The Hunger Games,” particularly the reaping and riot scenes filmed here.
“They got the look they wanted,” Syrett said.
More than 5,000 people worked on The Hunger Games while it was shooting in North Carolina, said Margo Metzger, public relations manager at the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, noting that nearly 4,000 of them were natives. During the four-month shoot, the film spent $62 million in the state. The success of the bestselling trilogy and record-breaking film is further mirrored in the stir it is causing in the North Carolina tourism industry.
“We’ve heard a very positive response from areas like Asheville and DuPont State Recreational Forest,” Metzger wrote in an email June 13. “The Asheville [Convention and Visitors Bureau] reports that Hunger Games pilgrims are calling and passing through the visitors center, [and] our friends at DuPont State Recreational Forest are reporting a marked increase in visitation.”
This interest has sparked many entrepreneurs to devise unofficial “Hunger Games” tours in the area. Syrett noted that one tour group, called Hunger Games Fans Tours, has booked tours through September with tourists from 16 different states.
The making of famous films is nothing new for the Tarheel State, however. Films such as “Dirty Dancing” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” not to mention the long-running teen soap operas ”Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill” were all shot in the state. Syrett and Unkeless both noted North Carolina’s diverse landscape and favorable film incentives–a 25 percent refundable tax credit on goods and service wages to the studio–as reasons behind the state’s success with filmmakers.
And for Unkeless, the return to North Carolina had an added benefit: he visited Durham during the shoot for the wedding of his freshman year roommate at the Duke Chapel. Though Unkeless noted the demands on production—including transport, heavy rains and woodland conditions—he stated that overall the experience and the beautiful locations were second to none.
“It was a blast,” he said. “Everybody that was involved felt that way and felt that it was something special, and that it was something rare.”