From 'The Handmaid's Tale' to 'Dawson's Creek': Duke on the big screen

<p>The 1990 adaption of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of many movies to use Duke's campus as a filming location.&nbsp;</p>

The 1990 adaption of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale" is one of many movies to use Duke's campus as a filming location. 

North Carolina has a rich history of film. Wilmington, N.C., has been called both “Hollywood East” and “Wilmywood” due to its appearance in a number of movies and TV shows. According to Southeast Discovery, more than 400 productions have filmed in Wilmington since 1983. But Duke itself also boasts features in several films and shows throughout the years.

Among those productions is “Brainstorm,” a science fiction movie released in 1983 and directed by Douglas Trumbull. The film follows a research team that creates a way to record and play back people’s sensory experiences and explores the potential for abuse of their invention. The movie includes scenes in the Medical Center, in Duke Gardens and at the Chapel.

The Duke University Choir, then directed by choirmaster Ben Smith, was also featured in the film. The 150-voice choir sounded so good that the original plan to replace it with a pre-recorded 700-voice version was scrapped, according to an article in Starlog Magazine.

In 1990, Duke was part of the setting for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a film now largely unknown, eclipsed by the recent TV adaptation of the original Margaret Atwood novel. Several scenes in the movie were filmed at Duke in 1989, according to IndyWeek. They were scheduled to coincide with spring break so there would be fewer students around.

The most notable shot of Duke in the movie was filmed right in front of the Chapel. One of the handmaids is hanged, and her body swings with the Chapel as a backdrop. The scene led to a flurry of complaints, with many saying that it violated the sacredness of the church space. Duke now has a policy regarding filming on campus that requires submission of exact details and scripts and final approval from the senior vice president for public affairs.

Three years later, Duke was one of several universities to feature in “The Program,” joining Boston College, the University of Michigan, the University of Iowa and the University of South Carolina. The film follows a fictional college football team through its season as the players deal with the pressures of playing a varsity sport while adapting to the other trials of college life.

In 1997 came another novel adaptation, this time of James Patterson’s “Kiss the Girls,” originally published in 1995. It stars a recurring character, Alex Cross, who learns that his niece, who goes to Duke, is missing. The film has shots of Duke and the Chapel and features Research Triangle Park and UNC-Chapel Hill as well. 

While it is likely more widely known as the title of a Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello song, “I Know What You Did Last Summer” was another film released in 1997 that featured Duke’s campus. Shots of Duke’s academic buildings were used as the college attended by one of the main characters in this Jim Gillespie slasher film.

In the fifth season of “Dawson’s Creek,” Duke represented a fictional Boston university called “Worthington.” While the series was set in New England, production was actually based in Wilmington, so it was much more convenient to use Duke rather than a university in Boston. According to an article published in Duke Today, filming started in the summer of 2001 and continued throughout the following spring. In that article, John F. Burness, then senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at the time, said he appreciated that the producers of the show wanted to involve students, giving them the opportunity to work on an actual set.

The university has also featured onscreen as the main topic. Duke basketball was the subject of “A Cut Above: 100 Seasons of Duke Basketball,” a 2005 documentary produced by Bombo Sports and Entertainment. The film looked at the years of the Duke team through the eyes of past and current coaches and players.

Duke has had its fair share of screen time over the years, in the foreground and in the background, featuring both controversial and undisputed subjects. It has been the setting of movie hangings and universities both real and imagined. Filmmakers have been using Duke’s campus for decades, and its iconic architecture is easily recognizable in each of them.


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