Virginia offers 3,000-acre period lot

The US state is attracting major productions, including Ethan Hawke’s The Good Lord Bird

By Chris Evans 10 Oct 2019

Virginia offers 3,000-acre period lot
State Farm. Virginia Film Office

“We have the world’s largest period historical backlot for TV and film makers to use with no location fee,” enthuses Andy Edmunds, head of the Virginia Film Office, to KFTV.

The vast, 3,000 acre site, known as the State Farm, about 30 minutes outside Richmond, is very impressive, boasting fields, woods, streams, ponds and a growing set of Civil War period buildings. It’s like stepping back in time. At any minute, you expect Union or Confederate soldiers to suddenly appear in their shell jackets and boots, carrying rifles, or women in bodices to walk out of the houses.

Well, if you were to visit during filming of one of the many productions to shoot there, that’s exactly what you’d see. Originally, it was HBO’s John Adams mini-series that was based there, building a farm and sailing ship, among other things.

“We asked HBO to leave their sets, so we could use them as a marketing tool for future projects,” says Edmunds. “It’s since been adapted to suit period shows and films that come along, including Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which created battlefields, and an AMC TV show called Turn: Washington’s Spies about how George Washington used espionage as a tool to win the revolution.”

Currently, it’s being utilized by US outfit Blumhouse Television who are shooting an eight-part TV series, The Good Lord Bird, about abolitionist John Brown for Showtime.

Based on James McBride’s best-selling book of the same name, The Good Lord Bird is told from the point of view of Onion, an enslaved teenager who joins Brown (played by Hawke) during the time of Bleeding Kansas, eventually participating in the famous 1859 raid on the Army depot at Harpers Ferry. Brown’s raid failed to initiate the slave revolt he intended, but is often cited as the instigating event that started the Civil War.

Hawke is co-writing and executive producing, alongside McBride, Virginia native Mark Richard and Anthony Hemingway, who is directing and executive producing.

As well as the State Farm, Virginia has generally proven very popular, hosting projects including Apple’s episodic web series, Swagger, about Kevin Durant’s experiences growing up in competitive basketball; the seventh series of Homeland; and AMC’s Walking Dead spin-off called Monument, which has been shoot in the state since August.

The production team for Monument managed to create a zombie wasteland along Hopewell Street, including bringing in a 737 fuselage for a plane crash scene.

“We are delighted to welcome AMC back to Virginia,” said Richmond governor Ralph Northam. “The series will provide high-paying jobs for our skilled workers.

Virginia has emerged as a popular destination for lucrative film and television productions, a hard-earned reflection of our film-friendly atmosphere, talented workers, and unparalleled scenery.”

Virginia encourages and entices international productions to use local talent on their projects by offering to pay up to 50% of their wages.

Another strong selling point is Virginia’s close proximity and resemblance to Washington DC. “There will always be work here based on any scandal or intrigue coming out of the capital city, whether it’s a CIA thriller or political scandal,” says Edmunds. “Filmmakers often shoot Richmond for Washington DC because it’s complicated to film there with all the permits required and jurisdictional headaches. Plus, we have similar architecture, so they’ll shoot their walk and talk type of work here, and then go to DC for a day or two to shoot the monuments.”

Indeed Homeland series seven was entirely set in Washington DC, but the whole season was filmed in Richmond. Ridley Scott has also doubled the state for Washington in a PBS American Civil War series.

Virginia has been used for entire series, or just parts of films, such as a scene in Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, involving a dramatic rescue by the Navy SEALs, and Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers.

“We also had Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman 1984 here last year in the City of Alexandria,” says Edmunds. “They needed a big shopping mall and we happened to have one in Northern Virginia, which is huge with an atrium. They took that and shot for about 14 days, dressing it up with stores from the 1980s. The extras had mullet cuts and 80s fashion. It was like stepping back in time. That created a lot of jobs in the art department.”

Mark Scoon, executive vice president of physical production at Warner Bros, Pictures was impressed. “The locations are picture perfect and the State of Virginia and City of Alexandria have been great hosts.”

Edmunds insists they have a huge diversity of typography, architecture and population in Virginia, so can cater for all types of shows and extras requirements. “You can shoot pretty much anything here. We rarely play Virginia as Virginia, we often play it as anything but, from Kansas to New York to New Orleans. Richmond is the Northern most city in the US with New Orleans architecture and the southern-most city with Boston architecture.

“Virginia is like America in miniature,” he concludes.


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