Big-budget 'Hunger Games' comes to Shelby

Downtown moved in slow motion: a man taking his dog for a morning walk, two women pushing baby strollers, coffee drinkers drifting into a café.

But two blocks west, along the railroad tracks, Hollywood had sprung up around an old cotton warehouse. In that bland building, cameras rolled on the $75 million movie "The Hunger Games."

The movie is based on the young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, the first in a tremendously popular trilogy with nearly 9 million copies in print. The lead role is being played by Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Academy Award last year for "Winter's Bone."

Filming of "The Hunger Games" - helmed by "Seabiscuit" director Gary Ross - began earlier this month in Hildebran.

On a recent morning, buses pulled up to the Shelby warehouse and unloaded extras by a mini-tent city

Amid the flurry of activity, security officers kept a close watch.

Among the few onlookers was Jerome Jefferies who'd spotted a crowd by the tracks while talking to a friend across the street.

"I asked what was going on and he said 'Man, they're shooting a movie,'" said Jefferies, 36, of Shelby. "I was hoping I could get a bit part. I'd love to be in a movie. I think I'm a pretty good actor."

More than 1,000 extras are being employed through a casting agency operating out of the closed Philip Morris USA plant in Concord. Fourth Ward Productions - which has an office in Charlotte - is doing production management.

Publicist Will Casey said "The Hunger Games" is a closed set and will stay that way as shooting continues this summer throughout the region.

The public probably won't see Lawrence and other stars such as Liam Hemsworth and rocker Lenny Kravitz.

Still, folks in Shelby were glad the production came their way.

Hotels full

Moviemaking was routine during the 1970s and '80s when Shelby B-movie czar Earl Owensby ruled. In addition to his own productions such as "Wolfman" and "Death Driver," Owensby brought other filmmakers to his studio, including James Cameron, who filmed "The Abyss" at Owensby's Gaffney, S.C., complex., a former Duke Power company nuclear power plant site. The last movie filmed locally was the civil rights drama, "Blood Done Sign My Name," filmed in 2008.

According to Jackie Sibley, director of Tour Cleveland County, the current project "brings a new level of excitement. The scale of this project is so much bigger."

She said moviemakers picked Shelby because they were looking for warehouse space and "we've got a lot of that here."

Sibley said some crew members arrived about three months ago to start building sets. Filming began on May 26, and was expected to last about two weeks.

According to Sibley, extras are coming in from Georgia, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Tennessee "because they're big fans of the book and want to be a part of the movie."

The movie's economic impact has been significant.

"All the hotels are full," Sibley said. "They've hired off-duty police officers. They're renting space, eating at local restaurants. They're spending a lot of dollars."

Jeanette Sun, 42, owner of Ni Fen Wine and Tapas, remembers back in the '80s when movie stars like Raul Julia, Rutger Hauer and Kelli McGillis were spotted all over town. Her parents hosted a cast party for the locally made HBO film "Florida Straits" at their Chinese restaurant.

Sun met "The Hunger Games" cast member Elizabeth Banks, who came by a few minutes before Ni Fen closed one night.

Although Banks didn't stick around, movie crew members visit in the afternoons "to use the Wi-Fi and chill out," Sun said. "They're very nice."

Chris Canoutas, owner of Pleasant City Wood Fired Grille, said crews are regulars at his place.

"They come in for lunch and late dinner, just to wind down," he said. "I've seen a 15 percent increase in business, at least, Anything that brings people downtown we're for it."

A personal stake

At Shelby Hardware, which is near the movie production site, store manager Brock Taylor said movie folks shop for rope, tape, glue and Dale Earnhardt Jr. hats.

The project has touched Taylor in another way: His 12-year-old daughter, Riley, landed a job as extra.

The job runs from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.

"She comes home pretty tired," Taylor said. "But she's thrilled. She's talked to the director and some stars."

Hollywood leaves soon. But small-town life has its own cinematic moments, and Taylor said his daughter won't be let down for long.

"The swimming pool's open," he said. "And the next big thing is school letting out."