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'Hunger Games': How N.C. stars in the blockbuster

The five-star Four Seasons Hotel seems to have everything a movie star could desire, but Lenny Kravitz is fantasizing about something that’s 2,400 miles away: Price’s Chicken Coop.

Charlotte’s renowned fried-chicken joint is one of the things the rocker-actor misses most about North Carolina, where “The Hunger Games” was shot over four months last year.

“That’s my joint,” says Kravitz, as he sinks into a sofa in a suite. “Normally, I eat very healthy and organic, so people are probably saying, ‘He eats that?’ But I gotta get country every now and again.”

Kravitz, several other “Hunger Games” cast members, and filmmakers jumped at the chance to talk about the Tar Heel State, toward the end of a recent weekend they spent fielding many of the same questions over and over again from journalists about the $90 million production, which was filmed between May and September 2011.

“It’ll be nice to talk about Charlotte, which I loved,” says director Gary Ross as he greets a visitor to another Four Seasons suite.

The release of the film is a huge deal to Ross and Kravitz and the fellow cast and crew. It’s an equally big deal for North Carolina.

‘N.C. really had it all visually’

“Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” from 2006 is the highest-grossing film shot in the state; the NASCAR sendup topped out at $148 million. “The Hunger Games” – in theaters on Friday – could surpass that in two weekends.

Analysts believe it could become one of the biggest blockbusters ever, with good reason: It is based on a 2008 young-adult novel by Suzanne Collins that has sold 23.5 million copies; it stars a Hollywood It Girl-slash-Oscar-nominated actress (Jennifer Lawrence); and unlike “Twilight,” boys and men freely admit they like it.

The story is set in a bleak, dystopian future in which a postwar North America has been renamed Panem and divided into 12 districts, which surround a wealthy seat of government known as the Capitol. As punishment for a decades-ago rebellion, the Capitol annually selects one boy and one girl from each district to compete in a televised battle to the death.

Nina Jacobson, the film’s primary producer, says North Carolina provided ideal locations for each of the tale’s main settings – District 12 (home of Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen), the Capitol, and the Arena (where the Games take place).

Remote portions of DuPont State Forest near Asheville were perfect for the artificial landscape the Capitol creates for the Arena; the insides of newer, clean-line uptown Charlotte buildings stood in nicely for the Capitol.

Multiple shooting locations were convenient because of economic struggles in North Carolina. An abandoned mill village outside of Hildebran (Henry River) and an old warehouse in Shelby (Royster P&M) were used to bring to life District 12, a poverty-stricken, rural Appalachia. The former Philip Morris cigarette manufacturing plant in Concord also got plenty of use.

“For District 12, when we found the areas around Shelby and in Henry River, we were blown away by how much that felt like we were reading the book and imagining it in our mind’s eye,” Jacobson says. “Having such great specificity to the Appalachian roots of Katniss’s character felt really right to us.

“Asheville and the woods had a sense of a wilderness so beautiful it could feel artificial. And Charlotte is an incredibly modern city. We were able to take advantage of some of your local architecture. Then we also had Philip Morris, which was this ominous concrete compound that worked great for the Capitol interiors.”

When “The Hunger Games” was scouting locations, Canada and New Mexico were also considered, Jacobson says. But, in addition to the tax-incentive program, “North Carolina really had it all visually for us.”

Where they lived, hung out

Because the shoot lasted all summer, the cast and crew became well-acquainted with the area.

Lawrence, the star, rented a house in the NoDa area of Charlotte. Ross, the director, rented one in Myers Park. The adult cast members took up residence at the Ritz-Carlton in uptown. Kravitz, who plays Katniss’s stylist in the film, rented out Bojangles’ Coliseum for a month to rehearse for his “Black and White America” world tour (currently making the rounds in Australia).

And they didn’t hide from view. Male lead Josh Hutcherson – who plays Katniss’s fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark – enjoyed a zipline tour in Asheville so much, he went back two more times. Ross was a repeat diner at the Customshop restaurant on Elizabeth Avenue. (“I ordered the pork belly a lot and I garnered that nickname.”)

Many cast members went to see Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow perform at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in late August, says actress Elizabeth Banks, who plays Effie Trinket, escort for the District 12 tributes.

“I thought Charlotte was beautiful. It’s so clean. Really walkable,” says Banks, who has another trilogy on her resume – “Spider-Man” 1, 2 and 3 – and has been featured as a frequent guest on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” “I had my son there, so it was nice to be able to go out every day and just kind of walk around, and I thought the downtown was really cool.”

Asheville was even more popular, though. The production was based there for almost two months, while the actors and filmmakers shot the Arena scenes in the DuPont forest, the Coleman Boundary in Barnardsville and the North Fork Reservoir in Black Mountain.

“Asheville’s one of the greatest places you can spend a summer, it really is,” says Ross, who has received Oscar nominations for writing “Seabiscuit,” “Dave” and “Big.” “It’s very transforming in a lot of ways. It’s this little jewel of a city off in the mountains.”

Among the favorite hangouts? The Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. “The stacks go on and on and on and on,” Ross says, “and it just became a wonderful environment where you would wander by the Book Exchange and find a bunch of crew or people from the movie sitting there and reading and having a coffee during the day.”

Says Hutcherson, who is also currently starring in “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: “Shooting in Asheville was incredible. It was cool to go somewhere and get away from it all and shoot this movie. Especially with all the hype surrounding it, it was nice to be where there weren’t cameras and there weren’t people getting in your head.”

‘It was just so hot’ on the set

The production didn’t go off without a hitch, though.

One of the first segments filmed was the Reaping Ceremony, when Banks’ character selects the names of the two teenagers who will represent District 12 in the Games. These scenes were shot outside an old warehouse in Shelby in May – as the area was going through a heat wave.

Throughout the film, Banks appears in a costume that took half an hour to put on and in makeup that took 21/2 hours to apply. With temperatures soaring into the triple digits, the get-up became unbearable.

“I got heat exhaustion for the first time in my life while I was there. It was crazy,” she says. “The only thing that was keeping me going was the adrenaline of shooting, because the minute they called wrap, I literally collapsed. I could barely form words.”

After that, producers gave her a personal air-conditioner. “It was blowing directly on me. It (showed) the temperature on it, and it never got below 87. So even with a full air-conditioning unit blowing on me, it still was almost 90 degrees the entire time we were there.”

The Reaping scenes involved scores of extras, many of whom were children; Banks and Lawrence both say they saw girls who had fainted due to the heat. They helped distribute water and tried to keep the extras’ spirits up.

“There was nothing we could really do, because we were outside – there was really nowhere people could go to cool down,” says Lawrence, an Academy Award nominee for 2010’s “Winter’s Bone.” “We tried to make as much shade as possible making everybody drink a lot of water, but it was just so hot.”

Jacobson tried not to panic, but she was concerned.

“It was the beginning of the schedule, and we were like, ‘Oh my God!’ At that point it was only May. And so we were thinking, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into? If it’s only May now, it’s just gonna get worse.”

Fortunately, shooting in Shelby only lasted about a week, and by the time they got to Asheville, the weather was much cooler.

Why the cameras love N.C.

“The Hunger Games” is the biggest film project to land in North Carolina, which has seen increased interest from filmmakers and TV producers thanks to one of the most robust tax-incentive programs in the country: Filmmakers can get a refund on 25 percent of salaries and money they spend on taxable items in North Carolina, worth up to $20 million per project.

Currently, the state is hosting 10 productions (feature films including Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3” and TV series including Cinemax’s “Banshee”).

The benefit to North Carolina is simple.

“The film tax credit creates high-paying, quality jobs for North Carolinians,” says Aaron Syrett, director of the N.C. Film Office. “It creates immediate spending into our local economies. Once a production lands, money is infused immediately into all aspects of our economy.

“Additionally, film creates cottage industries for tourism. I suspect ‘The Hunger Games’ will create tourism activity for years to come.”

Coming back for more?

As the release of “The Hunger Games” nears, the filmmakers are just focusing on this movie. But the story has two sequels, “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay.” The question on the minds of many in North Carolina is: Will the cast and crew return?

“I certainly hope we come back,” Ross says.

Adds Jacobson, a Los Angeles native: “When I first came home, I found that some of the L.A. thing wasn’t sitting very well with me, because I had really enjoyed the people of North Carolina. They appreciated having us there, and they were also respectful of the fact that we had a closed set.”

“The next movie,” she says, “has a tropical element, so obviously some of it’s gonna be shot somewhere tropical. We just don’t know where yet. But I think all of us loved North Carolina. We would be delighted to come back.”

Janes: 704-358-5897.

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