Easy Escapes | Tour film studio in Wilmington and stay for an afternoon

Grand Strand fans of film and television need not fly cross country for a taste of Hollywood magic.

A 1.5-hour drive north on U.S. 17 will take you to Hollywood East headquarters at E.U. E. Screen Gems Studio in Wilmington, N.C., which is open for studio tours on the weekends. Pam Stilwell, tour director, notes that they just reopened the studio for this popular tourist option in late April, after a three-year hiatus. Three tours are given on each Saturday and Sunday, at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m., perfect for the person who wants to see behind the scenes of movie and television glamour, have lunch and maybe enjoy one other activity in Wilmington before heading home.

Taking the tour

Be sure to have cash with you. They do not take checks or credit. Wear comfortable shoes and dress for the weather for the just under half-mile walk around the lot, in and out of sound stages and your chance to rest in the screening room.

Some places on the lot have lots of wires, some areas have small steps. While this means that some parts of the walk are a bit rough, the cheerful guides, fresh from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College film and theater programs do their best to see that each person gets to see everything and that everyone enjoys the experience.

“This is where the magic happens,” guide Bruno explains as we start out. He and the two other guides assigned to our group of 20 (half of the 40 who showed up for the early tour) keep us entertained as we set out across the lot. From the time you set out on the tour until you leave, no photos are allowed.

As you walk, the young guides ask and answer questions and dole out details about the studio. Fact: The Wilmington Studio is the largest sound stage in the east, 45 acres big, with 10 stage buildings ranging in size from 4,200 to 37,000 square feet.

Bruno asked, “Who founded E.U.E. Screen Gems?”Answer: Frank Capra and Dino De Laurentis.

Stillwell said that one of the most frequent questions the guides are asked is: “How do I become an extra?” The answer to that is to check the website www.wilmingtonfilm.com.

Another oft-posed query is: “What does EUE stand for?” Answer: The Elliot brothers and their close friend and associate Mr. Unger, the current owners of E.U.E. Screen Gems.

It was fun to learn that on-location shots for shows or movies headquartered on the lot are coordinated from offices on the grounds. We saw where the stars park their personal trailers.

And then came the highlight of the tour, for me, the set tour. Which sets you get to see depends on what productions are shooting when you go and what that production is doing near the time you are there. “You can come back next week,” said Stilwell, and find a different group of sets for touring even from the same show.

We were taken onto the set of “Under the Dome,” and were able to see the iconic diner. Those of us who took the tour learned the secret recipe for “making it real” but I will not share, since no photos probably means no public “word pictures,” either. The jail and the sheriff’s office were also on display that day. Even though I have never watched the show before, I will now, even if only a few episodes, just to see how what I saw translates to action on my television set.

At last we went to the screening room – the same screening room where Dino de Laurentis screened films where Robert De Niro and others watched “dailies” (raw footage shot in one day) and made decisions about how films should be cut and packaged for the public.

The tours will continue throughout the summer but Stillwell anticipates that the number of tours given will be scaled back in the fall.

Although the one-hour studio tour was well worth the drive, since you are already there, you might want to extend your day of Hollywood East magic to some of the on-location sites from various movies and television shows shot in the area. The three suggestions below are fairly close to the studio, have easy parking nearby and each one will take between one and three hours to enjoy. Wrightsville Beach, a separate little town, has its own dining options. Check the individual websites of the locations for costs and hours. Even adding on a leisurely lunch and one of these other tours, you will still be back on the Grand Strand in time for supper.

Extending the magic

• Airlie Gardens is a world-class garden where lots of films/TV shows have filmed. They even have a page on their website dedicated to their film credits: http://airliegardens.org/plan-your-visit/films-tv-productions/ Airlie Gardens is built alongside Bradley Creek which stood in as “Dawson’s Creek” in The WB TV series.

• Wrightsville Beach is just over the bridge from Airlie Gardens. The Dockside, located on Airlie Road just before the Wrightsville Beach drawbridge, on a nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon is where lots of local crew members gather for seafood and drinks, so there’s always lots of local film industry buzz especially on the deck that overlooks a busy marina along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. The Dockside restaurant doubled as The Icehouse in the popular series “Dawson’s Creek.” http://www.thedockside.com/

• Wilmington’s historic river district: There is a commercial tour of this area, called the Hollywood Location Walk of Old Wilmington. This 90-minute walking tour takes you to several locations that have appeared in TV and films over the past 25 years, including recent productions such as “Iron Man 3,” “We’re the Millers,” “Revolution,” “One Tree Hill” and “Sleepy Hollow,” among others. Tours are led by local actors who give behind the scene scoop and tips on where to hang out to increase your chances of seeing a star. And you just never know when you might round a corner while a film crew is set up. www.hollywoodnc.com.