After 12 years in Atlanta, I am moving on. I’ve loved my time here for the most part, but I have never thought of Atlanta as a permanent home. Like so many people in the Southeast, I was drawn here because it was the best, closest cultural hub that didn’t require relocating to a different coast or quadrant of the country. Now, with mixed feelings, I’m leaving and taking this week to look back.
This week’s film selection is a little different from other weeks. I’ve picked movies filmed in Atlanta and then used those as a catalyst to reflect on my time here. If you’ve spent any significant time in Atlanta, you may recognize the landmarks and neighborhoods in this week’s films. The Georgia Film Commission also keeps a nice list of movies and TV shows shot in Georgia.
Sharky’s Machine (1981) dir. Burt Reynolds
School Daze (1988) dir. Spike Lee
ATL (2006) dir. Chris Robinson
The Signal (2007) dir. David Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
Invasion U.S.A. (1985) dir. Joseph Zito
Smokey and the Bandit (1977) dir. Hal Needham
Scream 2 (1997) dir. Wes Craven
The Westin is almost a character in Sharky’s Machine. I’ve stayed there twice and I can vouch for the view–you really can’t beat the floor to ceiling windows in those rooms at night. When the tornado ripped through downtown, the Westin was the most obvious casualty, its massive glass exterior dotted with rectangular holes. The opening aerial shot in Sharky’s Machine zooms past the Westin towards Cabbagetown, a place that was once the epicenter of Atlanta’s misfit music and artist community. The camera flies right over the part of town I drive through all the time to get from Grant Park to Inman Park and Reynoldstown. As a bonus, both Monica Kaufman and Wes Sarginson appear as TV news broadcasters in the film and they’ve been staples on Atlanta TV during my tenure here.
Chris Robinson’s directorial debut ATL is soaked in local flavor that tastes real. One of the first places I went shopping when I moved to Atlanta was the Value Village where T.I.’s character in the film works. I didn’t have much money in those days but I wanted to find something unusual so some friends took me to Value Village. Somehow I came out of there with a wooly winter coat that looked like it had belonged previously to someone’s grandmother. That same year I went to my first Atlanta roller rink.
My good friend’s daughter wanted to have a roller skate party so we all drove down to the south side and got a little skating action in on a Saturday afternoon. I lived in Kirkwood at the time, in a section of that neighborhood that was only gentrified by kids like us who were holed up on top of each other so that we had space for band practice. It’s never been uncommon to be one of the only white people in a store, mall, movie theater, or roller rink and that’s one of the things that I will miss about Atlanta. Atlanta is incredibly diverse and packed in every corner with unique neighborhoods. I can’t say that I’ve been to all of them, but from the Waffle Houses to the kudzu-swallowed trees to the tiny barbershops and run-down gas stations that serve pizza–Chris Robinson’s Atlanta looks and feels like the place I know.
My only trip to the Atlanta University Center where most of School Daze was filmed came in 1999 when I went to see Gloria Steinem speak at Spelman College. I moved to Atlanta right as Freaknik was dying out and I never lived on that side of town, so my exposure to the massive HBCU experience in Atlanta has been pretty limited. The AUC is such an important part of Atlanta, I’m glad that I had at least one chance to be there.
I saw Spike Lee speak at an anniversary screening of Do the Right Thing at the Fox Theater in 2009 and it was great to hear the local crowd embrace him especially in light of the controversy that School Daze stirred up. I’ll miss the summer movie series at the Fox. It’s the classiest place in town to see great movies and I’m so thankful to have seen Jaws, Do the Right Thing, 2001, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Raiders of the Lost Ark there.
I desperately wanted to see the secret screening of The Signal at the Atlanta Film Festival back before it was released, but I didn’t get a ticket before they were gone. Even though it was a “secret” screening, I was pretty sure that The Signal was what the fest had on tap. I got a chance to see a regular screening of the movie when it played at the Landmark theater in town and the woman who was riding the escalator up in the “Terminal” at the end was in the theater with me–good times! My buddy Matt couldn’t get in and out of his downtown loft space one day because “some guys were filming a cheesy horror movie” right in front of his door. Turns out that “cheesy movie” wasn’t cheesy at all and his building can be seen in the first segment of The Signal.
About a week before I saw the film, I was at the Georgia World Congress Center for a fencing tournament and I nearly laughed out loud in the theater when I saw that same space passed off as the Terminus Terminal. Even though most of the film is shot in such a way as to avoid looking like Atlanta, it’s easy to spot roads on the west side where all of the mayhem took place. The Signal also introduced me to the Atlanta Film Festival. Though I’d known of Image and the festival for years, I’d never made an effort to see anything that they were screening. That all changed when I missed my shot to see The Signal. I got a membership the next year.
A couple of actors in The Signal seem to pop up over and over again in Atlanta, too. I see Justin Wellborn around town with some frequency. He was also in the locally-shot horror-comedy, Dance of the Dead. Matt Stanton (who plays the film’s first on-screen casualty) I’ve “known” since before I even got to Atlanta. He was a member of the Whammo Players improv group in Tallahassee when I went to school there and he made the move to Atlanta to help start Dad’s Garage. He’s still one of the best members of the Dad’s Garage company and I hated to see him die at the end of a bat in this movie.
I was waiting for Atlanta to show up in the Chuck Norris vs. Terrorists classic Invasion U.S.A. when I saw WSB news anchor Monica Kaufman on the screen and knew that we were finally getting somewhere. The climactic battle between the U.S. Army and the rowdy band of terrorists takes place at the intersection between the Fulton County Library, the Georgia Pacific building, and the Carnegie Building. I worked in the Carnegie for about five years so I know that intersection well. I filmed some of my own short film around those streets. I was first introduced to T.I. at that same intersection when I went downstairs to buy a soda from the guys who peddled snacks and bootleg DVDs on the corner. I saw a gaggle of young kids mobbing someone as a guy with an HD camera caught it all on tape. I was told later that T.I. was an up and coming rapper and that he was making a video.
After a number of years in that office my company had to move down the street because someone had bought the Carnegie Building and wanted to turn it into a luxury hotel. We eventually landed a few blocks away in the Healy Building where I was able to snap some photos on the set of The Walking Dead in 2010. I would have hung out in my office to catch the action on video if it hadn’t been shot on weekends when I was glued to the World Cup on TV.
Agnes Scott College is a small, picturesque women’s college nestled in the wooded neighborhood of Decatur. It’s also been home to a number of TV and film productions, most notably (in my mind) Scream 2, Beer Pong, and the latest Big Momma movie with Martin Lawrence. Sometimes the film productions caused an uproar. Agnes Scott is a cultish, insular place and many of the students there didn’t take kindly to being associated with the antics in Beer Pong, for instance. I spent an inordinate amount of time at Agnes Scott on account of a woman that I dated who was a student there. I’ve walked across the quad, hung out in the dorms (where they have to yell “man on the hall” whenever someone with a penis is present,) eaten at the dining hall, seen movies and lectures in the auditorium, looked at stars at the planetarium, and even played soccer on the athletic field many times. Hell, I met the woman I eventually married at Agnes Scott, so the place is pretty significant to me.
It’s strange to see Agnes Scott as a co-ed campus on screen. Though I was always invited there, I never really felt all that welcome. There was a sense that men on campus were a distraction at best, or a threat at worst and so I was always a little uneasy. I got to know a lot of Agnes Scott women and they were almost universally proud of their school and proud of their class rings. That’s more than I can say about my college experience.
I don’t recognize any scenery in Smokey and the Bandit but luckily someone else has done that legwork. This site captures a lot of shots from the movie and lets you compare the way things looked in 1977 with how they look now. There’s also this guy who has another catalog of shooting locations and pictures, as well as an extensive set of models and miniatures. It’s all pretty neat.
I grew up on Smokey and the Bandit but never really connected it to Atlanta until the Alamo Drafthouse Rolling Roadshow came to town with the Burt-a-thon where they showed Smokey and a couple other films back to back at the Starlight Drive-In before sponsoring a cross-country race back to Austin. I didn’t make it to the Burt-a-thon, but I did get to go rafting on the river and see Rolling Roadshow screening of Deliverance up in the North Georgia mountains where the movie was filmed. I even got a picture with a grown up Billy Redden who played Donnie the banjo player!
It’s been a pretty great 12 years, to be honest. I could probably fill this column up with another seven movies like Gone with the Wind, Dance of the Dead, Zombieland, and Tyler Perry’s whole career, but it’s time to move on. Now I’m making my own trek out west to see what’s out there. There won’t be a Movie Week Blog next week since I’ll be westbound and down on my way to Texas, but I’ll be back with something new from a new spot shortly. Goodbye Atlanta!
Other Movie Weeks in 2011:
French Action Week
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week