Screening Richmond

The Steven Spielberg directed Lincoln, which will star Daniel Day Lewis as the 16th President, has caused a lot of buzz by having Hollywood visit Richmond. But even though this film will be very much a big deal, Richmond is by no means a new host of celluloid production. We take a look at some of the most notable films shot in the River City.

This year, Richmond finally got its big break in Hollywood. After appearing in town last November to scout locations, filmmaker Steven Spielberg announced in May that his much-anticipated biopic of Abraham Lincoln would be shot in Richmond and Petersburg.

Based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals, Lincoln will star Daniel Day Lewis as the sixteenth president, along with Sally Field as his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. The film is slated to start shooting this fall, and casting calls have already been held encouraging Richmond’s population of bearded twenty-somethings to audition to be background players.

Lincoln will no doubt be the biggest film ever produced in central Virginia, but Steven Spielberg isn’t the only director who thinks Richmond ought to be in pictures. Since the early eighties, RVA has played host to several Hollywood productions, and local landmarks can be spotted in films directed the likes of Ridley Scott, Ivan Reitman, and Louis Malle.

According to the Virginia Film Office, Richmond has amassed an onscreen resume that includes such well-known movies as 1993’s presidential comedy Dave, the military drama G.I. Jane, the big-budget comedy Evan Almighty, and the Academy Award-winning film Cold Mountain, which shot on Belle Isle. Some of the movies shot in Richmond are quite good—2000’s political drama The Contender comes to mind—and at least one of them, 1981’s My Dinner With Andre, is a certified classic. Others are more forgettable—Hearts In Atlantis, anyone?—and some are best viewed as possible fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000. Of the latter, a notable entry is 1997’s The Jackal, an action movie about an assassin played by Bruce Willis. You might remember that film for a particularly outlandish scene where Willis shoots Jack Black’s arm off with a giant machine gun.

Only a few of these movies were filmed entirely in Richmond, which is more often used as a backdrop for exteriors than it is a primary shooting location. In fact, Richmond’s draw as a big screen setting can be largely reduced to two major attributes: its wealth of historical landmarks, and its ability to double as Washington D.C.

Richmond’s historic buildings, row houses, and Civil War battlefields have long been a lure for movie period pieces. Steven Spielberg, in announcing that Lincoln would be filmed in Richmond, cited the city’s “remarkable period architecture” as its main draw. This historical legacy was also what drew Tom Hanks’s production company to the capital city for the HBO miniseries John Adams, along with movies and countless history documentaries and made-for-TV flicks. Meanwhile, the preserved architecture of West Broad Street, Shockoe Bottom, and Cary Street played a central role in the 2004 HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, which dressed Richmond up like the 1910s to tell the story of suffragettes Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.

Richmond’s use as a historical setting has become so widespread that it’s even drawn the ire of other state film boards. In June of this year, officials in Massachusetts were outraged to learn that a museum film about the Boston Tea Party was being filmed in Richmond, supposedly because Boston was too modern and developed to achieve the proper look. According to the director, Richmond could do a better job of looking like Boston than Boston could.

In recent years, though, filmmakers have flocked here for the simple reason that the historical buildings, Franklin Street mansions, and courthouses make it surprisingly easy to use Richmond as a stand-in for Washington D.C. The neoclassical Roman style of structures like the Virginia State Capitol Building, which was the inspiration for many D.C. landmarks, makes them natural doubles for the Capitol building and the White House. Since Washington D.C. is notoriously difficult and pricey to shoot in, movie productions will often film key scenes in Richmond and then cheat them to look like they’re happening 100 miles north.

These architectural similarities have proven irresistible for location scouts on movies like The Jackal, which has a final scene set in D.C., the Charlie Sheen thriller, Shadow Conspiracy, and—you know you love it—the Sinbad comedy, First Kid.

Still, the two most popular Richmond-as-D.C. movies are the previously mentioned Dave–which mostly shot exteriors in town—and The Contender. The latter, which stars Joan Allen as a senator whose bid to be the first female Vice President is put in jeopardy by political double-dealing, was shot almost entirely on location in Richmond. For several key scenes, the filmmakers used the Virginia House of Delegates chamber in the Capitol as a stand-in for the floor of the House of Representatives. Scenes that took place in the White House were shot in New Millennium studios in Petersburg, which has capitalized on the popularity of Richmond-as-D.C. films by building one of the only permanent sets of the Oval Office in the country. New Millennium, operated by Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid, also serves as its own source of film production in the Petersburg and Richmond areas with movies like 1999’s Asunder, starring Blair Underwood.

Richmond’s movie resume might be littered with historical epics and political thrillers, but those aren’t the only kinds of films that have been shot in town. The Farmer’s Market in Shockoe Bottom, for instance, was used as the site of an action sequence in the Ridley Scott film Hannibal. Meanwhile, the picturesque campus of the University of Richmond has served as a shooting site for both the television show Dawson’s Creek and the 2005 slasher film Cry Wolf, about a killer at an upscale prep school.

Perhaps the most notable Richmond movie location is the swanky Jefferson Hotel. In the early 1980s, the Jefferson was closed for business, but opened to legendary French filmmaker Louis Malle, who used it as the shooting site for his famous film My Dinner With Andre. The film, which follows a rambling yet fascinating conversation between two estranged friends, was shot almost entirely in the Jefferson’s main ballroom. It has since become a cult classic, and is often listed as one of the most important films of the eighties.

The success of My Dinner With Andre helped give the Jefferson a reputation as a filmmaker’s paradise. In 1982, it served as the location for the doomed Judd Nelson 3-D film Rock N’ Roll Hotel, which was so bad that it was shelved and thought to be lost until a copy was discovered and screened in Richmond last year.

Despite its relative popularity as a shooting location, it’s rare that movies or television shows filmed in Richmond are actually set in Richmond. The city has achieved a reputation as a catchall location that can be tailored to look like anything. When it’s not doubling as Washington, Richmond has even been dressed up like something as far off as a seedy town in Mexico, as in the film Border Town, which stars local favorite Mark Joy.

Two notable productions partially filmed and set in Richmond are the short-lived TV series Line of Fire and the 2009 science fiction film The Box. Line of Fire was created by Rod Lurie, the director of The Contender, and followed several members of the FBI headquarters in Richmond. The show shot widely around the city, including areas of the Fan and Northside, but it was cancelled after only 11 episodes.

The Box was directed by famous son Richard Kelly, who grew up in the Midlothian area. Kelly set his feature film debut Donnie Darko in Virginia, and his movies often reference the Commonwealth. The Box is set in Richmond—though most of the actors seem to have opted for Texas accents—and makes several references to the city, including showing the covers of local newspapers. While The Box was mostly shot in Boston, the filmmakers did come to Richmond to shoot a few key exteriors, notably parts of I-95 and Main Street Station.

Movies like The Box, My Dinner With Andre, and The Contender are only the most notable of the one hundred-plus feature films that have been shot in town—and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Virginia offers tax credits to filmmakers, and the Governor’s office has estimated that the state raked in $346 million from film and video productions in 2009 alone.

Spielberg’s Lincoln will certainly be a major step forward for the local production economy, but that film will be joining a community that has already been firmly established for several years. Richmond has long been known as a hub for independent filmmaking, and MovieMaker magazine has even listed it as one of the best places for filmmakers to live and work. Meanwhile, festivals like the yearly French Film Festival and the James River Film Festival have helped the city stake a claim as a site of film culture.

While the movie industry has been a boon for the Virginia economy, the quality of the films produced locally has always been a mélange of second-rate political thrillers, bloated Hollywood period pieces, and sleeper indies. But while there have been some misfires made in town, Richmond has also played host to some important films. So what are the best Richmond movies? My Dinner With Andre and The Contender are two films that any self-respecting local should see, but Iron Jawed Angels, Cold Mountain, Asunder, The Box, and Dave are all of interest as well. Lincoln is Richmond’s first starring role in a blockbuster Hollywood production, and considering the pedigree of the talent involved, it may be joining that list soon.


photo by Chang’r

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Evan Andrews

Evan Andrews is a freelance writer and Richmond native. He writes a blog about film at

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