Ready for its Closeup

Ready for its Closeup

Soldiers, golfers, and zombies all have found a cinematic home on Jekyll Island

By Curt Holman
Illustrations by John S. Dykes

People on set for film and television productions put in famously long hours. A day on location routinely starts before dawn and lasts until well after dusk. 

The already-busy schedule for filming the Season 10 premiere of AMC’s long-running zombie drama The Walking Dead was complicated by its location shooting at Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach. In addition to the usual demands of an outdoor production—the undead’s makeup, for example, has to stand up to some pretty extreme heat—The Walking Dead crew also had to deal with nesting season for the area’s sea turtles. 

“Our first choice for a filming site had nests there, so we had to relocate a little further down the beach,” says Mike Riley, the show’s location manager. “Fortunately we found an area with a lot of rock and riprap [rock used to protect structures on the shore], which the turtles avoid.”

That wasn’t the only accommodation Dead made for Jekyll Island’s resident reptiles. 

“Because it was nesting season, we couldn’t have artificial lights, which would attract (disorient) the turtles. So everyone had to wear red headlights instead,” Riley says.

The crew adjusted to the unconventional headwear, Riley says, and the work paid off in an episode in which the show’s protagonists discover a shipwreck filled with ravenous zombies.

“If you need a beach, Jekyll Island’s sort of the go-to place,” Riley says. He points to the beauty and accessibility of the island’s beaches and the ease of working with the Jekyll Island Authority as reasons why it’s become a reliable location for Hollywood.

The natural beauty isn’t the only attraction. “The Jekyll Island historic district covers a broad time period,” says Andrea Marroquin, curator of Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum. “From the Victorian/Edwardian era to the Roaring 20s, the historic district can be adapted to fit different stories and settings through time.”

Kailey Becker, a locations assistant for the 2021-released sci-fi film The Tomorrow War, says the island’s easy to navigate, too, with hotels and shooting locations within miles of each other, “It’s also beautiful,” she says. “It was sunny and 70 degrees in mid-winter. The Christmas decorations were definitely a relaxing site to see at the end of a long shooting day.”

Here’s a tour of some of the film and TV productions that have used Jekyll Island as a backdrop.

Glory (1989)

Director Edward Zwick’s Civil War epic brought attention to some of the unsung heroes in U.S. history: the soldiers of color who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Glory focuses specifically on the Black soldiers of the 54th 

Massachusetts Infantry Regiment (including Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher, and Denzel Washington), under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick).

The production looked to Jekyll Island as the location for shooting the climactic assault in Fort Wagner, a fortification key to protecting Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. “When the project came to Georgia, they wanted to build a fort and shoot on a beach,” Riley recalls. “That was probably the largest project that had been shot on Jekyll Island.”

Location: The beach attack sequence was filmed on the southeastern part of the island, where the production built a wooden boardwalk to transport dozens of actors and tons of props equipment to the beach. The spot is now called Glory Beach after the Oscar-winning film. The boardwalk still provides beach access to the island’s visitors.

Trivia: Civil War historians have pointed out that Glory shows the soldiers of the 54th attacking Fort Wagner from north to south, with the ocean on their left. The actual attack occurred from the opposite direction.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

In an alternate version of U.S. history, the turning point of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis took place on Jekyll Island. That’s according to X-Men: First Class, the fifth film in the series based on the Marvel Comics characters.

Set in the swinging 1960s, the prequel shows the origins of the X-Men, a team of superpowered “mutants,” as a group of evil-doers, led by Kevin Bacon’s scheming villain, attempt to engineer a thermonuclear war.

Shot on a Jekyll beach that was standing in for a Cuba, the finale of X-Men: First Class was probably one of the biggest and most complex sequences shot on the island since Glory. The location featured a set of the crashed “X-Jet” and several large green screens, one of which simulated a beached submarine in the finished film.

According to FX Guide magazine, the production brought in and planted more than 100 palm trees to make Jekyll’s beach look more like a tropical Cuban shore. Unfortunately, just before the shoot began, the temperature dropped below freezing, causing the palm trees to turn brown or die rapidly, requiring digital color correction.

Location: The scene was filmed in the North Dunes Park area (currently known as Oceanview Beach Park) on the east side of the island, near the intersection of Capt. Wylly Road and Beachview Drive. The movie also features a prominent scene at the Clam Creek Fishing Pier off the north tip of the island.

Trivia: As a prequel, the film recasts James McAvoy as the telepathic Professor X, previously played by Patrick Stewart, and Michael Fassbender as the vengeful Magneto, taking over for Ian McKellen.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)

The fifth film directed by Robert Redford, The Legend of Bagger Vance offers a poetic account of a fictional 1930s golf match. Will Smith plays the title role, a mysterious caddy who advises Rannulf Junuh (Matt Damon), a golfer and World War I veteran, in an exhibition match against real-life golfing greats Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. The film showcased Jekyll’s vintage architecture.

Location: Bagger Vance filmed scenes at the Jekyll Island Club Resort and built a colonnade on the Resort’s riverfront lawn for a dance scene. Due to fears of a hurricane, the crew had to dismantle the colonnade and rebuild it in the same place to finish the shoot.

In addition, a bar was built near the Club Resort’s grand dining room. After shooting, it was placed in storage in Savannah, but Club Resort leadership later reinstalled it as a permanent fixture.

Trivia: Like the novel it’s based on, the film’s plot is loosely inspired by the sacred Hindu text “Bhagavad Gita.” The names “Bagger Vance” and “Junuh” are taken from characters in the story, “Bhagavan” and “Arjuna.”

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

In 2012, the first Magic Mike movie starred Channing Tatum as a male exotic dancer in a dramedy with some surprisingly serious themes about economic distress. For the more light-hearted sequel, Magic Mike and his buddies, the “Kings of Tampa,” take a road trip to Myrtle Beach to stage a big performance at a convention.

Location: The Jekyll Island Convention Center stood in for Myrtle Beach in one setting. The interior scenes, however, were filmed at Savannah International Trade and Convention Center, now named the Savannah Convention Center.

Trivia: Matthew McConaughey had a career-revitalizing performance in the previous film, but after winning the Oscar for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, his asking price became too high for the sequel.

Live by Night (2016)

Ben Affleck directed, wrote and starred in this glossy Prohibition-era gangster epic. Live By Night finds some fresh perspectives for a mob movie by setting gangsters at odds with Cuban immigrants, Southern evangelicals, and the KKK.

Location: Brunswick stood in for Tampa and Ybor City, but some sequences were also shot on Jekyll Island, including at picturesque St. Andrews Beach Park.

Trivia: Shooting in the area was convenient for Affleck, who had a 6,000-square foot home on nearby Hampton Island. In 2018 he put the Greek Revival mansion for sale for $8.9 million.

The Walking Dead (2017 & 2019)

The Walking Dead first shot on Jekyll Island late in its seventh season, introducing a community of survivors called Oceanside. “We sent down a ‘splinter unit’ of about 30-40 crew and cast to film over one weekend,” Riley says. “Then, when we returned for the Season 10 premiere, we were there for a week and a half.”

Location: “Driftwood Beach, on the Northeast side, had the look for what we wanted,” Riley says. “It has driftwood trees: they once were inland but the ocean encroached, so now there’s decayed timber. It sort of has an apocalyptic look to it, which is certainly what we want for The Walking Dead.”

Trivia: Perhaps the signature show of Georgia’s boom in film and TV production, The Walking Dead is scheduled to conclude with its 11th season in 2022.

The Tomorrow War (2021)

This action-packed summer Blockbuster depicts soldiers from the future traveling to the present to enlist the likes of Chris Pratt’s Iraq vet to stop aliens from destroying humanity in 30 years. Amid intense sequences of troops shooting at monstrous aliens, the action takes a breather at one of Jekyll Island’s beaches, standing in for the Dominican Republic. As Pratt’s character has a heart-to-heart with a future soldier played by Yvonne Strahovski, the expansive but soothing surf provides a welcome moment of calm.

Location: Shooting of the sequence began on Beachview Drive South and ended on the shore between the South Dunes Picnic Area and Glory Beach.

Trivia: The Tomorrow War was originally intended for theatrical release, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Paramount Pictures sold it to Amazon Prime for a reported $200 million.

Other Notable Jekyll Island Productions

The View From Pompey’s Head (1955)

Was the first major Hollywood production on the island. Based on Hamilton Basso’s best­selling novel of the same name, it depicts secrets and intrigue at Pompey’s Head, a fictional coastal town in South Carolina. Locations on Jekyll include Indian Mound Cottage and Driftwood Beach.

Camilla (1994)

A road comedy pairing two women of differ­ent generations played by Bridget Fonda and Jessica Tandy, with scenes at the Jekyll Island Club Resort. It was Tandy’s final movie and included her last filmed scenes with Hume Cronyn, her husband of more than 50 years. 

Jekyll Island (1998)

This low-budget thriller depicts a jewel thief who makes a big score on the island but proves unable to make a clean getaway. Filmed at such locations as the Jekyll Island Club, Clam Creek, and Summer Waves. 

The Leisure Seeker (2018) 

Donald Sutherland and Dame Helen Mirren play a retired couple dealing with an advancing case of dementia (Sutherland) and cancer (Mirren), who drive a Winnebago nicknamed “The Leisure Seeker” from Massachusetts to Key West. Mirren received a Golden Globe nomination for the film. 

This article first appeared in Volume 5 Number 1 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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