The Insider: Home On and Off ‘Hill’
An honest-to-goodness family thrives at “One Tree Hill.”
The CW’s sudsy and often heart-wrenching drama has created real history and roots in Wilmington, N.C., the youthful coastal town where it is filmed.
The EUE Screen Gems studio drew the cast and crew of “Hill” to Wilmington and holds a number of them there as homeowners and players in the broader arts scene.
Over the course of a sultry September afternoon with some of the “Hill” folk, The Insider kept meeting person after person who has found Wilmington a good place to live and to grow, to get and to give support, and to find block after block of picturesque homes and a variety of scenery that may have been rattled by a hurricane or two but was spared the sort of widespread destruction Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman visited upon other parts of the South.
Executive producer Greg Prange, a “West Coast boy” and TV veteran who came to Wilmington for “Dawson’s Creek” and stayed for “One Tree Hill,” had spent the afternoon scouting locations. The only ones he doesn’t know well are under construction (which he orders photographed for future reference) or off-limits (which sometimes leads him to obsess over shooting there).
His favorite anecdote for visitors?
“I think the fact that you are in the South and haunted houses do exist and there’s wonderful ghost stories. Wilmington is a very spiritual kind of town. There’s a tremendous amount of history that still seems to be hanging around,” he said.
“I think we’ve pretty much shot every place that exists here,” he said after his return to the production offices.
The cast and crew are familiar with many of the same haunts.
“We run into each other at the grocery store. We run into each other at restaurants. We run into each other at the beach,” said Beth Crookham, an Iowan who headed for Wilmington because she thought she could put her theater and voice education (not to mention resemblance to Annette Bening) to work as an actress.
She has risen from a day player with one line during “Hill’s” premiere season on The WB, to the casting team in the second season, to assistant to the producers since season three. She owns a home in a Wilmington neighborhood where everyone has great porches. Along the way, her career goals changed. She now wants to produce and has begun to build her beyond-“Hill” credits by working on well-reviewed feature films by Erica Dunton.
Hilarie Burton, the Virginia-born actress who plays Peyton, came to “One Tree Hill” by way of New York and a gig as a veejay at MTV. She soon settled in to the local scene, which she describes as having a “bohemian quality.” meeting people at improv comedy shows in what’s known as Historic Downtown and being introduced by those people to local bands and their followers, and so on.
“Downtown, they don’t give a damn about Hilarie Burton anymore. I’ve been rolling around with them for years. It really is a community here. Every time I go out to eat, every bar I go to, every shop I go into, I either know the owner, the waiter or whoever. Coming from New York, that sense of community and smallness is something that’s very comforting for me. It’s like living on a set. It’s like a little movie. It’s like ‘Pleasantville,’“ she said.
Her character has suffered a novel’s worth of misery. “The big joke between me and the fan base is, ‘Is Peyton crying this year?’ It’s a big part of my character. I’m not a sad person, but I play a verrry sad person,” Ms. Burton said during a chat in her trailer just before a late-afternoon shoot on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Ms. Burton expects Peyton to have a lot of fun this season, which started with her winning Lucas, the hypotenuse in more than one romantic triangle on “Hill,” but the actress should never be confused with the character. The actress plays Dakota Fanning’s mother in next month’s big-screen release “The Secret Life of Bees,” which was filmed in the area, produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith.
“Hill” picked up makeup artist Tym Buacharern after “Bees” wrapped. Such occurrences are why Ms. Burton, a veteran of productions in “all the other indie hubs,” says, “This is not a patchwork crew.”
A Wilmington homeowner whose parents have taken up residence in town, she is so committed to the production scene there that she and “Hill” producer/production coordinator (and fellow transplant) Kelly Tenney have started a production company, Southern Gothic, which has two features in development. Her “passion” project is “Pedestrian,” a script she discovered by local writer Nick White.
But Southern Gothic is not distracting her from “Hill,” which is hitting two-year highs in The CW’s target demos.
“We don’t know if this is our last year, but our contracts are up, and most shows only go to six years. I think we’re all kind of treating it like our last year. Everyone is putting tons of effort into it, to make it a great, great season. It’s kind of sad to think it would be our last season, because we have so many stories left to tell, and there are so many intricacies left to iron out,” she said.
Even Chad Michael Murray, who plays Lucas, is taking his first steps beyond actor-hunk status by writing what will be “Hill’s” 11th episode this season and directing what is scheduled to be the 14th episode.
Mr. Murray, who owns a home and found a fiancé in Wilmington, has used his time on “Hill” to educate himself about the many working parts that add up to a series with “Little Engine That Could” staying power.
“I intend to be over-prepared,” he said of his freshman directing assignment.
He said the process of working through the scripts with the executive producers has been “the most relaxed, comfortable work experience I’ve ever had.”
The episode will be a period piece that’s inspired by “Casablanca,” the classic movie that revolved around a romantic triangle. Whether the Murray-penned episode is broadcast in black-and-white or not is still up in the air. Joe Davola, the “Hill” executive producer who will direct, was doing camera tests last week.
Mark Schwahn, creator and executive producer, flinches when someone describes the Murray-penned episode as film noir.
“To me, noir is a colder approach than we would ever do,” he said by phone before flying from Los Angeles to Wilmington last week.
“I think the actors are all inspired,” Mr. Schwahn said, promising lots of winks that “Hill’s” hard-core fans will love. “It’s going to be a great ‘One Tree Hill’ episode.”