Lights, camera, action: Kentucky has rich history of filmmaking, tax incentives set stage for even more

Published 9:00 am Saturday, November 25, 2017

What do notable films like 1962’s “How the West was Won,” 1964’s addition to the James Bond franchise “Goldfinger,” 1981’s military comedy “Stripes,” 1988’s “Rain Main,” and 2014’s comedy “Tammy,” all have in common?

Each was filmed partially in the Bluegrass state. And, while it isn’t Hollywood or New York, Kentucky does have a rich cinematic history of its own in many ways.

Throughout the years, Kentucky has been a filming location for moving dramas, revealing documentaries and fun action films. In addition, some of the most famous actors and actresses in the industry today hail from the Bluegrass State.

According to Winchester resident and film enthusiast Rick Baldwin, there’s plenty of love for cinema in the Bluegrass state and right here in Clark County.

“Filmmaking and the love of film is definitely catching on,” Baldwin said. “Bluegrass Community and Technical College has a Script to Screen filmmaking course of study, there are a few film societies established throughout the state, many film screenings like Big Al’s Cult Series in Lexington, the Lexington Film League, and The Kentucky Theater’s revival series and the Clark County Public Library’s Kentucky Picture Show on Wednesdays.”

In addition to showcasing new films to entertain or inform viewers, these organizations may teach something about the state’s place in cinema history.

Filmed in the Bluegrass

Many films have been shot on-site in the bluegrass. The list includes classic films like “The Kentuckian” (1955), “Raintree County” (1957) and “How the West was Won” (1962).

The state was also a filming site for the production of the famous James Bond film “Goldfinger” in 1964. While the film is primarily set in England and Switzerland, some scenes were actually filmed in Muldraugh, Kentucky, located in Meade and Hardin counties. The city’s limits are completely encompassed by the Fort Knox U.S. Army base.

More recently, Kentucky has been the filming location for movies such as “Elizabethtown,” a 2005 romantic comedy named for its setting, Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Oddly enough, the majority of the filming for the movie took place not in Elizabethtown, but in downtown Versailles.

This year saw the release of “Above Suspicion,” a crime thriller based on a true story set and filmed in parts of Kentucky. The story follows an FBI agent sent to a small town in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky, where he becomes involved with a local woman in what leads to a scandal.

The film was shot in several different Kentucky locations, including the cities of Berry, Lexington, Paris and Harlan.

Other films have brought Kentucky into the spotlight less for entertainment value and more as a method of advocacy, as seen with the 1976 documentary “Harlan County, USA.”

The documentary, set in a Kentucky coal mining community, follows a group of miners who strike for better working conditions.

“‘Harlan County, USA’ gave a negative depiction of the coal industry, management of the coal mine and the violence associated with the strike that took place to better the employees’ occupational environment,” Baldwin said.

The film won an Oscar Award for its in-depth — and sometimes dangerous — look at the lives of the workers and their families, the power company and the role mining plays in some Kentucky communities.

But perhaps what filmmakers best know Kentucky for is the Commonwealth’s famed horse racing.

“Kentucky is known for horses and it’s rural beauty,” Baldwin said. Two of the most famous horse racing movies of all time, “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “Secreteriat” (2010) were filmed at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. “That beauty is captured perfectly in these films,” Baldwin said.

In the case of “Seabiscuit” Keeneland was used to portray the Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, Maryland, because the actual Pimlico had been too altered to accurately portray the track during the Great Depression.

For “Secretariat,” a film that chronicles the story of the horse who set the still-undefeated record for the Triple Crown, filmmakers were able to shoot the Kentucky Derby scene at Churchill Downs, the very location Secretariat was able to win at years ago.

Winchester itself made a brief cameo in 1967’s “The Flim Flam Man,” about con artist Mordecai Jones. The movies filmed in several locations in Kentucky, including the Irvine Bridge in Estill County, the Old Crow Distillery near Frankfort, and the train tracks alongside Midway’s Main Street. Several car chase scenes were shot in Winchester, Lawrenceburg and Georgetown.

Kentucky actors

In addition to being the setting and filming location for a variety of engaging movies, Kentucky is also where a number of famous actors and actresses call home.

“There are many famous actors and actresses from Kentucky,” Baldwin said. “Ned Beatty, Johnny Depp, Harry Dean Stanton, Jennifer Lawrence, Rebecca Gayheart, Jim Varney and Josh Hutcherson are just a few.”

According to the Kentucky Department of Travel, the list also includes horror and science fiction director, producer and screenwriter John Carpenter, who grew up in Bowling Green; Actor and director George Clooney, who was born in Lexington and grew up in Augusta; Actress Ashley Judd, who was born in California but raised in Kentucky, and Loretta Lynn, a legendary country music singer-songwriter and the focus of the 1980 movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Clark County can even boast as hometown to a Kentucky-bred actor.

Matt Long, now 37, was born, raised and started his acting career in Winchester performing in local elementary and high school productions.

He moved to New York after college and landed several mainstream roles in film and television.

His filmography includes “The Greatest Adventure of My Life,” in 2001, “Deceit” in 2006,” “Reflections” in 2008, “Homecoming” in 2009 and “Woodshed” in 2015. His more notable roles include the young Johhny Blaze (Nicholas Cage portrayed the older Blaze) in 2007’s “Ghostrider,” and as Tyler Prince alongside actress Amanda Bynes in 2007’s take on the traditional Snow White fairytale, “Sydney White.”

He has also landed recurring roles in notable television series like “Mad Men” and “Private Practice.”

The list of notable Kentucky actors and actresses goes on, including several more actors and actresses who do film, television and even Broadway productions.

Encouraging filmmaking

In addition to historical integrity and a sense of pride, filming in Kentucky also serves to bring jobs to the region, helping to temporarily alleviate some of the economic struggle that some Kentuckians face.

With that in mind, lawmakers in Frankfort offer incentives to bring filmmakers to the bluegrass state for their projects.

“Kentucky does have a nice tax credit initiative to attract out-of-state film crews,” Baldwin said.

Since 2015, those who come to film in Kentucky get a 30 percent tax credit, which jumps to 35 percent if the company uses Kentucky labor.

Recent reports indicate as much as $5 million a month in tax cut incentives are awarded to filmmakers in Kentucky through the program.

The state’s previous program, which was enacted in 2009, awarded a tax credit of 20 percent to production companies.

“This is one of the better state initiative plans since 2015 to dissuade producers from filming in Canada and East Europe due to giant tax breaks,” Baldwin added.

The Kentucky Office of Film and Development was created to encourage the film and entertainment industry to choose locations in the state for filming. The office administers the Kentucky Film and Entertainment Industry Incentive Program and is a resource to producers and filmmakers who have questions about filming in Kentucky.

However, Baldwin said the state could do more to catch the eye of filmmakers, citing a grant offered by Tennessee for those looking to produce movies in that state.

But Kentucky doesn’t just cater to large filmmaking companies. The state has also been host to several smaller, independent projects, many of them spearheaded by state residents.

“Currently, PJ Starks of Owensboro is prepping to begin the third installment of the widely-popular and critically acclaimed ‘Volumes of Blood’ franchise,” Baldwin said.

Actor Lee Vervoort, now famous for his role in AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” is also an independent filmmaker from Hopkinsville, who produced “The Truck” in 2013.

No matter what your genre preference is, settle in, grab some popcorn and maybe a blanket. There’s a movie with Kentucky ties for you.

Fifteen famous Kentucky-made movies

According to Kentucky for Kentucky, an organization dedicated to promoting people, places and products from the commonwealth, the following movies were made in Kentucky.

“The Kentuckian” (1955) features scenes filmed in several Kentucky locations, including Cumberland Falls, Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park and along the Green River.

“Raintree County” (1957) is a Civil War drama, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, that was filmed in Danville. A part of the set for the movie still exists at the Pioneer Playhouse outdoor theater.

“How the West was Won” (1962) was set in California, but portions of the movie were filmed in Paducah and Smithland around the Cumberland and Ohio Rivers. The film also features Civil War battle footage that was repurposed from “Raintree County.”

“Goldfinger” (1964) is an iconic entry in the James Bond franchise. Parts of the movie were shot in Muldraugh, which is encompassed by the Fort Knox army base.

“Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980) tells the story of country music legend Loretta Lynn, who famously grew up in Butcher Hollow. The film was shot in several Kentucky locations including Van Lear, Jenkins and Whitesburg.

“Stripes” (1981) is a military comedy starring Bill Murray and John Candy. It was partially filmed in Clermont on the site of an old Jim Beam Distillery, and Jim Beam allowed the film crew to run a tank through an old warehouse that was no longer in use.

“Rain Man” (1988) is set just north of Kentucky in Cincinnati, but parts of the film were shot in the Commonwealth. St. Anne Convent in Melbourne serves as the Wallbrook Mental Institution, and the funeral scene was filmed at Evergreen Cemetery in Southgate.

“Demolition Man” (1993) is set in the sprawling sci-fi city of San Angeles, but a key scene in the film uses footage of an actual demolition of an old building on the campus of Belknap Hardware and Manufacturing Company in Louisville.

“Fire Down Below” (1997) centers around a Kentucky coal mine and, naturally, was filmed in the eastern Appalachian area of the state. Portions of a chase scene were filmed at Natural Bridge State Park, and cave scenes were filmed at the Great Saltpetre Preserve in Livingston.

“In Country” (1989) is set in the fictional town of Hopewell, Kentucky, and tells the story of a young woman and her Vietnam Veteran uncle (played by Bruce Willis). Much of the movie was filmed in the Western part of the Jackson Purchase area and Paducah, along with some scenes shot in Mayfield.

“The Insider” (1999) tells the true story of a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. It was partially filmed in Louisville.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) saw the Keeneland Racecourse transformed to imitate Maryland’s Pimlico for the film. Several scenes were also shot in Paris.

“Elizabethtown” (2005) is, as the title suggests, set in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. However, most scenes in the movie were filmed in downtown Versailles, with others shot in Louisville’s Brown Hotel, Cave Hill Cemetery and Highland Middle School, in addition to Otter Creek Park in Meade County.

“Secretariat” (2010) allowed crews to relive the famous race horse’s exciting Kentucky Derby Victory at Churchill Downs in Louisville, and the Belmont Stakes race was filmed at Keeneland.

“Tammy” (2014) is a comedy about the chaotic life of a woman named Tammy, who sets out on a road trip with her booze-loving grandmother. While most of the film was shot in North Carolina, it is partially set in Louisville and some scenes were shot in La Grange.