Lights, Camera, Lowcountry: Beaufort’s Rich Film History
The slow, languid hum of life in the Lowcountry has called to filmmakers for generations. It’s easy to glance over the water or wander the historic streets of Beaufort with grand, cinematic ideas in mind. Before Beaufort was first immortalized on celluloid, it was an untapped center of beauty, culture and sweeping Lowcountry landscapes. The turning point for filmmaking in Beaufort was The Great Santini, adapted in 1979 from Pat Conroy’s semiautobiographical novel.
We spoke to Bill Reynolds of Beaufort Tours, whose company specializes in film-centric tours of Beaufort. His expertise about the history of film in Beaufort is unmatched and he graciously shared some insight about decades of movie magic.
“Based on everything I’ve read, the real impetus for all of the great movies filmed in Beaufort centers around Pat Conroy,” said Reynolds. “As his father, Donald Conroy a.k.a. ‘The Great Santini,’ moved the family to Beaufort when Pat was a teen, once Pat wrote The Great Santini novel and it was made into the movie by the same name, it was only natural to film the movie in Beaufort.”
Later classics in the local canon like The Big Chill were likely inspired by Beaufort’s debut in The Great Santini. In fact, the house used to film the 1983 grown-up drama was the same as that used on the set of Santini. From there, the filmmakers lined up to shoot their movies in our dignified, unassuming corner of the coast. Barbra Streisand, Robert Zemeckis and Lawrence Kasdan chose our city to film their masterpieces.
“The earliest Beaufort films started the chain of great movies like Forrest Gump and The Prince of Tides to be filmed here,” said Reynolds. “Live oak trees, Spanish Moss, antebellum houses and friendly local people form the recipe for iconic films.”
As movie stars like Robert Duvall, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock (Forces of Nature) descended on Beaufort to do their creative work, they found a welcoming community that affords both privacy and hospitality. Many locals have stood in as extras! One of Beaufort’s great assets is its chameleon-like ability to transform into other settings, from the Midwest to Southeast Asia. When Forrest Gump recreated the Mississippi River on Woods Memorial Bridge, locals were a bit perplexed.
“Beaufort has always welcomed film crews and movie stars,” said Reynolds. “During the filming of Forrest Gump, it is said that many visitors to Beaufort were confused by the ‘Welcome to Mississippi’ signs placed on the Woods Bridge downtown.”
Nevertheless, Tom Hanks made time to mingle with locals and even crashed a wedding at Carteret Street United Methodist Church. Witnesses remember that he wished the newlyweds well and posed for photos. And all the shrimp from the filming of the 1995 Best Picture winner? That came from Gay Fish Company on St. Helena Island.
“When Mr. Gay saw the finished film, he said that based on the color of the shrimp that Forrest and Bubba were catching, those shrimp had not been kept on ice and must have smelled to high heaven because by the time they used them in the film, they were days old,” recalled Reynolds.
The USC Beaufort Performing Arts Center became the “Gump Medical Center” while the Hunting Island lagoon served as a stand-in for Vietnam War scenes. Over the decades, Beaufort natives have had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with icons of stage and screen, and some of cinema’s most memorable scenes. Locals are flush with recollections about Nick Nolte, William Hurt and Kevin Kline.
Though South Carolina rolled back some financial incentives for filmmakers around 2008, there are still plenty of reasons the Lowcountry beckons to filmmakers in Hollywood. With the Beaufort International Film Festival just around the corner, our city has an indelible cinematic legacy to be proud of. We can’t wait to sponsor the Festival next week and entertain honored guests.
So, have we piqued your interest? For more fascinating bits of film history, schedule a Beaufort Film Touron your next visit. Our concierge can help arrange your deep dive into Beaufort’s cinematic backstory.