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Some of the earliest filmmakers in West Virginia were amateurs. Jerry Galyean, Sam Moore, and ‘‘Gus’’ Capito of Charleston made interesting home movies. Otis Rymer Snodgrass made a travelogue along U.S. Route 60, West Virginia the State Beautiful (1929). The Myers brothers of Barbour County filmed One Room Schoolhouses about 1935. There was a series of commercial films made around the state called See Yourself in the Movies including Blundon Wills’s Charleston, the Beautiful on the Kanawha (1932).

Several television stations produced documentary features. Public television was especially active after its inception in the 1960s. Among its products was Even the Heavens Weep, a 1983 Mine Wars documentary produced at WPBY by Beth Nogay. WNPB in Morgantown attracted a talented group of filmmakers. Its Vandalia Sampler series featured crafts and craftspeople. The Different Drummer series looked at unusual West Virginians and included films such as Dancing Outlaw (1991), Point Man for God (1987), and Hammer on the Slammer (1987), all by Jacob Young. The Mountaineer (1995) by John Nakashima focused on Appalachian stereotypes. Mark Samels’s Forks of Cheat (1989) explored the Cheat River region. WNPB also made short fictional films based on screenplays by native writers.

West Virginia: A Film History was an especially ambitious production. A collaboration of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, the West Virginia Humanities Council, and West Virginia public television, the six-and-a-half hour documentary was directed by Mark Samels. The film was first broadcast on West Virginia public television in February 1995 and later broadcast nationally.

Robert Gates of Charleston, an independent filmmaker, produced a strong anti-strip-mining film called In Memory of the Land and People (1978). Gates also collaborated with Bob Webb to produce a 90-minute documentary about Kanawha County cello maker Harold Hayslett (1996).

Among the state’s independent feature filmmakers, Daniel Boyd, a professor at West Virginia State University, has been the most prolific. Boyd has made three feature-length dramatic films— Chillers (1988), Space Preachers (1990), and Paradise Park (1992)—using West Virginia locations and talent from within the state. He established the Paradise Film Institute to provide on-the-job training for would-be filmmakers and developed exchange programs with foreign schools.

Diana Sole of Motion Masters has produced such award-winning films as A Principled Man (2000) about civil rights leader Leon Sullivan. Motion Masters later undertook a film biography of Senator Robert C. Byrd, titled Soul of the Senate, in collaboration with the West Virginia Humanities Council. Cambridge Educational, founded by Ty Gardner in the late 1970s, developed an impressive array of educational films produced by Charlotte Angel and Greg Harpold. Cambridge was later sold to Prime Media and relocated out of state.

Other filmmakers include Bob Campbell of Elkins; Bill Drennen of Shepherdstown; Bill Hogan, Gary Simmons, and Larry Burdette of Charleston; Tom Nicholson, Ross Watne, and Chip Hitchcock of Morgantown; and Dan Richardson of Parkersburg.

Writer and director Lawrence Kasdan grew up mostly in Morgantown. His credits include The Big Chill, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and other major hits,

Noted filmmakers of an earlier generation include Clarksburg native Leonard MacTaggert ‘‘Pare’’ Lorentz and Wheeling cinematographer Ellis Dungan. Known as ‘‘FDR’s filmmaker,’’ Lorentz conceived, edited, and published The Roosevelt Year, 1933, a review of FDR’s first year in the White House. Lorentz later created two great New Deal documentaries, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. Dungan, an Ohio native who settled in Wheeling in 1958, shot films for Hollywood producer Duke Goldstone, and Ellis Dungan Productions later made many films for the state and region, including For Liberty and Union (1977), a film about the creation of West Virginia.

Numerous Hollywood and independent films have been made in West Virginia since the 1920s, the first of which is believed to be The Key to Power (1920). The movie was co-written by Caroline Gentry (1870-1939) who was born in Kanawha County. She returned to West Virginia to help make the movie, which was filmed in Charleston and Logan. In 1925, Stage Struck starring Gloria Swanson was filmed in New Martinsville. In 1955, Night of the Hunter was partly filmed along the Ohio River near Moundsville. The movie was based on the suspense novel by Moundsville author Davis Grubb and starred actor Robert Mitchum. In 1971, James Stewart starred in his last Hollywood movie, Fools’ Parade, filmed entirely in Moundsville and also based on a Grubb novel.

Francis Ford Coppola filmed one scene for The Rain People (1969) at a Grafton drive-in movie theater. Clyde Ware, who wrote for the TV series Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Bonanza, returned to his native state to film two features: No Drums, No Bugles (1971), filmed in Tyler and Doddridge counties, and When the Line Goes Through (1973), filmed in West Union. Both movies starred Martin Sheen.

In 1978, parts of The Deer Hunter were filmed in the Northern Panhandle. Reckless (1980) was filmed primarily in Weirton. Pudd’nhead Wilson, based on Mark Twain’s novel, was filmed in Harpers Ferry in 1984. Martinsburg was a location for Sweet Dreams (1985), a film biography of Patsy Cline who grew up in nearby Winchester, Virginia. In 1987, John Sayles directed Matewan in Thurmond, Fayette County, which doubled for the actual Mingo County town of Matewan.

In 1992, L. A. Puopolo directed Gillian Anderson in The Turning, one scene of which was filmed in Bramwell. Scenes for Sommersby (1992), which starred Judie Foster and Richard Gere, were filmed at Snowshoe. Much of Gods and Generals, a Civil War movie that included a cameo appearance by Senator Byrd, was filmed in the Eastern Panhandle in 2002. Scenes for Win a Date with Tad Hamilton (2004), a story set in Fraziers Bottom, Putnam County, were shot in Fayetteville. Super Size Me (2004) was the work of Beckley native Morgan Spurlock, who filmed some of the scenes in Beckley. The documentary film, which followed Spurlock as he consumed nothing but food from MacDonald’s for a month, was nominated for an Oscar.

Many of the scenes for We Are Marshall (2006) were filmed at various sites in Huntington, and area residents were hired to serve as extras. The official movie premiere was held at the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center with the director McG and the movie’s stars in attendance. In 2006, Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh made his movie Bubble in the Parkersburg area. The independent film used non-professional actors recruited from the area, including the lead actor who was discovered while working in a Parkersburg KFC restaurant. The movie made headlines when it was released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD and on cable television.

In 2010, director J.J. Abrams chose the Weirton area as the site for his movie Super 8, which was produced by Steven Spielberg. Filmmakers shot at nearly 25 locations in Weirton and other locations in Brooke County. Numerous West Virginia residents were hired to work on the crew and serve as extras.

Other movies have West Virginia connnections but were not filmed here. The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which stars Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, a central character and a native of West Virginia, was filmed around Pittsburgh. One scene in the film takes place on the Elk River in Clay County though it was not filmed there. October Sky, about novelist Homer Hickam’s native McDowell County but filmed outside the state, was released in 1999. In 2001, The Mothman Prophecies, featuring the legendary Point Pleasant Mothman, was filmed in Pennsylvania.

The West Virginia Film Office, which is part of the Department of Commerce, works to encourage film and television production. West Virginia offers a 31 percent tax credit to eligible film projects and provides special services, including one called “River on Demand.” During November, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer will modulate the flow of the Gauley River to accomodate film productions.

Established in 1982, the West Virginia Filmmakers Guild promotes the work of filmmakers from the Mountain State. The organization names the West Virginia Filmmaker of the Year at the West Virginia Film Festival held every fall in Sutton. Several other film festivals also take place each year, including the American Conservation Film Festival in Shepherdstown, the Appalachian Film Festival in Huntington, and the West Virginia International Film Festival in Charleston.


e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on “Chillers”


This Article was written by Bill Drennen and Stephen Lee Fesenmaier

Last Revised on March 21, 2016


Boyd, Danny; Carenbauer, Beth; Dungan, Ellis; Fesenmaier, Steve; Gates, Bob; Nakashima, John. Telephone conversations with author Bill Drennen. 1999-2001.

Cite This Article

Drennen, Bill and Stephen Lee Fesenmaier "Filmmaking." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 21 March 2016. Web. 23 March 2018.


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