Buildings from film set still draw some visitors

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SPECTRE, Ala. (AP) - Ask people ‘Where is Spectre, Alabama?’ and a few will tell you it’s in Elmore County. Maybe down near Millbrook. Some say it’s an island. Others merely scratch their heads.

But those who know of its existence agree there’s not much there except weeds, snakes and memories.

The Grand Hotel. The furniture store. The mayor’s house. People will smile when they think of them . almost as if they really existed, though they never did except in the imagination of Alabama-born writer Daniel Wallace and Hollywood director Tim Burton.

Spectre was a “town” built as a set for the filming of the movie “Big Fish,” which premiered in December 2003 but had its wide release 10 years ago, in January 2004. With the exception of one scene in Paris, the entire movie was filmed in Alabama, a rarity in a time before the state offered film incentives.

The road and fake trees leading into the town of Spectre, and the buildings, mostly just facades, were never demolished but were left to the elements.

Today, they can be seen by people willing to pay $3 to have the gate opened. The Clardy family owns the property and leaves a contact number at the gate. Virginia Clardy said in a telephone interview that people can call and ask to tour but she doesn’t know why anyone would want to because “there’s not a whole lot left.” A caretaker lives on the property.

Glenn Wills, who travels the state and blogs about crumbling roadside sites on ForgottenAlabama.com and his Forgotten Alabama Facebook page, recently visited Spectre and wrote: “As we rode down the gravel road, I was getting excited. Like I was entering Alabama’s version of Area 51. I could see the rooftops as we drew close and then as we rounded the curve there it was. Time has not been kind to the old buildings but, then again, they’re movie props and not built to code.”

Wills writes that he watched the film again to familiarize himself with Spectre, which had only a small part of the movie. Wills also mentioned some interesting casting tidbits, which I also discuss in my story “7 odd facts about the ‘Big Fish’ cast.”

The home of Spectre’s Mayor Beamen, played by Loudon Wainwright III, was the only one with a completed interior because the characters, including Ewan McGregor and Steve Buscemi, went inside to eat pie.

Wills said he was surprised to see that several of the fake trees built for McGregor’s trek through the Jumping Spider Forest had survived the decade. He said his walk around the peninsula was peaceful.

“I have to admit it was quite fascinating walking around Spectre,” Wills said “And equally fascinating seeing a movie set as they actually are. I was told that Tim Burton and his wife stayed overnight at the mayor’s house. I was also told that rather than disassemble Spectre, he offered the property owner compensation to let it sit as is. I’m glad he did.”

Janice Whorton, city clerk and a lifelong resident of Wetumpka, said not many visitors ask about “Big Fish” these days, although some signs of filming are still visible in fake facades left on downtown buildings. The small town of about 6,500 residents has had the excitement of having three movies filmed there: 1995’s “The Grass Harp” and 2002’s “The Rosa Parks Story,” in addition to “Big Fish.”

Whorton said it’s because the downtown hasn’t changed much since she was young.

“It’s maintained much of its character,” she said. “It looks like it did in the early 1950s. They don’t have to make a lot of changes to it.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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