- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Aliens will go to “war” today in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley — but only in movie theaters.

One of the summer’s most-anticipated films “War of the Worlds” opens today, with actor Tom Cruise fleeing from rampaging extraterrestrials.

He’s not alone. Hundreds of Virginians ran with him as extras in the film, which was shot in part in Lexington and Staunton.

But what might irk Virginia moviegoers is that the Old Dominion, the heart of the Confederacy, is used as a stunt double for New Jersey.

Director Steven Spielberg set the film in a small, nondescript Northeastern town that is destroyed by aliens. The hero dons a Yankees cap, and residents learn of an alien attack farther north in Boston.

“New Jersey got the majority of the film,” said Mary Nelson of the Virginia Tourism Corp. (VTC) Film Office. “We’re thrilled to just get a few days.”

Early viewers of the film said that little of Virginia’s landscape stands out, but natives recognize their hometowns as panicked survivors run through the historic, facade-lined streets of Staunton.

“We’re not a bragging town,” said state Delegate Chris B. Saxman, Staunton Republican. “But we know what we have, and we’re very proud of it.”

“War of the Worlds” was not the first film the Cruise-Spielberg team shot in Virginia; they also filmed scenes for “Minority Report” in Gloucester County.

“Both of these gentlemen were great to have in town,” Miss Nelson said.

What’s more, actress Katie Holmes’ fiance even became a philanthropist during his “War” visit. Mr. Cruise created a stir in Lexington last fall when he donated $5,000 in cash to help a girl who was injured seriously in a go-cart accident.

He stuffed the donation jar with $100 bills while visiting the local Dairy Queen, delighting its young workers.

“He was just a regular guy,” said Gina Noel, an assistant manager at the ice cream shop who met Mr. Cruise during his visit. “We’re getting used to celebrities.”

The commonwealth is no stranger to production crews — moviemakers get a tax exemption for shooting in Virginia, and the landscape is rich with historic significance.

Richard Gere and the crew of “Somersby” hung out in Lexington while filming the Civil War tear-jerker in 1993.

“The New World,” starring Colin Farrell and loosely based on the Jamestown settlers of 1607, will premiere at theaters nationwide in the fall.

“It’s going to be huge for us,” Miss Nelson said, noting that the state has planned a major celebration for 2007 to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. She said filmmakers choose Virginia because of its varied vista of mountains, waterways, historic towns and battlefields within close proximity of each other.

Other movies shot in Virginia over the years include “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “What About Bob?,” “Dirty Dancing,” “Deep Impact,” “Hannibal” and “Hearts in Atlantis.”

The state is likely to land a Tom Hanks-HBO miniseries about John Adams, but negotiations are ongoing, Miss Nelson said.

Virginia’s movie industry has made nearly $200 million for the state, according to the VTC Film Office.

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