Area Roads in the Movies
The 1994 Movie Nell starring Jodie Foster and Liam Neeson was filmed in the Fontana and Robbinsville area. Several scenes were shot on the Cherohala Skyway before it was officially opened three years later. Many locals had bit parts.
But perhaps the most famous film shot on the Dragon was the cult classic Two Lane Blacktop in 1971. This low-budget “road film” starred James Taylor (in his only movie roll), Warren Oats (the only seasoned actor), Laurie Bird (age 17 at beginning of filming) and Dennis Wilson (Beach Boys drummer). The story or actually non-story is about a cross country trip which turns into a challenge between two men to race to Washington, DC. After the challenge there is little resemblance to a race.
Taylor is The Driver, Oates is G.T.O., Bird is The Girl and Wilson is The Mechanic. Only once in the entire movie is someone’s name actually mentioned. Reviewers generally feel like me, unable to decide if the movie is a classic or trash. There is little acting, a lot of long tedious facial expressions and very little action. What is unique is the movie was shot in sequence as the cast and crew travel from California to North Carolina over a six week period. The cast did not get any pages of script until the night before each day’s shoot. The five cars (three ’55 Chevys, two ’70 G.T.O.s) were carried on auto transports from site to site.
To me the beauty of the film is the capturing of some of the now long gone places on America’s back roads. The film followed old Route 66 for a while. Other locations were Needles CA, Kingman AZ, Flagstaff AZ, Santa Fe NM, Tucumcari NM, Boswell OK, Memphis TN, Deals Gap NC and Athens TN. The scenes shot on the Dragon itself included the ’55 Chevy passing a truck, crossing the single lane bridge across Calderwood Lake at the Cheoah Dam, doing a “brodie” on one of the gravel pull-offs along Chilhowie Lake and parked in the Crafton’s Cafe parking lot. There are several motorcycles that appear in the background in a scene shot along the Little Tennessee River.
I wonder how the planning brought this movie project to the Tail of the Dragon. At the time the road was not well known and was little more that a desolate mountain crossing frequented by hunters, fishermen and lost tourists. Supposedly the Director Monte Hellman did the site scouting in early 1970.
The car featured in the film was a 1955 Chevrolet that had been customized with a fiberglass body and a 454 cubic inch engine. There were actually 3 cars that looked identical. Two were stunt cars for racing in the drag scenes and one was rigged for interior filming with metal outriggers mounted on the side for the camera and camera man. The interior car had a smaller engine which was much quieter to allow the actors voices to be recorded. The two stunt cars were also in the movie American Graffiti with one being used in a crash scene and later destroyed. The camera car has been tracked-down in Canada and completely restored to its original condition complete with sliding Plexiglas windows. The second stunt car was customized and is today a show car.
In 2005 Walt Bailey, the new owner of the restored ’55 Chevy, took the car on a trip stopping at the original locations where the movie was shot. In May of that year he visited Deals Gap and Fugitive Bridge. SEE PHOTO BELOW SEE HIS WEBSITE
The character G.T.O. (Oates) drove a yellow 1970 Pontiac G.T.O. There were two matching cars used in the movie. G.T.O. is best described as a middle-aged braggart, loser, wonderer who is searching for unattainable satisfaction.
The Driver, G.T.O. and The Mechanic all try to make The Girl, but only The Mechanic succeeds. At the end of the movie The Girl leaves all three for a young motorcyclist she sees at the Crafton Cafe at Deals Gap. There is no conversation, she just drops here duffel bag on the ground and gets on the cycle with the stranger and they head north on the Dragon.
The race to D.C. actually just disappears and is not discussed or finished.
The original ending was supposed to be G.T.O. driving away on a country road in Tennessee. A new ending was shot with The Driver at a Tennessee drag strip racing an El Camino. You see the back of The Driver as he revs the engine, pops the clutch and heads down the drag strip. The scene goes into slow motion and finally stops. Burn holes then appear in the film just like used to happen when a projector malfunctioned and the heat of the bulb burned the stopped film.
Other Two Lane Black Top Details:
The movie was hailed by Esquire Magazine as the Movie of the Year in its April 1971 issue. But the head of Universal, the studio that made it, hated the movie and refused to promote it.
Only one of the major actors, James Taylor, was still alive by 1984. Laurie Bird, living with Art Garfunkel, committed suicide in 1979 at age 25. Warren Oates died of a heart attack in 1982. Dennis Wilson drowned in Marina Del Rey while swimming drunk in 1983.
James Taylor wrote several songs during the 6-week filming. As of 2007 he still had not seen the completed movie.
In 2009 James Taylor was reunited with the ’55 Chevy that had been restored. He commented that “the car looked just like it did the last time he saw it.”
G.T.O.: Well, here we are on the road.
The Driver: Yup, that’s where we are all right.
G.T.O.: Those satisfactions are permanent.
G.T.O.: Performance and image, that’s what it’s all about.
The Mechanic: You’d have yourself a real street-sweeper here if you put a little work into it.
G.T.O.: I go fast enough.
The Driver: You can never go fast enough.
G.T.O.: If I’m not grounded pretty soon, I’m gonna go into orbit.
The Girl: Say, which way we going?
The Mechanic: East.
The Girl: That’s cool. I never been East.
G.T.O.: [after being approached sexually by a male hitchhiker] I’m not into that!
Oklahoma Hitchhiker: I just thought it might relax you while you drive.
G.T.O.: This is competition, man. I’ve got no time.
The Girl: [looking at some cassette tapes] These are groovy records.
G.T.O.: Play one.
G.T.O.: If I wanted to bother, I could suck you right up my tail pipe.
The Driver: Sure you could.
The Driver: I don’t believe I’ve seen you. ‘Course there’s lots o’ cars on the road like yours, they all get to lookin’ the same. They perform about the same, too…
Hot Rod Driver: How about fifty?
The Driver: Make it three yards, motherf**ker, and we’ll have us an automobile race.
The Girl: You guys aren’t like the Zodiac killers or anything, right?
The Mechanic: Nope. Just passin’ through.
G.T.O.: Everything fell apart on me. My job, my family, everything. I had this job as a television producer and I walked into the office and I…
The Driver: I don’t wanna hear about it.
G.T.O.: What do you mean, you don’t wanna hear about it?
The Driver: It’s not my problem.
G.T.O.: I don’t like being crowded by a couple of punk road hogs clear across two states, I don’t.
The Driver: I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you. Course there’s lots of cars on the road like yours. They all get to look the same. They perform about the same.