Exploring the bleak, real world set of The Hunger Games

The first instalment of the blockbuster film series was shot in North Carolina, including around a ghostly, abandoned mill town.

In a clearing surrounded by autumn-tinged trees, a row of near-identical clapboard houses stood before me. Their military alignment and similarity were the only organised aspects about them. Their wood had weathered to a gloomy grey; enormous holes gaped in cement-block foundations. Many had shattered windows. All were abandoned.

Gingerly stepping up to one for a closer peek (I’d been warned that the structures were even less stable than they looked, and that while respectful visitors were tolerated, going inside was forbidden), I saw what must once have been a living room. A couch sagged against a wall of peeling paint. The fireplace, its chimney crumbling, still had logs inside. The only sound was the tinny ping of metal: on a dirt path just outside, a solitary man was splitting rock.

I had found District 12. Location: 60 miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina.

Readers and movie-goers worldwide know District 12 as the home of Katniss Everdeen, the courageous, arrow-flying heroine of The Hunger Games: the brutal, annual event in which children fight to the death in an arena. The third instalment of the film series, which is based on the books by Suzanne Collins, opened in much of the world last November.

When scouts looked for locations for the film’s first instalment, in 2012, they picked this place: Henry River Mill Village. The abandoned, early 20th-century mill town provided the perfect setting for Katniss’ poor home district, and the location was faithful to the book’s description. “District 12 was in a region known as Appalachia,” Collins wrote in the first novel. “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here.”

Remarkably few scenes were shot in a studio or using CGI, and most of the movie features North Carolina locations (a decision that earned the film nearly $14 million in tax credits). Scenes like the “Reaping”, where tributes are selected to go fight in the Games, were shot in the town of Shelby, 20 miles west of Charlotte; the Charlotte Convention Center was used for the scene of Katniss’ chariot ride, when her dress lights on fire; the watershed of the town of Asheville, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, provided the first shot of the arena, when the tributes stand on podiums.

Of the many film locations, though, Henry River Mill Village is one of the most evocative. Particularly in autumn; that’s how the scouts first saw the village. It was November, and the falling leaves and spare trees made the ghost town feel even more desolate.

When they returned the next spring to shoot, the area looked nothing short of lush. So in came the movie magic. The crew laid down a tarp to brown the grass, while one person was tasked with picking leaves off the trees that would appear in close-ups.

As I wandered around the property, I noticed a house hung with a wreath: Katniss’ home before she went to the Games. More interesting, though, was the former general store for the mill workers, marked today with black lettering advertising “Pastries” and “Cakes” on the building’s façade.

Peering through the windows, I could see that the property’s owner was using it as storage. But in the film, the building played the role of the District 12 bakery where Peeta Mellark tossed bread – the gift that spawned a star-crossed romance – to a starving Katniss.

For much of filming, the cast and crew stayed in Asheville, as far from Henry River Mill Village in ambience as you can get. And, thanks to its proximity to the film locations, as well as the breweries, restaurants and shopping that draw visitors from across the country, Asheville is the ideal home base for a Hunger Games trip.

Jennifer Lawrence stayed at the Hotel Indigo. I opted for one of the small city’s many cosy B&Bs: the Carolina Bed & Breakfast. And, like the cast and crew, I took advantage of Asheville’s plentiful drinking and dining options, including a stop at Zambra, a Mediterranean restaurant with tapas and live jazz.

The next morning, I headed 40 miles south to Dupont State Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of North Carolina’s finest natural landscapes, with 10,400 acres of streams, waterfalls and trees, it was – as far as settings go – the star of the first film. I explored the area with Leigh Trapp of the Hunger Games Unofficial Fan Tours, which feature extras like archery lessons and film-appropriate lunches (nightshade berries, anyone?). On my tour, a girl with a Katniss-style braid who’d driven up all the way from Florida with her mother, had chosen the trip as her 13th birthday present.

During filming back in 2011, fans were no less excited. Anticipation was on par with that of the first Harry Potter and Twilight films. Add to that the conspicuousness of a 300-strong cast and crew filming for three weeks in a state forest, and it’s understandable that the movie’s creators were concerned about keeping shooting a secret. For the film, they used the code name of the Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis – particularly appropriate, given Katniss’ handiness with a bow and arrow.

Keeping the movie a secret was one thing. Following the national park’s rules while filming was another. It’s a vehicle-free zone, meaning “not even a golf cart”, Trapp said. So to transport equipment into the park, some 120 crew members lined up along the dirt path we were now following, handing what they needed down the line.

As we walked along a rushing stream, surrounded by trees wreathed in leaves of red and orange and yellow, Trapp pointed out the broad stone bank where Katniss knelt when she was looking for Peeta. Farther on, in front of Triple Falls, we saw the overhang of rock where Peeta hid while he was injured. The camouflage on his face was so well-done that, when the park ranger was walking by before a scene, the actor, Josh Hutcherson, suddenly popped up – and surprised the ranger, who screamed and fell backwards into the water. But there was a surprise for Hutcherson too: the miniature cave turned out to be the residence of a water snake. (It was carefully placed back in its home after being removed during filming).

Another pivotal scene took place at Dupont’s Bridal Veil Falls. It was there that Katniss was approaching the edge of the arena when the trees started exploding. To create the effect, each exploding tree was made with a PVS pipe and propane. While Lawrence had numerous run-throughs to know which path to take, she didn’t realize how loud the explosions would be, she said in an interview. “I was screaming and got lost on my way down and didn't know which trees were going to explode, and then they’d explode and I’d scream,” she said. “It was pathetic.”

The Hunger Games proved to be good for the state forest. After the film’s release, visitors tripled and a new visitor’s centre was built. The future of Henry River Mill Village, however, is uncertain. The entire 72-acre property is currently on the market.

Standing in front of the village’s “for sale" sign, looking over the brightly-coloured hills in the distance, I wondered what would happen to the property. The 25% tax credit on in-state spending that saved the movie so much money has since been capped at $10 million annually for all projects, which could hinder the number of productions filmed in the state.

“May the odds be ever in your favour,” I thought. Indeed, with its aching Appalachian beauty and friendly towns, North Carolina, I hoped, still had good odds.