If you were one of the lucky ones to have caught AMC's The American West when it premiered this past Saturday, you might have noticed the authentic "wild west" settings featured in the mini-series. Filmed in West Virginia in 2015, The American West is an eight-part mini-series produced by Robert Redford and Laura Michalchyshyn (through their company Sundance Productions) and Stephen David (through his company Stephen David Entertainment).
Most Western productions are filmed in the American West, a tradition started by John Ford (think Stagecoach) - and has continued to this day (The Lone Ranger). It is, therefore, an anomaly that the mini-series The American West ended up filming in West Virginia. The Mountain State has provided the flatlands, wide-open plains, and historic forts of the Old West needed for the AMC series.
Mostly shot in West Virginia's Berkeley County, Jefferson County, and Prickett’s Fort State Park in Marion County, The American West gives us "unprecedented access to the wilderness, frontier lawlessness, and bloodshed of the 40 years between the end of the American Civil War and after the turn of the 20th Century, when the west was won." The show features numerous legendary figures of the West including Jesse Jame, Crazy Horse, Wyatt Earp, and Buffalo Bill. There are also exclusive interviews with Robert Redford, James Caan, Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Kiefer Sutherland, Mark Harmon, Ed Harris and more.
For the AMC mini-series, West Virginia has transformed itself into the world-famous landscapes of the American West. “We can’t double for a desert or a beach with an ocean. But for the most part you can turn basically anything into anything else depending on how you shoot it,” said Pam Haynes, director of the West Virginia Film Office. “You’ll be duly impressed [with] how they took multiple West Virginia locations and turned them into the West.”
This is not the first time Stephen David Entertainment has used West Virginia as a film location. Since 2012, the production company has shot five other miniseries in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. These series include CMT's NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed, The History Channel's The Men Who Built America (nominated for five Emmy Awards and won two for Outstanding Documentary and Outstanding Cinematography) and The World Wars (nominated for three Emmys). National Geographic's American Genius, and AMC's The Making of the Mob: New York.
With the help of experienced location scouts and a soundstage in Martinsburg, West Virginia, these productions were able to recreate all the settings needed for filming. For The American West, the scene where Sitting Bull stands against a backdrop of white teepees was filmed at the Essroc cement plant in Martinsburg.
Scenes with the legendary outlaw Jesse James were filmed at the Peacemaker National Training Center in Gerrardstown, West Virginia. This was not the first time the Peacemaker Center's land was used as a film location. Numerous productions have shot here before. “It’s 1,000 acres of land that — depending on how you shoot it — can be a number of things," said Haynes. "If you watch The World Wars, you would have seen trenches actually dug into the land and that doubled for a battlefield. It was amazing to see.”
For AMC's The American West, the Peacemaker Center's land stood in for the territories of Missouri, Montana, the Dakotas and Texas.
Even though West Virginia's nickname is "The Mountain State," there is no shortage of rolling landscapes. “The mountain ranges in Jefferson and Berkeley counties — there’s like 25 miles between them. So you have a lot of gentle rolling land. It can double for a lot of things without seeing the mountains,” shared the film office director. For The World Wars, West Virginia stood in for Japan and Germany. West Virginia was also where J. J. Abrams' Super 8 was filmed.
The West Virginia Film Office has been active in bringing filmmakers to the state. To accommodate the growing needs of productions, the film office has hosted numerous training programs for various skill sets needed in the film industry. “Since May 2013, we have trained nearly 300 people in various skills sets, ranging from grip and gaffers, to costume set dressers, to production office coordinators and production assistants, to location scouts,” Haynes said.
During the last few productions shot in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle, Stephen David had hired more than 100 West Virginia crew. “I think that’s a testament to the skill sets they were learning, and they were good workers," said Haynes. "These workers are now being hired on other productions coming into the state.”
West Virginia's competitive film tax credit program plays an important part in attracting the film industry to shoot locally. That in turn has helped boosted the state's economy. “Needless to say, millions and millions of dollars have been spent through all of the productions that have participated in our program,” Haynes said. “For instance, I can at least say since its inception nearly $50 million has been spent in direct spending on local wages, various transport rentals, lodging, food, lumber purchases to builds sets, gas and fuel ... office space rental, warehouse space rental and extended leases. The list is long as to the types of spending that occur when these types of productions come into the state.”
Laura Gassler, executive director of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau, agrees on the strong economic impact of having productions filmed in the area. “It has been significant,” she said. “For the six productions [during] the three years they were here filming, there have been over 10,000 hotel night stays."
No matter how specific the specs are for film locations, Gassler has no doubt they will find it here in West Virginia. For example, for The American West, the production wanted "a Prairie-style house facing a mountain that the horses could ride down." As particular as that requirement was, they found the right farmhouse. “After everything we had done with their previous shows, we knew they could make any location work,” said Gassler.
West Virginia's Prickett’s Fort was transformed into the original Prickett’s Fort of 1774, which was a refuge from Native American war parties. The fort was used for scenes in The American West that feature Crazy Horse and the Oglala Lakota Native American war leader.
“Prickett’s Fort is a perfect place to bring the 18th Century to life on screen, because that's what it does every day," said Leisha Elliott, executive director of the Marion County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It’s like stepping back into the wild frontier. Marion County is honored to be represented in this miniseries, and we welcome more production to highlight the county’s great attributes.”