A few years back, the location scouts for Twentieth Century Fox selected a quiet beach on Jekyll Island, Georgia as a location for the production ofX-Men: First Class. Its unique topographical characteristics made it ideal — perfect size and slope, with a gorgeous dune area, natural beach grasses, and a prairie with cabbage palms and live oak trees behind. The distance from the road to the ocean was short, making it very attractive to the location manager and transportation team. They got permission to film there and soon, trailers and crew began pouring onto the island.
Then all hell broke loose with the local community.
“Considering that an individual could be issued a citation and fined for driving a small car on the beach or pulling a handful of sea oats from the dunes, it’s astounding that… (local authorities) would allow this activity to proceed,” said David Kyler, the Executive Director of the Center for a Sustainable Coast in an OpEd piece for the Atlanta Constitution in the fall of 2010.
The script called for crashed aircraft on the beach amid hundreds of giant, non-native palm trees, a vast submarine beached up on the shore and fires burning all around. That’s just what the camera saw — behind the scenes, there would be a fleet of trucks, trailers, cranes, and earth movers, driving on the beach and parking on the prairie behind the set. That’s standard gear for a big movie, but not for a little beach. Since it was home to rare shorebirds and a nesting area for threatened loggerhead sea want to see it all torn up.
“If you decide you’re going to nuke a place, you have to have a plan for what you’re going to do afterward,” said Stuart Bryan of Environmental Services in Savannah. It was up to Bryan and his colleagues to put it back together again.
Location manager Maida Morgan was the first responder on the debate. “The hardest part was getting the local NGOs and the Jekyll Island Authority to trust us,” she said, “and we wanted to convince them that we were worthy of their support — with everything from traffic engineering to dune sculpting.”
The locals were familiar with the X-Men franchise, and knew too well that an action movie could be a fairly high-impact visitor to a delicate ecosystem. Morgan had also worked on several big-budget action features up and down the coast of Georgia and Florida —Armageddon and Glory among them — and she had some experience working with local naturalists to protect threatened habitat and wildlife. “We made dozens of presentations to local residents, improving the plan each time. It took time, but I think they were pleased in the end.
“I give a lot of credit to Fox,” continued Morgan. “Their head of sustainability, Lisa Day, was involved in the details of this restoration plan from a very early stage. She and the head of production, Mike Hendrickson, said they really wanted to ‘get this right.’
“Jekyll’s a very special place, one of my favorite islands along the Georgia Coast. It’s a wild island, and when I go back there and hike along the beach, I don’t want to hide my face! I want to know we left it better than it was when we came.”
Mike Demell and his team from Environmental Services were on the case from the beginning — right down to testing the quality of the sand which the production brought in to re-sculpt the beach. “We brought in 10,000 cubic yards of sand — tested for grain, size, color, suitable for what that natural beach would be,” said Demell.
They also diapered all the hazardous connections — hydraulic and fuel lines — so there were no oil spills anywhere, not even a drop.
“We went out and bought plants in local Georgia and Florida nurseries,” recalled Bryan, “mostly sea oats, salt meadow cord grass, bitter panicum and muhly grass and dozens more species of native grasses. We replanted more than 30,000 plants! To ensure their growth during a drought, we even installed a sprinkler irrigation system. We tilled the beach so the sand would not be too compacted for sea turtles to nest.”
Some challenges were more difficult. “Part of the set was Styrofoam. When they hauled it off, there were these little balls of Styrofoam all over the beach. Also, plastic zip ties and bits of metal. It was like archeology work — the workers were putting the sand through a screen to extract all foreign debris — but we got it all.” The end result: a completely clean site.
“It was a challenging project, but Fox really met that challenge,” observed Demell. “They found the funds and they made it work.” He mentioned he’s working on another big studio production coming to the Georgia coast this fall, and expressed concern that their budget allocates only a small fraction of what Fox allotted to their restoration.
Says Morgan: “This was unusual for a studio to make that commitment on the front end, knowing what it would cost on the back end. It was very classy!”
This fall, there were hundreds of loggerhead sea turtle nests on Jekyll Island, and five of them were right there, in the footprint of the X-Men: First Class set where the planes crashed and the fires burned. The sandwich terns and black-bellied plovers were also back in force, and went about their business like no X-Men ever did battle there.
Local naturalists are happy it turned out so well, and so is the production team. “The Georgia coast is beautiful, it’s God’s country,” effused Morgan, “and if the natural beauty of this stretch of it is now restored, then… well, yay!”