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Hollywood Nights in the Outer Banks

Iconic scenes from movies like “Nights in Rodanthe” and Natalie Wood’s “Brainstorm,” the legacy of the Wright brothers’ taking flight and one of the best beaches in America are just some of the scenes you’ll find in the Outer Banks this summer. 

by Kathleen Walls

You could not ask for a more colorful setting for a movie than the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Two big name movies celebrating anniversaries this year have been filmed in part there: “Brainstorm” and “Nights in Rodanthe.” “Nights in Rodanthe,” released in 2008 and starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere, showcases the beauty of the islands, as it tells a moving love story. 1983’s “Brainstorm” has scenes set at the Wright Brothers Museum at Kitty Hawk and is also notable as Natalie Wood’s final film.

“Brainstorm’s’ theme has echoes of the Wright brothers’ invention. Both the Wright brothers, in real life; Lillian, played by Louise Fletcher; and Mike, played by Christopher Walken; looked at the bright side for their new inventions, each of which had the potential to change life forever. When the Wright brothers tried to place man among the stars with their first airplane, they may have envisioned people thronging airports to fly to distant places for business or vacation. Did they have any concept that their invention would one day be used to drop bombs on sleeping people in remote villages around the world?

In “Brainstorm,” Lillian Reynolds and Mike Brace devise a machine that lets one brain transfer a total sensory experience to another. Lillian and Mike see it as a way handicapped people can climb mountains or ride a surfboard on an ocean wave while sitting in their wheelchair. Ironically, though “Brainstorm” was made in 1983, what was then science fiction is being reinvented in real life with today’s virtual travel. Karen Brace, Mike’s estranged wife, played by Natalie Wood, has to work with him to market the invention.

Money man, Alex Terson, the lab’s CEO played by Cliff Roberson, and the Pentagon brass see a different, darker use for it in warfare. It’s a perfect instrument for mental torture and brainwashing far surpassing anything currently used.

When Lillian has a heart attack in the lab and realizes she is dying, she tapes the experience. After the funeral, Mike sees her tape as a final gift to him and tries to play it. The sensation of a heart attack almost kills him so he modifies the tape to get just the memories. Unknown to him, military personnel are monitoring the tape and stop him from seeing it. When he complains to Alex, both he and Karen are fired. They devise a plan to not only let Mike access the tape but also destroy the lab and keep the invention from being misused. The last scene is at a pay phone outside the Wright Brother’s Memorial where Mike is experiencing Lillian’s tape. He sees terrifying and then joyous visions of an afterlife. Karen rushes to the scene and, believing Mike dead, pleads with him to live.

There is another dark parallel to real life in “Brainstorm.” In the movie, Mike is in a failing marriage to Karen. In an early scene, Mike shows Karen his real feelings for her by using the new brainstorming invention, and salvages the relationship.

In real life, this was Natalie Wood’s last movie. She took a few days off from making the movie in 1981 and went on a cruise on her husband, Robert Wagner’s, yacht in California. Her costar, Christopher Walken, joined the couple even though rumors were rampant that he and Wood were engaging in some lovemaking scenes outside the very convincing ones in “Brainstorm.” Witnesses saw strain between Wagner and Wood that last night. Unlike Mike in the movie, no one rushes to save Natalie Wood. The exact means of Wood’s death is still being debated; murder at the hands of a jealous husband, lover or tragic accident? Had she not died so tragically, would real life have mirrored the movie? Would she and Wagner have reconciled and lived happily ever after? That’s another question that will never be answered.

Director Douglas Trumbull was able to finish the film as Wood only had two minor scenes left to shoot. Her death affected the entire cast and spooked MGM from finishing the movie. Insurance company Lloyd’s of London put up the cash for Trumbull to complete filming, but he was so traumatized that he never directed a Hollywood film again.

The Wright Brothers Memorial has many more answers about the inventors of airplanes. The visitor’s center where Mike completed his phone call reliving Lillian’s death and aftermath is currently closed and expected to reopen in late summer or early fall. The rest of the memorial is a wonderful tribute to the Wright Brothers.

The Wright Brothers Monument soars high over Kill Devil Hills. It was dedicated on November 14, 1932, and was one of the rare monuments dedicated to a living person. Orville Wright was present at the dedication.

Stepping into the reconstructed camp buildings where Wilber and Orville lived and worked on building their plane feels like a step into history. The boulder that marks the spot where the first flight launched and the life-sized replica of the plane and people at that flight make it so real.

“Nights in Rodanthe” showcases the natural beauty of the Outer Banks, the beaches and the charming town of Rodanthe. Its story also revolves about an unhappy marriage and untimely death. Adrienne Willis, played by Diane Lane, is considering taking back a cheating husband for the sake of her children. She offers to tend the lone guest at her friend’s inn in Rodanthe for a few nights.

The guest, Dr. Paul Flanner, played by Richard Gere, has family and legal problems of his own. He and his son have been estranged for over a year because of a death that occurred during one of Paul’s last operations. The dead patient’s husband is suing Paul. The husband has asked to speak with him, which is what brings Paul to Rodanthe.

In the meantime, nature is brewing up some problems of its own. A hurricane is threatening the islands of the Outer Banks. The storm brings Adrienne and Paul together romantically. Paul comes to a greater understanding about the loss of his patient and what it meant to her husband and son, both local watermen. Paul and Adrienne reassess their lives and decide to get back together in a year after Paul had spent some time re-establishing his relationship with his son, who is volunteering in South America.

After the year ends, Adrienne is awaiting Paul’s return and instead is met by his son with sad news. The son, Mark, tells Adrienne that his father was killed in a mudslide trying to salvage medicine from their clinic in the jungle. Adrienne is devastated. The tragedy brings her and her teenage daughter, Amanda, closer. Amanda had held her mother responsible for the divorce but now realizes the truth.

The scenery alone in this film will make you want to visit the Outer Banks. The inn used in the film is still there. It’s visible from the beach but is now a private residence for sale. In real life, it is easy to see why it would be a popular inn. There are so many historic sites and attractions nearby. Get there in style by using Limo Find.

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe was originally begun in 1874. It was an early version of the Coast Guard. The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Museum is one of the most complete stations left in the country. They perform life saving drills regularly for visitors and have an actual Life Saving Boat on display. The museum with the stories of the heroic actions of the men who manned the station shows Rodanthe’s people as a special breed used to fighting the sea and its storms.

When you continue down NC Highway 12, part of which is the Outer Banks Scenic Byway shown in “Nights in Rodanthe,” you pass through Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. With the ocean on one side and the sound on the other, this is a wonderful spot for birding. There’s a museum and a nice hiking trail on Pea Island Reserve with telescopes for bird-watching.

Drive a little farther to reach Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, one of five Outer Banks lighthouses. It was built in 1870 and, at 210 feet, is the world’s tallest brick lighthouse. It’s open for climbing if you can handle the 257 steps to the light. The museum in the Keepers House tells the history of the lighthouse and how it was moved inland to protect from sea erosion. Take time to visit Lighthouse Beach, rated the sixth-best beach in America in 2018 by Dr. Beach.


In the movie, local folks from Rodanthe are portrayed in a celebration scene after the passing of the hurricane. In real life, you can meet some of the Outer Banks local residents and witness what an Outer Banks lifestyle is like. Captain Marc Mitchum is an example of an Outer Banks waterman. He has been a crabber and shrimper all his life. Recently, he turned his knowledge of the waters around the Outer Banks into a charter. He’ll take you out on his boat, the Jodie Kae, and teach you how to crab and shrimp. You get to keep your catch to cook or take to one of the many local restaurants that will prepare it for you.

For a different local lifestyle, check out Outer Banks Distilling in Manteo to learn how Kill Devil Rum is made. It’s the first legal distillery in the Outer Banks. Adam Ball, Kelly Bray, Matt Newsome or Scott Smith, local distillers, will tell you a lot about the illegal rum stories on the islands.

For the earliest history of the Outer Banks, “The Lost Colony” brings history to life for its 81st summer season. The production is set against the waters of Otis Cove. The stage is three times larger than most Broadway stages, so you are often surrounded by the action as the story of America’s first English colony unfolds. You can do a backstage tour and see the inner workings of an award-winning production.

Sometimes, plays and movies offer glimpses of real life, but Hollywood, with all its technology, can only show you a small portion of the drama that is everyday life in the Outer Banks.

All photos courtesy of Outer Banks Visitors Bureau/outerbanks.org. 

Kathleen Walls, former reporter for Union Sentinel in Blairsville, Georgia, is publisher/writer for American Roads and Global Highways. She is the author of travel books Georgia’s Ghostly Getaways, Finding Florida’s Phantoms, Hosts With Ghosts and Wild About Florida series. Her articles have appeared in Food Wine Travel Magazine, Family Motor Coaching Association, Weekender Extended, Travel World International, Georgia Magazine and others. She is a photographer with many of her original photographs appearing in her travel ezine and other publications. Follow her on Twitter @katywalls. 

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