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Kentucky’s movie set towns

Film locations were ready for their close-up

Shooting a film inside a cave can be tricky, but the results seen in Runaway Romance made it all worthwhile. Photo: Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission
The Carol crew gather on the streets of northern Kentucky while filming the moody Oscar-nominated drama. Photo: Film Cincinnati
Sure, Toby McGuire got top billing, but here in Kentucky, Popcorn Deelites made headlines as one of the horses to perform in the title role of Seabiscuit. Photo: Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm
Coni Shepperd, president of the Southern Kentucky Film Commission, notes crews came to Hart County to scout locations and then returned to film. Photo: SOKYFilm

CAVE CITY, COVINGTON, NEWPORT, NEW CASTLE—these Kentucky towns and others have played a starring role in a variety of movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to low-budget flicks. 

In 2020, the action-thriller Disturbing the Peace, about a small-town Texas marshal, showcased county roads wending through Hart and Barren counties, served by Farmers RECC, and several downtown locations in Cave City and Horse Cave. 

“With our rolling hills, slow-paced atmosphere and down-home friendliness, crews love to film in our area,” says Coni Shepperd, president of the Southern Kentucky Film Commission (SOKYFilm). “Bringing movies to the area has a big economic impact for the SOKYFilm area. The cast and crew stay in our hotels, shop in the stores and visit attractions.” 

Horse Cave is the ideal setting for a Hallmark-type movie, offering a tiny, historic downtown lined with colorful awnings and storefronts—not to mention the entrance to Hidden River Cave directly off Main Street, plus irresistible attractions like Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo and a thriving Amish population and business community. 

In 2018, the American Cinema Inspires (ACI) production of Runaway Romance, about a reality TV star who leaves Hollywood and finds herself in Amish country, came to town. 

“A scene was filmed in Mammoth Onyx Cave, and we got to witness firsthand the work involved in making a movie,” says Brian Dale, marketing director at Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo. “Shooting in a cave is no easy task: Getting camera and lighting equipment and actors into the cave and setting up was very time consuming.” 

For the eight hours the production company spent shooting in the cave, a mere three minutes of footage made it into the movie. 

“Moviemaking is a long, complicated process,” says Sandra Wilson, executive director at Horse Cave/Hart County Tourist Commission. “I don’t think anyone realizes how hard the people work to make these films happen. The lucky locals who were extras in the movie were fascinated with the process—even though they had to repeat the same actions over and over, sometimes for hours.” 

“The scene turned out exceptionally well,” adds Dale, noting the movie was enhanced with computer-generated imaging special effects. “We were very pleased to be a part of the film.” 

Northern Kentucky’s “backlot” 

Hollywood has come calling many times to northern Kentucky, including in 1988 for Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise. The Oscar winning movie includes scenes featuring Covington’s iconic Roebling Suspension Bridge and Newport local favorite, Pompilio’s Italian Restaurant. 

In the last seven years, several high-profile movies have filmed in northern Kentucky towns. 

In 2015, for Carol, Cate Blanchett and film crew shot a scene at Lou Lou’s Café at Spare-Time, a diner in Alexandria. Robert Redford and team arrived in downtown Newport in 2018 to film The Old Man and the Gun. In 2019, Zac Efron and company shot scenes for the Ted Bundy biographical crime drama, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, at four locations: MainStrasse Village in Covington, Northern Kentucky University’s campus in Highland Heights, Midwest Bottle Gas in Fort Thomas and the Campbell County Courthouse in Newport. 

“Northern Kentucky has so many benefits to the film industry,” says Kristen Schlotman, executive director at Film Cincinnati, the area’s local film commission. Among those benefits, Schlotman says, are streetscapes that provide 360-degree camera angles of historic, intact architecture, northern Kentucky’s position on the Ohio River and proximity to Greater Cincinnati, the incredible cooperation of local communities and the area’s diverse locations. 

“Northern Kentucky is like walking onto a backlot,” says Schlotman. “There’s texture and charm and areas where time has stood still, which is incredibly enticing to filmmakers. They don’t have to spend a lot of money rebuilding the past when our region has spent a great deal of time making sure we restore the architecture and preserve the history in a thoughtful manner.” 

Another movie, the horror drama Bones and All with Timothée Chalamet, filmed in 2022 all over northern Kentucky. 

“The Venice International Film Festival accepts 20 films in competition each year and in 2022 three of those films were from our region,” says Schlotman. “And our area has been named one of the top places to live and work in the film industry by MovieMaker Magazine for four years running. 

“Both of these facts are a testament to our trajectory on becoming a world-class destination for all things movie production.” 

MORE KENTUCKY FOR YOUR VIEWING PLEASURE 

Catch these movies that shine a spotlight on Kentucky filming locations: 

  • Red Right Hand (2022), stars Orlando Bloom, filmed in New Castle and Campbellsburg in Henry County. 
  • Elizabethtown (2005) features locations in Versailles, La Grange and Elizabethtown. 
  • Seabiscuit (2003) features Keeneland and local talent, Popcorn Deelites. Until his death in early 2022, this equine thespian lived out his golden years at Old Friends Retirement Farm in Georgetown. 
  • In Country (1989), starring Bruce Willis and based on the novel by Kentucky’s Bobbie Ann Mason, shot many scenes in Mayfield and other locations in Kentucky’s Jackson Purchase area, Paducah and Lexington. 
  • Stripes (1981) shows scenes in Clermont, served by Salt River Electric, on the grounds of the Old Jim Beam Distillery—including in an unused warehouse. 
  • The Kentuckian (1955) could only have been filmed here, and it was—in Cumberland Falls, served by Cumberland Valley Electric, Levi Jackson Wilderness Road State Park, Owensboro and along the Green River. 
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