CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. • “Meet Me in St. Louis” this ain’t. More like “Murder Me in Cape Girardeau.” And a lot of people are thrilled about it.
The new whodunit “Gone Girl,” which opens nationwide Friday, could be the brightest spotlight to shine on Show-Me State cinema since Judy Garland heard the clang-clang-clang of the trolley.
Based on a bestseller by Kansas City native Gillian Flynn, the story is set in the fictional river town of North Carthage, Mo. But much of it was filmed in Cape Girardeau, two hours south of St. Louis, which hosted stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for six weeks last fall. Dozens of locals worked on the crew, and hundreds more were background extras in crowd scenes.
The Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates that the production generated $8 million for the community, along with publicity it is hoping to steer in a positive direction. On visitcape.com, the CVB features a map of the major shooting locales and assures potential visitors that the city’s gray makeover was strictly a Hollywood illusion.
“Gone Girl” was directed by slice-and-dice auteur David Fincher (“Se7en,” “Zodiac,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Those who are unfamiliar with Fincher’s work are forewarned that this is a dark drama about a seemingly perfect marriage that may have ended in murder. Yet the 6 million readers who devoured Flynn’s book know that it’s a puzzle with a biting wit.
Much of the satire in the book and movie is about the toxic effects of tabloid journalism.
Flynn, who wrote the screenplay, attended journalism school at Northwestern University. (“My family was devastated that I didn’t choose Mizzou,” she said in a recent phone interview.) But she soon discovered that she didn’t have the stomach to be a crime reporter. Eventually, Flynn became the television critic for Entertainment Weekly, and “Gone Girl” lampoons the gutter tactics of TV sleuths such as Nancy Grace.
Like Nick Dunne (Affleck), the Missouri native who returns to his hometown and is suspected of murdering wife Amy (Pike) on their fifth wedding anniversary, Flynn, 43, eventually forsook New York for the Midwest. She considered setting “Gone Girl,” her third crime novel, in the Windy City, where she now lives with her husband and son. “But then I realized I needed to set it in a smaller place, with limited opportunities to remake yourself,” she says.
As she was writing the book, Flynn drove through various towns on the Mississippi River, soaking up the recession-era vibe and taking pictures.
When Fincher signed to direct the movie version and was scouting locations, Flynn sent him the photos, and he focused on Cape Girardeau.
“The view when you’re looking down the courthouse steps, past a corner bar with the river in the distance, really sold him,” she says.
That eponymous bar, which Nick owns in the book and movie, was formerly a coffeehouse called Socials Cafe. The downtown property has been sold to an undisclosed buyer, and there is speculation that it will reopen as a tavern called the Bar to capitalize on interest in the movie.
Other recognizable locales in the film include the Drury Lodge hotel, where Nick holds a news conference; the courthouse gazebo, where he hosts a candlelight vigil for his missing wife; the modernistic Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge, where one of the characters makes a getaway; and the Arena miniature golf course, where frustrated Amy takes out her aggression. (Portions of the latter segment were filmed at the old lodge in Giant City State Park near Carbondale, Ill., and at a swimming pool in Hollywood. Such is movie magic.)
The locale that is likely to attract the most attention is Nick and Amy’s suburban manse, in a prosperous neighborhood that’s depicted as bankrupt since the economic crash. Owner Sara Roettger says she and her husband moved from Mississippi into the house in June, unaware that it had been a movie location. She’s since learned that her neighbors would picnic across the street to watch each day’s filming and that the production company had replaced the roof and front door before leaving town.
“Everyone says they’ve left the city better than they found it,” Roettger says.