It was pitch dark on the set of "Dawson's Creek," but I did not care. Our guide had a flashlight. We were about to visit the bedroom of Dawson Leery, this era's Hamlet, Holden Caulfield and Benjamin Braddock rolled into one.
Like most parents, I had some concerns about "Dawson." But my daughter Katie, 13, was happy, so I was happy.
Surely, I thought, this was worth major daddy points. I had brought her to the adolescent equivalent of Shangri-La, the fictional town of Capeside, Mass., scene of the one-hour WB network drama "Dawson's Creek." It was a fabled land of windswept marshes, dimly lit docks, smoky cafes and more angst-ridden, cinematically cross-referenced sex talk than had ever before appeared on American television.
I cannot bear to watch the show for more than five minutes at a time, but my tastes were not important. This was the part of our summer vacation that Katie had chosen. In our little nuclear family, down to its last child, she has great power.
Each Wednesday between 8 and 9 p.m., my wife and I are forbidden to speak, lest we detract from a single millisecond of "Dawson." I thought bringing her to the places where the series is filmed would diminish its influence, but I was wrong. It did not seem to matter that her favorite scenes were performed not in Cape Cod, but on dingy sets in old studio soundstages and in assorted shops, bars and houses scattered about the rusty seaport of Wilmington, N.C.
If you have not been exposed to the show, you may have trouble understanding our trip. Those who have come to care about Dawson's and Joey's unconsummated passion and Pacey's self-esteem issues and Jen's troublesome reputation know what I am talking about. You do not need to ask why my wife and I drove more than 200 miles from our pleasant cottage on the Outer Banks to indulge in what may be a relatively new motive for travel, Film Location Fever.
I would have been more sensitive to this malady if I had not spent so much of my life in southern California, where film and reality naturally intertwine. There were always commercials being shot on our street in Pasadena. We could watch the television series "thirtysomething," allegedly set in Philadelphia, and identify bungalows five blocks away. Bits of San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods not much farther away appeared in "Back to the Future," "Beverly Hills Cop," "Father of the Bride" and countless other films.
Having since experienced through my daughter's eyes the lure of film locations for people not so Californized, I am less snide about it. I understand the film-driven attraction of the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I even know someone who was thrilled to discover the La Jolla, Calif., cottage where Ellen DeGeneres's character lived in the forgettable "Mr. Wrong." A visit to a favorite movie or television location can offer serene release, like touching a relic of some great religion.
The trip from Duck, where we were staying, to Wilmington took more than four hours, winding around coastal barriers and waterways. It was not an unpleasant drive. In the early morning, the marshes along Route 64 were so still that they perfectly reflected the reeds and willows, making it seem as if feathery plants were growing up and down in midair.
As we drove into Wilmington from the north, Katie began to see things that excited her. There at the local campus of the University of North Carolina were classroom buildings that form a backdrop for Capeside High. In the business district were a number of familiar stores. We drove to the Cape Fear River, recalling a previous era in film, and saw bridge and water backgrounds familiar to "Dawson" viewers. We made our first pass by the Ice House, the after-school workplace of actor Katie Holmes's character, Joey Potter.
Holmes has succeeded, more than any other cast member, in projecting the uncertainties and fears of a real teenager, while mouthing dialogue that makes the characters sound like Georgetown graduate students gathered at a Dupont Circle coffeehouse. The overly adult dialogue annoys me, but explains the show's popularity with adolescents. Viewers like Katie are delighted to be spared the usual television portrayals of dense teens.
So Holmes has become the Audrey Hepburn of her generation, a tall, cool brunette with a steely delicacy. We found a room at the Hilton for $124 a night and then went back out to see if we could find her.
Each summer in Wilmington, tourist officials told us, seems to draw more filmmakers and film-happy tourists. The EUE Screen Gems Studios have been in the city for decades, catering to B movies and cost-conscious series like "Dawson's Creek." In the process, Wilmington has acquired a reputation for well-trained crews and unspoiled locations.
We carefully read a copy of Reel Carolina, a local journal of film and video we found at a tourist guide rack in our hotel. In one article, EUE Screen Gems President Frank Capra Jr. listed several summer productions, including "Elmo in Grouchland" with Mandy Patinkin and Vanessa L. Williams, "Bruno" with Shirley MacLaine and Gary Sinise, "Takedown" with Skeet Ulrich, and a CBS movie of the week, "Holy Joe."
"Dawson's Creek" was duly noted. "The WB network suspected they had a hit," the journal reported. "They just didn't expect that in its first season it would be WB's #1 show and rank #1 with teens overall on all networks." It said the WB publicity office in Los Angeles and the Cape Fear Coast Convention Center and Visitors Bureau were getting many calls asking for more information on "Dawson" shooting schedules and the best places to see the show's stars.
A prime viewing spot was the sidewalk outside the Ice House (115 S. Water St.). While we were visiting the sets at Screen Gems, for instance, a trio of young Canadian tourists who had planted themselves under the Water Street trees encountered James Van Der Beek, the actor who plays the towheaded Dawson himself. The Canadians told us Van Der Beek was polite, almost shy. We congratulated them on their persistence and good fortune, but we burned with envy.
At Screen Play Video (212 N. Front St.), owner Liz Edwards cheerfully explained the adjustments made to her storefront rental shop whenever the television series crew filmed Dawson and Pacey at their after-school job. "They put in a bigger counter so that both guys can be behind it," she said.
Edwards says she must emphasize to visitors that the two young men do not really work at her video store. She is happy, however, to rent out any of the growing number of feature films that include the show's stars ($3 for new releases, $2 for all other three-day rentals). To her embarrassment, she said, she did not own any of the "Mighty Ducks" movies that established the screen presence of Joshua Jackson (Pacey Witter). She promised us that she had placed the order and would have them soon.
We drove to the east side of town in search of Joey's house, a cottage on Pine Grove Road owned by the studio. The little yellow house is easy to overlook, set back 50 yards from the road. A visitor who stops by when there is no filming underway can walk to the front door, turn around and gaze at the actual creek of the series title.
It is not Dawson's Creek, but Hewlett's Creek. In summer it is choked with cattails, but tricks of cutting and looping make it seem on television to be an open waterway. This is essential, for Joey has several times rowed herself home after quarreling with Dawson.
We did not have time to drive over to Wrightsville Beach, Wilmington's oceanside resort where some of the show's ocean-view scenes have been shot. We had an appointment to see the Screen Gems Studios, a collection of large soundstages near the airport. Since we could not stay for the scheduled weekend tour, we asked the "Dawson" staff to accomodate us as journalists, and location manager Craig Rogers agreed to let us see the sets.
They included nearly all the show's interiors: the halls and cafeteria of Capeside High, Jen's house, Dawson's house and, finally, Dawson's bedroom, where nearly every episode begins with our cinema-addled hero watching a video of some vintage film. Joey usually enters the bedroom by climbing an outside ladder and coming in through a window. We did the same. We stood and looked around with the help of Rogers's flashlight.
Katie was delighted to find a change in the decor. Dawson had a new poster--"Saving Private Ryan." This was not surprising because in Dawson's universe, the film's director, Steven Spielberg, is God.
It was late. We had to go, and yet we had met no member of the cast. We drove by the elementary school auditorium where the crew lunches. No luck. We checked out the waterfront. Nothing. Then, in front of the Ice House, we saw Katie Holmes.
Assistant location manager Meg MacRae introduced us. Holmes smiled and shook hands, apologizing for her cold, clammy grip, having just done a scene fishing lobsters out of a tank.
My wife and I stepped back so that the two Katies could chat. Fantasy and reality met and mingled nicely. It seemed a perfect ending, two American girls talking about television and enjoying a warm North Carolina summer.
Details: 'Dawson's Creek' Sites
"Dawson's Creek" is filmed at EUE Screen Gems Studios, 1223 N. 23rd St., Wilmington. Filming is not open to the public, but walking tours of the studio are offered at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Saturdays, and at noon and 2 p.m. Sundays. Cost: $10. No one under 12 and no cameras. Dawson's bedroom is not included in the tour. Call 910-675-8479 for reservations.
Among the "Dawson's Creek" sites in Wilmington's historic district:
* The Ice House (115 S. Water St.). Where Joey worked during the show's first two seasons. The Ice House was torched by drug dealers in the season finale; the actual restaurant survives, but its future use as a Dawson filming site is in doubt.
* Screen Play Video (212 N. Front St.). Pacey's after-school workplace.
* Mollye's Market (118 Princess St.). A Capeside hangout.
* Island Passage Elixir (4 Market St.). Doubled as a boutique in the show.
* Thalian Hall Center for the Performing Arts (310 Chestnut St.). The interior of the show's Rialto Theatre.
* Riverfront Visitor Information Booth (riverside at Market and Water streets). Appeared as a hot dog stand.
* Cape Fear Riverwalk (at the foot of Market Street) and Riverfront Park (Water Street across from the courthouse). Where Andie and Pacey first kissed.
Sites outside the historic district include:
* Battleship Park (on Eagle's Island, beside the Battleship NC). Site of the show's Winter Fair.
* Airlie Gardens (Airlie Road, two miles west of Wrightsville Beach). A romantic setting for numerous scenes.
* University of North Carolina Wilmington (601 S. College Rd.). Doubles as the Capeside High School campus.
* Greenfield Lake (1702 Burnett Blvd.). Burham Lake in the show.
INFORMATION: Cape Fear Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 1-800-222-4757, www.cape-fear.nc.us.
CAPTION: The author's daughter on a "Dawson's Creek" set.
CAPTION: The author's daughter, right, checks out one of the Wilmington shooting locations for the WB teen hit, "Dawson's Creek" (cast pictured below).