Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the budget for “The Green Lantern.” It was $200 million, not $200 billion. The article also mistakenly reported that the tour operator recommended the bars on Magazine Street for live jazz. The correct street is Frenchmen Street. This version has been updated.
The farmers market along an avenue framed by office buildings is bustling with shoppers examining the fruits and vegetables on offer. Suddenly, the crowds look up toward the sky as billowing brown clouds and fireballs start to choke out the sun. A green-masked man flies into the scene to protect the screaming, panicked people, who are now running for their lives.
The clip ends, and the mini-screens in our 16-passenger van go black. We’re still in the middle of the street, just sans ominous clouds and green hero. We’ve just watched a segment from the 2011 blockbuster “The Green Lantern.” It’s one of the films highlighted in the New Orleans Movie Tour, a two-hour driving excursion that showcases the locations of some of the most famous scenes filmed in and around the Big Easy.
As we sit in front of the hotel that the villain Parallax had descended over moments ago, Jonathan and Michelle Ray tell us about the movie’s economic impact on the city — it was the largest production in Louisiana history with a $200 billion price tag — and the confusion it created when residents started to think that the farmers market was real, and not an elaborate set put up by Warner Bros.
It was still early by New Orleans standards — well before noon — and I’d taken only the first few sips of my cup of bitter chicory coffee. But the Rays’ excitement was helping to cut through my pre-Mardi Gras celebration haze.
Self-proclaimed movie buffs, the husband-and-wife team launched the city’s first movie tour company nine months ago to combine their twin obsessions: all things film and New Orleans. After relocating from Connecticut, they were shocked to learn that no one was providing tours of famous locations from such classics as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” or newer TV shows such as HBO’s “Treme.”
A film professional who has worked on camera crews and even plays a recurring role in USA’s upcoming series “Common Law,” Jonathan is quick to tell me about New Orleans’s emergence as the “Hollywood of the South” and its $1.3 billion movie industry.
“A lot of people come down here and have no idea how many things are filmed here,” he said. “It’s the third most popular location after Los Angeles and New York.”
He rattles off a half-dozen productions either in the works or starting later this year. Will Ferrell is in town with Zach Galifianakis, filming “Dog Fight” (recently renamed “The Campaign”) — and taking some time off during Mardi Gras to serve as King Bacchus. And “Now You See Me,” a thriller starring Woody Harrelson and Morgan Freeman, recently started production.
After scooping up the other passengers, we take off toward Canal Street. Michelle provides historical background in conjunction with the film trivia that Jonathan spouts, and starts filling us in on what residents call “the neutral grounds,” known elsewhere as medians. The grassy areas in the middle of the streets were the meeting ground for the French Creoles and the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase, she explains as we pull up to the rails where Vivien Leigh, as Blanche DuBois, famously searched for the streetcar named Desire. (Which is still in operation, Michelle adds. It’s No. 922.)
Jonathan leads us on a winding path through the narrow streets of the French Quarter, pointing out Tennessee Williams’s house, the wrought-iron balcony where Elvis Presley sang in “King Creole” and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the old dive bar where Melanie Griffith grabs a cocktail in “Crazy in Alabama.”
The couple also offer entertaining snippets completely unrelated to the film industry, explaining where to get a traditional New Orleans Pimm’s Cup (the Napoleon), where to hear the best jazz in the city (the bars on Magazine Street) and where to get a $10 haircut and a shot on Monday nights (the Royal Street Inn). These insider tips make me want to jump out of the van and soak up all the city has to offer. Then a clip of “Runaway Jury” starts playing, and Jonathan and Michelle have my attention once again.
A trip through the Garden District to see Benjamin Button’s house and the graveyard in “Double Jeopardy” winds down the tour, and Jonathan opens the floor to questions. This part can get complicated, he says, as fellow film enthusiasts typically quiz him on obscure flicks with ties to the city. Which is why he’s seen them all, including the bad ones, such as the second “Candyman” movie and anything starring a vampire.
Today he fields some fairly tame questions on “Runaway Jury.” Yes, it was entirely filmed in Louisiana. No, you can’t get into the courtrooms.
As I leave the van, I find myself plotting a trip to Congo Square to further inspect one of the locations in “Ray,” and then to the Napoleon for a cool drink. Which is exactly what Jonathan and Michelle hoped I’d do.
“One of our goals is really to get people out and show them the city,” Michelle says. “There are so many things to do.”
Joining friends for brunch, I start recounting my newly acquired knowledge of the Big Easy, telling them where Sandra Bullock’s vacation house is, that Jonathan had pointed out Mos Def (a.k.a., more recently, Yasiin Bey) walking down the street and that I think we should try the $10 haircut/shot thing. They listen raptly, and I begin to understand why the Rays were shocked that no one had thought to set up their kind of tour before.
New Orleans Movie Tours
Two-hour tours depart from the French Quarter most days at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Adults $39, children 4-12 $29. Advance purchase required.