THE TOWN OF SPECTRE
A TRAVELER'S GUIDE, AND THE ACCIDENTAL GROWTH OF SAID TRAVELER
(Originally published in ROVA Magazine, Adventure Two, Summer 2017)
Last year, on a road trip with my partner and our vintage trailer, I made a stop at the abandoned set of Tim Burton's film Big Fish. As it turns out, the idyllic-turned-rundown fictional "Town of Spectre" is hidden away on an island in Alabama. The film was one of my partner's favorites, so being there had significant meaning for her; for me, it was just the neat old set of a movie I hadn't seen. The island was primitive, with only one person camping off-grid, so we ended up spending only a couple of house, took only a few pictures, had a couples' spat about me throwing my shoes onto the iconic phone line, and carried on our way.
Flash forward on year: our relationship had gone kaput and I was living full-time in the old trailer, Franny. Winter came. It got cold in Canada, so I chased the heat and wound up in the southern states. Being a filmmaker by trade, I decided I would fill my time by documenting other folk living similar, alternative lifestyles, and I quickly discovered I was living my dharma.
A month into my journey and a trifecta of mini documentaries under my belt, I found myself in sweet home Alabama. I had a date to get to in Texas, but I managed to carve out a day for my return to Spectre with photo set-ups in mind.
Before reaching the island, you are greeted by countless cormorants swooping, squawking and fighting like siblings whose parents are away. They make their homes in the ring of bare trees that surround the main attraction. The crooked and stripped trees are so magical in their alignment that they resemble carefully placed props; but they were born and raised right here on the island.
The process of entering the park is darling. Pulling up to a black steel gate, you'll find an honor system for check-in. You place your payment info a little envelope ($3 for the day, $10 for overnight) and deposit the booty into a dilapidated cast-iron box. From there, you dial the number provided and a gentleman answers with a southern drawl, asking if you've deposited your envelope. After confirming, he will give you the gate code. The whole process oozes "ma and pa" authenticity.
Upon reaching the island, I noticed new structures that turned out to be a picnic shelter, an elevated party room, and even his and hers bathrooms equipped with showers. The last year had been kind to the island, and I was beginning to regret only setting aside one day.
I followed the outstretched hand of the sign pointing towards Spectre. The town hadn't changed a bit. It was still the same mystical skeleton, complete with a West Side Story-style gang of groundskeepers: a heard of goats.
Once I'd landed in the center of town, I chatted with a local fella who was showing his family around; after their tour they were going to head home and watch the film for the first time. He bragged that a few of his friends had played extras in the city scenes, and I joked that it was blasphemy that he hadn't seen the movie yet. He didn't know I was throwing stones from a glass house.
The gent broke down the recent history of Spectre; the island had originally been owned by a lonely old lady, who rented it out for the movie when a locations manager discovered it. After production, dedicated fans who hunted out the spot would gain entry simply by knocking on the lady's door and having a convo. Legend has it that she never understood what the big deal was. A decade later, two sisters now own the property and have dedicated their time and money to building it into a destination.
After leaving the family to their movie night, I spent the next sex hours lugging my trailer around, dropping it into position and snapping pictures. It was peaceful, and a tad surreal to be meandering around a property looking for inspiration, as if I were Tim Burton all those years ago.
For me, capturing something in an analog medium truly makes it timeless, so I was slightly annoyed with myself that I had completely forgotten to use my Polaroid camera until after the sun had set. I set a reminder for the next day, parked Franny smack dab in the center of Spectre, settled into bed and had the ultimate screening of the film Big Fish. At first, I was excited by the pure gimmick of it all, watching Ewan McGregor run barefoot across the land right where I was perched. But as the film progressed, I realized that there was a bigger, deeper meaning that I hadn't expected.
The titular "big fish" of the film is a huge catfish that protagonist Edward Bloom claims to have caught using his wedding ring as a lure. This story, along with many others that he has told, is dismissed as fantasy by his son. The film is, according to Burton himself, "about what's real and what's fantastic, what's true and what's not true, and how, in the end, it's all true."
Once I reached the final scenes, the line "When a man's stories are remembered, then he is immortal" hit me like a bolt of lightning, and I realized that my trip truly is "the story of my life," as the film's Edward Bloom put it from his deathbed. Cue the tears. I have dedicated my foreseeable future to telling other people's stories, while the entire project encapsulates my own. My few tears became mini rivers after this epiphany.
The next morning, my eyes opened slowly as the result of a slight whimsy hangover. Oddly, a feeling that I was being watched came over me... I peeled back the curtains to see the entire pack of goats checking out the crazy man who parked in the middle of their town without their permission.
The goats resignedly clearly as I hitched up and moved my car out of the way for the last photo on the list, using the forgotten Polaroid. As I took aim, the island's dry-land proxy of Edward's big fish clopped on over. The goat stopped in the dead center of town, I pulled the trigger and snapped perhaps my all-time favorite photo, and then it continued on its way.
I only spent one day in Spectre, but that day changed my perspective on storytelling forever. Thank you, Spectre; I will forever be catching my big fish and sharing it with the world, with you in mind. See you next year.
Written By Reggie Grey - Edited By Gemma Peckham