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Spectre

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Mythical movie town of Spectre enjoys resurgence

Story and photos by David Haynes

Not far from the state capital, on a teardrop-shaped island just off the Alabama River’s main channel, a mythical town where no one ever actually lived and that never really existed is today enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

The idyllic town of Spectre was constructed among live oaks draped in Spanish moss on Jackson Lake Island near Millbrook as a movie set for Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy film “Big Fish.”

The film’s theme of reconciliation between a father and his estranged son, and Burton’s unique storytelling style that included an enchanted forest, the surreal town of Spectre, giants and witches, has made it a beloved tale for thousands of fans.

Today, 13 years after the film crews left the island, the remnants of Spectre’s buildings are slowly being reclaimed by nature and some have already had to be taken down due to safety concerns. But now more and more people are making pilgrimages from around the country and around the world to this 60-acre island to see Spectre before it’s gone.

Jackson Lake Island wasn’t even an island before the Robert F. Henry Lock and Dam was built in the mid-1970s more than 80 miles downstream. The resulting Bob Woodruff Lake elevated the Alabama River’s level to allow passage through an inlet from the river to Jackson Lake, simultaneously creating the island.

Lynn and Bobby Bright now own the island that Lynn’s parents originally purchased in the early 1970s. Her father, Leon Clardy, built the causeway that connects the island to the mainland and began offering memberships to those wanting to fish, boat or otherwise use the island for recreation shortly thereafter.

In 2002 when Burton was looking for a location for the fictional town in his movie, it was already on an Alabama Film Commission’s list of sites, and they reached an agreement to lease his production company the island for the duration of the movie shoot.

A ‘magical experience’

Construction of the town, “Jenny’s House” and an enchanted forest used for the movie took about six months, according to Lynn Bright, before shooting began. She said their family all marveled at the transformation of the sleepy little island into a busy movie set and at the attention to detail in every aspect of the project, from the “motorized tree limbs” in the mystical forest to the selections of authentic period products to be displayed in the town’s storefront windows.

“We were invited to be there the evening they filmed the scene when everyone was dancing on the street, and it was truly a magical experience,” she says.

After the filming wrapped up, the original intent was for the production crew to return the island to its original state, but after more consideration the family decided to have the temporarily-built sets remain, as a curiosity.

For the first few years there was little interest in the former movie set, but as social media increased in popularity so did the number of visitors coming to see the Big Fish set, Lynn Bright says.

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Today’s visitors are a mix of local fishermen, kayakers and campers, photographers taking engagement, senior or prom portraits and curious out-of-towners who’ve heard about the place on Facebook or other social media and want to visit the town before it fades back into the landscape. The island has also become an event destination and hosts several weddings and other events each year. There are even a few semi-fulltime residents who live in RVs at one end of the island year-round.

One of those full-time islanders, Kevin Carr, has been living on the island for three years. “It’s just so peaceful here,” he says. “I just couldn’t imagine living anywhere else now.”

Wildlife abounds here as well, with more than 20 species of birds documented, at least one resident fox and a pair of ospreys who built a nest at the top of a dead tree near the causeway. A small herd of goats also roams freely about the island.

Being constructed as a movie set, the structures created for the town were never intended to be permanent. These are really just hollow shells that were decorated in realistic facades for the cameras to record. For example, the “brick” used on the chimneys is actually just a vinyl brick-like veneer and much of the trim is fabricated from styrofoam.

In the years following the film’s 2003 release, much of the town became overgrown as nature began to reclaim the buildings that made up the town of Spectre. By 2011 two storefront facades had become a safety hazard and both have since been removed.

Trying to keep the town as intact as possible

Today the town’s main street has a church at one end and two styrofoam tree trunks at the other end. The view between the trees frames the church, main street and remaining buildings and is a favorite spot for visitors to take photographs. Between the church and the arching trees are the eight remaining buildings in varying states of repair along either side of the street. The owners are doing what they can to repair the inevitable deterioration to keep the town as intact as possible.

Visitors approaching the island today will encounter a gate before the causeway, sometimes manned, sometimes not. Admission is $3 per person. At the electric-powered gate, a sign instructs visitors to fill out a registration envelope, insert payment and call one of three numbers listed for a code to open the gate.

Lynn Bright, a retired Alabama judge, and Bobby Bright, a former mayor of Montgomery and Alabama congressman, have had to do little to promote the island since taking over its operation a few years ago. There is currently a Facebook Page but no dedicated website, though Lynn says that’s likely an addition in the near future.

Bobby said they hope to maintain the island as a safe and convenient destination for families from the local area to picnic, fish and camp and enjoy for the foreseeable future.

For information, visit the Facebook Page (facebook.com/JacksonLakeIsland/) or call 334-430-7963 or 334-324-2000.