NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Gothic architecture. A five-tiered lockup. An authentic Death Row with an unplugged electric-chair chamber.
When Hollywood seeks gritty realism for prison movies, the century-old Tennessee State Penitentiary awaits on the banks of the Cumberland River.
Since it was emptied of inmates 10 years ago because of inhumane conditions, the prison has served as a movie backdrop -- most recently for "The Last Castle," starring Robert Redford. The prison's emptiness was part of its appeal, said the movie's director, Rod Lurie.
"There are all sorts of security nightmares when you're filming around an operational prison," Lurie said. "The government of Tennessee gave us the complete run of this place."
More important was the building's menacing look. Lurie searched the country for a castle-like structure to portray a military prison. "The Last Castle" explores a struggle for leadership between Redford, a revered general court-martialed after his final mission, and the warden, played by James Gandolfini of HBO's "The Sopranos."
"The split second I rounded the corner and saw this, I turned to my producer and said, 'This is it, period,'" Lurie recalled.
Leased for free
The biggest competition was the shuttered Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield, Ohio, where "The Shawshank Redemption" was filmed. But the Tennessee prison's yard, where easily half of "The Last Castle" was shot, was more spacious and its surrounding walls more intact, Lurie said.
The state let the moviemakers lease the prison for free. "The Last Castle," with a $60 million budget and three-month location shoot, is the biggest movie ever made in Tennessee and was a welcome boost to the state's slowing economy.
"When movies come to town, our hotels are booked, our rental cars are rented and our caterers are busy," said Courtney Pohlman of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission.
Pohlman said the prison was "easily our most requested film location in the state."
The prison's second career began in 1984 when scenes from the movie "Marie," with Sissy Spacek, were filmed there.
Others followed, including "Ernest Goes to Jail" for Disney in 1989; "Against the Wall" for HBO in 1994 (during which the outside walls were painted from white to red); "Last Dance," starring Sharon Stone, in 1996; and "The Green Mile," starring Tom Hanks, in 1999 (during which the outside was painted light green).
Some biographies for cable channel A&E, music videos such as country singer Travis Tritt's "Best of Intentions" and a TV Guide shoot of country singer Tim McGraw also have been filmed there.
The 120-acre prison campus includes a hospital, mess hall, chapel and gymnasium. But filmmakers are most interested in the prison itself, a structure so imposing that inmates nicknamed it simply "The Walls."
"There just aren't that many prisons available for film work, especially prisons that have the look of invincibility," said Chet Frist, executive director of the film commission.
A model in its time
Completed in 1898, the penitentiary was considered a model in its time. The design by architect S.M. Patton was of European style, and the building was constructed of concrete, steel, brick and Tennessee limestone, making it impossible to burn.
It opened with about 1,400 inmates -- most of whom were black and segregated from the prison's white population. By the time the state closed the prison in 1992, it held about 2,000 inmates and overcrowding contributed to a federal judge's ruling that conditions were inhumane.
Today, the foundation for a hangman's noose still stands as evidence of Tennessee's method of execution before 1913, as does the pedestal where the electric chair rested. Overall, 125 people were put to death on the grounds.
Among the prison's inmates was James Earl Ray, the confessed killer of Martin Luther King Jr. Visitors included Elvis Presley, who came in 1961 to see convicted rapist Johnny Bragg, whose R&B group The Prisonaires recorded with legendary Sun Records producer Sam Phillips.
When DreamWorks began work on "The Last Castle" at the prison site in January, it invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in roof repairs, painting, lighting, paving and floor refinishing.
Lurie said the investment paid off by restoring some of the prison's intimidation factor.
"It certainly put the actors in the right spirit," he said.