A Hollywood location scout for the better part of the last two decades, the Stecoah resident sits quietly behind the counter of his store, Appalachian Mercantile, in downtown Bryson City. Gazing out the large bay windows of the building onto a bustling Everett Street, Holland reflects on his journey with a big grin and hearty laugh.
“I’ve been everything from a logger to a moviemaker, and now a shopkeeper, so I’m trying it all out,” he said.
Holland’s storied life in the Smokies was anchored on Fontana Lake, where he spent 25 years as an outdoor guide — by both land and water — amid the remote and rugged reaches of the Smokies. These tours were a healthy mix of local history, folklore and nature.
Now, he’s settled into a new life as a small town business owner and mainstay fixture in Swain County. There are seemingly no regrets for Holland, with his life spent amid the landscape he finds so alluring.
“I like how unspoiled it is here,” he said. “It’s a small town, and I like that.”
Holland is a well-regarded expert of navigating and identifying the woods. He endeared himself to old-timers, picking up the local stories from the people whose roots ran deep into the mountains. These tales soaked into his soul.
“I have always loved these mountains,” he said.
The 62-year-old has always held a fascination and love for the outdoors. Following college, Holland got a job with the U.S. Forest Service in North Georgia. But he wanted to be further in the Appalachians. He ultimately landed at Fontana Village Resort, a lone outpost on the isolated Fontana Lake, flanked by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on one side and the Nantahala National Forest on the other. His wife, Tina, also got work through the resort.
In a twist of fate, when director Michael Mann was flying over Fontana Lake, he saw the setting as the perfect location for his upcoming film “The Last of the Mohicans.” It was wild, natural and unmarred by man — a backdrop that is otherwise hard to find in modern society. With Cherokee nearby, there was a Native American population within proximity for the cast and production.
“The director sent out his scout and that guy did what I do now — which is if I’m not familiar with an area, I find someone who is,” Holland said.
That man found Holland. Since that first film endeavor, he’s done around 20 productions, each taking about six months to complete. His projects included the “The Fugitive,” “Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Hunger Games.” It was during the filming of “Dukes of Hazzard” in Louisiana that Holland found himself next to legendary country singer Willie Nelson, who was cast as the part of Uncle Jesse.
“We had a meeting one night and Willie’s bus was parked out there,” he said. “We started talking and it was great. I guess us longhaired old guys have to stick together.”
But, perhaps the most memorable production for Holland was “The Fugitive.” With the train wreck filmed in Dillsboro and the ambulance theft scene shot in downtown Bryson City, the enormous set was right in his backyard. He found himself showing director Andrew Davis around the forest where he pointed out each and every species of plant and animal they came across, all in an effort to get the picture just right. Being a location scout and production manager meant Holland had to not only find the ideal locations, but also had to decide where everything could go within the logistics of the set.
“Scouting the woods is the fun and artistic part of it, but spotting port-o-potties isn’t as glamorous,” he laughed.
Pulling together his years of Southern Appalachian study, he released a book in 2001, Fontana: A Pocket History of Appalachia, which is currently in its third printing. His latest venture is Appalachian Mercantile, a variety store he opened four years ago. Specializing in fine sauces, condiments and Western North Carolina wares, the idea entered Holland’s head after several trips to Colonel Mustards, a similar store in Highlands. He befriended the owner, who in turn shared his secrets of the trade that Holland has applied to his process of deciding what works and what doesn’t in his store.
“He gave me the benefit of his 20 years of experience, and as a result everything in here is great,” he said. “Besides, I’m my own boss here, I enjoy talking to people that come in. I sit here, read my books and put money in the cash register. It’s not stressful for me, like the movie business can be.”
Though Hollywood continues to knock on his door, Holland’s film pursuits have been winding down. He’s always willing to entertain an offer, but those long months away from home and on the set are mostly behind him.Yet, it has been a fulfilling career filled with innumerable fond memories.
“I scouted recently. After one day, I decided I got too used to being my own boss, and I turned it over to a buddy of mine,” he said. “Twenty-five years of living out of a suitcase was about enough for me. It was a good run, though.”