Posted by Susan Doll on April 29, 2013
Last week, actor Dylan McDermott dropped by Ringling College to mingle with students and to speak to an audience of students, staff, and local residents. The latter event was the last in Ringling’s Digital Filmmaking Lab Series, which is designed to give the filmmaking students exposure to real-world industry personnel. The event consisted of a clip reel and a live interview with McDermott by a local journalist, who then fielded questions and comments from the audience. Articulate and charismatic, he graciously addressed questions that I am sure he has answered many times in the past.
However, one anecdote by McDermott really took the audience by surprise. When talking about his latest film, Olympus Has Fallen, an action film in which terrorists infiltrate the White House, the actor noted that principle photography was done entirely in Shreveport, Louisiana. Though the bulk of the film takes place in the White House, as a secret service agent tries to rescue the President, McDermott said that he never set one foot in Washington, D.C. during production. The studio recreated the White House in Shreveport. Apparently, Louisiana residents got a kick out of driving down the road in Shreveport and seeing the White House in plain view, or at least a part of it.
McDermott’s story prompted me to think about other Hollywood films that were shot in locations completely different from the settings of the narratives. I am not talking about movies set in New York or Europe but shot on a Hollywood backlot, or movies set in Arizona or Texas but shot in similar-looking terrain, like New Mexico. Instead, I am amused by “Hollywood geography” in which a one part of the country is dressed to represent a region or area completely opposite in climate, attitude, or atmosphere.
I lived in Chicago when the musical of the same name was released in 2002. Chicago was the film adaptation of the Broadway musical by Bob Fosse, which in turn was taken from a 1920s play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, which was based on the real-life escapades of two flappers from the Prohibition era. The characters Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly were fictional versions of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner . The two girls, especially Belva, were living hard and fast in the free-wheeling Chicago of the Jazz Age, when in 1924, within a month of each other, both women murdered their lovers. Beulah and Belva were the princesses of print from the time of their arrests through their trials, with Beulah crowned “the prettiest murderer in Cook County” by the press. It’s the quintessential Chicago story, not because it’s about jazz babies with itchy trigger fingers but because Chicagoans have a soft spot for fast-shooting rebels and outlaws who add grit to an already rough-and-tumble city. So, you can imagine how upset Chicagoans were when it was revealed that exteriors for Chicago were shot in Toronto. Toronto is just too new and . . . clean. Also, the ambiance, history, and culture of the two cities are so completely different that I can’t imagine the residents of Toronto embracing Beulah and Belva, or Capone and Dillinger, or Giancana and Joey “the Clown” Lombardo like Chicagoans have. Modern Chicago was born of fire, nursed by corruption, and nurtured by the violent crime that accompanied the Outfit during the Jazz Age. Toronto . . . really?
Another film set in Chicago but shot in a location nothing like the Windy City was Alligator, a long-forgotten entry in the “animals run-amuck” subgenre, which was inspired by Jaws in the late 1970s. The story, written by John Sayles during his salad days, is based on the old urban legend that claimed alligators lived in the sewers of major urban centers because people had flushed them down the drain. I don’t know why the film had to be set in Chicago, but from the giant sewer pipes that supposedly ran beneath the city to the palm trees in the background of key scenes, it is clear that the landscape is more suited to southern California than to the South Side of Chicago.
Many years ago when I was still in grad school, I spent the summer working in a truck stop near my home town of Ashtabula, Ohio, to earn money to return to Ohio State. In mid-September, about a week before I was scheduled to leave, a movie crew came through to shoot a two-part made-for-television film called The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, which was based on a horror novel by Tom Tryon. The film starred Bette Davis, Rosanna Arquette, and several television actors of the day. I watched them shoot a couple of scenes one morning after working the graveyard shift at the truck stop, and I was delighted to see Bette Davis come out of her trailer. The film, which dealt with witchcraft, was set in New England at harvest time. Apparently, Universal Television could not strike a deal to shoot in any of the New England states, so the state of Ohio stepped in to woo executives, convincing them of the Buckeye State’s suitability for the “role.” After all, there were plenty of corn fields and small rural towns to match the descriptions in the novel. What they did not tell Universal was that corn is planted and harvested earlier in Ohio than it is in New England. By mid-September, when the company arrived for its month-long shoot, the sweet-corn season was all but over. Within a couple of weeks, corn stalks began to wither and turn brown. Because fields of ripening corn were a central motif in the film, director Leo Penn (Sean Penn’s father) knew that he was under the gun to get exteriors completed. Production delays caused by teamster troubles in Cleveland made the film go over schedule. Faced with withering brown corn stalks, the production designers spray-painted the corn green. One of the producers actually seemed surprised when he noted in an article published shortly after the film’s production that Ohio was nothing like New England.
My new home state of Florida has long been a popular area for film production. Filmmakers have capitalized on Florida’s ability to stand in for a range of settings around the world. From the forests in the panhandle to the grasslands of mid-Florida to the tropical paradise of the Keys, the Sunshine State offers a diversity of landscape. The horror film Jeepers Creepers, which features a scarecrow-like monster known as the Creeper, is set in the Midwest or heartland because of the region’s association with corn and harvest rituals. But, Jeepers Creepers was actually shot in Marion County, Florida. When the idea to shoot in Florida was proposed to director Victor Salva, he was not enthusiastic because his vision of the state was all about palm trees and white sandy beaches. Viewing location photos of the fields and meadows of central Florida convinced Salva that it was the right place to shoot.
Florida has conveniently stood in for exotic tropical locales around the globe. From World War II dramas set in the South Pacific, including Air Force and PT 109, to adventure tales set in Africa and the Philippines, like Tarzan Finds a Son and Crosswinds, the Sunshine State provides a suitable, less expensive tropical locale for filmmakers. While it makes perfect sense for Florida to stand in for any tropical paradise, it is far less logical to think “Florida” when filming a story about an Eastern European communist country. In the late 1960s, when Avco Embassy decided to make a film version of Woody Allen’s satire of the Cold War, Don’t Drink the Water, they wanted Jackie Gleason in the lead role. Gleason had moved his television variety series to Miami in 1964, and he was devoted to his adopted home town. At the time, few performers had the power to insist that a studio move its production across the country, but Gleason was a beloved star to a certain demographic, so Avco Embassy caved to his demands. In Don’t Drink the Water, Gleason plays New Jersey caterer Walter Hollander, who reluctantly takes his wife and kids on a European vacation. Their plane is hijacked and taken to the Eastern bloc country of Vulgaria, where the secret police mistake Walter for an American spy. The family takes refuge in the American embassy, while the ambassador works to fix the situation and the ambassador’s son makes time with Walter’s daughter. The story unfolds almost entirely indoors in a mansion-like setting, which was not very cinematic. And some of the exteriors required snowy backgrounds to simulate an uninviting Eastern European locale. Making snow in Miami in the summer would be an exercise in frustration, so a second unit was sent to Quebec for some of the exteriors. Nothing about the production benefited from being shot in Miami, but the city profited from the ten-week production.
Of course, today’s computer generated imagery makes it much easier to disguise one location to suggest another, or to completely invent a location. But, whether it’s done through millions of dollars of technology or through a bit of smoke and mirrors, there is still something wondrous about Hollywood’s ability to transform a familiar locale into a completely different time or place.
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