Building the Character, Literally

Movie locations are often as much a character in a movie as the ones the actors are playing.  Location scouts and set designers work together to create physical spaces that work for the movie but also work within the movie, creating something that the actors and screenplay alone cannot.  Often these are real locations, adapted for use by a movie crew or used as a basis for a more extensive constructed set, and many times the sensation I get from the location is more powerful than anything else in the movie. But locations are areas whereas buildings are physical spaces, inanimate beasts that, in the best of them, can steal a scene from the best actors in the biz.


I thought of this recently while watching a movie I was assigned to write up for TCM.  I’ll get to that in a second but it triggered thoughts of some of the great buildings I’ve visited in movies through the years.  The house and motel in Psycho are two of the first that come to mind.  Constructed on the Universal backlot, both become powerful yet silent characters in the film, looking on as Marion and Argogast meet their end.  Hitchcock sometimes used famous monuments (The Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore) in his movies but it’s the anonymous ones; the house and motel in Psycho, the windmills in Foreign Correspondent, the mission tower in Vertigo, the diner in The Birds; that have the biggest impact on me.  And again, it’s not location, it’s the physical structure.  The locations work their own magic with me, including San Francisco and Bodega Bay, in Vertigo and The Birds, respectively, but the buildings do something more.  The buildings occupy the space, as do the actors, and act in it in their own way.

For me, it’s always more interesting when the building in question actually exists in the real world.  Somehow, it feels more alive because it’s bringing along its own history with it.  Xanadu in Citizen Kane or the modern home in Mon Oncle (or the entire constructed city in Playtime) may be quite impressive sets but they’re not real outside of the movie and, for me at least, that makes a big difference.  Some real buildings make their way into more than one film and become known more for their movies than anything else.  The Griffith Observatory in California is one that has been used on multiple occasions, most famously in Rebel Without a Cause, and is as famous as a “movie star” as it is as a planetarium.  Honestly, the scenes inside the planetarium and on the balcony outside of it, are my favorite parts of Rebel Without a Cause.

The Gare d’Orsay, the former railway station in Paris, is another building of many movies, the two most famous being Orson Welles’ The Trial and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist.  In The Trial, Welles had to use the grand space when no studio sets could be secured and he had to rework the whole feel of the movie since he had written with the intent of small, confined spaces.  He made it work and that station is as much a character to me in the film as Anthony Perkins’ Joseph K.

Two great uses, for completely different end results, of famous hotels occur in Somewhere in Time and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.  The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan and the Timberline Lodge in Oregon are both used in Somewhere in Time and The Shining, respectively, to great effect.  At least the outsides are.  The interior shots for The Shining, for instance, were shot on sets but those sweeping outdoor shots of the hotel work magic.  They immediately transform the Overlook Hotel of the film into an isolated, foreboding place.  In Somewhere in Time, the exterior shots do the opposite: they establish the Grand Hotel as both out of time and inviting in any time all at once.

But for me, the two greatest uses of an established building to create a sense of character come from two very different sources.  One from a novice who never made another movie and one from one of the confirmed masters of the cinema.  The first is the Saltair Pavillion used in Herk Harvey’s one and only movie, Carnival of Souls, in 1962.  The Saltair Pavillion was in its second incarnation, and abandoned, when Herk Harvey drove past in Salt Lake City, Utah and developed in immediate fascination for it.  He filmed Carnival of Souls in three weeks and the Pavillion, spied in the distance as Candace Hilligoss drives into town, makes its presence known throughout.  It’s the most important character in the movie as far as I’m concerned because it inhabits the soul of the lead character played by Hilligoss and draws her in to the revelation of her ultimate fate.  It’s also very isolated and there’s something about an old, isolated building that sets a mood faster than anything else in the filmmaker’s arsenal. With the waters around it receded, it feels out of place and no longer needed.  That it remains seems an unwillingness to leave, to accept its fate.  This ties in beautifully with the lead character who, though she doesn’t realize it, is in the same position.  The second movie uses an established structure for much the same character revelations. though in a different way.  It’s the movie that got me thinking about all of this in the first place. It’s The Music Room, directed by the great Satyajit Ray and released in 1958.


If you’ve never seen The Music Room, I highly recommend it.  Starring Chhabi Biswas as Biswambhar Roy, a once wealthy and powerful zamindar who now resides nominally at his palace but in reality, he lives in his music room’s past.  For the now decaying palace, Ray scouted a decaying palace known as the Nimtita Rajbari.  It had been the residence of Roy Chowdhurys, the actual zamindar who had been the inspiration for the short story upon which Ray based his film.  Much like the Saltair, the Nimtita Rajbari is surrounded by the beaches exposed by receded waters.  It feels isolated and dying, a last repository of Biswambhar Roy’s most cherished memories.  And like the Saltair, it becomes a character in the movie and a very important one.  The Music Room’s opening scenes, as I ended up writing in that piece for TCM, are as effective as the opening scenes of Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard for relaying to the viewer the feeling of something formerly grand, now desolate.  Biswas’ performance works hand in hand with the “performance” of the palace and its surroundings, forming a bond between the two characters that is just as powerful and important as the bonds between Roy and his wife and child, as seen in flashback.  The Music Room is a great movie and a great use of a real life structure given new meaning in art.

Satyajit Ray, Herk Harvey, Orson Welles, and others have made once proud buildings shine again as major characters in their works.  Of course, art directors and set dressers still have to come in and make those buildings work for the movie they’re in and, no doubt, a good artistic team can create anything on the set or in a computer for use in a movie.  But it’s nice to know that occasionally filmmakers use a building that’s already there, waiting for its moment to shine.  Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the real thing.

21 Responses Building the Character, Literally
Posted By Arthur : July 30, 2014 3:46 pm

Love the double entendre titles. I had read that the same building and pool grounds were used in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and SUNSET BOULEVARD. Has anyone ever visited a place or seen a snapshot and felt it was somehow strangely familiar, only to subsequently learn that you had earlier seen it in a movie?

Posted By gregferrara : July 30, 2014 3:54 pm

There are quite a few places that Hollywood uses more than once and that house and pool are two of them. And to answer your question, a couple of years ago I was in the redwood forest of Northern California and came upon a giant cross section with dates on the rings corresponding to history and all I could think was it was just like the scene in Vertigo where Kim Novak points to the dates and says “I was born here and I died here.”

Posted By Richard Brandt : July 30, 2014 3:55 pm

I’m pretty sure I ate at a diner in Hawthorne and later realized it was the diner in PULP FICTION. I also spent a weekend at the Cockatoo Inn, which turns up in JACKIE BROWN.

Posted By James : July 30, 2014 4:41 pm

I lived for a time in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in Manhattan. The climatic chase scene in Coogan’s Bluff (starring Clint Eastwood) was shot there, inside Fort Tryon Park. I first watched the film after moving there, but it was a bit uncanny seeing this location in a film, while living two short blocks away and frequently visiting the park.

Posted By Arthur : July 30, 2014 4:48 pm

When I visited the Griffith observatory and stood on the balcony with the telescope, the locale seemed hauntingly, naggingly familiar. I later remembered that I had seen the film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE before visiting the observatory. What jogged my memory? A repeat viewing of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE!

Posted By gregferrara : July 30, 2014 4:52 pm

I pledge to one day engage in a knife fight at the Griffith Observatory with fellow Morlock, Richard Harland Smith. We will use plastic putty knives.

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2014 7:39 pm

I’d like a front-row seat to that putty knife fight.

Posted By gregferrara : July 30, 2014 8:01 pm

Afterwards, we’ll play a game of chicken by driving Segways into a ditch.

Posted By robbushblog : July 30, 2014 8:03 pm

And why would you do that? “You’ve GOT to do SOMEthing!”

Posted By swac44 : July 30, 2014 8:54 pm

Re-watched The Hudsucker Proxy on the weekend, and was happy to see them use Chicago’s mighty Merchandise Mart for the Hudsucker Building’s street-level exterior and its impressive lobby, which I’d visited only a few months ago. Suits the deco design of the film perfectly.

Posted By Jeanette minor : July 30, 2014 10:56 pm

The first time I ever saw the 1979 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, during part of the foot chase on Market street in San Francisco,They ran past the theatre where I was watching the movie.

Posted By Doug : July 31, 2014 11:03 am

This is a great post, and I appreciate the iconic ‘true’ locations
we come to know through films.
An ‘extremely minor’ independent film was produced in my hometown
over a decade ago; I now live a block and a half away from the main location. It was weird to see places that have already changed, and most that have not.
Though not a “competition”, I think Jeanette’s comment wins the day-to be sitting in the theater like that, watching a chase take place in front of the theater-that would be very cool.

Posted By robbushblog : July 31, 2014 12:56 pm

That’s awesome, Jeanette!

Posted By swac44 : July 31, 2014 2:51 pm

The same thing that happened to Jeanette happened to me while watching the premiere of the low-budget Halifax-shot Canadian cult movie Siege (also known as Self Defence. Set during a police strike, a group of vigilantes decide to threaten the denizens of a local gay bar, whose exterior just happened to be the Khyber Building that included the theatre where the screening was taking place. Thankfully, when the gang entered the building, they headed downstairs (to a non-existent basement, the actual gay bar interior was shot elsewhere), and everyone watching the premiere upstairs breathed a sigh of relief.

You can see the scene about 30 seconds in here, unfortunately, the VHS-to-YouTube transfer is too dark to make much out:

Posted By Brian : July 31, 2014 10:54 pm

The 30th Street Station in Philadelphia has a life of its own and set quite a mood in Witness. Everything from the shadows to the sound seems unique to me at it was well captured in the film.

Posted By Doug : August 1, 2014 12:42 am

In the not too distant future….

Posted By Richard Brandt : August 1, 2014 10:57 pm

If you’ve ever read Walker Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER, his main character opines that no place you’ve been ever seems truly real until you’ve seen it in a movie.

Posted By gregferrara : August 2, 2014 2:24 am

I want to add to the chorus of how cool Jeannette’s experience is. Like watching Blazing Saddles at Graumann’s Chinese.

Posted By george : August 2, 2014 2:49 am

I once saw Altman’s NASHVILLE in Nashville, and after the movie I drove past the Parthenon, where the shooting/climax takes place.

Posted By swac44 : August 2, 2014 12:26 pm

Or watching Taxi Driver on 42nd Street.

Posted By Murphy’s Law : August 9, 2014 2:01 am

Santa Monica Pier has been on television a lot

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