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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

question of the day: How important is it for a film to be shot where it’s supposed to be set?

Alex Proyas, the filmmaker behind Knowing is in a bit of a scuffle with the Australian film agency, Screen Australia, over tax breaks for the film, according to IMDB’s Studio Briefing: Proyas is arging that the film deserves more tax consideration because while it is set in the U.S., the film was shot in Melbourne.

I want to talk not about tax breaks but about what it looks like onscreen when a movie is shot in a different place than where it’s set.
Many locations are fakeable. Some are not. The subway sequence in Knowing is supposed to be set in New York City, but it so obviously is nowhere near New York that it’s laughable… at least to this New Yorker. Not only do the physical locations not look right, but the people don’t look right, either. The escalators down into the subway station simply are nothing like anything in the NYC subway system, and they’re packed with crowds that simply doesn’t look like a New York crowd. The cop whom the Nicolas Cage character stops to talk to in the square outside the station (a square that looks nothing like anything in Manhattan) completely lacks a New York face and New York attitude (and she’s not dressed like an NYPD officer, either).

I don’t mean to imply that these things kill the film — they don’t. Knowing is not a story about New York or about New Yorkers. But in a film that already has a lot of issues with verisimilitude, it’s yet one more thing that rings false.

And it contrasts so startlingly with a sorta-similar sequence in Duplicity, which is also not a story about New York or New Yorkers but uses real New York geography and locations to further character and suspense in its own way. Clive Owen arranges to meet a contact in Grand Central Station, then follows someone out of the station, through the busy streets, and into the department store Lord & Taylor. Not only is that possible — you can walk from Grand Central to Lord & Taylor in a few minutes (unlike those movies that posit that one can walk from, say, Chinatown to the Plaza Hotel in mere minutes — you can’t) — but it borrows the energy of the actual bustling streets in a way that wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else.

What do you think? How important is it for a film to be shot where it’s supposed to be set?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me.)



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  • Gina

    I think it is important that movies be shot where they are supposedly set. Some people never travel and the only hint of other locales that they get is through movies. Also, as a Chicagoan and lord knows how proud we lot are (yes, despite the politics) I love seeing my city on the big screen.

    The Dresden Files on Sci-Fi is supposed to be set in Chicago, per the book and even the show and it is quite obvious that it was not filmed here. . It was filmed in Toronto. On the flipside, The Dark Knight beautifully captured downtown Chicago from angles that I’ll never see – though I think Gotham should look more anonymous.

    Besides, local businesses get a boost from the influx of people during filming and it can also generate tourism revenue for the city in question.

    Sorry for the long post.

  • Ralph

    For some films, is doesn’t matter. But if, for intance, I recognize Chicago in Gotham City, it takes me out of the movie (being brought right back in by Heath Ledger. What a powerhouse performance. How sad.)

    Now, I live in the lovely old city of Delft in the Netherlands, and I recently watched Girl with a Pearl Earring. There are some (very short) scenes shot on the Market Place in Delft, but the rest of the movie is shot elsewhere and it hurts the movie for me. I am constantly wondering “where did they shoot that”, only to realize that it was an entirly different city altogether, or even a movie set.

    Imagine “In Bruges” shot on a soundstage!

    So, all in all, I think it matters A LOT where a movie is shot.

  • Katie Dvorak

    Everyone will probably agree that if they live in a certain location it’s important the film really be shot there because we know the location personally. I can almost immediately tell if a film says it takes place in DC but actually doesn’t, because I live here and know the area. It’s easier to give the film a pass if you’re not personally acquainted with the location.

    I would say if the setting is important to the plot than it’s extremely important that it be shot where it takes place. For the most part you can fake skylines and generic restaurants and buildings but you can’t fake major landmarks or even certain metro stations or some residential areas (you might be able to fake some parts of Georgetown but not Eastern Market) and if you try faking it than people know it.

    So yeah, I appreciate it when they shoot in the real locations…especially if it’s something the film itself is trying to show off.

  • cher

    I think it was called “Angel Eyes”. It was a horrible movie and it was supposed to be set in Chicago. It was so obviously set in Toronto, that I played a round of “spot that landmark”. They had everything in there but the CN tower! I don’t think I paid much attention to the movie itself. I do think that it can hurt the movie, but it depends on the kind of movie. Outdoor action movies, definitely. Cozy domestic movies, or even movies set in some generic town don’t suffer too much I think.

  • y

    I agree with the above that it can matter a lot if the city is a part of it, a big part and shown often. But I think it can hurt even if the city plays a small part. For example, I’ve never been to N.Y., but I know from pictures and things what it looks like, what homes look like, what people are like there (I’ve met New Yorkers in my locale) and if I don’t see the right facade on a residential street I’ll know and it seems cheap to me. I also have a good idea of most regional architecture and it’s pretty important to the story if the setting is wrong and I can spot it. It’s like losing faith in one of the characters being portrayed.

    This goes for TV shows for me too. In terms of setting, “Charmed” (roommate loved it, not me) is supposed to take place in San Francisco, but was filmed in L.A. and it was laughable at how wrong they got it. I know because I live in S.F. that the area shown was clearly L.A. and it really bothered me because architecture and landscape is so important to each idividual place and really can’t be faked when it’s an iconic city.

    Same is true for “Heroes”. The shots of Tokyo in the first season were so bad, they weren’t even driving on the correct side of the street (on the left for real Japan, on the right in Heros). The quality of the light was completely wrong too, train stations, the office building, etc. Granted, I am very familiar with Tokyo as I lived there previously, but still, at least get the cars driving the right way!

    Of course TV shows have much smaller budgets, so I can understand that more than movies. It still seems incredibly lazy though, like they didn’t even try. If the shooting can’t take place in the real city/area at least try to fake it better with camera angles, lighting, something! L.A. cannot stand in for San Francisco or Tokyo (don’t know if Heroes was filmed in LA actually)! This is more important to bigger movies that can afford more.

  • Melinda

    I’m from Melbourne, where Knowing was shot, and i know that when i saw the film all i was concentrating on was where it was set. Having also been to New York, there was startling differences between the two. Australians are really nothing like New Yorkers. The train used in the subway scene was an old Met train, and they are nothing like new york subway trains.
    While i was distracted during the film, i think it was only because i am from melbourne, and recognised it all. I think it wouldn’t have if i didn’t know that, and wasn’t from melbourne. I think there are plenty of films that are filmed in different locations that i wouldn’t have any idea about, and doesn’t distract from it.
    Maryann recognises New York and the discrepencies because she’s from New York, many would not.

  • RogerBW

    I think that MaryAnn’s comments at http://www.flickfilosopher.com/blog/1999/12/end_of_days_and_die_hard_with.html are still valid: not all cities are the same, and if you’re going to go to the trouble of setting your story in “New York” you might as well shoot it there. (It’s not as though End of Days needed to be set in New York to make the story work.)

  • Althea

    I agree with lots of these comments, especially that if the setting is important to the plot you should be able to identify it, whether you know the place well or not. That would be the point of calling attention to the location in the first place. Otherwise it’s a disconnect. Call it Chekhov’s Gun. San Francisco? Where are the hills? DC? Where’s a landmark? If the entire movie is taking place in a neighborhood, and all you were going to see was ordinary houses, it could be shot anywhere and called anywhere, but once you’ve called it San Francisco or Washington DC, you should have a reason for doing so. It’s not absolutely required but will mess with your credibility. What I remember best about The “X-Files” movie is the early scene where Mulder and Scully are somewhere outside of “Dallas” in a large desert-like area with the city skyline in the background, and some mountains in the distance. Snicker, snicker…there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of Dallas, much less the more specific area in the shot. Pfft. I live here. Don’t spose it was what they wanted me to take away.

  • Strangely enough I live very near Baltimore and when I watch shows like The Wire and movies like She’s Just Not Into You where the location is mentioned you see more than just the stock cut scenes but you recognize things like building silhouettes and distinctive architecture.

    But sometimes when they do some filming on location and others not it jars you out of the narrative. In the movie Patriot Games you see Harrison Ford driving through Annapolis talking to his wife who is driving on a highway that looks nothing like any highway near Annapolis (but of a type that is plentiful in L.A.).

    I have to agree, that if the location matters to the narrative it is important that you either disguise the faux location really well (like Mad Men’s New York in L.A.) or don’t pretend you are someplace particular.

  • Kenny

    I generally agree.. if a movie is set in a particular place, then every effort should be made to shoot it on location.

    Braveheart was shot mostly in Scotland.. and people from outside probably didn’t notice, but the large battle scenes were shot in Ireland. The countryside is strikingly different..

    For me, the most a truly authentic setting lends so much to a movie. If you see something that you recognise.. something that shouldn’t be there if the setting is accurate, then it suspends the illusion. (A good example would be scenes where Starbuck is driving a Hummer in BSG.. wtf?)

  • David C

    “DC? Where’s a landmark?”

    This is actually the funniest aspect of DC location shooting for me (the current season of *24* being a superb example.) To quote another blogger:

    So, there I was walking along the Mall for no particular reason, just like people always do on teevee shows set in Washington, but which real District residents absolutely never do because the Mall is a featureless void that sucks out your soul, warps all sense of perspective, and slows time like the event horizon of a black hole, an endless expanse where you can wander for eternity surrounded by travel-numbed Kansans and Japanese tourists, barely sustaining yourself from one facade to the next with $20 hot dogs and $9 sodas.

    http://absorbascon.blogspot.com/2008/01/pep-4-incident-on-mall.html

    For starters, most people in the Washington area both live and work outside the District (and in admittedly less-photogenic places.) And people *in* the District seldom have cause to have photogenic conversations near the monuments, which amusingly happens all the time on *24*, which really wants to get across the notion “yes, we really and truly filmed a lot of stuff in the District!”

    I was surprised to see them actually filming on the Metro system (historically a big no-no for some reason, leading to lots of giggle-inducing scenes as in No Way Out of people entering a Baltimore subway train via a non-existent Georgetown Metro station.) The shot clearly showed a character leaving DC for Arlington (Jefferson Memorial and Potomac River in the background), but apparently he doubled back to the District at some point.

    It’s also amusing to see what a large “Steam ‘n’ Sparks Industrial Zone” DC has in 24, and not at all in real life….

    Anyway, digressing a lot from the main point. I don’t know New York well at all, and probably don’t notice when it’s “done wrong” all that much. But I *do* notice instinctively when New York (and, probably, other regions) is done *right*. When you have both real location shooting *and* filmmakers who have a genuine feel for the location, it comes across in a way you can’t duplicate in Toronto or Vancouver.

    (Incidentally, what would be so bad about *setting* more things in Toronto or Vancouver? Or, if an American locale is necessary, in a comic book-style “The City?”)

  • Ted

    I enjoy the genuine locales. I play a game in trying to guess “what city is this” For those that I’m familiar with it adds credibility and for those I’m not, it’s instructive.

    Now for the purely personal angle: I was raised in NYC, Greenwich Village, and later lived across the Hudson in NJ. I now live in the mountains of northern Arizona and the NYC/NJ flicks are a big nostalgia trip for me. It’s off-putting to watch a “NYC” flick and you just know it’s really Toronto.

    HBO’s “Soprano’s” is a good example. I was in law enforcement in Essex County, NJ for 25 years and the authenticity of the NJ locations means a lot to me.

  • What I remember best about The “X-Files” movie is the early scene where Mulder and Scully are somewhere outside of “Dallas” in a large desert-like area with the city skyline in the background, and some mountains in the distance. Snicker, snicker…there are no mountains within hundreds of miles of Dallas, much less the more specific area in the shot. Pfft. I live here. Don’t spose it was what they wanted me to take away.

    Yes, I remember that. I suspect there wasn’t one local critic who passed up the opportunity to ridicule the movie for that scene alone.

  • MaryAnn

    That’s like the snow-capped mountains of “the Bronx” in *Rumble in the Bronx.*

    Incidentally, what would be so bad about *setting* more things in Toronto or Vancouver?

    What? But that would be — *gasp* — foreign! Americans won’t watch any foreign stuff!

    Unless it’s somebody funny hanging from the Eiffel Tower (or Big Ben), or somebody awesome chasing a buy guy around it. That’s okay. But places like Vancouver or Toronto must behave themselves and pretend to be properly American.

  • mortadella

    I think it depends on the tone of the film. In some cases, the featured city qualifies as a character in a film (like New York in Scent of a Woman), or is responsible for many of the characters’nuances (like the Cajun cops in The Big Easy, or the L.A. based wastoids in Repo Man).

    Othertimes, what is going on inside the characters’ heads is more signifigant than the setting.
    It’s more important that the “city” reflects the character’s inner drama, like in say, Eyes Wide Shut. It was suppose to be New York, but it was shot in Canada, I believe. I don’t think WHERE it was shot
    was important
    because the main protagonist was experiencing an almost dream-like journey instigated by a shattered sense of security that plagued his thoughts.

    Everything in that film had that uncanny Stanley Kubrick visual touch,which colored all the scenes. Otherwise, that story could have taken place anywhere.

  • Gee

    I would love to have seen Kevin Costner’s ‘Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves’ in a cinema, just for the bit where he arrives at the White Cliffs of Dover. It’s hysterical!

    He says something like ‘tonight we dine with my father’ and then, next scene, he has apparently walked to Hadrian’s Wall, 600 miles away, and then (!) he ends up in Nottingham several hundred miles south of Hadrian’s Wall.

    All in one day! On foot!

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