Even if California wasn’t home to Hollywood, film makers would flock there for its outstanding shooting locations. Whether you’ve seen them on the big screen or internet for your home, the Golden State’s landscapes alone beg to be filmed. Add some of the world’s most dramatic and beautiful architecture and you’ve got the visual magic Hollywood is famous for.
Some of the most recognizable sites are in and around San Francisco, where they’ve been shooting movies on location since the 1920’s. The Golden Gate Bridge would be famous anyway, but its reputation isn’t hurt by appearances in films ranging from the Alfred Hitchcock classic Vertigo to the animated romp Monsters vs. Aliens. In the action blockbuster X-Men, the Last Stand, the bridge is one of the few (if not the only) landmarks in the world to perform an action sequence, when the villain Magneto levitates the whole structure to get to Alcatraz Island, apparently because he doesn’t have the patience to wait in line with all the tourists for the ferry! And the famous prison island has gotten plenty of screen time, too: The Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz, and The Rock to name a few. The TransAmerica Pyramid is another Bay Area landmark that seems like it can’t help but appear on the silver screen. One of the most memorable portrayals is a time lapse sequence of its construction featured in the film Zodiac.
Landmarks don’t have to be iconic to make great film locations. Los Angeles is chock full of this kind. In the sci-fi classic Blade Runner, several of the Film Noir-inspired interiors are shot in architectural gems not widely known outside the city. Union Station stands in as the retro-futuristic police headquarters. The Bradbury Building’s amazing wrought iron courtyard appears near the film’s end and across the street, the Pan Am Building was used for interiors, too.
LA has its fair share of architectural icons, though. Blade Runner’s stunning special effects cityscapes incorporate shots of the real downtown, notably the Bonaventure Hotel, which also shows us up in films as wide ranging as and This Is Spinal Tap, True Lies, and Mission Impossible III. The Griffith Park Observatory has a long film history, from Rebel Without a Cause to The Terminator and plenty more before and since.
In the 1940’s, Film Noir movies made moody shots of fog-bound San Francisco and LA famous, but one of that era’s most beautiful films took the genre’s trademark high-contrast black and white to California’s Sierra Nevada. In addition to scenes in the two cities, Out of the Past featured Bishop, California. The town was much smaller back then, and you probably wouldn’t recognize the locations today, but the high mountains around it are unmistakable and as striking as ever.
So the next time you take a drive down PCH or up to wine country, keep your eyes open for some familiar landmarks. Many of these may have come and gone but you can always rely on the natural backdrops to stand the test of time. And who knows, you may even spot yourself a movie star or two.