Location – it may not be everything, but it surely counts for something when it comes to film. Location is key, especially when the setting of a movie is its own important, influential character.
It’s hard to say whether any more attention is being paid to where a film is shot than in the past; it’s always been vital, but influenced by money and practicality. The efforts, however, are certainly more noticeable, as scale and scope offer something visually remarkable when witnessed on the big screen. Many directors are partial to reality as opposed to something computer generated, and the green screen takes an occasional back seat to heading out in the wild. The result is sometimes monomaniacal directors putting actors in difficult situations: frigid waters (James Cameron, Titanic), the lawless jungle (Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now), or a fetid cabin (Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead), for example, in order to elicit real emotion and reaction.
A curious thing happens once in a while, however, and it seems to be more prominent of late. Directors, and in turn audiences, want realism, but not actual realism. They want perceived realism; that is to say, we all want to see on the screen what we think a place actually looks like, and not the place itself. When it comes to vistas and expanses and nature (we’re not talking about one metropolis filling in for another), we want picturesque facsimiles – the best possible versions on screen of the real life places where these stories take place.
Let’s take a closer look at some films, new and old, whose settings are pivotal to the story and make for memorable backdrops, but aren’t exactly the places they’re meant to be.
Mad Max: Fury Road
In addition to being an adrenaline-pumping, hellish adventure there and back again, complete with a powerful female heroine who is more noteworthy than the title character, Mad Max: Fury Road features incredible scenery. The desolate landscape and sandy dunes that make up the world of Max Rockatansky are ingrained within the storytelling, but it certainly wasn’t easy to get what was needed.
The fourth film in the series was not shot in Australia like its predecessors, where this not-too-distant future apocalyptic world is set. That’s because a rare rainy season turned the landscape lush, forcing relocation. Instead it’s the dessert of Namibia, teeming with cracked bedrock and windswept red sand dunes, that stands in for a dystopian Australia outback.
While set along the Mississippi River almost 200 years ago, director Alejandro Iñárritu, in all his meticulous nature, traversed the Americas to find the most picturesque location for every scene. Surely the actual setting of the film looks drastically different now, and perhaps Montana is a reasonable stand in. But Iñárritu wasn’t settling for just one spot to film Leonardo DiCaprio grunting and screaming.
He took to the Canadian Rockies, but also flew far south, filming the climactic scene in the Tierra del Fuego region of Argentina, whose neighbour to the south is Antarctica. Of course, it took a while; just like George Miller faced with Mad Max, erratic weather offered greenery instead of snow.
So you want to make a movie set on Mars, but as of this writing, you can’t exactly head over to our planetary neighbor and film on location. So what do you do? Well, you just seek to recreate our perception of the red planet, and so you head to the same spot that everyone else has used for this purpose.
The Martian was shot in Wadi Rum, a desert in Jordan that is perhaps far more famous by look than by name. That’s because Ridley Scott’s Golden Globe winner in the ‘Comedy or Musical’ category took to a location that has been used time and time again for Mars flicks; Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and The Last Days on Mars were all filmed there, and it was also used as a non-Mars alien planet in Prometheus.
The Dollars Trilogy
An iconic trilogy featuring a famed actor who became synonymous with rugged individualism and the American frontier spirit, it didn’t completely subscribe to the American West motif it was showcasing. A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, all starring Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name, were American spaghetti westerns neither shot in the west nor in America.
Italian director Sergio Leone chose to shoot in Spain instead. His reinvention of the genre, initially targeting his own country’s residents, soon spread to America where it became wildly popular and culturally referenced. And Eastwood was pretty much the only American on the cast or crew.
The Coen brothers’ masterful film – one constantly referenced and long beloved in particular for its depiction of a beautiful, haunting setting and the people who inhabit it – was never filmed there.
The award-winning film did not shoot in the titular city of Fargo; in fact, no scenes were shot in North Dakota at all. Yes, much of the film was shot only 150 miles away in Minnesota (they had to move further north to find snow, of course), but it’s still worth noting that a lauded film about a specific, real place wasn’t filmed there.
The heralded TV series that exists in the same universe is shot even farther away, and in another country; FX’s 2014 spin-off is set in Calgary, Alberta. And yet – it works. We believe it, and it all works.