Mel Gibson as Lt. Col. Harold G. Moore leads his men in the first major engagement between U.S. and Vietnamese forces. The battle took place in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The area around Fort Hunter Liggett, Calif., doubled for Vietnam in Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers.
Hawaii often doubles for the Amazon or other jungle settings, Mendocino County, Calif., has represented New England, and some filmmakers have learned that, even in this global age of runaway production, greater Los Angeles can substitute for anywhere, with a minor boost from computer graphics imagery.
"This movie," says director Gary Ross of his summer hit Seabiscuit, "is a poster child for shooting in and around Los Angeles. We shot all of Mexico in Pomona, where there's a vintage racetrack from the 1930s. Everything was perfect for the foreground elements, so we could CG in the background.
"We doubled a huge amount of locations. Olvera Street in downtown L.A. was the Baltimore City Fire House," he added. "We put trolley tracks down in Long Beach, and it became 1910 San Francisco. We used Cajon Ranch out in the Lancaster/Palmdale area for Montana. We used the vintage train station in Fillmore for train stations in St. Louis, Albuquerque and Chicago. We just changed the dressing, and one train station suddenly became different than the last. We used Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks for Northern California. We also doubled elsewhere. We shot Kentucky for Pimlico Race Course and for a country road in upstate New York."
U.S. locations can even be used successfully to stand in for foreign locales. One of the most innovative recent examples of this may be director Randall Wallace's decision to shoot the climactic battle sequences of last year's We Were Soldiers at Fort Hunter Liggett, with this California location substituting for Vietnam.
"We originally discussed shooting this in Southeast Asia," Wallace said. "But one of the problems about shooting in places like that is the reliability factor. I'd heard so many horror stories from people who have made deals, shipped everything over there and then on the day they're ready to do something, somebody shakes them down for money. We knew that wasn't going to happen here in America and with the places we were choosing.
"Also, the terrain here is exactly like the terrain in Vietnam where the battle actually occurred. It surprised a lot of people to find that the Central Highlands of Vietnam were virtually identical to what we found in California," he added. "We had to work hard to adapt that landscape. We watered a great deal because it was a dry environment. We planted a lot of things there, and in spite of the fact that we set off hundreds of gallons of gasoline in napalm explosions, and we tramped all over that field, we planted much more than we damaged and left the place better than when we found it."
Besides the similarity to the actual Vietnamese location, Wallace said other factors, such as proximity to a large Vietnamese community in San Jose from which to draw actors and extras, as well as the easy access to Los Angeles' wealth of equipment and crews, sealed Fort Hunter Liggett as his location.
"I love shooting in America," Wallace said. "The American crews are enthusiastic, they love what they're doing, love to work, and I just felt thrilled to be able to use an American crew. If we decided to use extra cameras for a setup, I was able to be spontaneous about what I wanted to do. If I knew it a day or two in advance, [cinematographer] Dean Semler could get on the phone and bring in extra cameras, extra camera men and it would be there the next morning."
And across the country, filmmakers have also found the land extremely adaptable. For instance, Kristin Erwin, film commissioner for the Greater Cincinnati Film Commission, said her city has hosted 32 features since 1991 or a couple years after Cincinnati served as the beginning of the road trek for Barry Levinson's DGA Award-winning Rain Man. Director Steven Soderbergh used Cincinnati as Louisville for Traffic, although the real Louisville was just a few miles over the river and through the woods.
Fillmore, California's train station doubles for stations in St. Louis, Albuquerque and Chicago in Gary Ross' Seabiscuit
Filmmaking communities throughout the country report that even when they manage to draw productions they frequently hear the phrase, "We looked at Toronto and Vancouver."
Baltimore usually stays Baltimore, said the city's film commissioner, Rose Greene, because its buildings are too low and its streets too clean for grit-wise metro productions. But Philadelphia has doubled for New York or New Jersey, Chicago can masquerade for many locales, and director Barbet Schroeder shot his Michael Keaton fronted Desperate Measures with downtown Pittsburgh doubling for downtown San Francisco.
Both Pittsburgh and Chicago have great adaptability. "The secret of Pittsburgh is that you can shoot for many downtown areas, and 20 minutes later be in rural farmland," said Dawn Keezer, director of the Pittsburgh Film Office. But turnabout is fair play, and Chicago can make the same claim — scenes in rural Pennsylvania for U.S. Marshals and 2nd unit work on Punxsutawney, Pa.,–set Groundhog Day were shot outside the Windy City. "We have nice rolling hills, similar to Pennsylvania," said Bob Hudgins of the Illinois Film Commission.
Of course, Chicago and its environs have stood in quite often for New York, but also for Tokyo, Miami, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Texas and Omaha Beach.
"Wrigley Field is used a lot and you've seen it in Babe, The Natural, Rookie of the Year, A League of Their Own and other movies. But when they made Bleacher Bums, which was set specifically in Wrigley Field, the producers shot it in Toronto. That was hard to take."
(Top) Oahu, Hawaii, doubled for the jungles of West Africa in director Antoine Fuqua's Tears of the Sun. Fuqua (right) discusses a scene with actors Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci (below) One of the lush Oahu settings that doubled for Africa in director Antoine Fuqua's Tears of the Sun
Director Alan Rudolph is emphatic on the point that major products stay on American locations. "You have these $50 million and $60 million productions going to South Africa for supposed tax incentives," Rudolph said. "But after everything's counted, they end up saving little on the below the line to travel all over the globe."
Sometimes, filmmakers just can't find the locations they like in the story's actual setting. Producer Jim Wilson and director Luis Mandoki had been location hunting in the Carolinas, the setting for Message in a Bottle. Becoming disheartened, they were sitting in a Starbucks when Wilson turned to Luis and said, "I know where the perfect location is for this story: Maine. The coastline's rockier there in general, but not on Popham Beach, which was where we shot. We ended up shooting the whole picture there."
Wilson recently finished directing the Queens, N.Y.-set Whirlygirl in Connecticut. "We shot in New Haven around Yale," he explained. "We found a vintage set for a boys' school called Avon Old Farms outside Hartford. So, I went around Connecticut and found my locations, and we spent eight weeks in Connecticut. It substituted nicely for Queens."
But location scouting and locations themselves can even dictate the story. According to Wilson, because they couldn't find enough Native American Comanches who spoke their original language in and near Oklahoma, director/producer Kevin Costner and writer Michael Blake changed the tribe to the Sioux and the location to the Dakotas for the DGA Award-winning film Dances With Wolves.
Although Wilson has produced movies in 25 countries, he says he believes heartily in location doubling. "I shot Rapa Nui on Easter Island, the most remote habitable island on Earth, 2,500 miles off the Chilean coast, but it was costly and difficult. In the end, Catalina or Hawaii would have been just fine."
Hawaii has been just fine for many filmmakers, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. "There are advantages in Hawaii being five hours from Los Angeles and part of the United States," said Hawaii Film Commissioner Donne Dawson. "You're never an hour or two from a five-star hotel. And the Big Island has 11 of the world's 13 climate zones. We're not just palm trees and beaches."
But they help when replicating West Africa for the Antoine Fuqua-directed Tears of the Sun, the Congo for an episode of ER, the Brazilian Amazon for The Rundown, Southeast Asia, Costa Rica, Polynesia or even Jurassic Park. "Of going abroad where political instability and even drinking the water presents problems, Hawaii is the answer," Dawson said. "We've been doubling for South America, Africa, the Philippines and Korea for years, but we took a dramatic step forward after 9/11."
There are filmmakers for whom nothing but the real thing will do, like producer Saul Zaentz, a three-time Oscar recipient for best picture. "My pictures, we shoot them wherever they occur — Prague, Oregon, Alabama. You can't get the Amazon anywhere else than the Amazon," Zaentz said.
Still, Hollywood is greatly about illusion. "We were going to go around the world to film troubled hotspots for the Michael Jackson video Heal the World," said Vincent Joliet, executive producer of Pytka Inc., the L.A.-based commercial and video maker fronted by director Joe Pytka. "We were going to go to Northern Ireland, the Sahara, to the American South — all based on news photos that we would see in The New York Times. Then, we ultimately shot it all in and around Los Angeles. Not necessarily because it was cheaper, but because L.A. can substitute for practically anywhere."
A California fireman approaches the flames
While nature often provides a valuable asset to filmmakers in the form of dramatic landscapes like Monument Valley or Vasquez Rocks, it can just as easily take back what it has given in the form of naturally occurring disasters. Such was the case on the final week of October 2003 when wildfires ravaged Southern California causing mass evacuations and devoured man-made structures by the hundreds.
Some film production facilities in the area became casualties including those at Big Sky Movie Ranch located just north of Simi Valley. The Ranch was home to production dating from Gunsmoke and The Miracle Worker, to Little House on the Prairie and Quantum Leap. DGA Lifetime Achievement Award winner Martin Scorsese's production of the Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator, was forced to relocate shooting to Long Beach after exterior sets were damaged. Other nearby facilities such as Santa Clarita Studios — located only two miles from one of the edges of the fire — were able to continue work on productions like Carnivale and CSI, but were on full alert due to its proximity.
With the exception of an NFL Monday Night Football game, which was forced to relocate its production team to Tempe, Ariz., instead of the planned San Diego venue, The Aviator was the only production directly affected.
A Warner Bros. statement called the disruption a "minor inconvenience" in light of those families who had lost everything to the flames.
At the time of this article's printing, the fires continued to burn, with the region designated a major disaster area and the projected costs to be in the billions.