San Francisco stars in some of the greatest movies ever made, from dramatic classics like The Maltese Falcon, Vertigo and The Graduate to comedies like High Anxiety and Foul Play, and everything in between. The city's dramatic landscape lends itself to both gritty film noir and colorful romances, pointedly reflecting the heights and depths of passion and crime.
Home to several of Hollywood's leading directors, including George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman, San Francisco should be abuzz with major productions. But the truth is, very few Hollywood movies are actually shot here.
Some productions, like The Hulk (2003) and last year's Rollerball, have used San Francisco as a stop along the way. Even films that prominently feature the city, like The Game and The Wedding Planner, often only send crews for a few days to shoot their 'b-roll,' or exteriors, then hightail it back to a Los Angeles studio. In fact, Coppola, whose brilliant 1974 thriller The Conversation showcased Union Square and other key San Francisco locations, has since abandoned shooting here altogether. George Lucas, who also began his career here in the 70's with the quirky science fiction thriller THX-1138, and American Graffiti, now shoots most of his acclaimed Star Wars series up in Canada [sic, actually Australia, Italy, and Tunisia].
Why? Taking a show on the road to places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Eastern Europe is more common than ever, as the American dollar soars in comparison to those beleaguered currencies. The phenomenon is called 'runaway productions,' and it's taking a big bite out of opportunities for local film crews.
There are, however, some people still committed to making movies in San Francisco. Philip Kaufman's new thriller Blackout, starring Ashley Judd and Samuel Jackson, is currently shooting in locations all around the city. Blackout is next in a line of impressive films on Kaufman's resume, including Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, both of which were shot here.
Robin Williams is another strong supporter of the local film community. San Francisco set the stage for Patch Adams, What Dreams May Come, Jack, Mrs. Doubtfire and the futuristic Bicentennial Man (featuring a revamped, double-decker Golden Gate Bridge). Russell Hosking, a local cinematographer and lighting technician, raves about Williams' presence on set. "He would come to the grip and electric truck and tell jokes all the time. He was always on."
Without the support of these and other local celebrities, the San Francisco film community would be in danger of disappearing altogether. Film production has declined all over the country as a result of 9/11, the economic downturn and the threat of three major industry strikes. On top of all that, the San Francisco scene suffered the dot-com crash, which eliminated most high-paying local gigs. Then in 2001, the popular television series "Nash Bridges" was cancelled, throwing 100 more production crew members into the mix of hungry job-seekers.
One problem is, with Los Angeles just down the road, filmmakers in search of commercial success usually head south and never look back. But the ones who remain have something in common a deep love for this city, and the knowledge that shooting in San Francisco offers rewards beyond the city's photogenic landscape and architecture.
"People are discouraged by a lot of misinformation," says local production manager Frank Simeone. "They think you can't get a hotel here for less than $200 a night. But I just put up an entire cast and crew in a great hotel with a bay view for $75 a night in tourist season. Producers are just buying into a myth."
"San Francisco is criticized for having crews that aren't as efficient," says Hosking, "but they are as good if not better. People are happy living here and appreciate the work more. Crews from L.A. come up and say 'you guys actually enjoy being on set and you're actually friends.' In L.A., people get stuck in a rut and they're bitter. Up here, a job isn't just a paycheck."
"L.A. is like being in a giant university where everyone has the same major," asserts award-winning local director Finn Taylor. "San Francisco is more diversified in terms of which businesses are dominating the atmosphere."
In Taylor's 2001 indie hit Cherish, the director revealed some of San Francisco's best-kept secrets.
"I know parts of the city that look great on film but haven't been overdone places like the Mission district, the Filbert Street steps and Potrero Hill," Taylor explains. In fact, the Potrero Hill neighborhood appears in many movies, despite its low profile. It stood in for Pacific Heights in the Melanie Griffith thriller of the same name and appeared at the end of High Crimes as a perfect spot for Ashley Judd's new law office.
Even a San Francisco purist can take a little poetic license sometimes. When Cherish's heroine Zoe Adler made a mad dash through the city, locals noted the two hours it took her to get from Noe Valley to the adjacent Mission district.
"I shot it that way on purpose," Taylor explains, "as homage to great films like The Graduate, Bullitt, and What's Up Doc. In The Graduate, you see him driving the wrong way on the Bay Bridge."
Taylor's insider's view should please both locals and the uninitiated. "Most movies that are shot here don't show the real San Francisco the Tenderloin or Mission Street," says San Francisco researcher Micheline Duterte. "They use the Palace of Fine Arts or the Bridge, places that are recognizable and look pretty, but they're not authentic. I never see those places."
Duterte strongly believes that movies like The Bachelor, Woman on Top, and Sweet November simply exoticize the city, but there are some Hollywood movies that do present unusual glimpses into San Francisco life. In 40 Days and 40 Nights, Josh Hartnett finds the strength he needs to endure his self-imposed celibacy by reading San Francisco Downtown Magazine. In The Sweetest Thing, life-size puppets taunt Selma Blair in Chinatown.
In 1999, a group of people from the San Francisco rave scene pooled their resources to finance the indie film Groove. Groove's unexpected popularity paved the way for other locals to tell true stories about their city, with the confidence that the world would want to listen. Seeing these images on the big screen makes a big difference to San Francisco movie-goers.
"You can connect with where they are, and it makes it more believable," explains hip-hop teacher Kelly Wright.
"The best is the Star Trek where Spock is trying to orient himself on Columbus Avenue in North Beach and is taken for just another San Francisco weirdo," says historian James Koehneke.
"At the end of Casualties of War, Michael J. Fox gets off the street car and he's right at the top of Dolores Park," describes programmer Matt Masina. "I see that same view every day, so seeing him there really moved me."
Steve McQueen's car chases in Bullitt remind long-time residents of how things looked before the 1989 earthquake. "I love the chase on the old Embarcadero double-decker highway," says Mission resident Everett Harper. "It blocked the entire view of the Bay and it was butt ugly. Knocking that highway down was probably the only good thing that earthquake did."
In Experiment in Terror, video store manager Jim Leal's favorite, the criminal is chased through throngs of baseball fans and eventually captured on the pitcher's mound of Candlestick Park. Leal also loves to watch It Came from Beneath the Sea, where a giant octopus rips the top off the ferry building.
What will guarantee future starring roles for San Francisco in great films like these? "People shoot in San Francisco because you can't duplicate it," says Mike Billington from the San Francisco Film and Video Arts Commission. "From one spot you can see two bridges, two islands, then you turn around and you see cable cars coming down these incredible hills. You can't fake that anywhere."
©2002 San Francisco Downtown