Location, location

The last 18 months or so has seen a bunch of film crews dotting around Glasgow making a movies. A combination of our grid-patterned Victorian-era city centre and tax and other financial incentives apparently makes it viable to shoot here. Add a bit of USian signage and other set dressing at the shoot and a smidge of low-key CGI at the other end and hey presto you have Philadelphia or San Francisco or New York City.

All this is has been a matter of idle curiosity for the average Glaswegian, but they seem to have been getting used to it quickly. There was a lot of fuss the week Brad Pitt came to film World War Z around George Square. Notably less when Halle Berry arrived to film bits of Cloud Atlas round the corner from my work. No-one seems to have known where Scarlett Johannson filmed Under The Skin (the odd one out here, because it’s set in Scotland (or at least the book was)). And the closing of city centre streets for the shooting of The Fast And The Furious 6 (yes…6) came up in conversation mostly as an inconvenience.

Deep down though, do we really believe that Glasgow can be dressed up to look like an American city? The answer is: I don’t know. It’s too obvious to me. I knew to look out for the Station Wagon crash scene in Cloud Atlas (seen very briefly at 4.51 in this trailer) because it was filmed on the street I walk down to get to work. And in the film it looks almost exactly like it looks. It’s only when they turn the camera uphill and you see that they’ve inserted a San Franciso skyline that it really looks any different. In in my case, as a local who knows what that hill really looks like, different means fake.

Same with the World War Z trailer. The first minute or so (the traffic jam and the hordes of zombies overrunning the square) are pretty much all Glasgow. Mostly it’s done with USian road signs and traffic lights, but they’ve CGI’d some of the shots to make the street look longer and the buildings taller, and that just makes it look just so weird to me.

It’s a percentage game of course – wherever you film on location you’re going to have some cinema goer yanked out of the story by recognition, and in the end it doesn’t really matter, but I’d be really interested to hear from folks who go to see these movies. Did you believe these were SF or Philly? Did it even cross your mind to question it?

More to the point – will I be able to force myself to go and see The Fast And The Furious 6 to see if that weirds me out too?

6 thoughts on “Location, location

  1. You know, I’m fine with dressing up locations to look like alternate _worlds_, but cities? Especially cities on the other side of the world? Kinda smells like landscape appropriation. Even if it has gone on for ages, if they’re going to start using major metropolitan centres they’ll be breaking the suspension of disbelief for a large whack of the audience.

    1. Yeah, but by choosing a relatively small, and out of the way city, like Glasgow, I suppose the theory is that the damage is negligible. Same as when a Hollywood A-lister pulls a really dodgy Scots accent. Only the Scots care.

  2. I think the dissonance can go in the other direction, too. Imagine a San Francisco resident sitting there wondering where in the city _that_ street is. Of course, making it a period piece helps with that more than with the opposite.

    I did wonder why they moved the setting of the composer section to Edinburgh from Belgium.

    I’m not a native of Glasgow, but I lived there for a few years. I didn’t realize Cloud Atlas was shot there and when I watched the movie I didn’t catch any of the replacement you mentioned, but now I’m going to go back and watch it again!

    On the other hand, watching the WWZ trailer after reading your post, I can’t help but see Glasgow everywhere. I’m more interested in seeing if I can catch the Counting House than in the action going on. And _knowing_ to look, I do really do a double-take when I see that bridge.

    Or I think, why not just set it in Glasgow and have zombies pouring over the bridge to nowhere?

    1. I know if it was supposed to be set in Glasgow but actually filmed elsewhere I’d spend the whole movie wondering where they’d filmed this bit or that bit. I assume the principle going the other way is that one large metropolitan downtown in a US city looks much like any other; and even most Americans will accept it as Philly or SF if they’re told that’s what it is.

      Btw – I don’t think the bridge in the WWZ trailer is Glasgow. Just the street and the square.

  3. It all comes down to that pesky “suspension of disbelief”, I think. If you see something that strikes you as wrong, it’s distracting; it draws you out of the story. That said, it’s clearly a very personal issue; I’m quite sure that most people (even Glaswegians), while watching Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and the latter episodes of STV’s Rebus weren’t distracted by the little details which gave away the fact that they were largely shot in Glasgow rather than their supposed Edinburgh locations.

    But it’s not just about one city pretending to be another; a few years ago there was a film called New Town Killers, set (and shot in) Edinburgh. Now, I thought the film was a tad too melodramatic (by which I mean that characters frequently acted in ways that suited the plot rather than the other way round), but the main reason that my “suspended disbelief” kept crashing to the ground was that the filmmakers frequently got the geography of Edinburgh wrong. Someone would run down one street, turn a corner and suddenly be on a street a couple of mile away, or one in the wrong direction. They’d say they were going to collect something from a locker at the train station, yet actually go to those in the city’s bus station. (Actually, that’s not that surprising; there aren’t any unmanned lockers at Waverley Station!)

    I don’t suppose there’s anything that filmmakers can do about it, beyond minimising the chance of too many people being distracted in that way.

    1. The dis-connecting the dots thing is a slightly separate issue I think. And I hate it when they do that too – I mean they’ve gone to the trouble of shooting in the right city, it smacks to me of a weird kind of disrespect not to get the details of street layout right just so they can get a prettier street combo (or whatever the reason is) in the chase scene between the flat and the station. And one of the most flagrant abusers of this was always Taggart. Which is just strange.

      Shallow Grave I actually knew was shot in Glasgow. I remember walking past the shoot up in the Kelvinside a few times.

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