Movies filmed on location often add greater realism not found in those shot on sound stages or studio backlots. From the montage of New York City’s iconic landmarks in Manhattan to Rome’s Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, authenticity can greatly enhance the viewer’s cinematic experience. But sometimes looks can be deceiving, as showcased in our top 10 filming locations at odds with the movie.
10. Body Heat
South Florida served as the backdrop for this 1981 steamy, neo-noir thriller starring William Hurt and Kathleen Turner. However, frigid temperatures in the Sunshine State required the cast and crew to summon all their talents and skills to depict a sweltering heatwave.
Inspired by noir classics such as Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep, Body Heat revolves around a femme fatale (Turner) who plots to murder her wealthy husband with the aid of an unscrupulous lawyer (Hurt). Principal photography began in late November 1980 over a stretch that saw temperatures drop into the low 40s. As a result, the actors had to suck on ice cubes before delivering their lines to prevent condensation, and crew members constantly applied ‘sweat’ with spray water bottles.
Despite frigid conditions, the clever stagecraft proved convincing and helped launch the careers of the lead performers — both relatively unknown at the time. Fellow newcomers Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke also appeared in supporting roles, adding heft to the critically acclaimed film.
9. Saving Private Ryan
Although Ireland remained neutral throughout WWII, the country saw plenty of action thanks to Steven Spielberg’s epic masterpiece in 1998. For starters, there’s the stunning 20-minute long battle sequence, capturing the intensity and carnage of the Normandy Invasion — better known as D-Day. But instead of the beaches of northern France, cast and crew invaded the southeastern Irish coast to re-create the largest amphibious operation in military history.
Due to various issues, including the actual site’s status as a historical landmark, filming there simply wasn’t possible. Fortunately, Ballinesker Beach in County Wexford, about 70 miles south of Dublin, provided a close match to stage the brutal combat that occurred at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
Over $11 million was spent transforming the usually serene Irish shores into a war-torn battlefield. Spielberg’s keen attention to visual detail meant the meticulous construction of Nazi “pillboxes” and barbed wired barricades and splattering thousands of gallons of fake blood.
Bolstered by a stellar ensemble of actors that included Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, and Barry Pepper, the war epic went on to gross $481,840,909 worldwide and earned Spielberg the Oscar for Best Director.
8. Lone Survivor
New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains (Blood of Christ), the southernmost subrange of the Rocky Mountains, owes its name to the reddish glow that occurs at sunrise and sunset. In 2013, a cacophony of hellfire explosions and gunfire replaced the celestial atmosphere during the making of Lone Survivor.
Based on Marcus Luttrell’s biographical book of the same name, the movie chronicles the exploits of a Navy SEALS team ambushed in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan. The film stars Mark Wahlberg in the role of Lutrell, who managed to survive a ferocious siege and subsequent failed rescue attempt, resulting in the deaths of 19 U.S. soldiers.
In real life, Luttrell stands 6’5″ tall. Walhberg doesn’t (more like 5’6”), and northern New Mexico lies roughly 7,500 miles from the battle-scarred terrain of central Asia. No matter. Director Peter Berg relied on combat veterans to serve as technical advisors, whose duties included whipping the actors into shape. Furthermore, a small army of stuntmen took their lumps (and several broken bones) to create an avalanche of falling bodies — action that film critic Andrew O’Hehir described as “war porn.”
7. Good Will Hunting
This 1997 coming-of-age tale shines a spotlight on Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a young blue-collar math whiz from the tough streets of south Boston. But Canada’s biggest city served as the primary filming location, with the University of Toronto and Central Technical High School standing in for MIT and Harvard University.
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Will tells a condescending Harvard student, “How you like them apples?” The location is supposed to be the Bow and Arrow bar in Beantown – but it was actually Toronto’s Upfront Bar and Grill. Sadly, both are now shuttered.
Movie fans, however, can visit the park bench where Will has a heart-to-heart discussion with his therapist (Robin Williams) at Boston Public Garden. The site has become a memorial of sorts to honor Williams, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and died in 2014.
6. Cold Mountain
Set during the American Civil War and loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, Cold Mountain stars an Australian actress (Nicole Kidman), a British actor (Jude Law), and was filmed in Romania. But who needs the authenticity when enticing tax incentives can be had?
Disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein and his company, Miramax, green-lit the production after securing a 10% rebate to shoot in the former communist country. To be fair, the Carpathian Mountains proved to be a worthy substitute for North Carolina’s Appalachians, where much of the story takes place. Moreover, the Transylvania region also had less infrastructure at the time, such as power lines and paved roads, creating an underdeveloped, rural setting.
The film also benefited from the talents of director Anthony Minghella (“The English Patient”) and an Oscar-winning performance by Rene Zellweger, whose spot on southern accent reflected her upbringing in Texas.
Directed by and starring Mel Gibson, Braveheart tells the story (or, rather, a story) of Scottish national hero William Wallace. Aside from a few scenes filmed in Bonnie Scotland, the historical drama was shot almost entirely in Ireland, which included the medieval Anglo-Norman fortress, Trim Castle. Additionally, more than 1,000 members of the Irish Defense Forces were featured in the large-scale battle scenes.
Substituting the Emerald Isle for Scotland was congruent with a narrative rife with inaccuracies, such as anachronistic clothing and military tactics, as well as Gibson’s paltry Scottish accent. The Aussie movie star later justified his vision for the 13th-century warrior: “Some people said that in telling the story, we messed up history. It doesn’t bother me because what I’m giving you is a cinematic experience, and I think films are there first to entertain, then teach, then inspire.”
4. Dallas Buyers Club
Despite having the city’s name in its title, this biopic about AIDS patient Ron Woodruff replaces “Big D” with the “Big Easy” of New Orleans. Matthew McConaughey stars as Ron Woodruff, a womanizing, homophobic cowboy who establishes a drug distribution network, providing AZT to fellow patients afflicted with the deadly disease.
The demanding role saw McConaughey lose 47 pounds (a quarter of his body weight), and co-star Jared Leto shed 30 pounds. For their efforts, both men would take home Oscars.
The movie’s low budget greatly benefited from Louisiana’s hefty 30% tax incentive program. Filming took place over a twenty-five-day period, during which rehearsals were largely excluded, and scenes given limited takes.
McConaughey, a native Texan, provided this insight on the disguised location: “You have to watch the tropical foliage; that ain’t in Dallas. In some places you can see the humidity and the mildew and the overgrowth where Mother Nature takes over in New Orleans.”
While attempting to circumnavigate the world, legendary Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan named the western reaches ‘Mar Pacífico’ (‘peaceful sea’). Nearly 400 years later, director James Cameron also made history, transforming these waters into the treacherous North Atlantic during the making of Titanic.
In 1996, 20th Century Fox built a 17 million gallon outdoor tank that adjoined and overlooked the Pacific Ocean near Playas de Rosarito, Mexico. A demanding shooting schedule followed, creating a hostile environment that further cemented Cameron’s tyrannical reputation.
Several members of the cast and crew fell ill due to spending long hours in cold water and turning the tank into a giant toilet. Kate Winslet suffered several bruises and nearly drowned during a scene in which her coat got caught on a gate while underwater.
Titanic would eventually emerge as the highest-grossing movie of all time, raking in $1.8 billion worldwide. As for his temperamental behavior, Cameron shrugged it off as merely doing his job: “Film-making is war. A great battle between business and aesthetics.”
Christmas movies typically feature heart-warming themes such as love, family unity, and Santa Claus. In 2003, Elf managed to tick all these boxes and more, even though several scenes took place at an abandoned mental institution near Vancouver, British Columbia.
For nearly a century, Riverview Hospital operated under the governance of BC Mental Health & Addiction Services before closing its doors in 2013. The expansive complex later became a popular location for film and TV projects, including Supernatural, The X-Files, and Halloween: Resurrection.
For Elf, a comedy starring Will Ferrell as a fully grown elf in search of his real family, the hospital interiors were used to create a wide variety of sets ranging from a police station to an orphanage. According to the film’s production designer Rusty Smith, “It is one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been in my life.”
1. Journey to the Center of the Earth
Based on the best-selling Jules Verne novel, this 1959 sci-fi movie stars James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl, and “Gertrude the Duck.” The filmmakers at 20th Century Fox selected Carlsbad Caverns in southeastern New Mexico to stage several of the underground sequences. Although the renowned caves provided an exotic setting for the earth’s core, it’s a safe bet that neither humans, reptiles, nor waterfowl could survive in an environment with temperatures hotter than the sun.
Studio executives, eager to match the success of previous Verne adaptations, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days, invested heavily in the project and “filmed in the incomparable magic of CineScope.” The gamble would pay off in spades as audiences flocked to “monstrous” creatures, which in reality, were iguanas with prosthetics glued to their backs and a painted Tegu lizard.