Hollywood on Location reviewed by Times Literary Supplement

During one of the early journey montages in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a series of fly-by aerial shots shows the adventurers hiking single file along rocky cliffs and lofty mountain peaks. For the viewer, these scenes can have two very different – and possibly simultaneous – effects. The first is to draw us deeper into the cinematic world the movie is trying to create: with such grand landscapes, Middle Earth must be a treacherous and magical place, indeed. The second, though, is to pull us out of the story altogether and, in that disrupted moment, consider the logistics that must have been involved in creating those scenes. Where on earth is this place and who identified it as the ideal backdrop? How much of this stunning scenery is natural and how much was digitally enhanced through CGI? How many hours or days of filming did it take them to capture these relatively brief shots? How exactly did the actors travel to places like that snow-covered ridge? And are those the actors themselves or more rugged doubles?

For simplicity’s sake, you could say that one of these effects augments the film’s fiction and the other underscores its reality. While they would seem to exist in a kind of nullifying rivalry, each effect produces their own form of awe – an awe that stems from the sequence having been shot in an actual, identifiable place.

Location shooting, as Joshua Gleich and Lawrence Webb note in their joint introduction to Hollywood on Location, has been treated as something of a catch-all term that is “almost exclusively defined in opposition to studio filmmaking”. Filming on location is assumed to result in something more authentic and less contrived than a purpose-built set. It is assumed to be less extravagant than constructing interiors and exteriors from scratch. And in an era when a film office is a must-have accessory for any self-respecting city, location shooting is also assumed to be a valuable stimulus for local economies beyond the gilded gates of Hollywood.

Yet positioning location shooting as an “alternative practice” to soundstage shooting, rather than a longstanding and integral component of the moviemaking process, Gleich and Webb argue, risks diminishing its importance and misrepresenting its application within that process. Their book therefore conceives of location shooting “not as part of a style or movement but rather as an evolving Hollywood industrial practice” and recounts its history chronologically from 1895 to the present.

When moving pictures were still a nascent form of mass entertainment, filming on location was, well, filming. Sunlight was a necessary source of illumination, as there was no practical artificial lighting powerful enough to properly expose the early film stock. The subject matter was mostly scenes from everyday life (in her opening chapter, Jennifer Peterson tentatively separates it into “scenic and generic outdoor shooting”); cinema’s appeal then lay more in the novelty of the medium than its content. Nor was there much concern about capturing comprehensible sound at a time when films were primarily silent.

Relatively swiftly, however, the narrative possibilities of the emerging medium expanded and began to confound easy taxonomies. Peterson holds up Edwin S. Porter’s Execution of Leon Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) as one example of “what eventually became the dominant, aspirational idea of location shooting in the studio era: fiction films shot in the actual location in which the story is set”. For its part, Execution of Leon Czolgosz used exterior shots of the prison to establish a genuine sense of place before a staged re-enactment of the execution itself.

Another Porter film, The Great Train Robbery (1903), extends this idea with what Peterson dubs the “‘substitute location’ – the practice of using one location to stand for another”. She also teases out – with remarkable concision but far more detail and nuance than can be captured here – the increasing use of Southern California as the substitute location of choice, along with the establishment of dedicated location departments in the 1920s “as a key component of the regularized, compartmentalized workflow of the studio system”.

Never ones to miss a trick, studios and filmmakers were naturally quick to identify location shooting as “not just a strategy for realism but a marketing concept”, as Peterson notes in a section on ambulatory filmmaking. Sheri Biesen takes up a similar thread in her following chapter’s focused look at films such as The Big Trail (1930), Trader Horn (1931) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which were shot across thousands of miles in the American West, in Africa and in the Southern Pacific, respectively.

It is through these representative case studies we are able to see executives and directors begin to clash in earnest over the economics of location versus soundstage filming. They also offer an opportunity to see how technology – for example, the “hulking, unwieldy” 70mm cameras needed for filming The Big Trail in the widescreen Fox Grandeur format – both hindered location shooting and fed its desire for panoramic vistas. Finally, we can spot the birth of another enduring trend, namely, the amplification of a thrilling extrafilmic “making of” narrative to accompany the thrilling diegetic narrative. Studios, writes Biesen, “had a strategic interest in cultivating the idea of arduous and exotic location shoots, for the sake of art, for the sake of majestic splendor and as a marketing ploy”.

Hollywood film production changed during the postwar era, although many of the same economic, technological and aesthetic considerations persisted with regard to location shooting. Gleich and Daniel Steinhart cover roughly the same period (1945–67) but from two perspectives, with Gleich adopting a domestic lens and Steinhart a foreign one. The former briefly traces Hollywood’s shift to a part- studio, part-location “hybrid approach”, one that might be best embodied by the widespread use of rear projection in films from this period. His extended description of the logistics involved in filming Anatomy of a Murder (1959) entirely on location in a small Michigan town is interesting from an anecdotal standpoint, but even Gleich acknowledges it to be an unusual “limit case” in contemporary filmmaking, and his attempts to loop it back into his core argument can seem forced.

Steinhart’s chapter manages to avoid overlap, focusing instead on the overseas “runaway” productions that angered stateside labour unions as well as the continued use of exotic settings as both a stylistic and promotional tool. His concluding analysis of The Nun’s Story (1959), which was shot in the Belgian Congo shortly before the country overthrew its colonizers, serves his key points particularly well.

In his chapter titled “The Auteur Renaissance”, Webb deals with the decade – roughly the 1970s – that perhaps came to cement conventional wisdom about location shooting, whereby its “authenticity, realism, immediacy, contemporaneity, social awareness, imperfection” stand in stark contrast to the “slick artifice and illusionism of studio production”. At the same time, “famously troubled shoots” such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) fed into a perception that associated “extensive location shooting with directorial profligacy, spiraling costs, and ultimately, box-office failure”. Unsurprisingly, location-heavy, zeitgeist-defining films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969) and The French Connection (1971) come under consideration. Combined with technological advances like the Cinemobile studio on wheels, these helped engender a hipper, rawer New Hollywood.

As New Hollywood aged and globalized, big-budget blockbusters like Star Wars (1977), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Batman (1999) returned in large part to the tightly controlled environment of the studio. Incentivized by the regional film commissions and production hubs that were springing up across North America in the hope of benefiting from Hollywood’s profligacy, other productions took advantage of this growing network to film in real places, even if these ended up serving as substitute locations. Meanwhile, a second generation of independent filmmakers arose outside the studio system. Directors such as Richard Linklater, Spike Lee and Kevin Smith created noteworthy films that maximized their impact and tiny budgets by clever uses of location. Noelle Griffis discusses these competing and complementary developments in her penultimate chapter.

With the exception of Julian Stringer’s starchy and tangential – though thankfully brief – closing thoughts on location and its loose relation to CGI, the individual voices in Hollywood on Location come together to provide a consistent, succinct and enlightening history of location shooting.

I wish it were possible to say that Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret would make an excellent and necessary companion volume, but Hunter Vaughan’s diatribe is frustratingly light on what its subtitle appears to promise. Vaughan skims over clear examples of shameless waste and destruction in favour of heaping invented significance on films that loosely fit his elemental theme. An accessible, cogent account of Hollywood’s calculable environmental impact and our complicity in it – one that does not waste time making hyperbolic claims about the Scientist-Hero being a “mythic double for the special-effects auteur” or refer to the “sociocultural contract of screen spectacle” four times over two pages – is sorely needed. This, unfortunately, is not that account.

Eric J. Iannelli is a freelance writer and translator based in Spokane, Washington