Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Hollywood Northwest?

Last week the 60th Cannes Film Festival opened, and once again I was not there. Today the 33rd Seattle International Film Festival opens, and once again I am not there. So what else is new?

But at least I can travel mentally to Seattle. It’s easier on the body than a long-haul flight. And a lot cheaper too. In fact, other than not tasting the food or the coffee or microbrews or seeing the movies, it’s exactly the same!

Okay, that was a pointless exercise. Let’s try this. One of my past columns that has surprisingly and consistently gotten a lot of hits was the one I wrote about the movies that had been at least partially filmed in my native Kern County in California. I have also written on various occasions about visiting locations where filming has been done here in Ireland. But I haven’t really gone over the numerous movies that have been set in or filmed in Seattle. And there are quite a few of them. Fortunately, such an exercise is simple enough, thanks to a web page at called “Filmography in Seattle—A Snapshot History,” crediting NW Arts Encyclopedia: Nesholm Family Foundation. (Sources cited are Seattle on Film by Randy Hodgins and Steve McLellan, the IMDb and the City of Seattle Mayor’s Film Office.) It discusses some 35 films shot in the Seattle area, appending a baker’s dozen of additional titles at the end.

If you asked any randomly selected person on the street anywhere in the civilized world to name a movie that was about or made in Seattle, there is one obvious answer that you would get. It would be Nora Ephron’s 1993 romcom Sleepless in Seattle. This is probably because it is the only mainstream Hollywood feature film that I know of that actually has Seattle in the title. (The only other one I can think of is 1953’s Those Redheads from Seattle, starring Rhonda Fleming, Gene Barry and Agnes Moorehead, which was actually set in Alaska.) And Ephron’s movie was not only fairly popular, but there was something about the title that just caught people’s fancy. It is also a good example for pointing out a fixation that Seattle people (and probably people generally in places where a fair number of films have been shot) have about geographical continuity. In conversations and in movie reviews, Seattleites cannot help pointing out in movies like this one how it is impossible for, say, Tom Hanks to be walking in this neighborhood one second and then three miles away in the next second. Since movies like this are not documentaries, the filmmakers obviously feel free to juxtapose locations in any way that suits them or, they feel, looks good on screen. But locals always seem to get perturbed about how impossible the sequence of locations is. Chalk this up to a charming localism that persists no matter how big Seattle gets.

The earliest Seattle movie cited by HistoryLink is 1933’s Tugboat Annie, in which Marie Dressler, in the title role, piloted her boat around Puget Sound. Her son was a very young Robert Young, but his father (played by Wallace Beery) didn’t particularly know best because he seemed to be drunk most of the time. There is a three-decade gap until the next cited movie, which may well be the second-most-mentioned Seattle movie by our hypothetical person on the street (if he or she would be old enough). That would be the 1963 Elvis Presley vehicle It Happened at the World’s Fair. The 1962 World’s Fair, which gave the city the Space Needle and other enduring facilities, was a backdrop for the usual Presley foray into weighty drama and social issues—like foiling a smuggling ring and The Pelvis trying to hook up with an attractive nurse. (He also got kicked in the shin by an extremely young Kurt Russell.)

A couple of years later Sydney Pollack made a drama about a psychology student at the University of Washington trying to save the life of a housewife, on the other end of the phone line, who has attempted suicide by overdosing. It was called The Slender Thread, and the student was played by Sidney Poitier and the housewife by Anne Bancroft. Also on hand were Telly Savalas as a doctor and Ed Asner as a cop.

The 1970s was a rich decade for memorable Seattle-set films. James Coburn had the title role in Harry in Your Pocket as a master thief who brings cute couple Michael Sarrazin and Trish Van Devere into his gang. Walter Pidgeon, as another criminal, stole the show, and then-mayor Wes Uhlman had a walk-on as hapless mark. Seattle was also the scene for romance between Navy sailor James Caan and pool hustler Marsha Mason in Cinderella Liberty, when they met in one of the always romantic bars on First Avenue. The Emerald City was rife with corruption in John Sturges’s McQ, in which honest cop John Wayne tried to solve the murder of his longtime partner and best friend. Eddie Albert was the police captain and Diana Muldaur the somewhat less-than-grief-stricken widow. As far as I know a bar in Pioneer Square still marks the location where a key scene was filmed. The Space Needle was used as a location to dramatic effect in the opening of Alan J. Pakula’s classic paranoid thriller The Parallax View. It is the scene of a brazen political assassination, which is followed by a ruthless, murderous cover-up. It is up to investigative reporter Warren Beatty to sort things out in this flick clearly inspired by the myriad conspiracy theories born of the JFK assassination. Less memorable was Scorchy, summed up by Leonard Maltin as a “tawdry action film,” which starred Connie Stevens as an undercover Seattle policewoman. In The Changeling (no relation to the upcoming Clint Eastwood flick), George C. Scott moved into a Seattle mansion that didn’t like people. UW parapsychology prof Barry Morse was contacted for assistance.

The 1980s included several movies that I had actually forgotten (or never realized) were set in Seattle. These include Frances, the biopic that gave Jessica Lange serious acting cred, which has the titular heroine, actor Frances Farmer, getting electric shock therapy at Western State Hospital. In WarGames, a young Matthew Broderick nearly causes nuclear Armageddon with his computer. In Twice in a Lifetime blue-collar guy Gene Hackman leaves Ellen Burstyn for Ann-Margret in a fictional Seattle suburb that was actually filmed in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. And in Bob Rafelson’s Black Widow, fed Debra Winger matches wits with serial husband killer Theresa Russell. In David Mamet’s House of Games, Mamet’s wife Lindsay Crouse played a Seattle psychiatrist who finds herself in over her head when she gets mixed up with a professional gambler. In The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jeff and Beau Bridges played piano-playing brothers split asunder by Michelle Pfeiffer. In Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, John Cusack wooed Ione Skye. Crowe’s links to Seattle were well established since he married Nancy Wilson of the Seattle band Heart. A few years later he would make Singles, which explored the life of Seattle’s twentysomething demimonde, centered on an apartment complex on Capitol Hill, and featuring stars Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon as well as a soundtrack full of the then-inescapable Seattle sound.

Eighties movies that I did remember clearly being set in Seattle include Harry and the Hendersons—mining family comedy from the Pacific Northwest Sasquatch/Bigfoot legend—and Alan Rudolph’s neo-noir curiosity Trouble in Mind, set in a place called Rain City but which looked strangely like Pioneer Square. The film was notable for having the actor Divine play a male character.

Other notable movies from 1990s, besides Sleepless in Seattle and Singles, included Dogfight, which starred River Phoenix and Lili Taylor and was filmed in Seattle even though it was set in 1960s-era San Francisco. Curtis Hanson’s thriller The Hand That Rocks the cradle featured actual Seattle morning TV hosts Cliff Lenz and Penny LeGate playing themselves. In 1993, European director George Sluizer remade his classic thriller The Vanishing, transferring its key location from a roadside stop on a French autoroute to a truck stop on Interstate 90, east of Seattle. A year later, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (a movie that a friend of mine was actually a production assistant on), Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda played a Seattle couple who discover their son is the next Dalai Lama. In flashbacks, Keanu Reeves played Buddha. And it was at a Seattle computer firm that Michael Douglas sued his boss, Demi Moore, for sexual harassment in Disclosure.

The list of movies either filmed in or set in Seattle (or both) goes on and on. A lot of movies seem to be set in Seattle because it was cheap to film in Vancouver and Seattle sort of looks like Vancouver. Sometimes Seattle is a stand-in for New England, as in Practical Magic or that TV movie about Jackie Onassis.

If I had to pick one movie that, for me, captures the sometimes quirky, sometimes dark, sometimes beautiful quality that for me is the greater Seattle area, I think it would be the oddball David Lynch film that was simultaneously European-style art film and network TV pilot. I refer, of course, to the saga of murdered prom queen Laura Palmer, Twin Peaks—and by extension its prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Making use of such locations as Snoqualmie Falls, North Bend, Carnation and Vashon Island, Twin Peaks created a mythical world that somehow echoed the primeval mystery of the forests and mountains of Puget Sound country. It was also a funhouse mirror view of America in general, but there was something specifically Northwestern about its ambiance. The weekly series lost a bit of that quality, perhaps because it was filmed mainly on sound stages in Los Angeles.

Apart from all that, perhaps the best use of a Seattle landmark in a movie was the sight gag at the beginning of Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Dr. Evil’s new lair turns out to be the Space Needle, festooned with a giant Starbucks logo.

-S.L., 24 May 2007

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