Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Want To Be In The Movies!

I looked both ways, walked across a gravel road, stepped over a chain and strolled right past a sign that just might have said “no trespassing” (man, my eyes are getting bad), and I was in a cornfield. On the edge of a cornfield, to be precise, on a path that had seen vehicular traffic at some point, but not in a while. It was a typically sweltering summer afternoon, and I was in southern Virginia, day-tripping out of Washington, DC, with Cooler friend Hokahey. Amongst tall grass and barbs I walked quickly, somewhat out of fear of being seen, but mostly with excitement for what I hoped I was about to lay eyes on. Down the path we went, ducking branches here and there. Then around the bend. And there it was!

It was the modest home of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. Well, not really. Such a structure from the early 1600s no longer exists, but this dwelling – built almost 400 years later – was equally historic, at least for me. This was the home of John Rolfe and Pocahontas as portrayed by Christian Bale and Q’orianka Kilcher in 2005’s The New World. This was an abandoned Terrence Malick movie set. I was there.

How I got there is a story for a little later. First let me address why I’m telling this story now: Over the past 24 hours I have read three stories that relate to famous film locations. At the blog she coauthors with David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson writes of visiting Petra, where Indiana Jones went to find the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. At Film In Focus, Caveh Zahedi writes of $585, 10-hour Vertigo landmark tours (he settled for the $285, 5-hour variety). And on the wire there’s the story of officials in Salzburg blocking plans to make a hotel out of the former home of the family von Trapp. In this latter case, we’re talking about the actual home, not the shooting location, as I understand it. But without The Sound Of Music, it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be such interest.

Why do film locations cast such a magic spell? New York has an abundance of bus tours that will take the geeky (and the lazy) past sundry famous exteriors from films like Manhattan and TV shows like Sex And The City. Personally, I can’t imagine doing something so, well, fanny-packish. But on my first trip to New York a few years ago, you’d better believe that I swung by the Dakota, the gothic apartment complex from Rosemary’s Baby (and also the site of John Lennon’s assassination, and just across the street from Central Park – so it’s not like it’s a limited thrill). I don’t particularly like Rosemary’s Baby, but I had to go. I wanted to feel like I was walking in a movie.

It’s not a unique desire. Then again, whereas Zahedi’s tour was all about enjoying the San Francisco-area locations through a Vertigo filter, Thompson insists that she didn’t trek all the way to Jordan in an act of cinemania. I believe her. Petra was recently named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. But that doesn’t mean Thompson made it out of Petra without thinking about a certain whip-cracking adventurer in a fedora. For a movie fan, that would have been impossible. I had a similar experience a few years ago when I went to the ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, which provided the added benefit of geeking out over a visual I’d seen countless times in my youth: To stand on Temple 4 is to be amidst the secret rebel base from Star Wars. Way cool!

I don’t think there’s anything odd about wanting to walk through film history. But what I find fascinating in my own experience is how frequently these reality-made-fiction locations trump truly historic places. For example: The day Hokahey and I made it to The New World’s Rolfe house, we also visited Civil War battlefields at Fredericksburg and Petersburg, the latter including the site of The Battle of the Crater, dramatized in Cold Mountain. As if that weren’t history enough, the Rolfe house itself, built expressly for the film, is on the grounds of Berkeley Plantation, which is touted as “Virginia’s most historic plantation,” and with good reason. Berkeley Plantation is the site of the first “official” Thanksgiving in 1619, the birthplace of William Henry Harrison and the place where “Taps” was composed. All pretty nifty. But for me and Hokahey, nothing beat the Rolfe house.

It’s the only reason we went to Berkeley Plantation, which otherwise was 45 minutes out of our way. Just to be safe, a call was placed before we made the diversion, confirming a vague mention on the Berkeley Plantation website that the minor piece of cinema history remained on the grounds. “Oh, sure,” a voice on the other end assured us. “And we can see it?” we confirmed. “Yeah, come on down.” And so we did. About an hour later, the nice woman in the souvenir shop was running my credit card for a self-guided tour of the grounds as she informed me otherwise: “Oh, no. The house is here. But it’s not on tour. You can’t see it.”

Tired from our journey, this news was more than disappointing. It made Hokahey and me positively cranky. “Did she gesture?” Hokahey asked, wondering if we might be able to sniff out the Rolfe house among 1,000 acres. No, she hadn’t. But we aren’t the type to give up. For close to an hour, Hokahey and I walked every inch of the self-guided tour grounds, no doubt looking foolish as we made only passing glances at the supposed must-see landmarks in favor of staring off into the distance, trying to spy evidence of our coveted relic. The Rolfe house was nowhere to be seen. Driving down the long gravel road, headed back toward the highway, we talked it out: “Okay. This place needs to be far enough away from the mansion so as to be free of power lines. And it’s by an open field, we know that. And it would probably be near an access road where the trucks could get the equipment in.”

That last sentence was barely out of my mouth when we spotted what looked like the remains of an access road. Leaving the rental car running, I dashed out the door and sprinted through some trees to the outskirts of a field. From there, I saw a small rooftop a few hundred yards away. It might only be a maintenance shed, or it might be something more. I parked the car in the most secluded spot I could find, and off we went.

You know the rest. For 30 minutes or so, we basked in the surroundings. We walked inside the house. We scaled its stairs. We laughed at ourselves for expecting the faux well to be a real working one. And for a brief time we were transported, not to the early 1600s but to someplace even more special: Movieland.

And so now I ask you, Cooler readers: What’s your favorite film location you’ve visited in real life? Which movie locations would you like to visit? Which locations of pure movie magic (worlds created via backlots, soundstages, green screens, etc) would you most like to visit if it were possible?


Allison said...

I love your story! That is so cool.

So, I made a point to go to the small bar in San Diego that the final scene of Top Gun was filmed. But, I have to say, growing up and loving things like Goonies and Little House on the Prairie, I would rather be at a former set that isn't open to the public. Like the schoolhouse with the little individual chalk boards from Little House or on the ship from Goonies.

When I worked at Fox, I would wander around the lot at lunch and see all the sound stages where their shows are filmed and it was always so awe-inspiring. I love that feeling!!

I want to be in movies too! How about Allison and Jason make a porno.

Was that out loud? J/K, of course. :)

Richard Bellamy said...

Finding John Rolfe's farm was perhaps the most exciting movie location adventure - especially since we weren't sure of success and then there it was - and we were all along with it. Being THERE we saw many angles and details that were not shown in the cut version of "The New World" which most people saw in theaters. An exciting thing about the new "Extended Cut" is that it shows more of what we saw during our visit there.

Just about as exciting was when I found Bronson Canyon, also called Bronson Quarry, in the Hollywood hills. After much driving around - the guide book sent me on a wild goose chase - I finally found a vistor's center in Griffith Park, where the canyon was supposed to be. The attendant had no idea where it was! Ah, but they had a relief map of the hills - and there - outside the park - was "Bronson Quarry." I found the general area, walked up a desolate trail, turned the corner, and there it was! A tunnel more than a cave, this place has appeared in the Batman and Star Trek TV series, in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts," the original "Invasion of the Body Snatcher's" and, most importantly for me, in "The Searchers." In the mouth of this "cave," John Wayne snatches up Natalie Wood and says, "Let's go home." Wow! I could see the slope where Ethan Edwards rides down after Debbie. I could stand where John Wayne stood.

Another exciting location experience was seeing the filming of three different scenes - three different locations - in San Francisco of the "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home."

But I would rather have seen what I'm very jealous that one of my student's saw. His family has lots of property on the Chickahominy River where they saw them build the set for Jamestown and where they watched the scene in which the ships arrive in "The New World"!

I wish! Still, finding Rolfe's farm and Bronson Canyon were memorable experiences

Jason Bellamy said...

Allison: I think I've been to the same bar in San Diego. Though isn't it a BBQ ribs place? I didn't know the "Top Gun" scene was filmed there before I went there. Walking into the joint was light entering the Twilight Zone. I'd been there before, only I hadn't.

Oh, and congrats on managing to mention "Goonies" and "porno" in the same comment. That takes talent. Is it any wonder Laef loves you?

Joel Bocko said...

For some reason, famous movie locations aren't coming to mind except one...I have jumped off the bridge that Jaws swam under in Martha's Vineyard (for childish fun, not suicidal distress, in case you're wondering...)

But your story does remind me of my Beatle pilgrimage to Liverpool. The trip itself was an adventure which will be told another time. But once there I did some of the touristy things, like taking a bus tour, but it kind of skimped. I end up going off on my own to see the church where John & Paul first met - Village Fete

For some reason, movie locations (well, not the locations onscreen, but the idea of visiting them) don't hold the same appeal to me as historical locations - I think it's some kind of vaguely ontological thing: this is where it REALLY HAPPENED! But there's definitely a fascination when you get right down to it, especially in the "difference" between the location on film and the reality.

Now that I think of it, I actually am pretty interested in visiting actual movie locations - certainly for the above reason - though I don't think it's an interest I've ever taken advantage of.

Anonymous said...

Excellent topic!

My own movie pilgrimage occurred in 1998. I freed myself up to spend a few weeks backpacking around Europe. One of my destinations was obvious—Venice, Venezia to locals. While I did get swept away by the pure beauty and personality of the city and all of its mazes, that never stopped me from wondering if I could find the very library/church where Indiana Jones found his X that marked the spot. He would later come out of that situation, after seeing Sir Richard, “or what was left of him” via sewer grate. After wending and winding my way around the circular plazas, visiting various pieces of city via water taxi, I found it. My last day there. The church of San Barnaba in Campo San Barnaba. It was not an easy find but my entire trip there felt like it meant something, like I had found my holy grail that would keep me young forever. Finding a single, tiny, church – with no sewer holes around it, by the way – and feeling a small tingling of excitement that I was in my own movie for one brief moment made my entire trip. What an adventure I had had just finding it. Ahhh, Venice.