The spot where Jimmy Stewart saved Kim Novak in Vertigo is at Fort Point, just under the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.
A few miles down the bay is Alcatraz, where Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery prevented missiles from launching and from where Clint Eastwood may or may not have escaped. Up on shore, there’s Coit Tower, City Hall, the Transamerica Pyramid, all those hills that have been the setting for so many chase scenes.
Filled with iconic landmarks, breathtaking scenery and a wide range of locations, San Francisco has a long history as a favourite site for filmmakers — and the movie buffs who want to see the places where their favourite scenes were filmed.
“So many people are so familiar with the icons, with the landmarks of San Francisco,” said Bryan Rice, owner of San Francisco Movie Tours. “You can show the Golden Gate Bridge, you can show the Transamerica Pyramid in the background, show these different places where people are familiar with and it draws people in.”
The Bay Area’s moviemaking history goes back to the beginning of film, to Eadweard Muybridge’s study of a horse galloping in Palo Alto, widely regarded as the first motion picture ever made.
Charlie Chaplin’s movies and many of the first silent films were shot near San Francisco, along with parts of The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie” released in 1927.
Alfred Hitchcock loved shooting in the Bay Area, as did George Lucas and Clint Eastwood.
It’s easy to see why: The bay, the bridge, the landmarks, and a variety of elevations for interesting angles to shoot from. Locations are diverse: downtown, the waterfront, the Painted Ladies Victorian homes, Chinatown, the gritty Tenderloin. Film noir can be shot in the fog, a screwball comedy can bounce along hilly streets. Many films shot in San Francisco are written for the city, so it, in a sense, becomes a character in the movie.
“All the producers I talk to say they would love to shoot here because visually it’s such a beautiful place that it makes anyone’s film better looking,” said Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission.
But the number of big-production movies shot in San Francisco has tapered off with the rise of digital technology. Instead of going on location, producers can recreate the city’s look in studios and with computers at less cost. It’s also cheaper to shoot in other locales, from the American South to Canada, with some states offering better tax breaks for production companies than California does. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, released in 2011, was set in San Francisco but shot in British Columbia.
“It's very hard to compete with that because film production companies, like any smart businessperson, are trying to get the best bang for their buck,” Greason Robbins said. “When you get 30-35 per cent back on your film expenses when you shoot in one of those other states, you kind of have to go there. It’s frustrating.”
San Francisco still attracts movie-makers, with more than 100 films shot here in the last decade and 16 last year, but more are independent or from small local companies than in the past. Still the city’s long history of film offers plenty of iconic spots to visit. Here are just a few.
ALCATRAZ: In Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz, Murder in the First, The Rock, The Enforcer.
A federal penitentiary from 1934-63, “The Rock” housed notorious criminals including Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and James “Whitey” Bulger. Now a national park, Alcatraz offers visitors a chance to tour the prison, including a look at one of the cells portrayed in Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz, with the concrete chipped away behind the vent.
Round-trip ferry to Alcatraz, $28-$32 (Dh103-Dh118)including audio tour, every half-hour starting around 9am: http://www.alcatrazcruises.com/
FORT POINT, GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE: In Foul Play, Dopamine, High Anxiety, Petulia, Point Blank, Vertigo, he Presidio.
Built to protect the San Francisco Bay from Confederate and foreign attack during the Civil War, Fort Point is where Stewart saved Novak in Vertigo, right at the base. The bridge has also been blown up countless times on film, including in X-Men 3 and Monsters vs. Aliens. Best view is from the north side back towards the city.
COIT TOWER: In Boys & Girls, After the Thin Man, Dr. Dolittle, Sister Act 2, The Enforcer, The Presidio, The Rock, Innerspace.
The narrow, white concrete column atop Telegraph Hill has been a part of San Francisco’s skyline since 1933 and offers spectacular views of the bay and the city. Coit Tower has been in the backdrop of numerous movies filmed in San Francisco including the Dirty Harry movie, The Enforcer. It’s been a place to watch movies, too, with projectors set up to show films on the side of tower.
Observation deck, $7 for non-residents, $5 seniors and youth (12-17), $2 kids (5-11), http://sfrecpark.org/CoitTower.aspx.
CITY HALL: In A View to a Kill, Bedazzled, Bicentennial Man, Class Action, Final Analysis, Foul Play, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jagged Edge, Magnum Force, Milk, The Rock, The Wedding Planner.
City Hall has one of the largest domes in the world and replaced a structure destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. It was used extensively at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Sean Penn, in his Academy Award-winning portrayal of activist Harvey Milk, gave an impassioned speech on its steps. Metro City Hall from the animated Will Ferrell movie Megamind was an homage to San Francisco’s City Hall.
ALAMO SQUARE: In Murder in the First, Nine Months, The Conversation, Mrs Doubtfire.
The neighbourhood and park are among the most photographed spots in San Francisco because of the Painted Ladies, a row of Victorian houses facing the park on Steiner Street. The Ladies have been a favourite of film and television producers and were used in the opening shot for the sitcom Full House. The house where Robin Williams dressed up as Mrs Doubtfire, posing as his ex-wife’s nanny, is north of the park at Steiner and Broadway.
WHERE TO EAT: One of the city’s oldest restaurants, John’s Grill, 63 Ellis St, was a setting in author Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. The interior looks just as you would picture it from the book, filled with original period furnishings. The walls are covered with photos of famous customers and the second floor has a replica of the Maltese Falcon, along with movie stills and foreign translations of the novel. A great place to get steaks or a few beverages while taking in the atmosphere.
WHERE TO STAY: A quaint boutique hotel, the Bijou, 111 Mason near Union Square, offers the full Hollywood-in-San Francisco experience. The hotel is designed in the theme of classic movie palace and portraits from movies decorate the walls. Each room is named after a movie shot in San Francisco and there’s a mini movie theatre off the lobby that shows nightly double features of San Francisco-based movies. Rates starting at low $100s, http://www.hotelbijou.com.
SAN FRANCISCO MOVIE TOURS: http://www.sanfranciscomovietours.com/. Daily, 10.30am, $47, three hours.