11/17/11

Ten Awesome (Real Life) Movie Towns


The "Home Alone" house in Winnetka, Illinois.
You know, the tides just may turn on the idea of small town life. With the economy in a scary state of flux, a revitalization movement has turned toward almost everything you can think of. Small farms, independent bookstores and small businesses. It follows that the small towns we all fled because the commute was too expensive could make a similar comeback if tiny micro-economies pop up again.

Pardon the cold and calculating intro to a subject I really love to talk about, movie locations. But as usual, my personal life has informed upon my blogging life. As soon as I finished my Master's Degree, what did I do? I took it to a big city and started something there.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my life right now. But I admit to drifting into frequent daydreams about what it might be like to go back again having conquered my college education and some aspects of the world of professional production to see what I can bring home to my own small town.

Several of those detailed daydreams include

1. Starting production companies and working with various collaborators who shall remain nameless but totally know who they are...
2. Buying the Village theater and using it not only for new movies but for classics and film classes...
3. Starting a not-for-profit that teaches kids how to create short films and then holding a special festival for their results, etc. etc.

So...yeah, it better be the lottery or an angel investor for me. Or I guess...years and years of hard work. Blast!



Of course, most films use an amalgamation of actual small towns to constitute one ideal fictional one. So it's good to keep both feet on the ground and remind myself...real life is never like the movies. But I really wish it could be. And if it were, here are ten fictional and actual iconic, unique and classic small towns of the silver screen. (This from the girl who almost moved to Naperville, Illinois just for the Hollywood Palms theater. And no, I'm not kidding...we really almost moved there just for the movie theater. So keep in mind, I'm easily enchanted.)


1. Roxanne (1987) - Nelson, British Columbia - This under-appreciated Steve Martin rendition of the play "Cyrano DeBergerac" used a real-life hilly Canadian town. Aside from the fact that I can always call this movie up on Netflix to laugh or relax (And to recall the sweet, sweet cradle of an eighties/nineties childhood.) the setting also lends to the fairy tale quality of the film. Sweeping views of mountainsides, a small town fire station, and gorgeous houses are enough to inspire a real trip there.

Now having come from a small town myself, I can admit that movies do like to glamorize things that are never actually glamorous in reality. Like how every movie waitress loves her quirky boss and movie antique stores are always sunny and clean when in reality they're usually kind of dark, weird and musty.

Small town life is sometimes filled with the self-conscious knowledge that if you drop a lipstick out of your pocket on the way down the street, a neighbor will call to tell you they saw it happen. (This really did happen to one of my sisters.) So it can be a little unsettling knowing that your every move is being watched. But "Roxanne" brings the brevity of it's genre and it's star and combines it with the beauty of a real-life stunner of a town. And if you check out their website, the town seems like it just might be as cool and folksy as the movie made it look.

Marblehead, MA.
2. Hocus Pocus (1993) - Marblehead, Massachusetts - You know what I love about this movie? You can tell how much it impacted people by the fact that everyone still talks about it every Halloween. I keep meeting new people who talk about how much this movie impacted their childhood. One person we met here in Orlando even throws a pumpkin-carving party and watches it every single year. I know, I know...I have a soft spot for Doug Jones. But I loved this movie from the moment Mom took me to see it at the Village theater in Plainfield. For a kid, it has everything you could POSSIBLY want in a Halloween movie. Zombies, witches, spells, animals and most importantly...that awesome Steven King-worthy Northeastern town.

Marblehead has also provided some moody atmosphere for The Witches of Eastwick, The Good Son and more. It has a very specific and iconic look that perfectly represents it's region.

3. Groundhog Day (1993) - Woodstock, Illinois - This town is proud of it's movie past. It's funny, some of the towns on this list have websites that either completely bury their filmic past or don't acknowledge them at all. It makes me wonder what kind of crazies show up in these places and how much trouble exactly they might generate. But I digress, aside from holding all the Groundhog Day festivities you can imagine, Woodstock also shows "Groundhog Day" for free in their local movie theater the week of the holiday. (By the way, a small portion of "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" was also filmed in Woodstock.

4. Runaway Bride (1999) - Berlin, Maryland - In the summer of 2000, I used to sit and look at Berlin's website. It looked different then. But I can remember comparing pictures from the website to memorable scenes in the movie and it's still fun for me to play "Find the filming location." (Which is easy to do if you are familiar with the quirky Gary Marshall comedy, their homepage immediately displays a slide show or recognizable sights.)

5. Funny Farm - (1988) - Grafton, Vermont - So here's the thing...remember those crazies I was mentioning earlier? They must really come out of the woodwork for the Funny Farm house. (Oh, the irony.)

Because the owners of the house have requested that nobody share photos of the house as it is today or share the address and the house itself is actually situated on a private road. Which of course means that you can find all the info and photos you want on the internet, but I don't like to participate in that kind of stuff.

But you can still see plenty of Grafton that made it into the film. And Vermont appreciates tourists, especially after Hurricane Irene. So pack a picnic basket, save yourself the last apple and get on out and enjoy Grafton!

6. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997) - Grosse Pointe Blank/Monrovia, California - Grosse Pointe Blank is not really a small town. But it feels like one in this John Cusack dark comedy about an assassin who comes home to attend his high school reunion. Here's the thing...only some aerial shots are actually from Grosse Pointe. I wanted to use at least one film to illustrate how often small towns in California often end up doubling for other locations. (Even Culver City was used as Bedford Falls in "It's A Wonderful Life.")


7. Doc Hollywood (1991) - Micanopy, Florida - This truly tiny town stood in for the firefly dotted, moss covered Grady, South Carolina. Here Michael J. Fox's plastic surgeon character breaks down on his way to L.A. and learns that even though it's more challenging, it's also more rewarding to live and work in a small community where everybody knows each other.

By the way, the script is plum loaded with story-serving details like a love interest who was once burned by a big city man and a character introduction that includes the surgeon's co-workers bidding him good riddance with a profanity-laced cake....I mean it, this script is a study in concentrated "move the story forward" efforts. Not a minute is wasted.

But the close study of small-town life almost leaves me feeling guilty. Fox's character stands in as a sort of missionary figure. Why should all of the educated people of the world race to big cities to make a big profit? (Well...college debt for one thing, but let's play devil's advocate for a minute.) Small towns need doctors, artists, lawyers, etc. too.

8. Home Alone (1990) - Winnetka, Illinois - You know, when I think of this movie, very often I think, "Thank goodness I don't have any money." If I won the lottery, I'd do remarkably dumb things with my winnings. Like buy the Home Alone house when it went on the market and ask some friends and family to either move in with me or buy them the houses around the block. See? That's why it's good that I don't have real money...

But seriously, the town of Winnetka calls to me. I imagine myself moving there to walk in the steps of John Hughes and his revolving cast of amazing actors. Now I know, I could very easily move to Chicago and do that. But Winnteka is representative of something for me. It's not just a town where one charming movie was made. It's a town where movies were set and made.

Hughes used Winnetka and the surrounding area in almost every single one of his classic films. The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Home Alone, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Uncle Buck and more all stood in for what John Hughes thought was a representative slice of average American life. I don't know if there's an interview out there somewhere with John talking about Winnetka, but if there is, someone please leave me a link in the comments section.


Like most film studios, offices and workshops, WETA
is unassuming from the outside. Perhaps I shall make a
pilgrimage there someday...who wants to join?
But seriously, can you just imagine being able to pull up to your office at a film company or request special locations for filming in your hometown. (Have you ever seen special features with Peter Jackson pulling up to the Wingnut Films office or WETA? They're both smack in the middle of the New Zealand burbs. It's great.)

The age-old story is that you have to be brave enough to leave your small town to go out and conquer the world. But you know what must be even harder? Staying home or going back home and bringing film with you. Now THAT would be cool.

9. Housesitter (1992) - Concord, Massachusetts - Here's the thing about Frank Oz. Yes, he's a legend in the voice and puppeteering world. Sure, he has some pretty impressive credentials acting.  But he's also an extremely prolific director with razor-sharp comic timing. He's responsible for helming Housesitter, What About Bob, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of Horrors and many more. And the man knows how to characterize a place.

Apparently, the Goonies stand
with Israel nowadays. Cool, eh?
(In case you think I'm nuts,
I'm referring to the flag.)
10. The Goonies (1985) - Astoria, Oregon - Quite possibly the world's most famous movie small town, Astoria welcomes its admirers all the time and even holds an annual festival for the film that put them on the map. I mean really, need I say more? Who wouldn't want to walk the streets where the Goonies quested to save their town? (Or where Brand stole that little kid's tricycle...)

I guess I should be embarrassed that almost all of the movies I chose come from the eighties and nineties. I'm not very well-rounded am I?

There are plenty of other movie towns, real and fictional, actually used in a film and used to represent another town in film. (Confusing, huh? "I don't know half of you as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half of much as you deserve." There, the mint ice cream of palate-cleansing confusing statements. Just forget I said anything...)

So what are your favorite movie small towns? Which ones did I miss? Muncie, Indiana was the setting of a pivotal scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"...what else?

Last but not least, I'd like to send you to this super cool website that I stumbled upon while researching the Funny Farm house. If you're a movie location junkie like me, then you'll enjoy it! It's a list of several houses used as film and TV locations.


1 comment:

xoxoxoe said...

Great post! I have often daydreamed about what it might be like to live in movie small towns, too. You have hit some of my favorites, but I'd also like to suggest Casablanca, from you know what film, although who knows if you'd ever get out of there. But the lighting and nightlife would be great.

I always wondered about the Doc Hollywood and Runaway Bride towns - thanks for the background.

I think you could do a whole 'nother post on small towns that get creepy in movies, like Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and The Birds. But now that you've got me thinking, I guess the ultimate American small town in the movies would be Bedford Falls, as we get to see it two ways (and every holiday season, again and again,)