During the classical film era, theorists grappled over the importance of shooting on location. Those who encouraged it claimed that it evoked a layer of depth unmatched by the sentiments the actors produced when recording on a sound stage. This was extremely critical for “Rome, Open City,” where the suffering emitted by the people lining the decimated streets of Italy constantly reminded the actors of the brokenness their characters felt and enhanced the emotional authenticity. Others argued that it didn’t matter where the film was shot as long as the director could convince his audience that the story took place in the exact location that he told them it did. Nowadays, few directors prioritize filming on-site, as audiences willingly accept the idea of feigned locations.
To disguise one city as another, directors carefully select indistinguishable areas to shoot their films in addition to employing other creative techniques. For example, “The 5th Wave” is set in Cincinnati, Ohio, yet it was shot in Macon, Georgia though it’s almost impossible to tell since the tall trees and dirt covered ground make the woodland setting appear like the forest you’d expect to see in Ohio. There’s also a clever shot of a sign indicating how many miles the heroine must travel until she reaches the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is located in Dayton, Ohio. So, although the movie itself was far from believable, I was thoroughly convinced that the action happened in the exact location that I was informed it did.
However, for Ohio residents, this effect may not have been achieved. To locals, it doesn’t matter how average the forest, or how many cutaways to city limit signs the director uses, they will always be able to discern that it’s their city. My familiarity with Grand Rapids unfortunately led to a state of temporarily disillusionment. I vividly remember the morning I learned that Jessie Eisenberg and Jason Segel were downtown shooting “The End of the Tour.” In that moment, I felt a sense of pride knowing that my hometown was going to be featured on the big screen. Sadly, this exhilaration subsided once I actually watched the film.
Initially, it was exciting to hear the little voice in my head exclaim “I’ve walked past that” (the office building at 50 Monroe Avenue), “I’ve seen that restaurant,” “I’ve driven on that stretch of I-196” and “I think I’ve actually been inside that building.” But, this also emphasized that the story isn’t actually unfolding in Bloomington, Illinois. Now this is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy “The End of the Tour,” just that I became frustrated with its lack of genuineness.
With a much bigger production, “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” having been shot in Detroit, it will be interesting to see if Michiganders will notice any familiar buildings or streets. Typically, the background tends to lose its significance in films dominated by special effects, computer graphics and fight scenes whereas in calmer, narrative-driven features such as “Tour,” the characters’ interaction with their environment is salient.
While in the early days of cinema, all elements equally determined a film’s success, contemporary Hollywood heavily depends on acting and post production work. Audiences have come to rely on movies for a complete manipulation of reality, not a beautiful recreation of it. Thus, the importance of on-location shooting has sadly diminished. But this strategy cannot be completely neglected, especially when its absence can prevent the viewer from completely engrossing themselves in the film.