Photograph  by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photograph by Jessica Miglio © 2013 Gravier Productions, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Bobby Cannavale, Max Casella and Woody Allen on set at the Ramp

July 2014

Potrero Hill Stars in Movies, Television

Jim Van Buskirk

A film shoot recently occurred in the community garden across the street from my San Bruno Avenue flat.  My initial annoyance at the “no parking” signs along my block was quickly overcome by the pleasure I took in knowing that a location scout or director appreciated my neighborhood as an ideal location. I imagined characters wandering the garden’s verdant labyrinth backed by panoramic views of the cityscape. 

On the day of the shoot I peered from my window to see what was going on.  Aside from lots of trucks parked, and a crew running around, I saw little. I didn’t even find out the name of the project.

It was just another day on Potrero Hill, which, along with San Francisco as a whole, continues to be famous for its role in movies, television, and commercials. Recent depictions of the City include the post-apocalyptic Book of Eli (2010), Contagion (2012), Roland Emmerich’s 2012 (2009), the Bollywood disappointment 180 (2011), La Mission (2009), and Fruitvale Station (2013)

Has anyone counted how many times the Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed? Prior to the latest incarnation of Godzilla, the popular site endured science fiction destruction in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Pacific Rim (2013), amid a host of other films. 

San Franciscans love to see their city on the Big Screen.  The highlight of the new Godzilla was, for me, when the action shifted from Asia to San Francisco. Turns out Aaron Taylor-Johnson lived with his wife, Elizabeth Olsen, and son, on my block. At least it appeared that way from outside shots of the home.  The interior looked like no San Francisco residence I’ve ever seen. That exterior shot is apparently the only actual City location presented in the film. Discrepancies like inauthentic BART signs, an “MTA” bus, and “Oakland Bay Area Park” corroborate the rumor that San Francisco scenes were shot in Vancouver.  And, of course, there’s the usual misuse of the Golden Gate Bridge, which in the film links San Francisco to the East Bay.  

Apparently it’s expensive to film here. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was filmed primarily in British Columbia and New Orleans, which is also being used in Terminator: Genesis, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. San Andreas, featuring Dwayne Johnson, depicting the aftermath of a devastating California earthquake, is filming mostly in Australia. In Disney’s Ant Man Georgia stands in for San Francisco. 

It works both ways. Philip Kaufman, who used local interiors and exteriors so authentically in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), shot much of the television movie Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012) locally, much as he did The Right Stuff (1983), in which Bay Area sites cleverly appear as national and international locations.

San Francisco was abuzz when Woody Allen was in town shooting Blue Jasmine. According to a Hollywood Reporter article, “San Francisco has been his favorite city outside of New York ever since he did stand-up comedy at the Hungry I during the 1960s.” He set his first film, Take the Money and Run (1968), here, and returned with Diane Keaton to make Play it Again, Sam (1972). Allen is quoted as saying, “It was strictly an indulgence because I could walk the streets, eat at the restaurants and wake up every morning looking at the bay.” 

In Blue Jasmine Cate Blanchett comes to stay with her sister, Sally Hawkins, whose apartment is above the New Central Café, located at the corner of 14th Street and South Van Ness. Ironically, a guitar store, supposedly in Oakland, is played by Real Guitars, famous as the best secondhand guitar shop in San Francisco, almost around the corner at 51 Lafayette. In one scene the two sisters, along with Bobby Canavale and Max Casella—who seem more “Jersey” than “‘Frisco” — are shown drinking—and arguing—at The Ramp. Local talents Joy Carlin, Val Diamond, and Diane Amos appeared in cameo roles.

Showplace Square can be seen in HBO’s Silicon Valley, though in a recent episode the filmmakers inserted a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge just before the characters arrive at the San Francisco Concourse after driving north on Interstate 280.  Apparently, you’re not in the City unless you’ve seen the Bridge.  Looking features The Stud on Ninth Street, Saint Francis Fountain and Punjab Restaurant on 24th Street, amidst farther ranging locations. Other recent series set in San Francisco include ABC’s Nine Lives of Chloe King, NBC’s Journeyman, Fox’s Alcatraz and NBC’s lamentable Love Bites.  A recent French commercial for Citroën C4 shot on the hills of Potrero pays homage to the classic chase scene in Bullitt.  

Slated for August is Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, in which artists Walter and Margaret Keane (Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams), inhabit North Beach’s Grant Avenue transformed back to the 1950s. Similar to how the Castro was returned to the 70s in Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008).

There are an increasing number of resources on San Francisco movies available since Will Shank and I published Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover’s Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations in 2006.  Christopher Pollock’s Reel San Francisco Stories: An Annotated Filmography of the Bay Area is a comprehensive listing of more than 600 movies shot in San Francisco, in whole or in part. World Film Locations: San Francisco edited by Scott Jordan Harris, part of the World Film Locations series, offers iconic images and essays to highlight seven selected San Francisco films. And compares and contrasts film stills — “then” — with contemporary photographs—“now”—based on “San Francisco movie locations from classic films.” 

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