Films love nothing more than to flaunt their mouthwateringly exotic locations and, in truth, they’re one of the great incidental pleasures of movies.
But are those beguiling settings always what they seem?
Why should notoriously budget-conscious studios go to the expense – or the trouble – of flying their demanding stars halfway around the world when, with a little ingenuity, they can film on their own doorstep?
A small crew known as a Second Unit is often dispatched to capture a few shots establishing the setting while those unsung heroes and heroines of cinema, Location Managers, conjure up a reasonably convincing stand-in for ‘Shanghai’ or ‘Columbus, Ohio’ within a comfortable limo ride of the studio.
For productions based at Pinewood, Elstree or Twickenham Studios in southeast England, that often means the UK capital.
Here are twelve times the movies tried to pass off dear old London Town as New York, Hollywood, Paris and – erm – Baghdad. How did they do? How many did you spot?
1 | Streets of Greenwich Village – Hatton Garden, EC1
EYES WIDE SHUT: After developing a phobia of flying, director Stanley Kubrick famously recreated war-torn Vietnam for Full Metal Jacket in his adopted homeland of England, at the abandoned Beckton gas works site in East London.
Eyes Wide Shut, his next and, as it turned out final film, was set in New York so a couple of blocks of Greenwich Village were dutifully recreated on the backlot at Pinewood Studios. No matter how lavish, a set is always going to be a bit limiting and sooner or later, a real street which stretches more than two blocks is needed.
When Tom Cruise’s guilt-ridden doctor is stalked through the benighted streets of the Big Apple, that’s a stretch of London’s Hatton Garden, traditionally the centre of the diamond business, more usually associated with heist movies, dressed up with NY street furniture and shop signs.
3/10 All the ‘555’ phone numbers in the world don’t really convince that this is Manhattan's Bohemian-chic Village
2 | Place de la Bastille, Paris – Greenwich, SE10
LES MISÉRABLES: Set in 19th Century Paris, Tom Hooper’s film of Schönberg and Boublil's smash-hit musical was filmed almost entirely in the UK, in Bath, Winchester, Chatham and of course London.
The imposing campus of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich stands in for the Place de la Bastille as revolutionaries prepare for an uprising at the funeral of radical war hero Jean Lamarque.
The College’s endlessly adaptable buildings and grounds are screen regulars seen in, among many other features, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Thor: The Dark World, 2010’s The Wolfman and The Mummy Returns.
4/10 If you’ve never visited either Paris or Greenwich, you might buy it.
3 | Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC – Richmond
NATIONAL TREASURE: BOOK OF SECRETS: On April 14th, 1865, US President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated while watching a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC.
On screen, Abe Lincoln has attended that fateful production not just once but twice at Richmond Theatre in southwest London.
First was comedically when Brendan Fraser was briefly transformed into the President by Devil Elizabeth Hurley in Harold Ramis’s not-too-successful 2000 revamp of Sixties British comedy Bedazzled. Then again (slightly) more seriously in the prologue to National Treasure: Book Of Secrets.
I understand it would be disrespectful to film a lightweight Hollywood caper in the real Ford’s, which remains virtually unchanged, but are there really so few 19th Century theatres in the USA?
9/10 The Richmond is far more elaborate than Ford’s, but if you’re not an expert in theatre architecture, it fits the bill perfectly.
4 | Church of Our Lady of Smolensk, St Petersburg – Earl’s Court, SW5
GOLDENEYE: For such a phenomenally successful series, the Bond movies are not always blessed with lavish budgets. Apart from glamorous establishing shots, you might be surprised how much is filmed within a cab-ride of the franchise’s base at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire.
For instance, the Russian church in which Izabella Scorupco hides out in GoldenEye is a mash-up of two separate locations – and they’re both in London.
The interior is St Sofia’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which by coincidence, happens to stand on Moscow Road, not far from the West End, in Bayswater, W2.
The strangely smaller exterior is that of the chapel in the gloriously Victorian Brompton Cemetery on Old Brompton Road, Earl’s Court, SW5.
Movie fans might recognise this as the hallowed ground where Rowan Atkinson disrupts the funeral in Bond spoof Johnny English and where the dastardly Lord Blackwood appears to rise from the dead in Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes.
6/10 That little chapel houses such an imposing interior?
5 | Shanghai – Bishopsgate, EC2
SKYFALL: A double whammy here.
Just behind busy Liverpool Street Station, Broadgate Tower on Primrose Street off Bishopsgate, is the striking X-braced glass Shanghai high-rise to which Bond (Daniel Craig) follows a hitman in Skyfall.
Now spin around, careful to avoid whiplash, to find yourself in Russia. Exchange House, the office block directly opposite, became the Moscow office of Russian oligarch Kenneth Branagh in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
8/10 In every major city’s Business District, Shanghai or Moscow, a high-rise is a high-rise is a high-rise.
6 | Dr Warnekros’s Clinic, Dresden – Hampstead, NW3
THE DANISH GIRL: As the title hints, Tom Hooper’s account of the gradual metamorphosis of Einar (Eddie Redmayne) into Lili is set largely in Copenhagen and, although most exteriors are the real deal, many of those wonderful art deco interiors were filmed in London or Brussels.
The lovely garden of the Dresden clinic in which Lili recuperates after the first operation is one of London’s overlooked treasures.
Don’t be misled by the countryside and that meandering river, which were added digitally. The ornate terrace and pillared walkway is Hampstead Heath Pergola in front of Inverforth House, just off North End Way Road, Hampstead, NW3.
In 1905, a stroke of good fortune meant that spoil from the newly-dug tunnels for the Hampstead extension to the Northern Line could be used to raise up the plot on which Inverforth’s formal garden was built. The Pergola itself lay forgotten and overgrown until being restored in the 1990s.
10/10 The digital landscape sells it and it certainly doesn’t look like northwest London. If you said “Crikey, that looks like Hampstead!”, then I tip my hat to you.
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The site is run in association with the books The Worldwide Guide To Movie Locations and Movie London.
Titles with links have full entries on the site – other unlinked titles listed can be found in the books. All the titles will eventually have full entries, so check back often.
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