In a film or on the TV, the setting and location must be believable. When viewers watch films, they expect to be transported to another time and place. They want to be swept away from reality. It’s a viewer’s expectation to feel like they are immersed in the world of the story.
That’s the point of sitting in the dark box of a theater while watching moving pictures flicker across a screen. Those moving pictures transcend the space the viewer physically sits in. Nothing else matters but this fictional or nonfictional world.
But what about when that film the viewer expects to be fictional ends up being shot in their backyard?
Locations in Philadelphia are featured in lots of films. When one is confronted with his or her own city in a fictional movie, it can be a bit jarring. The viewer has to reconcile their own experiences in that space with the film’s story.
This becomes especially different when watching “12 Monkeys,” directed by Terry Gilliam, the same man who directed “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” This sci-fi movie from 1995 was primarily filmed in Philadelphia and has a lot of landmarks that most natives and Temple students would recognize. The film, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, features a post-apocalyptic world in which a virus kills five billion people.
Willis’ character travels back in time to 1990 in order to find out more about the virus and potentially change the course of the future. The film was highly regarded and nominated for two Oscars.
One of the film’s opening shots features Willis walking through a desolate, post-apocalyptic Philadelphia. It is haunting to watch Willis walk through City Hall in some sort of crazy space suit-type contraption. It’s the same City Hall that many Temple students walk through, except this City Hall is covered in snow, debris and is completely abandoned.
To see such a prominent spot in Philadelphia onscreen can be jarring to a viewer who lives in the city and regularly passes by the places shown in the film. The film takes on a more personal significance to the viewer. Instead of transporting the viewer to a foreign place, they are taken to a place they know and experience in a different context.
Another local landmark featured is Eastern State Penitentiary. Makes sense to feature one of the most haunted places in the country in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, right?
Gilliam used Eastern State Penitentiary as an asylum for the film. The dilapidated and chilling atmosphere contributes to Pitt’s wild character, who is confined in the asylum. Eastern State Penitentiary already reeks of despair, so the location takes on the role of a character in the asylum scenes.
Another mainstream film that gathered attention for filming in Philadelphia is “Silver Linings Playbook,” for which Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for best actress.
Philadelphia becomes a character in the film. Many scenes focus on the city, from Robert De Niro’s character’s obsession with the Philadelphia Eagles to when Bradley Cooper’s character goes to an Eagles game. The key scene when Lawrence and Cooper’s characters finally confess their love for one another takes place on Jeweler’s Row, where they embrace in the midst of hectic city life.
Upper Darby residents may recognize the Llanerch Diner, where Cooper’s character orders Raisin Bran to prove he is not on a date with Lawrence’s character – because who orders Raisin Bran on a date?
The setting reflects the character’s emotions and development. Imagine if “12 Monkeys” didn’t show real Philadelphia landmarks. It may not strike as much of an emotional chord if it didn’t feature real places that were destroyed by a fictional apocalypse. What if “Silver Linings Playbook” wasn’t set in Philadelphia? So much of the characters’ inner life would be lost.
That’s why these films in particular are special to many Philadelphia natives. The films represent their home. When a Philadelphian sees a desolate City Hall or a romantic scene on Jeweler’s Row in a film, the response is from a more personal level.
The possibilities are endless for filmmakers in Philadelphia. Los Angeles doesn’t have anything on us.
Chelsea Colantriano can be reached at chelsea.colatriano@ temple.edu.