Philadelphia is slowly but surely joining the ranks of New York and Los Angeles as a major motion picture film market. Film producers have been making movies in Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania for years, but thanks to directors like M. Night Shyamalan, more out-of-state productions are choosing Philadelphia as their main location.
Long before M. Night Shyamalan even wrote the words, “I see dead people,” up-and-coming actor Sylvester Stallone penned and starred in the first Rocky film. Set in Philadelphia in the mid-1970s, Rocky follows an underground boxer as he struggles to make it big and win the heart of a special girl.
What makes Rocky so memorable to audiences, living in Philadelphia or otherwise, is the special use of the city’s landmarks. To this day, men and women still run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Philadelphia’s image took a humorous turn in 1984 with the Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy film Trading Places. Under the direction of the Blues Brothers’ John Landis, Trading Places proved that Philadelphia and its rich heritage could serve as a backdrop to humorous situations.
In the film, Eddie Murphy plays a homeless man who is suddenly given a chance to live a life of luxury at the expense of a young, rich, Wall Street snob, played by Aykroyd. Murphy, pretending to be a homeless and blind amputee in the Independence National Historical Park, is featured in one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
After the success of three Rocky films and Trading Places, business was slow for Philadelphia’s film market. Then in 1992, The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathon Demme shot the drama Philadelphia exclusively in the city. Philly’s skyline is featured prominently, as is City Hall, where the trial at the center of the film’s plot takes place. There is also a particularly emotional scene within the library of the Furness Building at the University of Pennsylvania, where Hanks is shown researching legal cases involving AIDS.
Philadelphia was a hit and brought the devastating effects of AIDS to the big screen for the first time. The film earned Tom Hanks an Academy Award for best actor.
In 1994, Monty Python alum-turned-film-director Terry Gilliam chose the city as the location for his next film, the science fiction thriller Twelve Monkeys.
Starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, Twelve Monkeys chronicles the story of a man sent back in time to prevent a devastating plague from killing the world’s population.
The production and subsequent release of Twelve Monkeys brought the film boom back to Philadelphia.
Gilliam made use of the Eastern State Penitentiary, a popular haunted house attraction during Halloween, as well as the Philadelphia Convention Center on Market Street, City Hall and the site of the former Wannamaker’s Department Store on Chestnut Street.
Some of the lesser known locations used for the film included the Richmond Generating Station on Delaware Avenue and the historical Ridgeway Library on Broad Street.
The man credited with giving Philadelphia the best on-screen exposure would be none other than suspense master M. Night Shyamalan. After proving his directing skills with Wide Awake, his first major film to be shot in Philadelphia, Shyamalan took audiences to a much darker side of the city in The Sixth Sense.
Locations such as City Hall, Saint Augustine’s Church on Fourth and Vine streets, the Stoddart-Fleischer Middle School on 13th and Green streets, and Head House Square were transformed from common Philadelphia landmarks to creepy, suspenseful settings for the film’s supernatural story.
Most of the interior scenes were shot on sets constructed inside the Civic Center, known today as the Wachovia Center.
The story surrounding a boy with the ability to see ghosts garnered six Academy Award nominations and solidified Shyamalan’s status as an explosive visionary.
His latest project, Lady in the Water, features Sideways star Paul Giamatti as a landlord who rescues a young woman from the pool of his apartment complex. When he realizes the nature of who she is and where she came from, he enlists the help of his fellow tenants to protect her from those who would cause her harm.
Although Shyamalan chose to shoot most of Lady in the Water in Bristol Township, Pa., he included images of a SEPTA bus, an almost iconic image for Philadelphia commuters, in the background.
Shyamalan was raised in the Penn Valley suburb outside of Philadelphia. He still resides in Penn Valley with his wife and two daughters.
Since directing The Sixth Sense in 1999, he has written and directed four more feature films, all filmed in or near the Philadelphia area.
Marta Rusek can be reached at email@example.com.