Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
I must admit I get the trouble with sci-fi Mege so pointedly discussed in last week’s post: I was also never quite an ardent fan of the genre as such, finding some of the choices made for supposedly far away worlds oddly quaint and cheap and some of the rubbery prosthetic creatures designed so unbelievably comical that I was not at all convinced any future or outer world would ever look like that. Of course there were great exceptions along the way: the creatures in Alien are suitably scary and beautiful and its realist spaceship and crew utterly believable, Star Wars is identifiably a fairy tale in space rather than science-fiction, and Star Trek’s universally humanist message sugarcoated all the tech talk I didn’t quite understand.
What I always found most amusing, however, is what Mege hints at as well: that many of the worlds we are shown in science-fiction, if it’s not one of the many studio sets or backlots, are familiar real-life places that we now associate with the look of ‘foreign worlds’: Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine was famously filmed in the Tunisian desert in 1977’s original Star Wars, and almost every prequel/sequel had to do the pilgrimage back there to recreate the sandy look complete with ancient-culture-inspired huts and caves.
Star Wars, of course, created just as many gorgeous studio sets, using breathtaking matte paintings and composite shots, but when they needed to give a glimpse of Princess Leia’s childhood planet Alderaan in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, where did they turn for their brief location shoot? The Swiss mountain region above my home town Bern. Nothing speaks planetary idyll as much as snow-topped Swiss mountains apparently. The list goes on: Guatemala served as a rebel base on the ‘Fourth Moon of Yavin’, Iceland lent itself to ‘ice planet Hoth’ and Princess Padmé’s home planet Naboo in the prequel trilogy was a blend of the palaces of Sevilla, Spain (the same used in Lawrence of Arabia, coincidentally) and Northern Italy’s Lake Como (Padmé and Anakin get married in the exact same villa that James Bond uses with Vesper Lynd to recuperate from the strains of Casino Royale). Arguably, however, Star Wars is a quintessentially English product, with almost all of its studio work done at Shepperton. What I would give to have been a fly on the wall at coffee breaks and lunch hours: Did Alec drink Guinness? Did Peter Mayhew keep part of his Chewbacca costume on, and who checked him for crumbs afterwards?
Star Trek, on the other hand, familiarised us with science fiction being quintessentially Californian, and with every important film production studio populating the Los Angeles area, it’s unsurprising that almost every single location shoot happened between the Nevada desert, L.A. and San Francisco, which became the signature city for the federation of planets imagined in various TV and film installments. My favourite of them all was always Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the crew actually traveled back to the San Francisco of 1984 (an eerie Orwellian coincidence?!) and were hilariously perceived as some motley crew of out-of-towners and belated hippies. The Golden Gate Bridge has since become symbolic for a perceived city of the future and together with its liberal society, its history of social protest movements and its economic draw, it has been made the quintessential tech company city as well. Unsurprisingly, the first iPad prototype was seen in an episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation.
So if Star Wars occupies the world between English studio magic and European to North African locations and Star Trek the Western deserts and cities, where do present-day science-fiction productions boldly go where no film crew has gone before? A quick check on IMDb reveals rather earthly results: Matt Damon didn’t actually go to Mars in The Martian but to studios in Budapest, Hungary and the Jordanian desert. Almost the same locations (alongside Norway and Austria) were used for last year’s sci-fi hit Dune, too. Christopher Nolan used the oddest landscapes of Iceland to create some of the strange worlds of Interstellar, but just as much as Blade Runner 2049 (that used southern Spain for much of its exoticism), it’s actually always the cheap draw of Hungary’s old movie studios that attract major movie productions and their futuristic productions these days.
Of course, confusing audiences with movie geography is as old as movie making itself: The West in Sergio Leone’s ‘spaghetti Westerns’ was always a mix between Cinecittà Studios in Rome and Spanish wastelands (it made me giggle recently to see all the little Italian men populate post offices and saloons in Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and the greatest Westerns of German cinema, the famous Winnetou movies, were all filmed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. So when travelling through Bosnia and Herzegovina some years ago, the dry landscapes seemed definitely familiar from back in my childhood. These days, unfortunately, there are still mines from the tragic civil wars of the 1990s that riddle this once glorious wild East.
It’s a reminder that past and present mix when it comes to movie landscapes and that our image of far away lands is often more defined by production budgets and lack of alternatives. However, with enough imagination, I am more willing to see spaceships over Budapest, Jabba’s palace at Shepperton or the future capital of the interplanetary world in San Francisco. Beam me up there, Scottie, wherever you are!
P.S.: For more on the wonderful world of movie geography, check out our latest podcast!