When Canadian-born cinematographer James H. White set up his Edison camera outside Monterey’s Hotel Del Monte in 1897, he directed one of the country’s earliest silent films, and, in the process, became the first of many influential filmmakers to set movies in Monterey County.
The jumpy, black-and-white “Hotel Del Monte” footage, which features well-dressed guests waving as they pass by in horse-drawn carriages, seems simple when compared to rich scenes captured in today’s films. Still, whether it’s Mel Gibson battling North Vietnamese forces in “We Were Soldiers,” or a young Elizabeth Taylor riding horseback along the coast in “National Velvet,” the stars of movies shot here share top billing with another celebrity: the Monterey area’s famously spectacular landscapes.
“The Monterey Peninsula almost becomes a character in these movies,” says Doug Lumsden, founder of Monterey Movie Tours. “It’s a tremendously scenic setting. Over the last 100 years, directors, producers and cinematographers have loved coming here because it’s just a natural backdrop for their scenes.”
With 99 miles of Pacific coastline, plus historic buildings, parks, downtown streetscapes, vast farm fields and vineyards, the region’s camera-friendly appeal has attracted nearly 200 movie productions. Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Stanwyck starred in the 1952 release “Clash by Night,” which was set on Cannery Row. James Dean filmed “East of Eden” in the Salinas Valley, right where the John Steinbeck novel was based.
Alfred Hitchcock’s American debut, “Rebecca,” brought Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine to Point Lobos, while scenes from “The Graduate,” “Turner & Hooch,” “Basic Instinct” and “Bandits” were captured in Monterey County, as well.
Local stars joined Hollywood legends for the 2006 picture, “Where’s Marty?” Betty White, Tony Curtis, Ken Howard and George Lopez all appeared in the fundraiser for the Monterey County Film Commission’s scholarship program. Most recently, Rob Lowe, Jeremy Piven and Carla Gugino came to Big Sur to film scenes from “I Melt with You,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Filmmakers gravitate toward that stretch of coastline for several reasons, says the Monterey County Film Commission’s Karen Nordstrand, who helps producers scout sites for major movies, documentaries, commercials and magazine shoots.
“I think what most often captivates people here is Big Sur, with its openness, natural beauty, clean air and pristine settings. It can look totally isolated, if that’s the look they want,” she says.
In fact, with the exception of towering city skylines, Monterey County boasts an incredible amount of scenic diversity. That versatility contributes to what Lumsden calls the area’s “rare and undeniable movie-making magic,” in which locations here can double for faraway destinations. “Foolish Wives,” a 1922 Universal film, said to be the country’s first $1 million motion picture, takes place in Monte Carlo. But, in reality, it was shot at Point Lobos. In the Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee classic, “A Summer Place,” a Pacific Grove home and Monterey’s Colton Hall stand in as sites on a coastal Maine island. Kermit the Frog and Fozzi Bear cruise through Rancho San Carlos in a scene from “The Muppet Movie,” where oak groves substitute for Louisiana swampland, and Monterey County has also played the parts of England, Scotland, Norway and Vietnam.
“Directors are looking for the best, most cost-effective productions they can have. So, if they can stay in America and not go to other places in the world, but can still look like they’ve gone to other places in the world, then that works for them,” Lumsden says.
That works for the local economy, too. The two-person Monterey County Film Commission handles as many as 500 location assistance requests each year, and an average of 70 regional shoots take place annually. Of course, the bigger the productions are, the greater the benefit to area businesses. Since county supervisors created the nonprofit film commission in 1987, it has tracked more than $72 million in spending generated by local film projects.
“Generally, we’re looking at between $3 and $4 million a year that comes into local communities,” Nordstrand says. “Crews stay at hotels. They eat out. They hire caterers. They go shopping, make copies, use dry cleaners, buy gas…all that becomes part of the local spend.”
In recent years, film productions have increasingly followed financial incentives to competing destinations in other states and countries. Nordstrand hopes a new California Film Commission film and television tax credit will bring cameras back to the area for large movie projects. And, in the meantime, finished films still generate interest.
Doug Lumsden introduced Monterey Movie Tours in 2003, after presenting a one-time “Magical Misty Tour” honoring the 30th anniversary of Clint Eastwood’s 1971 “Play Misty for Me.” The outing was so well received that Lumsden launched a daily version of the tour, expanded to include clips, stories and sightseeing related to movies filmed locally.
Four decades after it was made, “Play Misty for Me” still draws the greatest response from movie tour guests.
“Clint Eastwood is such a huge figure on the Monterey Peninsula, and in movie making,” says Lumsden. “He’s an icon, and passengers get very excited when he comes on the screen.” On the tour, visitors view scenes in which Eastwood’s Dave Garver drives down Ocean Avenue in Carmel, goes to work at KRML Radio and stops for drinks at the Sardine Factory.
“That movie has brought more people into this restaurant…Through the years, you’d think something like that would dissipate, but it doesn’t,” says Sardine Factory co-founder Bert Cutino. Diners regularly ask about the movie, which was filmed entirely in the Monterey area. Some have even been lucky enough to see Eastwood sitting at the same seat he occupied while in character. Business owners like Cutino find such silver screen connections invaluable.
“It brings a lot of recognition to the Monterey Peninsula. You can’t buy that kind of advertising,” he says. “All those things just add to the flavor and historical significance of this area.”
The Monterey Movie Tour departs daily at 1pm. Tickets cost $55 per person and are available at www.montereymovietours.com or 800/979-3370. To get involved in Monterey County Film Commission efforts, or to download the organization’s free local movie map, visitwww.filmmonterey.org.