SAN DIEGO – San Diego has a long history of television and movies that have set their stories in “America’s Finest City” – from blockbusters like Top Gun to shows like The Fosters. But San Diego has a number of other movie and TV credits that might surprise some locals.
From recent hits like Avatar: The Way of Water and Pirates of the Caribbean to classics including Citizen Kane, San Diego has been used as a backlot for Hollywood films that take place outside of the region for over a century, hosting hundreds of movie and TV productions at locations across the area.
“Los Angeles is famous for filming, because – year round weather, beaches, mountains, desert – you can get anything within about 45 minutes,” Guy Langman, filming program manager with the City of San Diego’s Special Events and Filming Department, said to FOX5SanDiego.com. “San Diego offers the exact same thing.”
As early as 1898, San Diego was one of the premiere locations along the West Coast for the early motion picture industry, according to the Journal of San Diego History.
Since then, over 700 theatrical films and television productions have used the region for part or all of their production.
During the golden age of Hollywood, many of the films from the era used Balboa Park and the Hotel del Coronado as a shooting location, with their ornate architecture and high-end look.
Citizen Kane, the time-honored 1941 drama about reporters trying to decipher the meaning of the final word uttered by a man on his deathbed, used Balboa Park as the backdrop of the titular character’s Florida estate.
Marilyn Monroe graced the city while filming at the Hotel del Coronado for 1959’s Some Like It Hot, about two male musicians who flee Chicago disguised as women after witnessing a mob hit, traveling to a resort in Florida with an all-female jazz band.
Despite all these old-time movies, Langman said San Diego filming really boomed after the original Top Gun.
“San Diego has always been on the radar of Los Angeles,” he said. “I would say that (was) the movie that really put San Diego on the map for everyone, filming wise.”
During the 80s and 90s, Hollywood brought a lot of TV productions down south: shows like Veronica Mars, starring Kristen Bell as a teenager who helps her private investigator father dig up dirt on their wealthy neighbors in a fictitious Orange County town, and Simon & Simon, following brothers who run a detective agency.
Many other productions came down from Los Angeles for the ease and availability of water side filming.
Several water-related scenes in Titanic used an Escondido warehouse, called The Offshore Model Basin, that housed large pools for scientific research on barges, proportion testing and stress induced by waves.
In the early 2000s, Bruce Almighty, which takes place in Buffalo, NY, filmed a handful of scenes in San Diego, notably the one where he wrecks his car to challenge God. That filmed right along the water on Harbor Drive.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides filmed aboard one of the ships situated in the San Diego waterfront, the H.M.S. Surprise. Langman said for that they sailed the ship to LA, filming along the way as it was transiting San Diego Harbor and Point Loma. The Oscar-nominated 2003 film, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, did the same thing with the vessel housed by the Maritime Museum, according to Langman.
The most recent blockbuster to use the harbor of San Diego was Avatar: The Way of Water, which came down last summer to capture fish motion and wave action.
As Langman explained, for some of these more recent movies that used San Diego for filming didn’t bring down the whole production, rather sent second units to film what is called “plate shots” that are inserted behind the talent or action.
That’s what he said the team behind the 2009 action movie, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, did.
In the last few years, Langman said that San Diego has seen a lot more of a reintroduction to San Diego as a filming destination, given the amount of content created for streaming.
“The amount of on-location availability in the greater Los Angeles area is becoming very troublesome to get… we’re starting to see a reintroduction of San Diego to the major networks and studios for possible shows,” he explained to FOX5SanDiego.com. “We’re able to provide locations and backgrounds that are much easier to get.”
He said San Diego is particularly getting a lot of TV shows bringing elements of production down from Los Angeles, including hit shows like NCIS and SEAL Team.
“As the largest city in the region, working with the county and our other jurisdictions, we are making overtures to the entertainment industry to bring more filming down here,” Langman said. “We’re seeing more and more nibbles and scouting and people (in the industry) looking at San Diego as an alternative to the LA area.”
“I’m excited for residents to see more and more of our region on their TV and on the big screen,” he continued.