The road to Hollywood, California
The famous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee is a global symbol of the Los Angeles movie industry. (Mark Read)
Swathes of dense sea-fog wrap around the Golden Gate Bridge, concealing and revealing the city of San Francisco like a colossal, beguiling Dance of the Seven Veils. In the distance, the hunched, brooding form of Alcatraz Island slowly emerges, then the jagged skyline of Downtown and, gradually, there’s the pale cylinder of Coit Tower and Pier 39, with its busy docks and colourful boardwalk. Suddenly the city has appeared like a mirage, its hills all bathed in a soft, golden light. Minutes later, it is gone again.
When Alfred Hitchcock arrived here in 1951, he declared that San Francisco was ‘the perfect place for a murder mystery’ and, captivated by its moody, capricious weather and striking setting, he shot his classic Vertigo here. He wasn’t alone in seeing the city’s silver screen potential. This town has been captured from every angle by filmmakers from Golden Age impresario Cecil B DeMille to Francis Ford Coppola.
A morning wander reveals the impossibly steep streets where Steve McQueen’s green ’68 Mustang streamed through the air in Bullitt’s spectacular car chase, and the sky-scraping Financial District where The Towering Inferno blazed. At the docks, where dozens of sea lions clamber to doze in soft brown piles, the lonely island known locally as ‘The Rock’ can be seen, from which Clint Eastwood made his Escape from Alcatraz. Stretching north is the Golden Gate Bridge itself, saved from disaster by the heroics of Superman, James Bond and the X-Men, to name just a few.
‘More than a thousand movies have been filmed in this town. And San Francisco is so distinctive, with its landscape and architecture – not to mention that big, beautiful bridge – that the city itself becomes a central character,’ says Susan Hosking-Ramos. She holds up one hand to protect her eyes from the sun as she strolls through the grounds of Lucasfilm, the digital effects headquarters of Star Wars creator George Lucas – a local lad made good.
Susan is currently working to establish San Francisco’s first film museum, and she often comes here for inspiration. Others come to pay homage, posing with imaginary light sabres next to a fountain crowned with a bronze statue of Yoda, Star Wars’s diminutive, green-skinned Jedi master.
Susan talks of the early 20th century, when San Francisco was the leading light of California’s movie industry, and the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keating and Rudolph Valentino came here to make it big. ‘Then between 1910 and 1920, a lot of the industry moved down to LA. We were robbed!’ she says with a wry grin. ‘But San Francisco has remained important. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas come here to make movies that are outside the Hollywood studio system. They get called “Fog City Mavericks” because they don’t want to be told what to do. They want the freedom of expression that drew them to making films in the first place. And in that way, they are representative of the values of San Francisco.’
She makes a gesture with her hand that seems to take in the whole city, with its history of beatnik poets, free love and gay rights, now clear and present under a perfect blue sky. ‘This is a place where you come to be yourself.’
California is the undisputed movie-making capital of the world. While India produces more films and China has bigger studios, the industry based in this sprawling US state has an unmatched influence across the globe. Even the name ‘Hollywood’ has become so synonymous with films, it’s spurred copycat nicknames from Bollywood in Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) and Nollywood in Nigeria to Wellywood in Wellington, New Zealand, and Lollywood, in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
So why did it all happen here? California wasn’t a leading contender around the turn of the 20th century – that honour belonged to Chicago and New York, where America’s first commercial films were made. Yet the west coast’s sunny weather was a big draw at a time when even indoor scenes were filmed in the open air to save on lighting costs. It was also blessedly far from the reach of east-coast patent holders such as Thomas Edison, who would defend his camera technology with legal challenges and, if the mood took him, with hired goons wielding baseball bats.