‘That was filmed in Utah!’: What makes the state so prominent in Hollywood movies and television

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The cast and crew of HBO’s Westworld work on shooting a scene at Dead Horse Point State Park. (Courtesy of HBO)

(ABC4) – Oftentimes, when Virginia Pearce turns on the TV to watch a movie, she finds herself making the same expression Leonardo DiCaprio makes while pointing at the screen in a scene from “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” that has since become a ubiquitous meme.

‘I know that place!’ is the underlying message in the gesture, Pearce, the director of the Utah Film Commission explains.

“I’m always the annoying person that’s like, ‘That was filmed in Utah!’ or if somebody’s talking about how much they love a certain movie, I’m always like ‘That was filmed in Utah!’” she laughs. “People don’t realize how much has been shot here.”

As far back as Western movies made by “The Duke,” John Wayne, Utah has been a favored spot for many filmmakers to shoot their pictures or portions of a TV series. Many times, Utah’s diverse backdrops have been used in place of the script’s actual setting, in a different time, place, or even planet. In some cases, what makes Utah unique at times, is how un-unique it can appear on screen, Pearce tells ABC4.com.

“Obviously, we do well in the western genre, we are also known for our ‘Any Town, USA’ -look,” she says. “Disney has certainly taken advantage of that over the past 20 years and has set a lot of their family dramas that could be anywhere. They want people to feel like they recognize that as a town in their own state and I think Utah does that well.”

Attracting the film studios to work in the state means incentives. Pearce says the state has a fund of $8 million set aside annually to incentivize filmmakers to work in Utah, which can pale in comparison to the funds that competing markets like New Mexico, California, and Vancouver have in place to woo producers and directors.

Still, Utah keeps up the best of them at setting the stage for motion pictures. Utah has been good to Hollywood, and likewise, Tinseltown has returned the favor. Pearce shares that nearly 3,000 workers in Utah have continuously been employed thanks to the demand for production in the state.

The geography and location relative to where the red carpet will be laid could be a big reason why.

“You can fly into Utah in 90 minutes from L.A., you can be on the salt flats in a couple of hours or you could be south and among the Red Rock in a couple of hours,” Pearce says.

The Sundance Film Festival held each winter in non-pandemic years, could also be a factor.

As the 50th anniversary of the Utah Film Commission approaches in a few years, Pearce and her team are preparing to commemorate many of the sites that have found immortality on the big or small screen. For now, an interactive map on the Commission’s website has found over 400 locations throughout the state that have a place in film or TV.

Here are a few favorites:

The Sandlot

Known for many iconic lines such as “You play ball like a girl!” and “You’re killing me, Smalls!” The Sandlot has long been celebrated as one of the most beloved and watched movies to be filmed entirely in Utah. On the movie’s 28th anniversary, the movie’s director, David Mickey Evans, explained to ABC4.com that he chose Utah as the shooting location because the area served as a near-exact replica of his memories of 1962 San Fernando, California. The field, or ‘Sandlot,’ is still around, but unrecognizable as a shared backyard in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

High School Musical 1,2,3

We’re all in this together, as Troy Bolton, played by Zac Efron, and Gabriella Montez, portrayed by Vanessa Hudgens, would say. While the movie series is supposed to be set at East High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, filming actually took place at East High School in Salt Lake City. Many of the backdrops for some of the recognizable scenes are still as they were when the movie series debuted. The school even has a High School Musical tour available for inquiring visitors. Both the first and third movies were made in Salt Lake City, while the second was shot in the St. George area.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

The Bonneville Salt Flats, one of the most surreal places in the world, served as an other-worldly site as the location of Davy Jones’ Locker in the third installment of the wildly popular “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies. Other movies have used the Salt Flats as locations to serves as a desolate, far-off place beyond typical human civilization, including Nicholas Cage’s cult classic, Con Air, and Will Smith’s blockbuster, Independence Day.

Dumb & Dumber

The adventures of absent-minded pals Harry and Lloyd were placed in several Utah locations which can still be easily found today. Except for the old Salt Lake City International Airport, where Lloyd, played by Jim Carrey, raced through the terminal before running off the jetway in an attempt to deliver an abandoned briefcase. That old airport has since been replaced. Still, locations like the exterior of the mansion where the Snow Owl Benefit, which is actually the Devereaux House at the Triad Center in downtown SLC, are still standing.

Footloose

If you didn’t know that Kevin Bacon’s box office hit, “Footloose”, was filmed in Utah, chances are you just haven’t had a conversation with a Utahn for more than 10 minutes. The Lehi area that now boasts Utah’s booming tech industry was once more well-known as the town portrayed in Footloose. The warehouse or factory place where Bacon’s character, Ren, punch-dances out all his rage? That’s the Lehi Roller Mills on Main Street. The town’s church that the stuffy adults who have banned dancing meet as the center of their universe, that’s in nearby American Fork.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

At one point, the 1969 Western starring film icons Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was easily the most seen and famous movie to be shot in Utah. The film has since been added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, thanks perhaps in large part to the jaw-dropping backgrounds provided by the Southern Utah landscape. The movie put the abandoned town of Grafton on the map as the most photographed ghost town in the world while also showing off the natural wonders of Zion National Park and Snow Canyon State Park.

Multiple Lifetime/Hallmark holiday movies

For many, the predictable and often freakishly similar themes of Lifetime or Hallmark holiday movies are a guilty pleasure. Utah has been a reliable backdrop for many of these movies, including four that have been shot in this year alone, Pearce says. “We also make really great snow in the summertime,” she laughs when explaining that many of these movies are filmed well outside of the winter months in places like Bountiful, Payson, and Oakley.

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