“Say Anything,” celebrating its 30th anniversary this spring, is a great Seattle movie. Except it really isn’t.
Oh, it’s definitely a great movie — it’s the “Seattle” part I’m questioning. Like so many high-profile movies set in our city, “Say Anything” wasn’t actually filmed here, except for a handful of establishing shots of Seattle landmarks. Even that famed John-Cusack-holding-up-the-boombox scene — be still, my heart! — was shot in a Los Angeles-area park.
Revisiting “Say Anything” for its anniversary got me thinking about Seattle movies and “Seattle” movies — and, in particular, about the vision of Seattle that big-studio movies send out to the world. Back in the ’80s, ’90s and aughts, it wasn’t uncommon for Hollywood to actually shoot films here; some of these were hits (“Sleepless in Seattle”), some were not-celebrated-enough great movies (“The Fabulous Baker Boys”), and some were awful. (I tried getting through “The Vanishing,” the other day; couldn’t do it, despite the pleasure of a pre-“Speed” Sandra Bullock.)
While local filmmakers like Lynn Shelton and Megan Griffiths have long celebrated the little-known corners and damp beauty of the city, national audiences have gotten to know the Emerald City over the years in a rather different way. I took a re-look at a handful of big-studio Seattle movies from the past few decades; here’s what you might learn about our city from gazing at them.
- You can make Los Angeles look convincingly like Seattle.
Director Cameron Crowe, who lived part time in Seattle back when he made “Say Anything,” cleverly made Southern California look enough like home that a lot of us adamantly believed Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler was right here in town, playing “In Your Eyes,” standing on grass recently soaked with rain.
- Seattle looks a lot like Vancouver, B.C.
Vancouver, B.C., is sort of like Seattle’s evil twin; you can imagine it getting dressed up and taking Seattle’s date to the prom, while Seattle sits at home weeping quietly into a mirror. (No offense, Vancouver! You know I love you.) As with twins, you can tell the two cities apart if you know them pretty well, but casual acquaintances can’t easily do so; hence even true-story-inspired movies like “Battle in Seattle” staging most of their scenes on Vancouver streets. Some of these juxtapositions can be very enjoyable, however; like Christian Grey waking up in his downtown Seattle condo and going for a run on Vancouver’s waterfront in the opening scenes of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” or Al Pacino in “88 Minutes” commuting on Seattle’s viaduct and arriving, moments later, at his workplace: the University of British Columbia.
My favorite example of this, though, is in “50/50,” a charming 2011 comedy about a young man with cancer (no, it really is charming, check it out), in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt, confronting his mortality and the things he hasn’t yet done, sits in a park and moans, “I’ve never even been to Canada.” Except he is in Canada; it’s a Vancouver park. I remember snorting in the theater, quite loudly.
Runner-up example, in the just-outside-Seattle department: In “Enough,” a 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller that has a few scenes in Seattle, the character flees to “Northern Michigan,” as we’re told on screen — actually, it’s Port Townsend, Washington. A Seattle friend, played by Dan Futterman, comes to visit her on the Port Townsend ferry, loudly proclaiming, “That’s the most preposterous trip I’ve ever taken!” Dude, it’s just a ferry ride.
- Geography in Seattle is quite … elastic.
As if Seattle were a big Harry Potter movie, people seem able to Apparate — to leave one place and instantly be relocated to another — with little regard for the reality of local maps. A few classics: Julianne Moore, in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” does some research at the University Branch Library and within minutes has arrived at her pal’s house in Tacoma. Jeff Bridges, in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” wanders through Pike Place Market and emerges, mysteriously, at Ivar’s on the waterfront. And perhaps most famously: Meg Ryan in “Sleepless in Seattle,” drives from Lake Union to Alki via the Fremont Bridge, only to find that Tom Hanks and his kid, leaving from Lake Union in their teeny motorboat, got there quicker. That is one SPEEDY boat.
- Every Seattle apartment has a view of the Space Needle, or the water. Or both.
The “Singles” apartment building is the only exception to this rule. Which makes it true, right?
- “It rains nine months of the year in Seattle.”
This line was famously spoken by David Hyde Pierce, who played Meg Ryan’s brother in “Sleepless in Seattle,” and people all over the country nodded and shuddered. But hey, doesn’t it rain, at least occasionally, for nine months of the year in most places? It actually doesn’t rain much at all in “Sleepless in Seattle,” but the filmmakers made sure that the walkway leading up to Tom Hanks’ houseboat was always wet. And in the Poetic Justice department, Pierce went on to become “Frasier’s” Dr. Niles Crane, who lived in Seattle and LIKED IT.
- The Seattle Center Monorail is loud and terrifying.
It’s actually sort of quiet and endearing and mildly metallic, but in “The Ring” it seems both utterly deafening and like it might eat Naomi Watts for dinner. Even in “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” it’s noisily mournful. (The monorail turns up in movies a lot; you’d think Seattleites rode the thing every day.)
- You can drive right up to the Bainbridge ferry and drop somebody off so close that they can just hop onto the car deck, and nobody will yell at you.
This is apparently only true if you are Michael Douglas’ family in “Disclosure.”
- If you scream and pound on the wall while having a conniption fit in the women’s restroom at Volunteer Park Conservatory, nobody will hear you.
This is what crazy nanny Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) does in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” and you would think it would wake the dead, but apparently that vintage structure has some VERY good soundproofing. (However, if you test this theory, the joke would be on you, because the public restroom in Volunteer Park Conservatory is fictional.)
- You can, if you are in the former Pioneer Square bus tunnel station, catch a Metro bus labeled “Bus to ferry,” and take it to the Bainbridge ferry.
Or, I don’t know, you could just walk, because it’s maybe two blocks? In “Disclosure,” the Michael Douglas character and his wife, having a bit of a marital crisis (and what better place for a crisis than the Pioneer Square bus tunnel station?), hop onto this mysteriously well-labeled and entirely unnecessary bus, which according to my expert sources (Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom) never existed.
- Only men are allowed to eat lunch at the Athenian Inn in Pike Place Market.
Take a look, as Rob Reiner and Tom Hanks are having lunch in “Sleepless in Seattle,” and you will see that, for some reason, only men are dining there. And it’s crowded! We see a woman working in the kitchen, and another who crosses the restaurant floor, but the only people seated and dining are men. Was there some sort of Gentlemen’s Tiramisu Special that day?
- If you don’t feel like waiting for the elevator at the Space Needle, take the stairs.
That’s what Aaron Eckhart does in “Love Happens,” because he’s a motivational speaker/dude who doesn’t believe in elevators, and he doesn’t look even the littlest bit sweaty afterward. In real life it’s 832 steps up, which is to say 98 flights, and the public can only access those stairs at the annual Base 2 Space fundraiser. Also: Why?
- Two-story vintage brick apartment buildings on Capitol Hill have elevators.
The one in “Singles” does, the better to present a famous scene between Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon. Except in real life, it doesn’t, and why would it? (Though it does now have an Airbnb apartment.)
- When it starts to rain in Seattle, everyone has an umbrella which they whip out from some cleverly concealed location on their person.
In “Love Happens,” exactly this happens, on a street corner near Pike Place Market. In real life, it’s been my observation that Seattleites, in sudden rain, just look irritated and start walking faster.
What’s your favorite Seattle-movie observation? Let me know!