Whether you should live where your films are set has long divided filmmakers. But none has entered the lives of his subjects as fully as Shinsuke Ogawaby Mark Cousins / March 28, 2008 / Leave a comment
At the swanky dinner after the recent Bafta awards, a ripple of excitement swept the room when Daniel Day-Lewis walked in. It wasn’t only because he is handsome, or that he looks like a walking Egon Schiele drawing. As he doesn’t live in London, sightings of DDL at movie blingfests are rare treats these days, so heads turned.
I don’t live in London, and come from Ireland, where DDL relocated, but even I felt the allure of someone who has gone to live and think elsewhere. No other art form is better at creating sense of place than cinema, yet its history churns with migrations and émigrés, people making films set in places that they are just getting to know. In the studio era, location shooting was rare. Not a second of Casablanca was shot in Casablanca. Directors who fled the Nazis—Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, Michael Curtiz and so on—often made movies set in their adoptive home, California, but they looked at that home through shadows and scepticism.
For a time after the second world war, realist cinema reversed this profound idea that movie places were landscapes of the mind. You had to go to where your film was set; not to do so was shallow or oldfashioned. John Huston shot much of The African Queen in Congo and Uganda. Soon this hit-and-run approach to production was itself questioned: what could a filmmaker absorb about a place if she or he was only there a few months? Where a filmmaker lived became an issue.
In the coming decades, bolder directors smote such ethical worries like a gnat. The American director Stanley Kubrick, who took up residence in England, was uninterested in the realities of place: the Vietnam scenes in Full Metal Jacket were filmed in and around London. Yet he was such a stickler for the architecture of space that by the end of a movie like The Shining, you almost have a site plan in your head. The Danish director Lars von Trier is similarly inclined to precision-tooling space with his camera while haughtily disregarding location. He’s never been to the US, yet he has set three of his films there, shooting them in Sweden or Denmark.
Lofty auteurs like Kubrick and Von Trier (sometimes) get away with floating above questions of mere realism. The most revealing examples of the importance of residency lie outside…