We all love to see movie locations when we travel, and filmmakers have swooned over the Southwest since the industry began. (Literally.) When you take a vacation in the southwest, you’ll find yourself saying, “Is that the place Forrest Gump stopped running?” “Wait, didn’t Thelma and Louise drive off the world here?” or, “Okay, this is definitely the place where Earth’s superheroes got together and saved humanity.” If it looks familiar, it is. Enjoy the ride!
Monument Valley: Harry Goulding was the owner of a trading post in Monument Valley almost 100 years ago. The land was vast, picture-perfect, and most of it was on the Navajo Reservation, straddling AZ and UT. In the depths of the Great Depression, Navajos were desperate, and so was Harry’s small family. He used his last dollars to drive to Hollywood, camping out on Director John Ford’s couch until he got a meeting. Harry fanned photos of Monument Valley on the director’s desk—Ford was mightily impressed. He shot Stagecoach there in 1939, starring John Wayne, and a host of other movies. Monument Valley was also featured in Easy Rider (1969), directed by Dennis Hopper, and Forrest Gump (1994).
You’ve seen Jeeps perched on top of the Mittens, a person doing yoga on the Totem Pole, or ads for rehab centers zeroing in on Ear of the Wind arch. Monument Valley is a star and recognized by people around the world. Harry Goulding would be amazed by what his slim-chance bet created. An entire industry in one locale. Drive to Monument Valley and feel the wonder of time.
Phoenix and Scottsdale, AZ: Keanu Reeves made a splash in the comedy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989). This goofy movie is about a pair of Southern California kids who make a time machine out of a phone booth. They’re transported to various eras in history, learn about them first-hand, and pass their high school history test with flying colors. The film was shot in and around Coronado High School in Scottsdale, the Phoenix Metrocenter mall, and Mesa’s Golfland Sunsplash. It’s still good for a laugh!
Arizona State Fairgrounds: First a Broadway play, Bus Stop (1956), was Marilyn Monroe’s first movie that wasn’t a pure comedy, and some critics say it was her best performance. In it, an innocent rodeo rider named Beauregard heads to Phoenix and falls for a nightclub singer, played by Marilyn Monroe. In the Big City’s Blue Dragon Café, he falls hopelessly in love with Monroe’s character when she sings, “That Old Black Magic.” The state fairgrounds are easy to recognize, and the rest of the city is a trip back in time.
Into the Arizona Mountains: Filmed 10 years before The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona (1987) is a quintessential Coen Brothers film. The Superstition Mountains, Camelback Back Mountain, and the Sun Devil Stadium all have starring roles. Hi, played by Nicolas Cage, is a career criminal. He met his sweetheart, a cop named Ed (Holly Hunter), when she took his mug shots. Hi turns over a new leaf, they want to have kids, but can’t. They kidnap one of the “Arizona Quints.” Crime creeps back in their lives, they return the baby, have a talk with their dad, and everyone lives happily ever after. Raising Arizona ranks 31st on the American Film Institute Laugh’s List, and is on Bravo’s Funniest Movie list. Climb Camelback at dawn. The light is unforgettable.
Tucson’s Titan Missile Museum: Star Trek: First Contact (1996) is one of the most entertaining in the series. (Which is saying a lot!) Tucson’s Titan Missile Museum is used as the rocket silo that launches the warp-drive inventor, Zaframe Cochrane, back in time to prevent Earth’s first contact with an alien species. Zaframe is eccentric, and sometimes he drinks too much, so Captain Picard and crew chase him back in time. They have to make sure he makes his first flight, reaching warp speed, or all is lost!
You can visit the Missile Museum, and see the last of the 54 Titan II sites, on red alert from 1963 – 1987.
The Grand Canyon (and nearby): Thelma and Louise (1991) had a road trip that was a girlfriend getaway gone sideways. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon take off in a ’66 Thunderbird, ready for two days without men. But Thelma is assaulted outside a honky-tonk and Louise takes the man out, launching their trip across the Southwest. Our sympathetic heroines hone their new criminal skills, chased by a growing police force. Their sail across the edge of the Grand Canyon is one of the most iconic scenes in movie history. The Grand Canyon is dramatic, and it is must-see.
The Phoenix-of-Yesterday: Terry McMillan’s bestselling book about four Black women’s friendship, Waiting to Exhale, was made into a movie, set in the Phoenix of 1995. Local sites include Biltmore Fashion Park, the Hermosa Inn, First Congregational United Church of Christ, the Arizona Supreme Court building and the gone-but-not-forgotten Jockey Club, a nightclub at Central Avenue and Camelback Road that catered to African-Americans. (Whitney Houston performed the track, and it is amazing!)
Albuquerque, Espanola, Galisteo, Santa Fe: The movie Crazy Heart won the 2010 Academy Award for Jeff Bridges, Best Actor, and for Best Original Song, The Weary Kind. The film is about a down-and-out singer/songwriter who’s in love with a young journalist—he’s trying to turn his life around. The relationship doesn’t come together as he wants, but he gets his life back. T Bone Burnett’s music fits perfectly into the New Mexico Landscape. Take the back roads out of Albuquerque and explore.
Truchas: Robert Redford directed The Milagro Beanfield War. The movie is based on a novel by one of the Southwest’s best writers, John Nichols. (He was also called in to repair the screenplay.) It’s an ensemble cast of characters that could only come from the heart of a small, old village in New Mexico. It tells the endless story of the west, the struggle over water and development, with heart and grace. The high-desert scenery is mind-boggling, and the relationships are authentic. Go there when you visit New Mexico. You will be transported.
Albuquerque and Deming: Even Superheroes love America’s Southwest! The Avengers (2016) is based on the DC Comics characters. Filming was set to begin in Albuquerque, but the cast and crew decided to stay on for the rest of the filming. In this film, the heroes must join forces to stop the evil Loki from taking over. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice originally had scenes set in Morocco. Because of the Ebola outbreak, those scenes were shot in Deming. Any scene you’ve seen that reads, “Nairobi, Africa,” was actually shot in New Mexico!