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Old Tucson Studios

Star Turns: Arizona's Movie Locations

Movies filmed in Arizona go beyond Westerns. From Oscar-winning dramas to titans of sci-fi, big-screen stories have been making the most of Arizona's iconic landscapes since 1912.

Anyone can recognize a famous skyline in a blockbuster flick, but for movies filmed in Arizona, scene-spotting brings a unique challenge. How many people can pinpoint Amado's cow-skull restaurant in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore?" And who recognizes the Canyon de Chelly backdrop that outperforms the plot in "Poltergeist 2"?

It's this very thing—the shape-shifting quality of Arizona's geological terrain—that has enticed more than 2,000 productions to film in the state.

"We have the most diverse topography of anywhere in the U.S.," says Matthew Earl Jones, director of Film & Digital Media for the Arizona Commerce Authority.

This means that if a film scout seeks "New England in the fall," they can find it in Arizona's White Mountains. A director who desires an alien planet? The vast badlands near the Petrified Forest will more than suffice.

Other enticements for filmmakers? "The proximity to Los Angeles means that cast and crew can be on set in Arizona and take meetings in L.A. on the same day," says Jones. He adds: "Our weather helps, too."

When it comes to the silver screen, Arizona does it all, from starring roles in legendary movies to bit parts in indie films. Here's a peek at some of Arizona's best work.

Classic cameos

opening scene of psycho-hitchcock
Credit: Universal Pictures

Downtown Phoenix features in the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 classic, "Psycho."

Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant offer quick visuals of downtown Phoenix at the outsets of the 1960 "Psycho" and its 1998 remake. Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson set the screen on fire in Tucson and Tempe in the Academy Award-winning "A Star is Born."

Phoenix and Tucson also show up in "Easy Rider" and "Transamerica;" while Tempe makes appearances in "Jerry Maguire;" "Forrest Gump" features the ghost town of Twin Arrows; and, in "Little Miss Sunshine," Arizona stands in for New Mexico.

See for yourself:

  • "Forrest Gump": At Twin Arrows, Tom Hanks' character creates the famous smiley face logo. (I-40 between Flagstaff and Winslow)
  • "Jerry Maguire": Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State University in Tempe serves as the field for the movie's NFL football games.

The Wild West

The spires of Monument Valley have become the very emblem of the West. Take movies such as "My Darling Clementine" with Henry Fonda or "Back to the Future 3" (OK, a DeLorean was a bit out of place, but you get the idea).

title scene from movie at canyon de chelly, az
Credit: MGM Entertainment

Viewers get a glimpse of Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly in the title screen for "Poltergeist 2."

Nearby Canyon de Chelly—the backdrop for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in "Sea of Grass"—offers vistas that so perfectly convey the Southwest that director Robert Zemeckis faked the site as being a stone's throw from New Mexico's Very Large Array satellite dishes in the 1997 film "Contact." And, yes, it's there in "Poltergeist 2" as the site of villain Rev. Henry Kane's earthly demise.

Old Tucson Studios became the epicenter for Westerns starting in 1939, setting the stage for 300-plus productions, including the John Wayne classics "Stagecoach" and "El Dorado." But filmmakers have ranged the state far and wide to bring the West alive, from Howard Hughes' "The Outlaw" in Tuba City to Bisbee, where Emilio Estevez tries to spring his baddie buddies in "Young Guns 2."

See for yourself:

  • Gammon's Gulch: You can visit this active movie set, which depicts a 1800s-1930s Western town. Just be sure to call ahead for advance reservations. 331 W. Rockspring Lane, Benson, (520) 212-2831
  • Old Tucson Studios: Tour the grounds where hundreds of classic Western movies were filmed. 201 S. Kinney Rd., Tucson, (520) 883-0100

Galactic adventures

You might be surprised to learn that Arizona is a veritable "where's-where" for sci-fi flicks. In John Carpenter's "Starman," Jeff Bridges makes a desperate run for Meteor Crater, while humans fend off aliens in Tim Burton's star-studded "Mars Attacks!," filmed in Kingman.

Glen Canyon and Page set the scene for "Planet of the Apes" (the 1968 original and 2001 remake). The strange planet in "2001: A Space Odyssey" is (again) the dreamlike Monument Valley and Yuma's stark landscape cameos in "Return of the Jedi."

See for yourself:

  • "Return of the Jedi": You can't ride an anti-gravity sail barge like Jabba the Hutt, but you can tour the Imperial Sand Dunes National Recreation Area in Yuma, where these Star Wars scenes were filmed.
  • "Starman": Not only was Meteor Crater featured in this movie, but it's also notable for being the world's best-preserved meteorite impact site. Meteor Crater, I-40, Exit 233, Winslow

Water thrills

Some moviemakers have a soft spot for the splashy side of Arizona. Despite the horrors painted in "Eight Legged Freaks," there are no giant, mutant spiders at Lake Powell, the second-largest manmade lake in the country.

Lake Powell during the filming of "John Carter of Mars"—and after, with a little help from CGI. Credit: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney

filming john carter of mars
Credit: Frank Connor ©2011 Disney

Lake Powell during the filming of "John Carter of Mars"—and after, with a little help from CGI.

With nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, the Lake Powell/Page area graced the big screen in "Maverick" (the movie version of James Garner's 1950s comedy-western TV series), George Stevens' 1965 epic, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and "John Carter of Mars" in 2012.

Just as arachnophobes need not fear Lake Powell, ichthyophobes need not fear another Arizona playground, Lake Havasu, which is not home to any flesh-frenzied piranha, despite the lake's starring role in "Piranha 3-D."

See for yourself:

  • "Eight-Legged Freaks": No official monster-movie at Lake Powell, but you can still enjoy scuba diving, fishing, waterskiing and helicopter rides.
  • "Piranha 3-D": In Lake Havasu City, explore the deep waters featured in this film, as well as see the famous London Bridge, moved here block by block from London in the 1960s.

For even more movies filmed in Arizona (6,300 and counting), check out IMDB's full list.

About the Author

Eric Van Meter

Born and raised in Arizona, Eric Van Meter is a freelance content developer, specializing in sales and marketing communications for web, print and radio. On the side, he also gets a kick of out of writing about science, technology, travel and film. You can find more of his work at www.wordmoxie.com.