Southwest Sets: Movies Filmed in Arizona

By: Eric Van Meter

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June 22, 2011

Arizona movies rove well beyond classic Westerns - from Oscar-winning dramas to titans of sci-fi, Arizona's scenery and sunshine have lit up the silver screen since 1912.

About the author

Eric Van Meter

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.

Anyone can spot famous skylines in a thousand different flicks, but for movies filmed in Arizona, it’s a different challenge. How many people can pinpoint Amado’s giant cow-skull restaurant in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore? How many recognize the Canyon de Chelly scenery that wildly outperforms the plot in Poltergeist 2?

For Arizona movies, the one unmistakable landmark is the Grand Canyon – launch site for a ’66 Thunderbird convertible in Thelma & Louise – but film-friendly taxes, a topographical smorgasbord and sunshine in spades have brought 2,000-plus productions to locations throughout the state.

Classic cameos

It’s no surprise that Arizona’s leading cities – Phoenix and Tucson – find their way into some of the best of the big screen. What producer wouldn’t want some time in this land of sunshine, especially in cities where off-set restaurants and recreation are on par with any major metropolis?

Alfred Hitchcock and Gus Van Sant understood this, giving us downtown Phoenix at the outsets of 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.

In fact, Phoenix and Tucson show up in Oscar winners and nominees through the decades, from The Bells of St. Mary’s in 1945 to Lilies of the Field and Easy Rider in the ’60s to Jerry Maguire, Transamerica and Little Miss Sunshine in recent years.

The Wild West

Arizona’s equivalent to the New York City skyline – an image so iconic it should never be faked – is Monument Valley. The surreal, red-rock spires would seem like CGI if they hadn’t become the very emblem of the Wild West in movies such as Henry Fonda’s classic My Darling Clementine or, um, Back to the Future 3 (OK, a DeLorean was a bit out of place, but you get the idea).

Nearby Canyon de Chelly – pronounced shay and the backdrop for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Sea of Grass – gives moviemakers another real-life Shangri-La. Chelly’s vistas 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.

Of course, Old Tucson Studios became the epicenter for Westerns starting in 1939, setting the stage for 300-plus productions, including the John Wayne classics Stagecoach, Rio Bravo and El Dorado.

But filmmakers have ranged the state to bring the West alive, from The Outlaw in Tuba City (where a 30-minute tour brings you foot-to-claw with fossilized dinosaur tracks) to historic Bisbee, where Emilio Estevez tries to spring his baddie buddies in 1990’s Young Guns 2. You can even catch a glimpse of the former ranching town of Perkinsville in a few scenes of How the West Was Won (which also used Old Tucson Studios as a backdrop). The site now serves as the turn-around point for the Verde Canyon Railroad’s scenic train tours.

Arizona among the stars

While a host of Arizona movies re-create the Old West, the state has also been a heavy hitter at the opposite end of the genre spectrum – a veritable where’s-where for sci-fi flicks.

In John Carpenter’s Starman, Jeff Bridges makes a desperate run for Meteor Crater, the world’s best-preserved meteorite crash site. Humans fend off far less friendly aliens in Tim Burton’s star-studded Mars Attacks!, filmed in Kingman, home to Arizona’s Route 66 Museum.

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 while you can’t loll about the lands around Yuma on an anti-gravity sail barge like Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi, you can tour the town’s portion of the Colorado River by jet boat, kayak or 15-ton sternwheeler.

Wet & wild

Last but not least, some moviemakers have a soft spot for the splashy side of Arizona.

Despite the horrors painted in Eight Legged Freaks, you won’t find giant, mutant spiders at Arizona’s Lake Powell, the second-largest manmade lake in the country. You will find scuba diving, fishing, waterskiing, helicopter rides and awesome photo opps amid nearly 100 canyon inlets.

With nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, the Lake Powell/Page area also graced the silver screen in Maverick (the movie version of James Garner’s 1950s comedy-western TV series), the 1996 terrorism thriller Broken Arrow and George Stevens’ 1965 epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told.

Final note: just as arachnophobes need not fear Lake Powell, ichthyophobes need not fear another Arizona playground, Lake Havasu, which is not home to prehistoric, flesh-frenzied piranha, despite its starring role in Piranha 3-D. It is, however, home to the London Bridge, a fact nearly as intriguing.

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