How The West Was Filmed: The Diverse Story of Film in Utah

More than 800 movies, both television and silver screen, have been made in Utah (D’Arc). Popular blockbusters, westerns, and independent art films have been a part of Utah since the early 1900’s. Dynamic culture, unique history, and a great legacy are all things that attribute to the fact that Utah has had a relationship with films and movies since their inception. Movies and film are a big part of our society. They rack in millions of dollars, domestic and foreign each year, and supply our economy with extra income. In Utah they are just as much a part of our society and culture as the whole of the United States, if not more so. Utah has a rich, diverse, and interesting relationship with movies and film. From many great westerns being shot here, to one of the premiere film festivals in the nation being held here every year, Utah has made its mark on movie history and on the current culture of film.

When filmmakers were looking for a place to shoot westerns, they came to Utah. In 1924 what is recognized as the first Hollywood movie was filmed in Kane County, Utah. Deadwood Coachis a western that the world has all but forgot about. The film starred one of the most prominent and beloved cowboy stars of his time. Tom Mix was a man who was “Solidly built, with a smile to span the Grand Canyon…” (D’Arc 33).

Deadwood Coach

With such a high profile actor filming and staying in Utah, the state gained wide attention by filmmakers, production companies, and producers. Soon after the film was released, which took four months to edit and title, there was an increase in films being made in Utah. The Fox Film Corporation alone, who had originally produced and distributed the film, began to take interest in Utah as a place to film their westerns, such as the 1936 film Ramona. Unfortunately, the film no longer exists, and the only things left to document the locations are a few photographs (D’Arc). Still, the film would be the start of the great relationship between Hollywood and Utah.

 Many of these early western films were shot in the Utah desert but required sets to be built to look like small western towns or forts. In Johnson Canyon, for the film Buffalo Bill, there was a large fort built that cost the company $75,000 in 1943. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) also built a small town in Johnson Canyon that would appear in many movies and television shows throughout the years (D’Arc 158). For the 1936 movie Ramona, a large hacienda was built at the Tempe of Sinawava in Zion National Park.

Ramona (1936)

Hacienda built for "Ramona"

The location was used along with fake palm trees and other props to portray a jungle environment (D’Arc 64). Many of these locations have since been either torn down or lost to time. However, some of these early movie sets are still in good condition and are available to tour. Frontier Movie Town is one such museum location that has a rather large old west town that has been used in over 100 films (Frontier). Unfortunately, since many of these sets were used only for a short time, photographs are the only thing we have left to document them.

Filmmakers came to Utah partly because the land. Utah has a interesting, rich, and diverse geological makeup. There are mountains with large pine forests, both flat and mountainous deserts, and one of the largest salt water lakes in the world. But its the desert that was the main draw for filmmakers of early western movies. Utah has a large expanse of open desert that was the perfect setting for these silent and talkie films. The Dude Ranger was one of the early westerns made in the Kanab area. It was mostly filmed in Utah, only with a little bit of it filmed in California. The movie used the open Utah landscape and small towns to convey the idea of the open small town west. These early films would be the start of using Utah as the go-to place for filming these early black-and-white movies. But even lasting into the past decades, Utah has been used as a location for many high profile films.

Monument Valley in southern Utah has been used as a location in many western films. The great expanse of desert is one of the most recognizable and iconic scenes of the west. In 1939 John Ford made a film called Stagecoach. The filmed was not shot entirely in Monument Valley, in fact only around one percent of the film is Monument Valley, but the images lasted and affected ideas of the west (D’Arc 208).

Monument Valley

Monument Valley

In Monument Valley, the large buttes called “Mittens” are an extremely distinct feature. With the amount of films being shot here, including many of John Ford’s later films, the mittens became an iconic symbol of the American west (D’Arc 208). Movies have these affects on us. They are able to transform our ideas of places, foreign and domestic.

Whenever there is a desert needed, Hollywood flocks to Utah. In many big films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean, the Utah desert is used as a set location. In fact, in both The Pirates of the Caribbean and Independence Day, the Bonneville Salt Flats were used in production. Thelma & Louise is a movie about two older women who decide to flee from Arkansas with their story finally ending at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Though the film takes place in a number of states, the entirety of the film was shot in California and Utah. In fact, the climactic end scene with Thelma and Louise driving their 1966 Thunderbird over the edge of the Grand Canyon wasn’t even filmed at the Grand Canyon. The scene was filmed at Dead Horse State Park in southern Utah, in a totally separate state than where it was supposed to have taken place. Utah is definitely a go-to place for film making. The diversity of the state itself lends it to being as such. Its surprising just how many films have had scenes or even the whole film shot in the state. The only difference with movies being shot in New York or Hollywood, is that we often do not know that these films were shot here.

Not always has Utah been used to portray the great American west. The state has had so many films made here that the diversity of locations in movies that are actually Utah is a list of its own. This attributes itself to Utah’s diverse geography. In 1968, the film The Devil’s Brigade was filmed in Alpine and Park City. But the climactic scene in the film, a large battle between Germans and Americans, which was supposed to take place in the mountains of Italy, was filmed at the top of a canyon above the city of Draper. Utah National Guard troops were used to amass a large group of extras. The film was estimated to have brought in $2.5 million dollars into the north Utah economy (D’Arc 267). That is a lot of money for the state just from a movie whose budget was $4.5 million. All that money, including money from other films, helped stimulate the economy in the state, and to stimulate the film economy in Utah. In the movie Galaxy Quest parts of the film were shot in Goblin Valley State Park in Southern Utah. This part of the film shows the crew landing on an unknown alien planet. If you were to watch the movie, you may not really notice how alien the planet they are on actually feels. But those scenes were shot in Utah. They used the sandstone hoodoos that are abundant in places of the park to create the illusion that the actors were on another planet (D’Arc 14). And another film to use southern Utah as an alien planet was Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 space epic 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film used the popular Monument Valley, used to film western films, to great effect. In this way, Utah has been used to shaped our imaginations of the foreign places.

An interesting fact about movie history in Utah that many do not know, comes from W.W. Hodkinson. The name may not be common place, but the man has made a great mark on movies. Hodkinson had opened one of the nations first theaters in 1907 in Ogden, Utah. But he has an even greater mark on the world of film and Utah. “Later, he went east and formed a distribution agency, which he named Paramount. For the company’s logo, Hodkinson drew an image of a snow-capped peak resembling those along the Wasatch mountain range of his former home.” states D’Arc in When Hollywood Came to Town (D’Arc 264).

Paramount Logo Comparison

1914 Paramount Logo compared with Ben Lomond Peak

In his citations, D’Arc states that the Paramount Pictures website tells us that Ben Lomond Peak in Ogden is the mountain that represents the logo (D’Arc 282). “Paramount’s current logo is representative of that same Utah peak, and represents an emblematic tie to the state of Utah.” (D’Arc 264)

In Utah, art flourishes. The culture here does not inhibit that. It, in fact, spurs it along in its own unique way. Movies have been a large part of Utah since the dawn of Hollywood. With the use of Utah as a distinct location for shooting, people have been driven to Utah. Whether through work or seeing these films, the movie and film industry in and out of Utah has cultivated a diverse culture that thrives along with the industry. There is a great culture that surrounds movies. This culture has, since the dawn of the first talkies, been a staple of our society. The Sundance Film Festival is a perfect example of Utah influencing the movie culture worldwide. The festival started in September of 1978 in Salt Lake City. The first festival, although a success, occurred a debt that was one third the size of the entire budget. This debt only spurred the people in charge to throw another even the next year as to recoup money to settle the debt. The event was moved to Park City in the early 1980s and continued to expand throughout the decade (Craig). One important aspect of the festival that made it so successful and continues to draw success, is the showing of independent films along with the normal big premieres. In fact, the Sundance Film Festival has almost become synonymous with independent filmmakers trying to get their films out to a larger audience. The festival continued to grow throughout the 1990s along with the ever-growing independent film industry. Top distributors started to see the festival as a potential money-making opportunity. Utah, through the Sundance Film Festival, was becoming a cultural hub for independent movies and films (Craig).

Sundance Film Festival

With the explosion of independent film in Utah, the festival began showing films in Ogden and Salt Lake City along with the main attractions in Park City. This explosion of films and festival goers gave rise to even more film festivals. Slamdance was started in Utah as an answer to the Sundance Film Festival. The creators of Slamdance had a vision in the vein of Sundance, but their vision was to be much more independent. “By Filmmakers, For Filmmakers” is the mantra of the Slamdance festival and that speaks to the spirit of the festival (Slamdance). All of these festivals in Utah drove many people of the industry and tourism to Utah, which spurred the economy even more. Independent festivals and film festivals became part of Utah and more of them were being started. The Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival brings documentaries to Utah to educate and inspire (DOCUTAH). The Foursite Film Festival in Ogden, along with its own student film festival, is in its eighth current year (Foursite). It is through these festivals and others that Utah has such a strong relationship with the independent film culture. It doesn’t stop at festivals. Peery’s Egyptian Theater, which is even used by the Sundance Film Festival, shows films throughout the year that would not be shown in most theaters. The Broadway and Tower theaters are among the list of theaters that show more independent or niche movies. These theaters are possibly the easiest way for locals to experience the Utah movie culture. Movies have a foothold in Utah in our culture. The industries of both Hollywood and Independents have flourished with their own culture. This is what drives Utah film culture and what makes it different from so many others.

One unique type of film of Utah is the religious LDS film. There have been a large amount of movies that are made and aimed at an LDS audience. From drama and romance, to comedy and even fantasy, there are a wide variety of films that are produced, generally by members, that deal with the LDS faith. These films generally do not focus on the faith, however, they have strong influences and even deal with things that are more relevant in the LDS church. Things like singles wards, home teaching, and missionary work are all used as a means to convey a story. Though these films usually do not get any sort of release outside of Utah and other prominently LDS states, they tend to receive positive reviews and are accepted by LDS members. Even some films garner a larger audience and receive attention from people and places outside of the majority LDS states. The 2003 film Saints and Soldiers gained a much wider audience than most films that are rooted in the LDS faith. Although the film does not really talk about Mormonism, it explores a different side of war – one of religion. The film received generally positive reviews from critics and people alike (Saints).

Because Utah culture is heavily influenced by the majority religion of the state, there have many religious films made in Utah. The LDS church has both commissioned and produced religious films. These films generally depict parts of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, as well as church history. Utah has always been used by these early and modern films to portray Jerusalem or other biblical places. Thus, another great use of the Utah desert for film making has been made possible by the LDS church. The first church films were made many years before the first Hollywood movie made in the state. In 1913, the film One Hundred Years of Mormonism was commissioned by the LDS church. This film has been seen as the most important LDS film of the silent era. As with many old films, One Hundred Years of Mormonism was lost after its initial release and has been never found or recovered (Mormon).

The church still makes religious films in Utah. There are a number of film studios in the state where these films are made. Perhaps the most intriguing of locations for these movies would be the newest as well. Near Goshen, Utah, the church has built a roughly hundred by hundred yard replica of the city of Jerusalem. The set, meant to portray Jerusalem in biblical times, has great attention to detail and great character.

Goshen, Utah Jerusalem Set

Jerusalem set in Goshen, Utah

The set is being used to film religious films and vignettes for the church to distribute through missionaries, conferences, and Sunday school teachings (LDS). This is not the first time that Utah has been used to portray Jerusalem. In 1962, work began on George Stevens’ biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told. The deserts of Utah provided the perfect relief for Jerusalem. Large set pieces were also constructed, such as a huge gate to the city of Jerusalem. The film was a huge success and brought in millions of dollars to the state of Utah (D’Arc 194). These sets being built is a great example of movie and film making in Utah, and represents the passion that the church and the state have for film.

Not all films made in Utah are of one variety. There are still plenty of movies that break norms, make a statement, or show another side of the story. The Utah culture has even motivated films to challenge that culture and show that there is diversity in the state itself. SLC Punkis a 1998 independent film, shown at Sundance the following year, about two young punks in the 1980s and their radical-to-the state ideals and lifestyle.

Salt Lake City Temple, SLC Punk

Matthew Lillard in "SLC Punk"

The characters challenge the state government, in fact they challenge all government, and culture throughout the film. The film used the Utah culture as a backdrop for these young anarchists to make a statement about their world. This film would not have the same type of effect on the audience if it were made elsewhere or in a less conservative state. Of course many independent films make statements that challenge citizens to think, but this film is one that stands on its own.

Thought of by many as “the best worst movie” (Best), Troll 2 has gained a very large cult following, and it was filmed in Utah. This 1990 fantasy “horror” film is in IMBD’s list of bottom 100 movies for good reason. The movie was directed by Italian Claudio Fragasso, who barely spoke any English and was downright a terrible director. Along with a completely Italian crew who didn’t speak any English as well, the inability to communicate well, and the lack of good performance actors, the movie they set out to create fell short of everything. But years after the films release, it was elevated to cult status. In 2009, a documentary was created to document this phenomena. Titled Best Worst Movie, the documentary used the phrase that many were thinking across the country. Even more obscure than this little film, is where it was filmed. It was filmed in Morgan, Utah and cast actors locally from Salt Lake City and neighboring towns. In some scenes you can see the Morgan “M” on the mountain in the background. Sure, many great and artistic films have been made in Utah, but we also can claim that Utah holds the title for “Best Worst Movie.”

A great amount of popular films have been made in Utah. From scenes in Forest Gump to Con Air, Utah has been location for many popular films. The 1993 movie about childhood baseball The Sandlot was filmed in and around Salt Lake City. Dumb & Dumber had most of its exterior shots, including the airport scene, filmed in Salt Lake and in Park City. 1984’s Footloose, about a town where dancing and Rock and Roll is not allowed, was solely filmed in the Provo area.

Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon in "Footloose"

The popular High School Musical movies were filmed at East High School in Salt Lake City. Even the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade shows young Indiana Jones fighting and running away from thieves in Arches National Park in Moab. The point is that many of the films that people love, have had parts filmed in Utah. These films just add the fact that Utah is a premiere location to shoot film.

Film making in Utah is still going strong. The various film festivals, though less of them than in the 1990’s, are still operating yearly. The movie culture in Utah still continues to expand and envelop more. Along with the striving independent scene, Hollywood continues to film movies here. The critically acclaimed film 127 Hours, based on actual events that occurred in southern Utah, was also filmed in southern Utah. Modern film history in Utah is just as interesting as old film history of the state.

Though much has been set forth by movies and film in Utah, they continue to broaden the diversity and the economy of the state. With Utah offering cash and tax incentives for filmmakers to come shoot their films here, along with it being both easier and cheaper to get permits and land to shoot on, Hollywood will never stop using Utah as a place to film their movies. Instead, they will continue to use Utah as a place to bring stories alive. Movies may have changed Utah, but Utah has changed movies.

Works Cited

“About Slamdance” Slamdance. Slamdance Inc. Web. 3 November 2011.

Best Worst Movie. Dir. Michael Stephenson. Abramorama, 2009. DVD.

Cleanflix. Dirs. Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi. United Films, 2009. DVD.

Craig, Benjamin. “History of the Sundance Film Festival.” Sundance Guide. Web. 2 November 2011.

D’Arc, James. When Hollywood Came To Town: A History of Moviemaking in Utah. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 2010. Print.

DOCUTAH. Dixie State College of Utah, 2011. Web. 2 November 2011.

Foursite Film Festival. Foursite Film Institute, 2011. Web. 2 November 2011.

Frontier Movie Town. Little Hollywood Movie Museum. Web. 21 October 2010.

“LDS Motion Picture Studio Seeks Actors.” LDS.org. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 8 October 2010. Web. 7 November 2011.

Mormon Literature Database. Brigham Young University. Web. 7 November 2011.

Saints and Soldiers.” Internet Movie Database. IMDB.com, Inc. Web. 7 November 2011.

Salt Lake Film Society. 2011. Web. 20 October 2011.

SLC Punk. Dir. James Merendino. Sony Pictures Classics, 1998. DVD.

Sundance Film Festival. Sundance Institute, 2011. Web. 25 October 2011.

The Dude Ranger. Dir. Edward F. Cline. Fox Film Corporation. DVD.

Thelma & Louise. Dir. Ridley Scott. 20th Century Fox, 1991. DVD.

Troll 2. Dir. Claudio Fragasso. Epic Productions, 1990. DVD.

Utah Film Commission. Utah State Government, 2007. Web. 10 October 2011.

“Utah Independent Film Archive.” University Libraries. University of Utah. Web. 20 October 2011.

“When Hollywood Came to Town – The History of Moviemaking in Utah Part 1.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 December 2010. Web. 19 October 2010.

“127 Hours.” Internet Movie Database. IMBD.com, Inc. Web 10 November 2011.

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