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NOLA History: Movies Set and Shot in New Orleans

Spanish Plaza at Riverwalk (Photo: Paul Broussard)

The history of New Orleans offers film makers an incredible range of story lines and plot complications, as well as some very unique locations. In recent years, the number and type of films made in the city has increased, due mostly to the tax breaks available to film producers when they work in Louisiana. Now, not only do we have films set in New Orleans shot here, but scores of movies set elsewhere, using locations in the city and its suburbs.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists a film about a turn of the 19th Century torpedo boat, the “Dupont,” as the first “movie” shot on location in New Orleans. That film is one of eight shot in 1898, as a short documentary film. From there, a number of film producers discovered the value of shooting in New Orleans.

Cecil B. DeMille packed up Frederic March and the company of “The Buccaneer,” and came to the city in 1938. DeMille did not shoot the actual Battle of New Orleans on location, however; that was done in Baldwin Oaks, CA. (The 1958 remake of “The Buccaneer,” starring Yul Brynner, also used local locations.)

The “Stella! Shouting Contest” at Tennessee Williams/ New Orleans Literary Festival (Photo: Cheryl Gerber)

Every year, the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival holds a “Stella!” contest, where fest-goers take their best shots at duplicating Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski, yelling for Kim Hunter’s character in the iconic classic film, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Elia Kazan shot parts of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Brando, Hunter, and Vivien Leigh in New Orleans in 1951. The other 1950s movie set and shot in New Orleans that many people remember is 1958’s “King Creole,” starring Elvis Presley.

A number of both feature films and episodes of television series were shot in New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s, including Martin Ransohoff’s adaptation of Richard Jessup’s novel, “The Cincinatti Kid,” in 1965. The novel was set in St. Louis, but Ransohoff decided to change the location of the big poker game to New Orleans. It wasn’t terribly difficult for Ring Lardner, Jr. to make the necessary changes to the screenplay, since most of the critical action of the film takes place around a poker table.

With a soundtrack that featured “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf, 1969’s “Easy Rider” was controversial in New Orleans, because the production company did major damage to one of the city’s landmarks, St. Louis Cemetery Number One. The film’s “LSD trip” scene was shot in the cemetery.

Some of the films set and shot in New Orleans received critical acclaim; “Easy Rider,” for example, received two Oscar nominations. On the other side of the spectrum, however, was “The Savage Bees,” a 1976 TV movie where a deadly swarm of killer bees is herded into the Louisiana Superdome and exterminated. Even though it wasn’t in killer-bee territory, the mostly-forgettable “Cat People,” a 1982 film starring Nastassja Kinski and Malcolm McDowell, featured the Audubon Zoo, prior to the major redesign and renovations that converted the zoo into one of the best in the nation. Kinski-as-cat was locked up in the old zoo at one point in the film.

The 1990s marked the beginning of the “Hollywood South” period, where film makers began to come to New Orleans as a production venue, not just a film location. A number of films were still set here, and had to be set in the city, such as Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” focused on Orleans Parish District Attorney Jim Garrison, and his obsession with the Kennedy assassination. Kevin Costner played Garrison in the 1991 film, which featured courtroom scenes in the Louisiana State Supreme Court building on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Another film to use the courthouse building on Rue Royal was 2003’s “Runaway Jury,” starring John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman, and Dustin Hoffman. Two other films adapted from John Grisham novels, “The Client” and “The Pelican Brief,” also used New Orleans and suburban locations. Without giving away spoilers, I still can’t go into Spanish Plaza, by Riverwalk New Orleans, without looking up and around, after seeing “The Pelican Brief.”

Spanish Plaza at Riverwalk (Photo: Paul Broussard)

A great example of a film shot in and around New Orleans that are not set in the city is “Mr. 3000,” a 2004 baseball romantic comedy starring the late Bernie Mac. The film is the story of a baseball star who, during his career, had 3,000 hits. Now he’s nearing 50, and is up for entry in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it turns out that a clerical error has him actually hitting less than 3,000. The ballpark scenes for the film were shot at Zephyr Field in Jefferson Parish. The “Shrine on Airline,” as the ballpark is affectionately known to locals, is easily accessible, and the seating area around home plate is spread out and wide, like it would be in many major league ballparks. It was easy for the production company to shoot the live-action in the ballpark, then use computerized graphics to build up a major league venue around that. Shooting in suburban New Orleans, rather than in a larger city venue, saved the production a good bit of money.

Many locals agree that one of the best movies shot in New Orleans was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Based on a 1922 short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this 2008 film stars Cate Blanchette, Brad Pitt, and Taraji P. Henson. The story starts on the day Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and is essentially a flashback of the life of the title character, going back to 1925. New Orleans is the story’s anchor location, and even though production began in November of 2006, the cast and crew did not report that post-Katrina reconstruction and recovery was an obstacle to their work. While the film has garnered mixed reviews, its rich production and extensive use of New Orleans make it more appealing to locals than the critics.

“Hollywood South” is one of the reasons New Orleans is an exciting place to be; there’s no doubt that locals enjoy seeing their city on the big screen and big TVs. Travelers to and from New Orleans also enjoy the increase in non-stop flights from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to Los Angeles and New York that are the direct result of film-industry movement between those cities and NOLA. Be on the lookout for more film sets around town.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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