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“Shot on Location”: What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts

Two Kinds of Property

Early on in my research for The History of American Literature on Film, I came across a wonderfully suggestive credit in D.W. Griffith’s 1910 film adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona: a screen that announced that the film was “adapted from the novel of Helen Jackson by arrangement with Little, Brown & Company. This production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters in the story” [see Figure 1]. Over the years, I’ve seen many credits calling attention to the specific geographic places where the films they introduce have been shot and even more credits identifying their source novels or plays or stories. What’s truly distinctive about the credit from Ramona is that it links these two references in a way that makes the physical property where the film was shot seem so closely analogous to that other kind of property, the film’s literary source, that it suggests an intimate connection between the ways the film draws its inspiration from a novel and a geographical place, raising in a peculiarly direct way the question of how these two kinds of inspiration are related. If a given film adapts a particular novel or play or story and incorporates scenes shot in the places the text at hand mentions, we could claim that it was based on both the text and the places. Apart from this single credit, though, I’ve never heard anyone make such a claim directly, partly because texts and places are very different kinds of properties, partly because the phrase “based on” would seem to mean very different things when applied to these two kinds of properties. So I’ve been left to wonder: how do our ways of talking about adaptation compare to the ways we could plausibly talk about geographical inspirations, and how might thinking about the processes involved in adapting places inform the ways we think about the processes involved in adapting texts?

“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 1

Some of the problems implicit in these questions are dramatized by thinking of another kind of credit. A pair of intertitles from The Birth of a Nation, which Griffith originally released five years after Ramona, call the audience’s attention to the painstakingly exact recreations of first Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, then the South Carolina State House, where freed slaves dominated the legislature, by adding to their descriptive intertitles what amounts to a pair of footnotes in smaller type: “AN HISTORICAL FACSIMILE of Ford’s theatre as on that night, exact in size and detail, with the recorded incidents, after Nicolay and Hay in ‘Lincoln, a History’” [see Figure 2] and “AN HISTORICAL FACSIMILE of the State House of Representatives of South Caroline as it was in 1870. After photograph by ‘The Columbia State’” [see Figure 3]. Like the Ramona credit, these intertitles share a promise that many more recent films also address: the promise that what we’re seeing onscreen is a setting that’s a faithful replication of a setting that has unusually pointed geographical or historical relevance to the story at hand. However rare these particular kinds of credits are, the promise they make explicit is usually conveyed in more general terms during a given film’s opening credits by the phrase “shot on location.”

“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 2
“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 3

At the risk of splitting hairs, I’d like to begin my discussion of this term by making three distinctions. One is between location shooting, the practice of shooting a film or television scene in “a real-world setting” which “may be the same in which the story is set” or “may stand in for a different locale” (“Location shooting”), and the more or less explicit claim to have been “shot on location,” or “shot on actual locations,” or “shot entirely on location.” This distinction is not so much between shooting a film set in New York City in New York City and shooting the same film in Toronto as between claiming and not claiming to have shot the film in New York City. The second distinction is between the claim to have been shot on location and the claim to be historically accurate. As Dick Lehr observes of the scene set in the South Carolina State House, “Griffith made it seem as if Negroes took control of every state legislature in the South and then ran amok when, in fact, Negroes were briefly in the majority in only two states” (154). Neither filming in a given location nor constructing a precise simulacrum of that location indemnifies The Birth of a Nation from charges of racism or historical inaccuracy, both of which have repeatedly been leveled at Griffith’s film since its first release. In addition, I’d note a third distinction between the Ramona credit and the Birth of a Nation intertitles. The later intertitles promise a simulacrum so precise that most audiences can’t tell it from the original. That may sound like a bold claim, but it’s a claim innumerable historical films make implicitly for every scene they present, and a claim that would seriously weaken the authority of any documentary, as you can readily see by imagining the deflating effect of a credit claiming that Werner Herzog’s documentaries Encounters at the End of the World (2007) or Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) featured studio sets that had been so meticulously copied you couldn’t tell them from France’s Chauvet Caves or the McMurdo Station in Antarctica. For documentaries in general, and for many other kinds of movies as well, contemporary filmmakers evidently consider it more prudent to make no claims at all about the historical accuracy of the mise-en-scène than to identify it as a faithful copy.

This essay is less interested in the common practice of shooting in real-world locations or in the innumerable, though often implicit, claims of movies like The Birth of a Nation to present minutely detailed visual replicas of recognizable geographical and historical places than on the rarer, but still surprisingly frequent, claim of movies like Ramona to have been shot on location because the latter claim seems much closer to the kinds of claims that are made by credits like “Based on the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson,” as opposed to the hypothetical alternative “Bears a significant but entirely manufactured resemblance to the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson.” It’s not that this latter claim could never be made. In the case of free adaptations like The Black Cat (1934) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) or unacknowledged adaptations like Apocalypse Now (1979) and Clueless (1995), in fact, it would be more accurate than the former claim. And as the James Bond franchise keeps reminding us, there are indeed any number of films, often carrying the credit “Suggested by the story” or “Based on characters created by,” that acknowledge their looser connection to the properties they adapt. But what these credits acknowledge is precisely that looseness, not the painstaking replication of recognizable places that the Birth of a Nation intertitles brag about.

In short, the phrase “shot on location” seems to have a relation to the claim “based on the novel (or play or story) by” that is easy to spot but hard to pin down. Strictly speaking, to claim that a film or television series has been shot on location means that it was photographed at the same geographical place its story presents, as opposed to a city where production costs are lower asked to double for one where costs are higher or a dedicated facsimile of that place like the ones constructed for The Birth of a Nation. Unlike the acknowledgment of a literary source, the claim to have been shot on location is never contractually obligated. If you shot a movie in the Grand Canyon and didn’t identify it as such in your credits, no one would sue you (although the National Park Service might have something to say about your shooting there in the first place), because properties that are places aren’t entitled to the same credit as properties that are literary sources. We might say that all places that aren’t private property are in the public domain, with the added proviso that even films that are shot on private property, as many of them are, rarely incur any obligation to identify that property in their credits. Even so, films that are shot on location are typically eager to advertise that fact despite the lack of contractual pressure to do so because the claim always carries an honorific charge; it is made specifically in order to elevate the film over hypothetical alternative films that were not shot on location. Indeed one lesson that adaptation studies holds for what might be called location studies, a field that includes such works as Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice’s Cinema and the City (2001), James Sanders’s Celluloid Skyline (2001), and Edward Dimendberg’s Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (2004), is that just as basing your movie on a preexisting literary property carries a very different charge than specifically identifying it as being based on such a property, shooting part or all of your film on location means something very different from identifying is as having been shot on location.

Why Claim that a Film Has Been Shot on Location?

In his recent contribution to location studies, R. Barton Palmer, a longtime proponent of adaptation studies, has defined the appeal of location shooting that justifies the honorific charge of the phrase “shot on location” by setting it against both shooting the action in a studio and staging it in a live theater:

The dramatic stage […] is always theatrical, in the sense of being of the theater in every sense. By contrast, filmmakers can and do dispose of actual locations that lack artistic intentionality except insofar as cinematic production shapes them for its own purposes. Aesthetically speaking, such locations are chosen to be in the film precisely because they are not for it. What has been found for the camera is “real,” to use the misleading but conventional term. A carefully dressed missing fourth wall set does not lack for ontological objectness; it is as “real” as any location. What is crucial is that such a set can be nothing but inauthentic, always and ever purposed, not purposeless, always located in the theater, not in the larger world on which the theater is a small part and to whose living reality the drama that unfolds thereupon can only make indirect and generalizing reference. (48)

Within this general framework, the claim to have been shot on location might well be used to support a wide range of more specific claims. It might imply that the represented or replicated place of a given film is even more important than its story, as in early Cinerama spectacles or Imax documentaries. It might suggest that the place that has been filmed and displayed is not merely a metonymy but a synecdoche or quintessence of the represented space. It might mean that some modern space looks exactly the same as it did in an earlier period, a claim that would make a great deal of sense for biblical epics or Westerns. Perhaps surprisingly, however, none of these more specific claims is ever explicitly tendered. Even the intertitle from Ramona implies that the place is important along with the story, not that it’s more important. Nor does it explicitly claim (although it does implicitly suggest) that the place looks exactly the same as when Jackson wrote, or when the events of her story took place. And I’ve never seen an intertitle or film credit that claims, for example, that the film’s shots of the Versailles Palace or the Angkor Wat temple represented the quintessence of those or any other locations: these claims, if they are advanced at all, are advanced only implicitly.

Instead of these promises about the importance, integrity, or immutability of the locations they show, the claim to have been shot on location has typically been used to imply one or more of a quite different series of promises. Shooting Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth (1977) on location presumably promises historic or archival accuracy. Shooting The Nun (2018) in Transylvania promises a return to mythic origins presumably redolent with privileged meanings. Shooting The Naked City (1948) in New York City,trading on conventions of documentary verité, promises to show us the real New York City—New York as we’ve never seen it before onscreen even though it’s been there all along for the seeing. Shooting On the Waterfront (1954), West Side Story (1961), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in New York City promises contemporary vividness and immediacy. Shooting spectacles like This Is Cinerama (1952) and historical epics like Giant (1956) on location promises armchair sightseeing. Shooting Thieves Like Us (1974) and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) on location promises privileged access to the local atmosphere that is a major selling point of these films. In other contexts, the phrase “shot on location” can refer to the exploration or rediscovery of hitherto unseen or forgotten spaces, as in Trader Horn (1931), Jesse James (1939), The African Queen (1951), or Pather Panchali (1955). It can seek to defamiliarize well-known locations, as in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), or create a promise of authenticity, as in North by Northwest (1959) or Drive (2011) or Manchester by the Sea (2016). Why would you ever watch a Biblical epic shot outside Los Angeles, the phrase suggests, when you could watch one shot in the Holy Land?

John Ford’s use of Utah’s Monument Valley backgrounds in Stagecoach (1939) [see Figure 4] makes none of these particular promises, but his use of Monument Valley for individual sequences in My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Searchers (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) eventually establishes a branding strategy that Ford was so eager to maintain that he used location shots from Monument Valley even in My Darling Clementine, which was set in Arizona, and The Searchers, which was set in Texas. Once Ford had established his brand identification with Monument Valley, other films, whether or not they explicitly identified it in their credits, could draw on it for subsidiary branding. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Electra Glide in Blue (1973), Thelma and Louise (1991), and The Lone Ranger (2013) typically seek to exploit their very different associations with Ford’s epic Westerns by shooting in Monument Valley—or, in the case of An American Tail: Fievel Goes West (1991), [see Figure 5] by creating an animated simulacrum of Monument Valley, which bypasses Ford to present what is assumed by now to be an iconic token of the American West.

“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 4
“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 5

Honorific as its claims may be, the phrase “shot on location” also marks limitations perhaps best indicated by William Wyler’s modern fairy tale Roman Holiday (1953), which presents a Rome that is profoundly different from that of Rome, Open City (1945), a film that tellingly includes no credit informing the audience that it was shot on location. Wyler’s film is a tour of iconic or recognizable markers of place—locations like the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, and the Mouth of Truth outside the Church of Santa Maria that have already been sanctified as locations before the film is ever shot [see Figure 6]—rather than the unheralded but equally authentic places where Roberto Rossellini shot his own film eight years earlier [see Figure 7]. Rossellini and Wyler’s very different uses of Roman locations undermine any facile assumption that shooting on location brings the film in question closer to the “redemption of physical reality” the subtitle of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film claims for the cinema or the “total and complete representation of reality” André Bazin had debunked as “the myth of total cinema” (20) fourteen years earlier.

“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 6
“Shot on Location:” What Movies Borrow from Geographical and Literary Properties, and What We Can Learn from the Ways They Acknowledge These Debts,
Thomas Leitch
Figure 7

Because it is so difficult to establish a single precise meaning for the practice of shooting on location, I turn instead to the import of the phrase “shot on location,” the fact that anyone would find the claim worth making in the first place. Whether or not a film like The Naked City or The Naked Spur (1953) was shot on location, the clear implication of claiming that it was is that there is an intimate physical or iconic or existential correspondence between the filmed locations and the locations in which the story was first set, even if the story, like the stories of virtually all the films I have mentioned, is itself fictional.

Although nothing but movies, television shows, and fashion shoots can be shot on location, we can readily find equally self-congratulatory analogies for the phrase in the other arts. Baroque musical recordings are often advertised as being performed on original instruments. Fast-food chains like KFC sometimes claim to present the original recipes for widely imitated culinary masterpieces. Archaeological consultants have labored to restore the Parthenon as precisely as completely as possible supplementing the original building materials only when absolutely necessary. Literary scholarship abounds in claims about critical editions that restore the original text, editorial apparatuses that are exhaustively researched, and accompanying photographs that bolster the authoritative claims of biographies and memoirs and even bibles. The reporters who covered Tippi Hedren’s appearance at the 2018 Metropolitan Opera premiere of Marnie treated the event as if her corporeal presence fifty-four years after her starring role in the Hitchcock film somehow set a seal of approval on Nico Muhly’s opera or endowed it with greater authenticity or authority.

The Aura of Location Shooting

Speaking of the way filmmaking “reifies performance, turns it into an object (the photographic negative) that constitutes the basis for unlimited, precise mechanical reproduction,” Palmer observes:

This reification of performance is one of the medium’s most important links to what cultural critics such as Walter Benjamin have taught us to see as a defining feature of modernity: that art has been freed from the unique particularity that was hitherto of its essence and is now rendered at least potentially universally accessible through its copies, even though these might lack the “aura” of an original. (47)

Although Palmer adverts to Benjamin’s discussion of the aura as laying the foundation for his own analysis, the relation between the two positions is considerably more complicated and illuminating.

Rainer Rochlitz has noted that “for Benjamin, the aura is always associated with destruction and decline; it appears to us only in the light of its destruction” (143). Certainly, when Benjamin speaks of the aura suffusing authentic works of art in his most celebrated essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” it is already so completely in retreat, attacked by photography, lithography, and cinematography, that Benjamin defines it at first in negative terms: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (221). Taken together, “the desire of contemporary masses to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” and “their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” lead to “the contemporary decay of the aura” (223). In “The Work of Art,” Benjamin defines the aura of “historical objects” like paintings and sculptures by analogy to “the aura of natural ones,” whose aura depends on “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” (222). This prodigiously influential notion of aura rests on a paradox. It depends on the artwork’s physical “presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be,” which is “the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (221). At the same time, it also depends on “the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be” (222), that prevents the work of art from coming close enough to the observer to be reproduced, recontextualized, or repurposed.

This paradox is developed more fully in Benjamin’s 1931 essay “A Short History of Photography.” Contrasting a childhood photograph of Franz Kafka posed looking “excluded and godforsaken” in an elaborately estranging studio setup with earlier studio photographs of citizens looking composed and confident, he observes that these earlier subjects “had an aura about them, a medium which mingled with their manner of looking and gave them a plenitude and security” (18). Benjamin credits Eugène Atget, whose still life “photos are the forerunners of surrealist photography,” as “the first to disinfect the stuffy atmosphere spread by the conventional portrait photography of the period of decline. He cleansed this atmosphere, indeed cleared it altogether. He initiated the liberation of the object from the aura, which is the most incontestable achievement of the recent school of photography” (20). In this passage, “aura” is attached to “the stuffy atmosphere” that so alienated the young Kafka from his photo shoot, as opposed to an earlier generation of daguerrotypes

produced in premises where from the outset each customer met in his photographer a technician of the latest school and where the photographer met in every customer a member of a class on the ascendant, replete with an aura which penetrated to the very folds of his bourgeois overcoat or bow-tie. For the mere manufacture of a primitive camera does not in itself constitute an aura. Rather in these early times do object and technique correspond as clearly as they diverge in the succeeding period of decline. (19)

This period of decline is marked for Benjamin by the replacement of primitive photographic systems that required sitters to pose and look back at their photographers for an extended period of time with faster cameras and filmstocks that encouraged photographers after 1880 “to simulate with the aid of all the arts of retouching, especially the so-called rubber print, that aura which had been removed in just the same way from by the picture by more powerful cameras, as it had from reality by the increasing degeneration of the imperialist bourgeoisie” (19).

In this initial formulation, Benjamin is less interested in celebrating the aura he finds in early photographs than in attacking manufactured simulations of the aura in overstylized studio settings and retouched photographs. That is why he praises Atget for seeking out “the forgotten and the forsaken” in photographs that “suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship” and continues in a passage that is reproduced almost verbatim in “The Work of Art”:

What is aura? A peculiar web of space and time: the unique manifestation of a distance, however near it may be. To follow, while reclining on a summer’s noon, the outline of a mountain range on the horizon or a branch, which casts its shadow on the observer until the moment or the hour partakes of their presence—this is to breathe in the aura of these mountains, of this branch. (20)


Benjamin concludes “A Short History of Photography” by condemning the rise of “creativity” and beauty” as a touchstone for the contemporary photography of “the poseur” whose “parables of life” seek to “relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists,” and warning:

The more all-embracing the crisis of contemporary society, the more that the individual aspects of the latter confront one another in rigid opposition, so the more the creative reveals itself as the merest form of variant, with contradiction for its father and imitation for its mother; the creative has become a fetish whose features owe their life simply to the changing lights of fashion. (24)


It might seem that films that are shot on location seek to recreate the aura Benjamin’s audiences experience when they are in the immediate presence of paintings and sculptures instead of seeing them in mechanically reproduced illustrations. But the claim to have been shot on location challenges Benjamin’s analysis in at least three ways.

First, the locations in question are natural settings, not artworks, whose aura may be equally powerful but is quite different in ways Benjamin’s analogy between the aura of historical and natural objects fails to acknowledge. When Benjamin asserts in “The Work of Art,” for example, “The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity” (220), this prerequisite clearly applies only to artworks that have been deliberately fashioned, not to natural phenomena that have been observed.

Second, the fact that audiences have been attracted to those films by the promise of the stories they tell rather than the locations in which those stories are set relegates the aura of the location shooting to a distinctly secondary or supporting role. Imagine how unlikely anyone would be to rush out to a screening of a new film whose sole selling point was that it had been shot on actual locations. Indeed, it only this supporting role that allows actual locations to pass, in Palmer’s terms, as being in the film but not of the film, for the conventions of fiction would immediately earmark such primary ingredients as plots and characters as fictional tropes constructed specifically for the film. Palmer’s purposeless authenticity is registered not when a film is shot on location but only when it explicitly announces itself as having been shot on location. Otherwise the in-the-film-but-not-for-the-film qualities of the location would almost certainly pass unnoticed by the vast majority of viewers. Because is only when it is made explicit that the claim to be shot on location establishes itself as an aesthetic claim of any kind, Palmer’s analysis inadvertently undermines the assumptions it intends to borrow from Benjamin about aura as something that occurs naturally in either nature or art. Whatever the practice of location shooting may add to a film’s realism, the promise implicit in the phrase “shot on location” turns out to involve not duplicating but fetishizing particular spaces or places by filtering them through very particular ideals of realism or naturalism.

Finally, because the images of Monument Valley in John Ford’s Westerns are never coextensive with the original geographical location but are instead representative of Monument Valley, those images are both less and more faithful than they would be in any stories these films adapted. They are less faithful because they represent only a selection—certainly a metonymy and perhaps a synecdoche, but certainly not the entirety—of Monument Valley; no film, no matter how lengthy, can possibly present an image of a preexisting physical space that’s absolutely congruent with its diegetic space unless it restricts itself to a tightly enclosed space in the manner of Rope (1948) or 12 Angry Men (1957) or My Dinner with Andre (1981), none of which happens to have been shot on location. It’s worth noting in this connection that the claim “shot on location” is used much more frequently for adaptations of novels and epic poems than for adaptations of plays for precisely the reason Palmer suggests: because the space of the plays is already marked as itself theatrical, constructed, and abstracted from the world it is meant to represent, so that shooting a film adaptation ofA Streetcar Named Desire on location would invoke what Palmer considers the aura of New Orleans only at the cost of fidelity to Tennessee Williams’s play.

This contradiction undermines the argument that scenes shot on location are more faithful than they would be in any novels or stories, as well as any plays, that their films adapted because the locations that films actually present, as opposed to those they represent, are not an unfiltered image but someone’s considered idea of an ideal image or images to be harvested from such a setting, like the very different views of New York we get at the opening of The Naked City, West Side Story, and Manhattan (1979). Indeed, James Sanders has shown that “the defensive mood” Woody Allen adopts toward New York in Annie Hall (1977) is very different from the “exultant” tone Allen adopts toward the “physical heritage” of his hometown in Manhattan (406, 407). All of these ideas of the city act as filters like those provided by the Gray Line Bus Tours that promise tourists on limited schedules to take them directly to highlights like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building instead of wasting their time on locations that are less valuable because they are less iconic or familiar, less what tourists have already decided they want to see.

Mediating Locations

We might extend this argument by calling the ideas that mediate cinematic space, like those that mediate cinematic narrative, interpretants, to use the term translation theorist Lawrence Venuti borrows from C.S. Peirce:

The translator inscribes an interpretation by applying a category that mediates between the source language and culture, on the one hand, and the translating language and culture, on the other, a method of transforming the source text into the translation. This category consists of interpretants, which may be either formal or thematic. Formal interpretants may include a concept of equivalence, such as a semantic correspondence based on philological research of dictionaries, or a concept of style, a distinctive lexicon and syntax related to a genre or discourse. Thematic interpretants are codes: values, beliefs, and representations that may be affiliated to specific social groups and institutions; a discourse in the sense of a relatively coherent body of concepts, problems, and arguments; or a particular interpretation of the source text that has been articulated independently in commentary. (181)

Venuti’s broadly influential analysis of translations invites the conclusion that just as film adaptations use interpretants to transform their source texts, all films, whether or not they are adaptations, necessarily use interpretants to transform the spaces they film into the places of their films. These interpretants insure that cinematic space will function as a geographical analogue to what Benedict Anderson calls the imagined communities on which national and cultural identities are based, communities “distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6). In other words, every film, whether or not it claims to have been shot on location, is willy-nilly using a set of interpretants to adapt not only a given story but a particular place or places and a particular idea of authenticity, not by archiving but by performing both that story and those places.

If all movies inevitably perform places as well as stories, the label “shot on location” holds out two paradoxical promises that cannot possibly both be true: that the film’s visuals are closely, though not absolutely, congruent with some recognizable original place, and that its visuals have been ideationally mediated through strategically chosen interpretants to be more salient, more expressive, and more uniformly appealing than that original place itself. As it happens, these are exactly the promises we associate with one particular species of film adaptations, remakes of earlier films each of which makes the implicit promise that “the film will be just like the original, only better” (Leitch, “Twice-Told Tales” 44) because it has been filtered through a new set of critical eyes, creative hands, and technological affordances.

So far, I have focused on what adaptation studies can learn from location studies. But location studies can profit from adaptation studies as well. The phrase “shot on location” can be still further explored by examining its parallel in adaptation studies, the equally loaded phrase “based on a true story” (Leitch, Film Adaptation 280–303). Both phrases implicitly promise some extra value, or more precisely some absolutely indispensable value the competition lacks, something whose absence makes those other movies inferior. In addition, both promises are remarkably specific. No one ever bothers to claim that a film was scripted on location, or edited on location, or scored on location, for the same reason that movies never carry the credit “shot without makeup” or “the actors wear their own clothing instead of costumes”—even though the first of these credits would certainly be justified in the Danish films associated with Dogme 95, whose Vow of Chastity began with the rule “Shooting must be done on location” (“The Vow of Chastity”), and the second would reflect Woody Allen’s well-documented pleasure in appearing in the original 1969 Broadway run of Play It Again, Sam, which allowed him to go directly from his home to the theater without changing his outfit.

Whatever aura location shooting is assumed to capture and project is limited in still another way. In addition to applying only to the process of cinematography, not the processes of scripting, editing, musical scoring, or sound recording—for not even Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries, well-known for their exclusion of post-production voiceovers or music tracks, carry the credit “sound recorded on location”—this aura is limited to the apparent congruence between cinematic images and geographical backgrounds, not necessarily the human figures who inhabit or move through those backgrounds. Although it is human characters and activities who are shot on location, the aura typically attaches only to the locations, not to the characters who are marked for better or worse as visitors or interlopers on these locations. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. In casting Yalitza Aparicio and Nancy García García, two performers of Mixtec background, in Roma (2018), Alfonso Cuarón complements the location shooting of the film in Mexico City through a process that might be called “casting from location”—a phrase whose awkwardness suggests that it more often and more precisely applies to extras who are hired for location shoots like so much rented furniture. On the whole, however, the more authentic the location feels, the less authentic, by contrast, the characters who move through it and the actions that are staged against it are likely to seem.

Apart from this very particular, albeit incomplete, congruence, the question of whether a film was written, cast, storyboarded, miked, edited, or scored on location is not considered worth announcing. The corresponding absence in adaptation studies is the credit “screenplay by the writer of the original property.” Unless the credited screenwriter is a celebrity like Tennessee Williams, Vladimir Nabokov, or George R.R. Martin, his or her direct input into the screenwriting process is not a selling point, and audiences who know that screenwriting is a radically and incessantly collaborative process also know that the imprimatur of an illustrious author’s name is no guarantee of anything.

The act of adaptation makes the claim to have been shot on location more logical and compelling because it ostensibly brings the film in question closer to its source. At the same time, however, adapting a short story or novel to the screen also renders the claim more problematic, even vacuous, because literary sources themselves have no possibility of being shot on location; they can only be written on location. Does it really matter whether Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms (1929) while he was serving as an ambulance driver in Italy or ten years after the war ended? Whatever their merits, novels can never create the intimacy between action and physical space their adaptations so often claim to establish. And the theatergoers who come to Stratford to see Shakespeare productions have made pilgrimage to the Bard’s birthplace, not to the place where his plays were originally staged, much less the much more far-flung places they were set. So whatever promises the phrase “shot on location” means to imply, it can’t possibly mean “faithfully adapted,” since location shooting’s quest to replicate more explicitly the physical images indicated by the adapted literary text invariably renders it less faithful to that text. It is much more likely to mean “more faithful to the events than the adapted text,” a remarkably bold claim that few adaptations would make explicit.

It might seem that all the logical contradictions implicit in the phrase “shot on location” would make it useless to adaptation scholars. But those very contradictions can help illuminate analogous contradictions adaptations and those who love them often make themselves. If adaptation, as commentators from Linda Hutcheon to Nico Dicecco have suggested, oscillates between the impulse to archive and the impulse to perform, then the claim “shot on location” is both the ultimate guarantee of fidelity to the archive, especially with films set in the identifiable historical past, and the ultimate denial of the whole filmmaking apparatus in the name of physical congruence. For just as a given film adaptation is always performing the story its credits promise it is archiving, its visuals, whether or not they are advertised as having been shot on location, are always performing as well as, or instead of, archiving privileged spaces, places, locations, and tokens of authenticity. By combining forces, insights, and methodologies, adaptation studies and location studies can reach a still more telling conclusion: that the aura Benjamin prized so highly is performed by observers, not archived by works of art, as Benjamin himself implies when he says in his essay on Charles Baudelaire, “To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return” (188), and adds in a note, “This endowment is a wellspring of poetry” (200). Pace Benjamin, an aura is always manufactured after the event, not perceived as inherent in the event. The aura is an effect of specific kinds of perceiving, remembering, and mourning, not a cause of them.

The fact that aura is fashioned rather than found does not make it any less real than the nations that turn out to be imagined communities. But it does bid theorists return with a more critical eye to the duality they may have assumed or constructed between those works of art that do and don’t have an aura and consider instead, in Anderson’s terms, how different works of art establish and depend on many different kinds of auras. And it suggests that the question of what it means to be filmed on location, and to claim that something has been filmed on location, leads to three more tendentious questions rooted not in the phenomenology but in the economy of audienceship. What do audiences want from cinematic places, as against the natural landscapes captured by still photographers like Ansel Adams? What has cinema taught them to want from cinematic places? And what happens when a given film’s treatment of places disappoints a given audience?


I am deeply obliged to Peter Lev for his incisive comments on an earlier version of this essay.

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