Actors And Directors Talk About Filming At Famous Real-Life Locations

Imagine having full access to the Palace of Versailles in France, or being the first Western film ever granted entry to shoot inside China’s Forbidden City. Here are the stories of 12 actors and directors talking about what it was like to film at famous real-life locations.

Pre-fame Sox fans Matt and Ben just wanted to go to Fenway Park. Bill Paxton oddly enjoyed his zero-gravity roller coaster rides on NASA’s Vomit Comet. Gary Oldman bought into Oliver Stone’s Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories after walking in Lee Harvey Oswald’s shoes at the former Texas School Depository in downtown Dallas.

The experience of filming on-location made these actors and directors feel something they wouldn’t have felt on a soundstage in Hollywood. Being there meant something. Here are their stories. 

  • Of all the films on Steven Spielberg's esteemed filmography, his 1993 historical drama Schindler's List is perhaps his most personal. The Academy Award-winning director traveled to Poland before production began in order to personally speak with Holocaust survivors. He also wanted to tour historic locations like the former Gestapo headquarters.

    "I went to Poland, saw the cities and spent time with the people and spoke to the Jews who had come back to Poland after the war and talked about why they had come back," said Spielberg. "I spent more research time on this project than I had on any previous film, but of course, my films were never based on anything that actually happened."

    Speilberg constructed the Płaszów camp and filmed outside of Auschwitz. The emotional physical and mental journey of essentially recreating the horror Jewish people experienced during WWII deeply affected the director. He explained:

    I always knew these things happened, but it's different when you actually see the sign "Pomorska Street," and you know all the horrible things that happened on Pomorska Street, but there's the sign and there's Schindler's actual apartment, there's Amon Goeth's actual villa where he stayed. And to touch history, to put my hand on 600-year-old masonry, and to step back from it and look at my feet and know that I was standing where, as a Jew, I couldn't have stood 50 years ago, was a profound moment for me as a re-creator of an incident in history; it meant more to me as a Jew. So, I went there the first time to research a movie and wound up researching my own Judaism.

  • When 'The Last Emperor' Filmed In China's Forbidden City, Bernardo Bertolucci Was In Awe As The First Person To Film In The Room Where Puyi Was Crowned 

    Acclaimed Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci became the first Western filmmaker to shoot a movie inside China's 15th-century Forbidden City. Bertolucci didn't waste that opportunity in his 1987 epic biopic The Last Emperor. The Academy Award-winning auteur beautifully shows off the sheer grandness of the former emperor's royal palace and its regal surroundings.

    The Last Emperor, which won nine Oscars including the award for best picture, details the life of Puyi, who served as China's final emperor before the country became ruled by the Communist Party of China. Bertolucci was only allowed to film inside the sprawling 250-acre Forbidden City under strict guidelines; for instance, he was only allowed to use natural light inside the palace and had to keep indoor film crews limited to 15 people. 

    Bertolucci said the experience of filming in such a historical, majestic palace nearly overwhelmed him. He related, "When I saw all these extras, I had a moment of panic and I thought, 'What am I doing, am I going mad?'"

  • In Ron Howard's 1995 biographical drama Apollo 13, three astronauts on their way to the moon nearly perish after their aircraft explodes. Actors Tom Hanks (Jim Lovell), Kevin Bacon (Jack Swigert), and Bill Paxton (Fred Haise) star as the astronauts. 

    One of Howard's special-effects goals was to make the audience feel what it's like to experience zero gravity, like their heroes in the film. 

    Critic Carol Buckland from CNN wrote regarding the film's special effects, "Most amazing are the 'weightless' sequences achieved through filming on what's indelicately called the Vomit Comet.' This is a NASA aircraft that soars to 30,000 feet then dives... creating 23 seconds of weightlessness. The Apollo 13 film team did some 500 takes aboard this craft. The results are remarkable and heighten the 'reality' of the movie to a remarkable degree."

    Bob Williams, who is NASA’s test director for the zero-gravity program, calls the Vomit Comet "a great big roller coaster in the sky."

    Despite sometimes finding chunks of vomit in his hair, Paxton enjoyed his Vomit Comet experiences. “I feel strangely drawn to it,” said Paxton. “It almost is like a weird addiction. Just to float-there is something liberating about it.” 

  • Kirsten Dunst Got To See A Secret Room In Marie Antoinette's Bedroom At Versailles
    Photo: Marie Antoinette / Sony Pictures Releasing

    Many of the scenes in writer-director Sofia Coppola's 2006 period drama Marie Antoinette were filmed at the actual Palace of Versailles. The palace has been the shooting locale for hundreds of feature films. However, Coppola's biopic was granted an unparalleled level of access to the historical French landmark.

    "I’m still surprised to this day that Versailles welcomed us. It was kinda like hosting the ultimate party," said Coppola. "I think people could see my heart was totally in it and that I was doing something I love."

    "Marie Antoinette was presented as an intimate film, more of an artistic creation inspired by the historical figure. Versailles used to be quite restrictive, with a desire for projects not to stray too far from the historical truth," explained Jeanne Hollande, shooting coordinator at the Palace of Versailles. "We are much more open-minded today; now the important thing is to show off the palace and make you want to understand more about its history. We immediately agreed to host Sofia."

    Actress Kirsten Dunst, who played the storied French queen, enjoyed the production's special access. "We got to see a lot more than there is in the film. The docents showed me the little secret backroom in Marie Antoinette’s bedroom," revealed Dunst. "It’s very tiny but it had the only toilet in the entire palace and a few of her personal items. I asked for a private moment so I could just be alone and look around."

    Producer Ross Katz added, "We literally had the keys to the castle. Once, at the end of a 13-hour day, I was so exhausted that I almost sat on Marie Antoinette’s bed. We got a little too comfortable."

  • Oliver Stone is no stranger to controversy. His 1991 political thriller JFK meticulously examines all the events that led up to President Kennedy's assassination and the possible government cover-up. The film also dissects all the issues with the Warren Commission.

    English actor Gary Oldman played Lee Harvey Oswald in Stone's conspiracy theory-laden movie. The actor walked up the steps of the former Texas School Depository in downtown Dallas across from Dealey Plaza many times. He went about his portrayal of Oswald in the method style of acting. "Every um and ah and pause is absolutely accurate. I do the voice. I do the walk. I do the head movements. Where his eye moves. Where he licks his lips. Everything. I studied for months," said Oldman.

    Oldman sat at the window of the seventh floor of the library, which was redesigned to look like the notorious sixth floor where Oswald reportedly fired the bullet that ended Kennedy. The actor doesn't believe that the Warren Commission's conclusion of a single gunman could possibly be correct.

    "You get to Dealey Plaza. You go up to that window. And the first thing you say to yourself is, 'Impossible,'" explained Oldman. "The distance. The angle. You want to take the Warren Commission report and burn it the moment you stand up there."

  • Ava DuVernay's 2014 historical drama Selma tells the story of the 1965 voting rights march led by Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The historical march helped to pave the way for President Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

    The biopic stars classically trained British actor David Oyelowo as King. The movie's historical setting became "deeply emotional" for the Golden Globe-nominated actor. He explained:

    When you reflect upon the significance of Dr. King to this nation, it’s criminal that he hasn’t had a feature film that was centered around him until now. That, in and of itself, was emotional. But when you’re doing scenes on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, with people still living in Selma and now in their 60s and 70s who had actually marched, who were there that original Bloody Sunday, that’s humbling... that’s deeply moving. You’re no longer acting at that stage, you’re just reacting, because it takes the filmmaking process to another dimension. So, yes it was an intensely emotional shoot, but also an intensely joyful shoot, since we really felt we were paying honor and doing service to these great men and women who had participated.