Glasgow: the unlikely favourite location for Hollywood film-makers

Having recently doubled up as Philadelphia for a Brad Pitt zombie movie, the city is about to transform into San Francisco

Glasgow in the chill air of autumn may not be your idea of a dead ringer for northern California. But the makers of Cloud Atlas, the film adaptation of David Mitchell's 2004 novel, disagree.

This weekend film crews begin shooting San Francisco-set scenes in the city with Oscar-winner Halle Berry; the film also stars Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and Ben Whishaw, and is co-directed by the Matrix trilogy's Wachowski brothers and German filmmaker Tom Tykwer.

It is only weeks since Glasgow was the location for another high-profile shoot, as scenes from World War Z, a zombie film starring Brad Pitt, were shot around the city's grandiose George Square, doubling as Philadelphia. Unlikely as it may seem, Glasgow appears to have become the latest favourite location for Hollywood producers.

Just north of the city centre runs Douglas Street, its stomach-churning downhill descent from the heights of Blythswood Hill briefly interrupted by crossroads terraced out of the hillside. Partway down, it becomes the Cloud Atlas film set, renamed, with a characteristically San Franciscan green road sign, Spring Street.

An elaborate graffiti mural has been created, which seems to hint at some of the other stories in Mitchell's Russian-doll sequence of six narratives, which forge through time from the 1860s to the post-apocalyptic future. A 1970s Lincoln Continental Mark IV is parked up at an angle in the middle of the road. Everything is primed and ready to tell the story of Berry's Luisa Rey, a 1970s investigative journalist working on a story of corruption at a nuclear power plant.

In fact, it is easy to see how these streets can stand in for San Francisco the layout's "decidedly San Franciscan effects" are even noted in Andrew Gomme and David Waller's book, Architecture of Glasgow.

According to Grant Hill, Cloud Atlas's co-producer: "While it wouldn't necessarily be a natural imperative [that Glasgow could become the northern coast of California] actually it has some very good examples of the architecture we needed. And then, all important is the willingness of the city authorities to co-operate. Hard though it is to believe, it's difficult to find straight, centre-city streets that can been closed off."

According to Hill, word-of-mouth on the co-operative attitude of the council to the World War Z team helped. "Once a film goes somewhere and has a good experience, word gets around."

But are such events good for the city? Pitt's appearance in Glasgow caused great excitement, with crowds gathering in Glasgow Central station to get a glimpse of the actor and his partner, actor Angelina Jolie, as they disembarked from their specially chartered train from London, and around the set itself. Some enthusiasts even enrolled into "zombie school" to become one of a 100 or so local extras. It was, according to Creative Scotland's locations manager Belle Doyle, "almost a carnival atmosphere".

Not everyone was so positive, though: taxi drivers complained of having endured traffic disruption; commuters who usually had 20-minute daily journeys found they had expanded into hour-long treks. As one local writer said: "It's a bit depressing. We used to be a city that made things, and exported them. Now we are a raddled old drag queen, dressing up in someone else's clothes."

In a post-industrial age, however, the city's growing role as a Hollywood star is seen to make good economic sense. Gordon Matheson, leader of the council, points to an estimated extra £150m poured into the local economy by filmmaking in the city over the past decade. But according to Doyle it's not just about economic benefit: "It's also about supporting our local skills, our local crews – and in that way, we also support indigenous film production."

Over the past 30 years, the City Chambers, an elaborately Italianate building with mosaic floors and marble staircases, has done service – with an irony perhaps not lost on Glaswegians – as both the Kremlin (An Englishman Abroad) and the Vatican (Heavenly Pursuits). Terence Davies's The House of Mirth made Kelvingrove Art Gallery into New York's Grand Central Station. There is even, points out Dr Jonathan Murray, lecturer in film studies at Edinburgh College of Art, a Jet Li vehicle called Unleashed, "which features the bizarre spectacle of Morgan Freeman doing his weekly shop in a Glaswegian branch of Spar".

Matheson also believes that Glasgow's Hollywood role has a positive impact on tourism; though, as Murray points out, in reality the most powerful image of Glasgow in film is quite different from these elegant Hollywood shoots, in which the city appears in heavy disguise.

Think of Glasgow in cinema and one is more likely to think of uncompromising, sometimes grim indies: Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher, Andrea Arnold's Red Road, Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe or the recent Neds, by Peter Mullan.

Broadly, the image of the city projected by this kind of film is, says Murray, "hypermasculine, and somewhere on the tightrope between workless and working class … an image that the city authorities would prefer to dispel".


Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer

The GuardianTramp

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