THE BLOG

Ready for My Close-Up!: Parks in the Movies

02/12/2015 07:11 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2015

With the Academy Awards coming up Feb. 22, people around the world are thinking about their favorite movies, actors, directors and even sound tracks. For some of us in the world of city parks, we watch movies through a narrower lens: scenes shot in parks ("How about those Cossack-like park rangers on horses chasing down poor Santa in Central Park in Elf?"). And some of those movie scenes we all watch raise questions about how location shooting affects the parks and their use, and we wonder if the park will be a star, or an extra.

In almost four decades working in and around New York City's parks, I have seen their rebirth and improvements documented in movies, as the city's parks they have gone from graffiti-strewn, menacing and dark backdrops to glamorous ambassadors for the city and its now record levels of tourism.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I worked picking up garbage in parks on Manhattan's Lower East Side; it was a low point in the city's history, echoed in the movies of the era. From neo-realistic dark dramas like The Panic in Needle Park(1971) to the violent revenge fantasies of Death Wish (1974, with its climactic scene in Riverside Park) and the summit meeting of street gangs in Riverside Park of The Warriors (1979), Hollywood both chronicled and exaggerated the dangerous and seamy side of the city. Even as things began to turn around in the 1980s, New York City, its subways and parks, were emblematic of everything wrong with urban life, in such movies as Cruising(1980). Miss Piggy even got mugged in Central Park in The Muppets Take Manhattan(1984).

But things in the city were getting better and eventually the movies reflected those changes. The renaissance of the city's parks was shown in movies like When Harry Met Sally (1989) and the romantic ending of You've Got Mail(1998), in front of a lovely garden in Riverside Park.

If one park has become Hollywood's back lot, it would be Central Park, which has reportedly been in more movies than any other, with more than 350 as of 2011. Doug Blonsky, the Central Park Administrator and President of the Central Park Conservancy, has been involved with the park for 30 years, and he has to balance the needs of film directors against the more than 40 million visitors a year. "Decades ago, productions had lots more leeway to occupy the park for days on end or do things that might damage the park, now we are a lot more careful about protecting the park and its visitors," Blonsky says.

But he also understands movie shoots promote both the park and the city, and helps New York create tens of thousands of jobs. According to the Mayor's Office of Film, Theater & Broadcasting, film production in the city is a $7 billion-dollar-per-year business, employing more than 130,000 people.

On the "left" coast, parks also take a star turn. Phil Ginsburg, General Manager of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, must walk the fine line: "From a parks perspective there is an interesting tension," Ginsburg said recently. "There is the international exposure and economic development of having movies shot in parks, but it can be inconvenient for average park users and create stress for park managers."

One example of the exposure he mentioned came in 2013, in the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. It was being filmed in San Francisco, and when a San Francisco Recreation & Parks staff member delivered T-shirts to the production team, those shirts made it into the movie, worn by the on-screen nephews of Cate Blanchett's starring character. Ginsburg's long list of movies in the city's parks include Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, and Family Plot, along with Milk, Mrs. Doubtfire, The Wedding Planner, The Hulk, The Princess Diaries, and The Rock.

One of the best known movies filmed in San Francisco's parks was the Clint Eastwood 1971 film, Dirty Harry. A climactic scene was filmed in Kezar Stadium, which had just been vacated by the city's pro football team, the 49ers. By chance, on a recent flight, while flying from Los Angeles to Santa Fe, I met retired Hollywood wardrobe man Glenn Wright, now 87, who worked in the business for almost 40 years. He remembered shooting the movie in Kezar and told me about shooting a scene next to scenic Grand View Park where the movie's antagonist, Scorpio, hijacked a school bus full of children.

Wright noted the extra realism gained in shooting on location in parks is balanced by the lack of control -- of noise, birds and inadvertent things in the background. "The key to location shooting was having a good relationship with local police who could maintain an orderly 'set'," Wright remembers. Wright also got to be an actor in several movies, including Escape from Alcatraz. He recalled the long shoots on the infamous prison island in San Francisco Bay, which is now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area: "It was very unpleasant, cold and damp. But you could almost touch San Francisco from the island, so even in a few weeks out there you understood the psychological problem prisoners faced by being isolated from a city so close by."

In my career at NYC Parks & Recreation, I saw dozens of movies shot in parks -- from Kramer vs. Kramer in 1979 to Stuart Little 2(2002) and Spiderman 3(2007).There were issues with almost all of them which never show up in the final product. And as parks have improved in New York City and across the country, I shake my head in wonder at things that were done in park shoots that would never be allowed today. Among many, the motorcycle chase scene through Manhattan's landmark Fort Tryon Park in Coogan's Bluff(1968) -- with motorcycles going up and down stone stair cases -- would be a non-starter today. Hair, filmed almost exclusively in Central Park in 1979, could not be shot on the Sheep Meadow again, as the strict rules protecting the legendary carpet of green would not allow the kinds of equipment or crowds that were part of the shoot 36 years ago. Certainly today no one would allow a production crew to add spray paint graffiti to the Firemen's Memorial, as was allowed in the filming of The Warriors in 1979.

So with the Oscars upon us, I offer up my own, highly personal and very brief list of "Best Park Picture (or Scene)" and invite readers' suggestions to be published in a forthcoming entry.

Best Use of a Park in a (Semi-) Animated Feature Film: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Best Use of a Park in an Animated Short Film: What's Up Doc
Best Musical in a Park: Hair
Best Psychological Torment in a Park: Vertigo
Best Park Recreated on a Hollywood Soundstage: Band Wagon
Most Iconic View Shot from a Park: a tie between Manhattan (Sutton Place Park) and Moonstruck (Brooklyn Heights Promenade)
Best Use of Public Meeting Space: The Warriors
Best Romantic Development: When Harry Met Sally
Best Romantic Resolution: You've Got Mail
Best Ambiance: Escape from Alcatraz
Best Chase Scene, Motorized: Coogan's Bluff
Best Chase Scene, Non-Motorized: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Best Chase Scene, Animal-Powered: Elf
Best Use of Multiple Park Filming Permits: The Amazing Spiderman 2 (East River Park, Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, The High Line, Union Square Park)
Lifetime Achievement Award: Central Park
Honorable Mention: Griffith Park, including the Griffith Observatory (for such films as The Terminator, Bowfinger, House on Haunted Hill, Anchorman, Star Trek, Transformers, Mulholland Drive, Devil in a Blue Dress, Wargames, Halloween, Heathers, and many more)