TO GET TO KUWAIT, GO TO EL PASO. ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY is in Austin, and Iowa is just a few miles to the east. The beaches of Cuba are near Conroe. And if you want to see suburban Washington, D.C., do as I am doing this cool Sunday morning in April and head for the Dixie Woods subdivision south of Houston. My guide is Alfred Cervantes, the location coordinator for the Houston Film Commission. His job is to look at the routine things people see every day—houses, trees, elevators, old buildings—and see them through the eyes of a Hollywood director, not as sights but as sites. With the right camera angle, downtown Houston can be Detroit, as it was in Robocop 2, and a home just off Main Street near Rice University can be an Italian hotel, as it was in A Woman of Independent Means.
We Texans are fond of believing that our state is different and that nothing makes it that way more than the land. But Hollywood knows better. One reason the Texas film industry is thriving today is that Texas can be just about anywhere; this is, after all, the place where the coastal plain, the Southern pine forest, the Great Plains, and the Chihuahuan Desert come together, give or take a few hundred miles. I watched Courage Under Fire and accepted that I was seeing Kuwait and Arlington National Cemetery; I watched Michael and believed that I was looking at Iowa; I watched Rough Riders and for all I knew the landing of Theodore Roosevelt’s troops had been filmed at Guantánamo Bay instead of the sandbars of Cypress Creek. Hollywood’s treatment of Texas has come full circle. Once it regarded our beloved landscape as so inadequate that it found it necessary to shoot westerns about Texas, such as the John Ford classic Red River, in Monument Valley, Utah. Today Texas stands in for the world—including Utah (in Shadows of Desire).
Africa? Try San Antonio in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls. Bolivia? How about the Big Bend region in Gambler V? Berlin, circa 1936? Dallas for The Jesse Owens Story. When Gambler V needed a Wild West town, the scene shifted from the real Wild West to Galveston’s Strand, which, when West Texas was still a frontier, was known as the Wall Street of the Southwest; Hollywood covered it with dirt and drove cattle down it. California? New Braunfels in Escape From L.A. (the surf scene was shot at Schlitterbahn). Then there’s The Chase, a recent Charlie Sheen flop, which takes place entirely in California but was filmed entirely in Houston. “For a freeway chase scene,” recalled Cervantes, “they brought in palm trees and propped them up beside the road.”
Cervantes is a native Houstonian, if you count growing up in Pasadena, and he managed to parlay a high school film course and a little luck into an internship on a low-budget film that led to a career. After six years as a location scout, he never goes anywhere without a camera, and he probably knows the physical attributes of Houston better than anyone else in town. The route he had chosen took us through Italy and France—two locations from A Woman of Independent Means, the Italian hotel and a home in the Memorial area that served as a French château. The scene was shot with a forty-foot-high blue screen so that the Eiffel Tower could later be superimposed in the background. Then we were back in the American Midwest—you might know it as Rosenberg—at the sheriff’s home in Powder, a two-story white frame farmhouse chosen for its wraparound porch.
We picked up the South Loop and made some turns into an area that was somewhere around Pearland and Friendswood. It looked a lot like Houston. It didn’t look anything like Washington, D.C. Still, Dixie Woods is the location for Arlington Road, described by Cervantes as an FBI thriller starring Tim Robbins, Jeff Bridges, and Joan Cusack. Because the two main characters do a lot of peering through blinds at each other’s houses, the angle between the houses, the foliage, and the quiet appearance of the street were crucial to the location. The size of one of the houses had to be appropriate for a professor’s salary and lifestyle: not too big, not too gaudy. Another requirement was that the houses had to be only a year or two old. Houston was one of the possible sites; North Carolina and suburban Maryland—the real setting—were its main competitors. Cervantes scouted thirty locations in Houston, took photographs, and sent them to California. They must have intrigued somebody, because the director and four producers came to Houston to scout locations.
“I knew they were looking for an intersection, probably a cul-de-sac,” Cervantes told me. “Dixie Woods has five or six cul-de-sacs, but only one of them was right.” He turned into the subdivision, and we plunged into pure suburbia: large two-story houses, each with a token pine tree. We passed one cul-de-sac, two, three, and each time, Cervantes slowed down to show me what was wrong: the fronts of the houses were too flat, or the house on the corner was too big, or the colors of the brick weren’t photogenic. Then we arrived at the fourth cul-de-sac. Instead of towering Georgians, we were greeted by smaller-scale homes whose second-story window casements broke up the roofline. I was looking at suburban D.C.
“This wasn’t necessarily one of my top prospects,” Cervantes said. “We had looked at and liked a subdivision in the northwest part of the city. It was the second day before we got here. When they asked to get out of the car and look around, I knew it was a good sign.” When they asked one of the homeowners if they could look in her back yard, that was a great sign. Even so, the Hollywood contingent left town with the decision unmade, and Cervantes had to wait a week or so before learning that he had succeeded. We left the subdivision the way we had come, and as we passed the rejected cul-de-sacs, I could see at once why they were wrong.
Cervantes pointed to a corner house surrounded by a wooden fence. “They used that house for a backyard party scene,” he told me. He stopped the car for a moment and looked at the fence. “Even though I’ve been doing it for a while, I still get a thrill every time I see a movie in production,” he said, and I knew that he was looking right through the fence and seeing it come alive again.