For my money, Bad Times At The El Royale has the most entertaining concept for a big budget Hollywood film in 2018. The film itself is at times creepy, other times whimsical, and packed to the brim with action – it had a little bit of everything for audiences, and a fantastic ensemble performance to boot. Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Dakota Johnson, and fantastic newcomer Cynthia Erivo all get a chance to flex their acting muscles, and the result is pure fun.
A month or so removed from this release however – which was a sort of mystery thriller revolving around a collection of strangers converging at a remote hotel – one thing stands out in particular, and it’s the location. Almost the entire film takes place at said hotel, the El Royale, which happens to straddle the border between California and Nevada. The first 15 minutes or so of the film are largely devoted to explaining the concept, with rooms on the California side costing a dollar more (because it’s California, it’s explained) and having access to a bar, and the Nevada side having a little casino. It’s a bizarre, unnecessary yet intriguing concept, and it makes for a fun film set… and, mild spoiler alert, it barely matters! There’s all this build up about this wacky hotel concept, not to mention an entire set designed around it, and it’s essentially a gimmick.
Even so, in a weird way, the film would feel less special without it. Everything would be a little more ordinary, which just goes to show that a location or setting can be vital to a film’s success even if it isn’t vital to the actual plot. And once I had that thought, I started musing about some of the underused locations that could add some unique flavor to a film without dominating it. These are some of the places that came to mind.
The Michigan Dunes
Michigan’s magnificent sand dunes, along the shore of the mighty Lake Michigan, make up some of the most underrated destinations in the entire United States. They are in many cases more impressive than any dunes you’ll find on the East or West Coast, yet many are surprised to learn they even exist. Meanwhile, the most prominent films taking place in Michigan are probably Eminem’s 8 Mile, in Detroit, and the American Pie teen movies. One could imagine the dunes and the lake making for an excellent backdrop for a low-key drama or indie film – exactly the sort of setting that can enhance a film without necessarily altering the plot.
Arizona’s Lake Powell
The American Southwest is known as a striking destination, and it’s used to great effect in multiple films and television shows. Even Bad Times At The El Royale has a sort of Southwest vibe to it, even if it takes place more in the Lake Tahoe region. For the most part though this region is depicted in three ways: through desert landscapes, canyons, and ski towns (and slopes). Left largely alone is the stunning Lake Powell in Arizona, a popular place for recreation and a visual that makes you think of a canyon flooded by a great river. It simply feels like an untapped resource for any film about camping or the outdoors that doesn’t call for specific surroundings.
Atlantic City’s Boardwalk and Beaches
The Atlantic City Boardwalk has vintage charm to it, and is turning into a lively tourist destination during the summer once more. New Jersey’s online gaming business has embraced a lucrative variety of game options in order to establish itself as its own entertainment industry, bringing new money and new visitors into Atlantic City. As a result the boardwalk area and surrounding beaches are buzzing again, at least for part of the year. It’s hard to explain much better in detail, but suffice it to say the area just has a vibe unlike any other place in the United States. This vibe could be injected into a film to make it stand out in a way that would seem very new in an almost inexplicable way.
The College Town of Iowa City
Iowa doesn’t exactly scream Hollywood. In fact the most prominent movie set in the state in the last 10 years is probably Cedar Rapids, which specifically singled out the titular town because it’s bland. Iowa City, however, would offer a whole new look at the state, and one that has the perfect ingredients for a college comedy, a small-town indie film, or anything similar. An old city and now a college town for the University of Iowa, it’s a mid-sized place right on the river and full of college facilities, local bars and eateries, walking malls, and the like. It’s exactly the sort of place that makes for a charming cinematic backdrop without shouting out to audiences with any actual identifying features.
Astoria offers many of the same benefits that Iowa City does, and in fact has been named one of the most charming small towns in the U.S. There’s also a coastal aspect to the city that sets it apart however. Astoria is right on the Columbia River, near where it flows into the Pacific, such that there’s a true seaside vibe to it. In a way it can establish some of the same effects as a cinematic backdrop that you’d get with a Vancouver or San Francisco, but with a small town atmosphere as opposed to a big city vibe. It’s a perfect, largely unexploited area for just about any film.