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It isn’t exactly a spoiler to say that most movies aren’t filmed where they’re set, especially when that setting is as fictional as the story. Even so, some shooting locations are better known than others: Every Lord of the Rings devotee knows that New Zealand is the real-life Middle Earth, whereas even some diehard “Die Hard” fans might not know where the real Nakatomi Plaza is. As you’re waiting to plan your next trip, here are five movies with surprising filming locations to watch in the meantime.
Star Wars: Tunisia
Depending on where you live, a certain galaxy far, far away isn’t actually too remote. Star Wars enthusiasts are well aware that Luke Skywalker was raised on Tatooine, a desert planet known for having two radiant suns, but what they might not know is that those scenes — and many others in George Lucas’ space-opera franchise — were filmed in Tunisia.
It wasn't just the North African nation’s mainland that served as a key location: Djerba, an island just off the coast, is where scenes involving the Mos Eisley cantina and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s home were shot. Many of the best-known Tunisian locations are from the original film, 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope, but scenes were shot there across both the original trilogy and the three prequels released between 1999 and 2005. Today you can take tours of some of the most important filming locations, including one that allows you to stay overnight in Luke’s humble abode in the town of Matmata.
The highest-grossing film of all time until it was dethroned by Avengers: Endgame, Avatar was so transportive that some fans of the sci-fi epic experienced depression brought about by the realization that they would never go to the fictional world of Pandora. The next best thing would be to visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China’s northwest Hunan Province, whose Huangshan mountains inspired one of the blockbuster’s most memorable sequences.
Anyone who’d previously seen the park’s “Heavenly Pillar” likely recognized it as the inspiration for Avatar's floating Hallelujah Mountains, which lend the film much of its visual magic. No surprise, then, that the Pillar has become an increasingly more popular tourist attraction in spite of the fact that the movie itself was mostly shot in New Zealand and Los Angeles. There are myriad guides and videos made by locals and travelers alike to the area.
Mad Max: Fury Road: Namibia
Everything about the fourth entry in George Miller's Mad Max franchise was unlikely. It's rare indeed for a post-apocalyptic action flick to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, and rarer still for the fourth installment in any series to be considered one of the best action films ever made. What makes the quality and success of 2015’s Fury Road all the more impressive is the grueling difficulty of its production, which took place over 120 long days in Namibia.
That was a literal departure from the first three Mad Max movies, all of which were shot in Miller’s native Australia. Fury Road was at one point going to be shot in Broken Hill, a frontier mining town in Australia, but heavy rainfalls led to wildflowers blooming throughout the desert and forced production to move to the South African nation.
It’s now difficult to imagine the film being shot anywhere else: The Namib Desert provided the perfect backdrop for the movie’s never-ending chase sequence, with harsh landscapes full of stark beauty both complementing and contrasting the nonstop action.
Jurassic Park: Kaua’i and the Dominican Republic
Depending on one’s perspective, it’s either a relief or a disappointment that Isla Nublar isn’t real. The fictional island near Costa Rica, where Jurassic Park is set, was primarily brought to life on the endlessly beautiful island of Kaua’i, where Steven Spielberg had previously worked. (Costa Rica was considered early on in the process but ruled out due to the filmmaker’s logistical concerns about setting up production there.)
Hurricane Iniki passed over the island during shooting, setting production back by a day; Spielberg made clever use of this by filming the storm and including shots of it in the final film. Kaua’i wasn’t the only Hawaiian location used, as a few scenes were shot in Oahu, Maui (including the opening sequence), and even the “forbidden island” of Ni’ihau, which isn’t open to outsiders. As with Star Wars, there are several tours of shooting locations you can take — including one that lets you ride in one of those iconic Jeeps.
A significant portion of Jurassic Park was also filmed in the Dominican Republic, namely the Amber Museum in Puerto Plata, including a famous scene involving the mosquito suspended in amber.
Apocalypse Now: The Philippines
Speaking of difficult productions, the making of Apocalypse Now was so notoriously troubled that there’s an entire documentary about it. Principal photography took a full 238 days and involved casting changes, sets being destroyed by Typhoon Olga, and star Martin Sheen having a heart attack; suffice to say that the project went massively over budget. For all that, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic was a huge success and is now considered one of the greatest films ever made — none of which could have happened without the Philippines.
Coppola and his wife Eleanor (who later directed Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary mentioned above) lived in the Dasmariñas Village area of Manila during production, which began in March 1976 and finished reshoots in May of the following year. Apocalypse Now was filmed all across the Philippines. Baler, a fishing town, is where the surfing scenes were shot; it has since become a sought-after destination for surfers across the globe and is even credited with inspiring the country’s surf culture. It's also where a fake Vietnamese village was constructed and later blown up in a simulated napalm attack; not all of the trees burned down have regrown.
Another key location was Pagsanjan, located about 90 minutes southeast of Manila, which is where the Do Lung Bridge was built along Magdapio Falls. In order to film in the Philippines at all, Coppola had to broker a deal with the country’s highly controversial president, Ferdinand Marcos, which allowed production to use military equipment — including helicopters of the same model used during the Vietnam War. It’s that commitment to vérité, whatever the cost, that makes Apocalypse Now loom so large in the annals of film history.