Et’s a long way to Grafton in southern Utah. A hot, dusty path. A dirt road off State Route 9 leads to this ghost town. Mormon President Brigham Young once wanted to create a Garden of Eden here, with fruit, vegetables and cotton growing on the Virgin River. In 1859, the first families of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) settled, but the river known as the Virgin was unmerciful. It flooded fields and farms and brought bad luck – the inscriptions on the wooden crosses and stones in the small cemetery bear witness to this.
The last buildings left in Grafton stand in the scorching sun. A wooden house with a bell tower that was a church, schoolhouse and council hall at the same time. A few log cabins. Fences that no longer protect anyone and nothing.
In the 1940s, the last four residents left the town. And it moved in: the dream factory. A Hollywood producer bought the land – the perfect location for the westerns that were so popular at the time. However, Utah’s grandiose landscapes have enriched and continue to enrich a number of genres, as can be seen in film classics such as “Indiana Jones” (1989), “Thelma & Louise” (1991) or “Forrest Gump” (1994).
As a holidaymaker, suddenly standing in a very real setting that you only know from the cinema screen is an incomparable experience. Various film tours lead to the locations of contemporary festival favorites or western classics.
Where Robert Redford fell in love with Utah
In any case, time seems to have stood still in the ghost town of Grafton. Even today, visitors would not be surprised if “Two Bandits” (1969) rode around the corner in a cloud of dust – in the form of the young Robert Redford and Paul Newman. They played the charming petty crooks “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the original title of the cult western, which was filmed in Grafton and the red canyons of nearby Zion National Park.
For both actors this was the beginning of their great careers – and for Redford the beginning of a long-lasting love for Utah. He bought Provo Canyon in 1969. Over the years, it has become the Sundance Mountain Resort, where vacationers can ski in the winter, enjoy outdoor sports in the summer, and take art classes year-round. Every year from mid-January it is the scene of the Sundance Film Festival, which has given small productions a big stage since 1981.
It’s an unreal country, this Utah. Square kilometers of bright white salt deserts, red rocks, areas that look like they are on another planet. Table mountains, deep gorges, a whole valley full of sandstone goblins. But also: the Rocky Mountains covered in snow almost all year round. Gigantic bodies of water like the Great Salt Lake, Lake Powell and the Colorado River. Bizarre and majestic landscapes filmmakers find nowhere else on earth.
Hundreds of directors and cameramen have let off steam here – that’s why even first-time visitors on a road trip get the feeling in many places that they’ve been there before. Kevin Costner is currently shooting his five-part western “Horizon” in the US state, which he praises highly: “I’ve dreamed of shooting my films in Utah for a long time.”
The wide, rough land
It all started almost exactly 100 years ago, when films were still shot entirely in Hollywood studios. The first ‘epic’ film, as a BBC documentary calls it, that was actually shot ‘on location’ outdoors was The Covered Wagon. The silent film western from 1923 is about pioneers who set off from Kansas City to Oregon in a covered wagon in 1848 and went through a lot along the way: the scorching heat in the desert, freezing cold in the mountains, hunger, disease and some attacks by the native people. Various scenes of this pioneering film were shot in Utah.
The vast, harsh and sometimes frightening country is as much a protagonist as the actors. Cinematographer Karl Brown was fascinated: he could set up his camera in one place and still have a handful of completely different landscapes as backgrounds. A huge advantage given the unwieldy equipment of the time. “Even when talkies came along, studio bosses stayed with Utah,” said Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission.
By American standards, Hollywood is just around the corner. It’s about a nine-hour drive from Los Angeles to southern Utah today. The Canyons of Bryce and Zion were ideal settings for the popular westerns. Chief Cowboy John Wayne was a regular in Utah. Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra were also often seen, especially in Kanab, the small town was known as “Little Hollywood”.
“The filmmakers and location scouts love the diversity of the landscape,” says Pearce. In the meantime, the recruitment of productions has become an industry in its own right, an expensive business. “Someone comes up with an idea and we show locations that could fit.” That costs millions of dollars a year, which of course pay off for the state in the long run. Because the crews bring work and the tourists come and want to see the locations of their favorite films.
Der Canyon aus „Thelma & Louise“
A lot is expected of superstar Kevin Costner. He has just shot the first film of his five-part epic “Horizon – An American Saga” in Utah. In the south, where Costner will shoot most of the other sequences, the nature is particularly impressive.
This is where the “Mighty Five” line up, the state’s five major national parks: Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Arches and Capitol Reef. One more impressive than the other. Each with their own characteristics. And everyone has been a backdrop in big Hollywood films umpteen times.
Among them: “Thelma & Louise”. The famous women’s road movie that premiered over 30 years ago. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in a light blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird, a frustrated Arkansas wife and her best friend, a sharp-tongued waitress, who have all sorts of funny and heartbreaking stories.
Although the story takes place between Arkansas and the Grand Canyon in Arizona, filming took place in Moab, Arches National Park and numerous other locations in Utah. At the end of the film, both of them are seen speeding in their convertible into a canyon in the “goddamn Grand Canyon” – which is actually located in Dead Horse Point State Park in Utah.
Utah looks alien here
Monument Valley, which borders the state of Arizona in the south, is just as cinematic. One of the most famous scenes from this vast country with the striking rocks is that from “Forrest Gump”, in which a bearded, shaggy Tom Hanks runs along Highway 163 and ends his run back and forth across the USA here.
Even extraterrestrials have landed in Utah, in films like Star Trek (2009), the Transformers series or Galaxy Quest (1999), which was filmed in Goblin State Park – a valley full of sandstone peaks that wind and weather have shaped over thousands of years. The Bonneville Salt Flats saw Captain Jack Sparrow land in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and were the backdrop for scenes in Independence Day (1996).
True, the unique landscape is what draws most filmmakers to Utah. But Salt Lake City has also made a name for itself. Because the somewhat sleepy capital of the state with its only 200,000 inhabitants is changeable like hardly any other in the world USA.
“There’s a variety of neighborhoods that filmmakers can use to set streets that could be anywhere in the US,” says Pearce. This works with big Hollywood productions as well as with the popular Hallmark channel smacks, which are filmed here with great regularity.
There is even a Capitol
The most prominent building next to the LDS Temple is at the north end of town: the Utah State Capitol. Although it doesn’t look exactly like the one in Washington, the dome is impressive and with cinematic tricks it can represent the one in the capital. Like in Legally Blonde 2, where Reese Witherspoon staggers up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in a pink suit. Getting a filming permit in Salt Lake City is much easier than in Washington.
A few years older than the Capitol is East High School, which was the setting for all three parts of Disney’s “High School Musical” – and marked the beginning of a great career for one young man. With the teenage blockbuster from Utah, Zac Efron made it into the top ranks of Hollywood actors. Like Robert Redford and Paul Newman four decades earlier with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
tips and information
how to get there
For example with Eurowings Discover (eurowings-discover.com) directly or with Air France (airfrance.de) over Paris to Salt Lake City.
Self-drive routes on themes such as “Western” or “Redford’s Sundance Scenes” below visitutah.com/things-to-do/film-tourism
Participation in the trip was supported by the Utah Office of Tourism and Eurowings Discover. Our standards of transparency and journalistic independence can be found at go2.as/unabhaengigkeit