Before I ever wrote about travel, I wrote about movies and TV shows. I idolized actors and directors and screenwriters and showrunners. It never occurred to me that one day an entirely different element of filmmaking would become my entire raison d’etre: the filming location. Movies allow you to see faraway places without ever leaving your couch. Sometimes by extension, they create a wanderlust to visit the places you’ve only ever seen as a backdrop to your favorite movie.
I was probably 16 or 17 when I watched Amelie for the first time in high school French class. Its charming humor and adorable story couldn’t eclipse the film’s most endearing character: Paris. It shows all of Paris’s best qualities (and notably, none of its worst). As a result, it created a sense of familiarity – a connection – with a place I had never seen in person. So when I myself walked the streets of Montmartre, it wasn’t some unknown foreign place; it was Amelie’s neighborhood.
Seeing a foreign locale in a movie or TV show is like making a pen pal abroad, someone you’re dying to meet in person. You fall in love with those places in the same way you fall in love with the characters on screen, and you feel like you know them. In some cases, the locations are just as integral to the story as the characters in it. There’s no Roman Holiday without Rome. There’s no Vicky Cristina Barcelona without Barcelona. When you finally do get to see those sights you already know from film, it’s downright delightful.
Here I’m not referring to films and documentaries about travel, which ironically I tend to hate. I’m talking about stories that take place in the context of places we’ve only ever dreamed of seeing. So instead of highlighting the “top things to do” there as a tourist, it shows you what it would be like to simply exist in that place. That’s why completely insignificant places in the world gain significance and fame. That’s why people go out of their way to eat at Katz’s Deli in New York, to have what Meg Ryan was having in When Harry Met Sally. We visit Chippewa Square in Savannah – a square almost indistinguishable from all the others in the city, save for the fact that this is where Forrest Gump had a box of chocolates.
Funny enough, it wasn’t anything I had seen in Amelie that made me geek out the most in Paris, but another holdover from French class: the Stravinsky fountain which is prominently featured in the French in Action language videos I spent four years of school watching. And one day, there it was in front of me, like stumbling onto my foreign pen pal, having never met in person and without even planning to.
That’s the thing about the casual way that films can portray a place. You might have seen it so many times in your life, but never actually seen it. And when you do, almost no on-screen portrayal can compare to what it’s like to be in it.
When I discovered that feeling, my life changed forever. I started to neglect my love of TV and film in favor of my newfound adoration for travel, which sometimes results in the exact opposite experience: seeing a place on screen that you recognize. Instead of being endeared to a place, I become fond of the show or movie, because I’m reminded of a place I once visited. It makes me feel like I have an intimate knowledge about where the story takes place.
The downside of our fascination with places we seen in television and films is the growing popularity of filming location travel. That’s how you get James Bond Island and Tomb Raider Temple, and that’s how places that were once scoped out for their remoteness and uniqueness become overrun with eager tourists, who once saw it in a movie. That’s why places like Maya Bay in Thailand are now inaccessible to visitors, because it was nearly destroyed by tourism after it was featured in the Leonardo DiCaprio flick, The Beach. But can you blame them? We all want to see those beautiful places in person. We all want to see the sights that have captured our imagination and inspired us.
Between trips, I still love to cozy up with a good movie or binge watch entire series. It’s the best way to travel the world without ever having to get on a plane.