Home Arts & Entertainment A brief history of films in San Luis Obispo County

A brief history of films in San Luis Obispo County

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Charlton Heston portraying Moses in The Ten Commandments. Photo by Thank You (21 Millions+) views

For nearly 100 years, the expanding landscapes and sleepy coastal towns of San Luis Obispo County have been the backdrop of many feature films.

Whether you’re a prestigious film buff, or someone that enjoys briefly escaping into another world through your TV, you’ve most likely seen at least one movie that has used San Luis Obispo and the surrounding cities to help tell it’s story. From the wineries of Paso Robles to the dunes of Guadalupe, there’s cinematic history ingrained in this region of California that continues to stand the test of time. 

The following are examples of prominent films set or filmed on the Central Coast.

1920s – 1960s

The Ten Commandments (1923, 1956)

The earliest adaptation of Cecil B. Demille’s “The Ten Commandments,” dates back to 1923 and was shot in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes. Originally a silent film, Demille remade his biblical epic in 1956. Although the remake was mostly shot on location in Egypt, the original location, sets, and props were used throughout both productions. 

The massive sets, later referred to as The City of the Pharaoh, were built to include 35-foot-tall pharaoh statues, 21 sphinxes, and gates over 100 feet in height that were built by 1,600 workers. These sets were left to deteriorate, and some are still there to this day.

Of Mice and Men (1939)

Lewis Milestone directed this adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novel “Of Mice and Men.” The story takes place during the Great Depression, and focuses on two farm workers working on a ranch. The original story is set in the Salinas Valley, but some of the film was shot at Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, right off Highway 101. Thousands of acres of farmland made this the perfect place to bring Steinbeck’s book to life.

1970s – 1990s

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

The Disney-produced “Pete’s Dragon” used locations in both Morro Bay and Point Buchon, which most know to be located in Moñtana De Oro near Los Osos, Calif. The famous lighthouse in the film was built on the Point Buchon Trail to mimic the look and feel of the coast of Maine. 

The lighthouse was equipped with a large and functioning beacon. Disney was required to get permission from the Coast Guard in order to operate it, so that passing ships would not confuse it for a real lighthouse.

Commando (1985)

Featuring actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, this film by Mark L. Lester follows the retired special forces colonel on a mission to rescue his daughter. The fictional South American country of Val Verde was a primary plot point, and producers of the film chose Hearst Memorial State Beach as the ideal location to shoot the attacks on the barracks. The Val Verde Barracks were built and later blown up on this stretch of W.R. Hearst State Beach, which belongs to the Hearst Castle Estate.

During filming, a publicist for Commando told the Telegram-Tribune they “needed an area along the California Coast with cliffs, beaches, and a pier that looked like a remote South American island.”

Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, star of “Commando,” at 2019 San Diego Comic Con International. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Arachnophobia (1990)

This black comedy by Frank Marshall is one of many films shot in San Luis Obispo County that used real-life residents as extras. Multiple scenes were filmed in Cambria, and Coast Union High School students and staff were used during group gatherings and football events. The three-story Halter Ranch farmhouse, which is now part of Halter Ranch Vineyards in Paso Robles, was also featured in this 1990s thriller starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman.

A jumping spider that has dreams of one day being in a feature film like his relatives in the film “Arachnophobia.”

Little Giants (1994)

Most “90s kids” probably remember Duwayne Dunham’s “Little Giants” for it’s cast of misfits and the competitive O’Shea brothers, portrayed by Rick Moranis and Ed O’Neill. In this film, the O’Shea brothers form opposing pee-wee football teams to prove once and for all who the better coach is. 

The city of Arroyo Grande and it’s dusty backyards played a big role in creating the right atmosphere for a small Ohio town that loved it’s pee-wee football leagues. Notably, the racing scene between the O’Shea brothers was filmed on East Branch St in The Village. Former football player, coach, and Cal Poly graduate, John Madden, also made an appearance in the film as himself.

2000s

Murder By Numbers (2002)

Before actor Ryan Gosling hit it big in Hollywood, he starred alongside Sandra Bullock and Michael Pitt as a teenage killer hoping to commit the perfect crime. Both San Luis Obispo and Morro Bay get a fair amount of screentime in this 21st-century thriller, and for good reason. The Castle Rock Films thriller is set in fictional San Benito, which according to the production company is inspired by San Luis Obispo.

Within the first 10 minutes of watching “Murder By Numbers”, you’ll see the iconic smokestacks of Morro Bay set in the background. At another point in the film, Gosling and Pitt’s characters rendezvous in Mission Plaza, at the heart of Downtown SLO. Many other recognizable locations include The San Luis Obispo Courthouse, the 900 block of Chorro Street, and an upstairs apartment at the corner of Garden and Marsh streets.

The landmark smokestacks of Morro Bay that are featured in the film “Murder By Numbers.” Photo by User:Keavon, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)

Another film to display the vast openness of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes is the Walt Disney Pictures blockbuster success, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.” The third installment in the series, starring Johnny Depp, used the famous dunes during a surreal scene where Jack Sparrow is stranded with his ship. 

Moments later, the ship is carried away by crabs and out to the ocean. Since filming this scene, new regulations have been placed by The California Coastal Commission to protect and preserve the area from off-roading and large film productions.

It’s no surprise why the county of San Luis Obispo has served as a supporting role in many cinematic masterpieces. Arts and entertainment are part of the deep creative culture that thrives amongst this stretch of charming California cities. 

The next time you sit back and enjoy a movie that features the glories of The Golden State and it’s variety of ecoregions, take a closer look and you just might notice your own backyard.

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