’On Location’ with the Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Aug 2, 2012

The Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour departs from the visitor’s center at the Boston Common, a hub of activity that also serves as the start point for a Civil War tour and a trawl along the Freedom Trail (that’s the one that follows the red stripe running along Boston’s sidewalks). But history buffs aren’t the only ones who can enjoy a walking tour in Beantown: Film fans, too, have an option open to them. Boston, after all, is something of a movie town.

The Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour is one of a couple offerings from On Location Tours, the same company that runs the famous "Sex and the City" tour in New York City (not to mention tours dedicated to "The Sopranos" and "Gossip Girl"). The other Boston tour offered by the company is the "Boston TV & Movie Bus Tour," which is a three-hour trawl through filmic hot spots around the city, including locations used in the 2006 Martine Scorsese film "The Departed."

Our walking tour takes half as long, and is mostly confined to Beacon Hill, the exclusive neighborhood of brick sidewalks, gas lamps, and the occasional remnant of cobblestone streets that just screams "Historic Boston." It’s no wonder so many films have used locations around Beacon Hill: The neighborhood is nothing if not cinematic.

Indeed, prior to the tour, I could tick off any number of films in which I’d glimpsed Beacon Hill locales. Years ago I lived in the neighborhood, and I recall the excitement and tumult that erupted when John Travolta was in town filming "A Civil Action," a movie that used the fifth floor of The Boston Athenaeum as a setting for a lawyer’s office and paid a visit to DeLuca’s Market on Charles Street for a brief scene featuring William H. Macy.

I especially recall Macy’s visit, because I worked at DeLuca’s at the time, and my register was used in the shot. Not me... just my register. Though I did get to give the actor who played the cashier a quick tutorial in how the register worked. Macy, meantime, sat on a chair in the middle of the market’s floor, the picture of absolute calm, unfazed by the glances and stares of shoppers and staff.

Sunlight, Digital Cameras, Action!

The tour begins at 2:30 in the afternoon. Our guide, Javier, gathers up today’s group. There are about 10 of us: Three young couples (one gay, two straight), a trio of middle aged women, and myself.

It’s a cloudless, bright July afternoon, and one of the middle aged women demands of Javier, "Where’s your umbrella?" She evidently means parasol, unless she’s making an oblique reference to a recent spate of rain storms; either way, Javier is game and plays along.

"My umbrella, ah, my umbrella," Javier replies, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes. "Stolen by a bad roommate."

Javier is twenty-seven, dark-haired and bearded. He grew up an Army brat, he tells EDGE, but he’s lived in Boston for the past nine years. "As soon as I got here, I was home," Javier recounts. "Forget anyplace else. This is where I want to be."

Javier’s love of the city is matched only by his love of movies. "Have you seen ’Ted?’ " he asks excitedly, referring to the just-released Seth MacFarlane film, starring Mark Wahlberg, about a grown man and his magically animated, profane teddy bear. "That is just a great all-around Boston movie!"

As the tour progresses, the guide’s passions for city and film both come to the fore: "If you’re into movies at all, Boston is the place to be."

Boston, Je T’aime!

This is more the case than it used to be, now that Massachusetts offers film production companies attractive financial incentives to shoot in the state.

Before those incentives were put into place, movies set in Boston were being filmed in places like Toronto and New York. Think "Good Will Hunting" is as Boston as a movie can be? Think again: Javier informs us that about 40% of the film was shot in Toronto.

It was an absurd situation, Javier notes, given that, as he tells us, "Boston is home to over 200 movie and TV series combined." It’s not just the case that movies from "Amistad" to "The Thomas Crown Affair" are set in Boston; so are numerous television shows, such as "Boston Legal," "Boston Public," "Ally McBeal," and, of course, "Cheers," the enormously popular 1980s sitcom that took the real life hotel bar of the same name as its setting.

Now, the situation is reversing itself: Film companies are finding it more economical to come to Boston to make movies. Indeed, Boston stood in for Paris during the filming of "The Pink Panther 2."

Start with ’The Departed’

We begin the tour right there in Boston Common, with Javier leading the way. ("Have you been On Location?" the slogan emblazoned across the back of his blue "On Location Tours" T-shirt asks.)

"Does this look familiar?" Javier asks the group as he leads us across the green. "This is where the opening scene of ’The Departed’ was filmed, when Matt Damon is playing rugby." The Common, Javier added, has also served as a location for "Good Will Hunting" and "Fever Pitch."

Javier passes around his company iPad, which has been loaded with film stills. (The bus tour version comes complete with film clips shown using on-board video screens.) Damon and another actor share a park bench in the still. Yep: They’re on the Common, all right.

But we’re not... at least, not for long. Javier leads the way up the steps to Beacon Street. Just across the way is the State Capitol building, its golden dome shining in the sun. Javier pauses by a bas-relief of Union soldiers on horseback: This is a depiction of the 554th Regiment, one of the first African American regiments in American history.

"I can’t stand the way that movies compress things and rewrite history," Javier tells us. "I mean, I understand why they have to do it. They’re movies! But there’s a movie about the 554th Regiment called ’Glory’ that really did get the history mostly right."

Doctors and Lawyers

Javier leads us up the street to 14 Beacon. The name "Congregational House" is carved into the stone above the entrance. "This building is the office setting for Ally McBeal," he reminds us.

The show was shot in Vancouver, but that didn’t deter the management of the physical street address in Boston from celebrating McBeal’s fictitious law firm, which, during the show’s run, was listed on the building directory in the lobby.

We pause again at 10½ Beacon, the address of The Boston Athenaeum. "This is the oldest private library in the country," Javier tells his tour group, going on to explain that because Harvard University is often skittish about allowing movies to shoot on its campus, The Athenaeum often stands in for Harvard interiors. "The architecture is from about the same time," Javier notes.

One film in particular that used The Athenaeum for Harvard was "With Honors," a 1994 Joe Pesci vehicle about a Harvard student who loses his thesis. The paper ends up in the hands of a homeless man who extorts lodging from the student.

At One Beacon we come to an imposing edifice of a building. This was the setting for "HouseSitter," a Frank Oz-directed comedy from 1992 starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, but it was also the setting for the 1993 thriller "Malice," an early Alec Baldwin film that also starred Nicole Kidman.

Retracing our steps and heading back toward the State House, we take note of the Omni Parker Hotel, one of the ritzier accommodations in Boston. The hotel is noteworthy not due to having been used as a film location, but for historic reasons: "Malcolm X worked there," Javier notes. "With Ho Chi Minh!"


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