In recent years, Boston has taken its own form of film genre with specific themes and an emphasis on its various highlights. Moreover, the location has become a hotspot for film companies to produce their newest movies with big name stars and Hollywood’s top directors. From the iconic Good Will Hunting to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, The Departed, Boston has taken its own place in film history with its standout eccentricity. What is the history of film in Boston both in on-screen setting and filming location? Why has Boston become a big filming location, and what does that mean in the context of Hollywood movements?
The first time I saw Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, I was enthralled by the emotional tension and humanity portrayed by Matt Damon and Robin Williams. Damon’s character, Will Hunting is a janitor at MIT from Southie (South Boston) who has a gift for mathematics but a troubled past. Will meets Sean Maguire, a therapist played by Robin Williams, who helps Will cope with his past and work towards his future. These two form a great friendship against the backdrop of Boston. The film, written by Damon and Ben Affleck, was nominated for 9 Oscars and won 2 for best screenplay (Damon and Affleck were the youngest to win the award at the time) and supporting actor.
According to Hillary Richard in an article for BBC, you could tell Boston locals wrote it because of its portrayal of Boston as a city of neighborhoods, each with a personality and proud residents. This is what makes the film’s setting wonderful – the film allows Boston to speak for itself. Ordinary pieces of Boston evoked authenticity and created an atmosphere that many films have strived to replicate since. This article hones in on how a movie can turn the city itself into a dynamic character that influences many important events. For example, when Will and Sean stroll along the Boston Public Garden, the garden provides emotional depth to the setting. That bench actually became known as the “Good Will Hunting Bench” and many fans of the film have commemorated Robin Williams at that bench since his passing. Like a poetic narrative, Good Will Hunting influenced Boston. Since Bostonians love the classic underdog story, when the film was nominated for the Oscars in 1998, many people in the city gathered at the film’s famed L Street Tavern and hosted parties in the Southie streets. Robin Williams thanked the people of Southie in his acceptance speech, further tightening the bond between the film and the city. The more I looked into the Boston film industry, I found that this bond lies at the heart of the great Boston films.
With this in mind, I began to search for more Boston films to figure out why they are popular. In an article for The Boston Globe, writer Matt Juul discusses 20 of the most “Boston” films ever. While this sounds subjective, it helped a lot in determining what Boston films I should look to for research. It takes more than just the Boston setting to capture Boston on film, and many of these movies did it in different ways. For example, the aforementioned Good Will Hunting captures Boston pride and specifically the Southie. The Departed captures Boston’s Irish roots with its imagery and use of Irish music, and The Town captures the grandeur of Fenway Park as its main characters attempt to perform a heist in the famed field. Spotlight captured one of the more important recent historical events that happened in the city as journalists of The Boston Globe uncover the tragic truth behind the Catholic Church. Boston’s darker side has also been portrayed in Black Mass, which centered around the notorious Whitey Bulger during his reign in the 1970s. By looking at this historical analysis of movies set in Boston that display Boston ideals, I was able to determine certain themes throughout the films. For example, several of the films included in the list, such as Black Mass and especially The Departed, contain nods to Boston’s Irish roots.
Moreover, there’s always somewhat of a “Boston pride/spirit” in these movies as the city itself seems to unify the characters. In Good Will Hunting, the main characters connect because they’re all from the Southie. It’s important to note that this article was written in 2015 and there have been more “Boston” films since such as Patriots Day with Mark Wahlberg and the more recent Stronger with Jake Gyllenhaal. Interestingly, both of those movies were about the tragic 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. This could signify that these Boston films attempt to resonate with whatever overarching themes exist in Boston society at the time. For example, Ben Affleck’s The Town showed the bank robberies in Charlestown because that was an actual problem in the city. However, as I continued to dig deeper, I found that the film went a bit too far in the eyes of Charlestown, and received backlash from its citizens.
Patricia Mandell, a freelance writer, discusses the controversy behind Ben Affleck’s The Town in an article by the Christian Science Monitor. Though the film received rave reviews from critics, a great box office total, and even earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, many audience members of Charlestown didn’t appreciate Affleck’s portrayal of the area. Many thought it was an exaggeration and an often inaccurate representation considering the film’s claim that Charlestown is considered one of the biggest bank robbery areas in the country. Boston police showed that Charlestown has barely more than 2 percent of all Boston robberies, not just bank robberies. Moreover, the Boston FBI stated that Massachusetts has less than 3 percent of all bank robberies in the nation. While this article detracts from the idea about films accurately portraying Boston, it doesn’t change the opinion of mine and many others that The Town is still considered one of the most “Boston” films ever due its atmosphere. The way the characters utilize their surroundings makes Boston feel contained and therefore more accessible from a filmmaking standpoint. Affleck weaves directorial vision through Fenway Park in a way that gives gravity to each aspect of the field. As Affleck and Renner escape from the FBI, the park becomes a battleground and only a true Bostonian could navigate it. While there seem to be factual inconsistencies, the film thematically resonates with Boston ideals of unification.
Affleck’s The Town is not the only film to receive backlash from Boston citizens despite positive critical response. Katherine Seelye talks about the controversy of Peter Berg’s Patriots Day in a New York Times article. While the majority of critics and audiences gave the film great reviews, Bostonians and some prominent Boston critics claimed the film was disrespectful. However, Peter Berg argued that these critics only feel this way because it was released too soon. Berg also hinted that the creative team behind the film meant to honor and respect the city. There were subtle inaccuracies for the narrative purpose, but the overall theme of recovery was still present throughout. Bostonians don’t take it well when they feel misrepresented in Hollywood. They also feel disrespected when Hollywood producers make a film too soon about a tragedy that happened. It’s interesting to see that Hollywood feels the need to make films that highlight a more exaggerated version of Boston. What about Boston makes directors want to exaggerate anything? Do they feel that Boston as a location calls for heightened dramatic tension in film? These questions are important to consider when looking at the history of film in Boston. The location in all these films are closely tied to the plot, and Bostonians naturally get attached to the location. Any misrepresentations would alienate Boston audiences in favor of the masses.
Interestingly, Patriots Day wasn’t the only film to cover the recent tragic Boston Marathon Bombing as Stronger did too. However, Stronger approached the tragedy in a different way. In an article for The Boston Globe, writer Kevin Slane discussed with the cast and crew of Stronger about how they approached the story. He mentions how the film was shot at the same time as the aforementioned Patriots Day, but the two films are much different. Stronger focuses on Jeff Bauman’s path to recovery after surviving the bombing. Director David Gordon Green explains that the center of Stronger is a love story, which is more personal than a large scale investigation. He says, “Whether it made the headlines or not, in your life, you have definitely struggled, if not physically, then emotionally.” Actor Jake Gyllenhaal explains that the city was brought together by Bauman’s strength, which is essential to Boston. The Bostonian response to Stronger contrasted with that of The Town and Patriots Day because this film had a different impact on Boston. Stronger dealt with the personal side of a Bostonian whereas The Town and Patriots Day tended to get broader. Bostonians seem to prefer this personal story as seen by the positive response for Good Will Hunting. Though Bostonians reacted differently, all four films (The Town, Patriots Day, Good Will Hunting, and Stronger) all received rave reviews from critics and a relatively decent box office run. I believe this historical success contributes to Hollywood’s fascination with Boston.
In a Los Angeles Times article by writer Tim Swanson written when The Town released in 2010, Ben Affleck discusses the Boston craze in the film industry. Affleck’s crime drama felt almost like an in-depth tour of the city as characters explored every little area and brought the city to life. Recently, Boston has become a popular filming location for some high-profile productions. Affleck claims that this is due to the city’s uniqueness. Boston is home to its world class education, Irish roots, and many unique neighborhoods. The city itself has been a recent hotspot for film due to its distinctness. The accents, history of class/racial tensions, bar culture, and education are fascinating to filmmakers who want to tell a rich story and have characters placed in a location with a ton of history. Also, the city isn’t New York or Los Angeles, which have been the two big Hollywood filming locations for decades. All of the films discussed above add flavor to the city of Boston. In all of these films, Boston plays such a huge part to a point where it’s almost like a character. The city itself is marked with a deep history, and directors love to make their scenes feel as realistic as possible. They engross their audiences with the backdrop of the Boston culture and encourage them to explore every corner of the setting. In The Departed, characters are thrown throughout the city and act differently depending on their location in Boston. Moreover, they all have this underlying sense of Boston pride, which audiences love since most people have a specific place they feel very close to. While it’s important to note that this LA Times article was written in 2010, and a lot has changed since, this article provides some really great insight into why Boston has become so big in film.
Film allows for creative expression in an almost unlimited way, and there have been many movements and genres that have fostered over the decades. Filmmakers are always trying to find the next big thing and convey humanity through an infinite amount of ways. Film in Boston stands as a unique pocket of cinematic gems that’s worth exploring given the city’s expansive history and the particular culture. The whole city is filled with wonder and it’s hard not to understand why filmmakers are flocking to Boston to display its range. The location is just salivating with experiences that are just waiting to be tapped by adventurous storytellers. I, for one, was definitely influenced by how Boston is portrayed in film, and I believe the city will continue to be one of film’s top locations to visualize the next big stories.
Richard, Hillary. “The Boston Immortalised in Good Will Hunting.” BBC, BBC, 24 Feb. 2015, www.bbc.com/travel/story/20150223-the-boston-immortalized-in-good-will-hunting.
Seelye, Katharine Q. “’Patriots Day’ Disconnect Between Bostonians and the Rest of Us.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/01/13/movies/patriots-day-disconnect-between-bostonians-and-the-rest-of-us.html.
Juul, Matt. “The 20 Most Boston Movies Ever.” Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 13 July 2015, www.boston.com/culture/entertainment/2015/07/13/the-20-most-boston-movies-ever.
Mandell, Patricia. “’The Town’: Is Charlestown Really America’s ‘Bank Robbery Capital’?” The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor, 17 Sept. 2010, www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0917/The-Town-Is-Charlestown-really-America-s-bank-robbery-capital.
Slane, Kevin. “The Cast and Crew of ‘Stronger’ Say It’s Not the Boston Marathon Bombing Movie You’Re Expecting.” Boston.com, The Boston Globe, 22 Sept. 2017, www.boston.com/culture/entertainment/2017/09/22/the-cast-and-crew-of-stronger-say-its-not-the-boston-marathon-bombing-movie-youre-expecting.
Swanson, Tim. “Hollywood Discovers Boston.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 16 Dec. 2010, articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/16/news/la-en-boston-20101216.
So those are my thoughts on film in Boston! What do you think about this? Feel free to let me know in the comments sections! Thanks 🙂