Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 18, 2010

Ten Secrets Behind How Inception Was Filmed

[Editor’s Note: This is the original version of this story, as published July 18; for a continually updated version with additional information, click here.]

Where was the movie “Inception” filmed? Perhaps that’s a trick question. Writer and director Christopher Nolan would like you to believe the answer is: “In your dreams.”

Despite unprecedented use of computer-generated special effects in this film, virtually every scene was either a real place, or based on a real place.

And the air of mystique around the whole production notwithstanding, Mr. Nolan and his team have been surprisingly forthcoming about where, when and how they created their magic.

Most of “Inception” was shot in the second half of 2009. Locations included six countries on four continents, including Japan, Morocco, France, England, Canada and the United States. The balance of the filming, however, was done in and around Los Angeles.

Here’s my top ten list of locations:

1. JAPAN? The movie opens with Leonardo DiCaprio (Dom Cobb) washing up on a beach, ostensibly in Japan. It’s actually a beach at a public park on the Palos Verdes peninsula near Los Angeles. Filming occurred there in July through October 2009.

The filmmakers also built Saito’s elaborate castle (inspired by Kyoto’s actual Nijo Castle) there – although the castle’s interiors were created and shot at a Warner Bros. studios soundstage in L.A.

An empty warehouse in downtown L.A. subbed for Cobb’s Paris studio.

Cobb’s house is in Pasadena, CA.

The beach at Palos Verdes was also used later in the movie when Mr. DiCaprio and Ellen Page (Ariadne) were walking into “Limbo City” – a computer-generated construct of crumbling cliffs and buildings.

2. OSAKA? KYOTO? No Tokyo, was the site of the heliport atop an office building.

JR's Shinkansen

Also seen were Japan Rail’s bullet trains, and helicopter shots above Tokyo – a privilege few filmmakers have been accorded, under strict local air traffic control rules. The Tokyo sequences were the first the filmmakers shot, in June 2009 – when the movie’s working title was “Oliver’s Arrow”.

3. PARIS? Trivia question: What famous Paris landmark was built for the city’s 1900 World’s Fair (or Exposition Universelle)? If you answered “the Eiffel Tower”, thanks for playing; we have some lovely parting gifts for you. La Tour Eiffel was actually built for the Exposition Universelle of 1889. The answer we were looking for was the Pont de Passy bridge; it is now called the Pont de Bir-Hakeim bridge.

Viaduc du Passy

The bridge, which crosses the Seine River just north of the tower, was not actually completed until 2-3 years after the 1900 fair ended. The iconic bridge was prominent in the mirror scenes with Mr. DiCaprio, Ms. Page and her 2007 Oscar nemesis Marion Cotillard (Mal).

Movie buffs may also remember Marlon Brando walking across it, sobbing, in “Last Tango in Paris” (1972).

What about “Café Debussy”? It is actually a corner patisserie near le Pont that filmmakers converted to a sidewalk cafe.

Pyrotechnics filmed here – explosives are prohibited in Paris – were actually compressed nitrogen charges that puffed clouds of confetti-like debris into the air.

Mind-bending Paris

4. ENGLAND? The former RAF Cardington airfield in Bedfordshire features some of the world’s largest aviation hangars. They were originally built to house “airships” – blimps, zeppelins and barrage balloons – used in World War I.Today, Mr. Nolan works inside the hangars on soundstages located there. This is where he built sets up to 100 feet long for the elevator shaft and hotel corridor and room scenes. The sets could be turned like an oven rotisserie rack, while the actors inside had to learn fancy footwork to run up walls, across ceilings and down hallways. In “weightless” scenes, they dangled from wires and “swam” in the air.

Fred Astaire's "Royal Wedding" dance

The idea of twirling a room in front of a camera while an actor dances around inside isn’t new; director Stanley Donen pioneered the technique with Fred Astaire in 1951’s “Royal Wedding”.

5. LONDON? The University College London’s Flaxman Gallery is where Michael Caine (Miles) introduces Cobb to Ariadne; the Farmiloe Building, not Mombasa, is where they created the chemist shop for Dileep Rao (Yusuf); and the lobby of a former gaming company, with its steel-and-glass staircase, is where Joseph Gordon-Leavitt (Arthur) demonstrates the paradox of the Penrose stairs to Ariadne.

6. MOMBASA? No, Tangier in Morocco is a stand-in for Kenya’s second-largest city. The reason for the subterfuge here is unclear; Morocco has been a popular filming location of late, for everything from Sex and the City 2 to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Tangier’s historic Grand Souk (marketplace) was an ideal venue for the chase scene pitting Cobb against dreamt-up pursuers.

Old postcard of Tangier's Grand Souk

“They pretty much wrecked everything in sight,” said stunt coordinator Tom Struthers in an interview, “but it was all done safely and it looked perfect.”

7. SYDNEY?  The filmmakers never did film in Australia, even though the big set piece involving the Boeing 747 (another L.A. soundstage) was supposed to involve a long Sydney to L.A. flight. The rain-plagued car chase obviously wasn’t filmed in Sydney, or everyone would have been driving on the left side of the road, eh mate? It was set in the U.S. Isn’t America supposed to be where Cobb can’t go? Remember, in dreams, such incongruities – like sunshine in a rainstorm – don’t seem ridiculous, until you wake up.

8. THE BIG APPLE? The rainy car chase scene, meant to be in New York City, was filmed principally on September 20, 2009 – a sunny Sunday – on Spring Street in downtown L.A. The “Date Night” movie car chase, also supposed to be in NYC, was also staged near here a few months earlier. Despite drought conditions and watering bans in effect at the time, the filming was done in a Hollywood-style rainstorm created by water cannons mounted atop skyscrapers. The freight train looked computer-generated – but it wasn’t. It was a very detailed mock-up of an actual locomotive, 60 feet long, mounted on the stretched chassis of an 18-wheel tractor trailer. Piloting it, aided by LCD monitors mounted inside the truck’s hidden cab, was Jim Wilkey – who did the amazing bus rollover stunt in Mr. Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”. (Watch the locomotive flinch when it rams into cars; real runaway trains just make pancakes out of cars.) Special effects wizards Chris Corbould, Mr. Struthers and picture car coordinator Tyler Gaisford also deserve credit for this mind-blowing Silver Screen moment.

9. SAN PEDRO? The Port of Los Angeles area, adjacent to San Pedro, was where the battered and abused white Ford Econoline van finally meets its denouement. Mr. Rao, who did much of the actual driving of the van, said chase sequences involving the van took almost a month of on-and-off filming to complete. He said 11 identical third-generation Econolines were destroyed in the sequence; Mr. Gaisford was quoted as saying it was 13. One was even converted for underwater filming.

Commodore Heim/Henry Ford Bridge

The drawbridge used at the end is named, fittingly, for auto tycoon Henry Ford (and a Commodore Heim). Did Mr. Rao get to drive the Ford van off Henry’s bridge? “No, as I remember, they shot it straight up in the air,” he said, “using a massive cannon.”

10. O CANADA! The Fortress Mountain ski resort has fallen on hard times, since its use in the 1988 Winter Olympics in nearby Calgary. Alberta’s provincial government closed the resort in 2008 over unpaid taxes and other bills. By 2009, it had degenerated into just exactly the kind of seedy, forelorn, eerie aerie that Mr. Nolan loves to film (remember “Batman Begins”?). Set builders enhanced the area’s cement-gray buildings with an austere fortress of the mind (miniature models of it were what was later blown up). Stunt personnel here included Olympic and extreme freestyle skiers and Ski-Doo virtuosos.

How to void your Ski-Doo warranty

And that weird military-type vehicle with the snow tracks? That’s a Snow-Hummer; several companies actually offer variations for public sale – but only in wintry climes. Although it was late fall by the time the Canadian scenes were filmed, and bitterly cold, no snow fell until two days before filming was to begin. “Then,” Mr. Nolan sighed, “it never stopped. Be careful what you wish for.”

Fortress Mountain, Alberta, Canada

In interviews after post-production wrapped in Los Angeles, Mr. Nolan said, “I think we experienced a number of extremes, from burning sun to heavy rain to incredible snowfalls, and that’s something we were after in making this film. We took our actors to the top of mountains and under the water and all over the world, and they rose to every challenge marvelously. I am a great believer in getting out there on location and confronting an environment – because it brings so much to the credibility of the action. And, at the end of the day, I think it adds something to the feeling the audience has of being taken someplace they haven’t been before.”

Someplace deep into the dream-world of the mind. With that, we’re out of time. Wait. Do I hear Edith Piaf starting to sing?

Jerry Garrett

July 17, 2010

This material is copyrighted and may not be reprinted or reproduced without permission.

[Note: To read about this subject in even greater depth, I recommend Tim Nasson’s excellent Inception: Behind the Scenes.]


  1. “Edith Piaf sings in a way that is unique, untamed, wild and yet heartbreaking.”

    • How true. It has a very haunting quality, perfect for how her voice is used in this movie. Someone sent me a link to the movie’s soundtrack, which can be purchased on Amazon (and other sites, of course). But I noticed Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” – the essential piece of music in the whole movie – is not on the soundtrack! I wonder why not? The filmmakers certainly paid for the rights to use it.

  2. […] for locations, Jerry Garrett again has a lot of interesting stuff, here on the ski resort that’s the penultimate […]

  3. Just a small error. Fortress Mountain was not used as one of the sites during the 1988 Olympics. Nakiska (just down the road) was.

    • That’s correct. As one of our readers pointed out on our other post about Inception, Kananaskis Country, which consists of Nakiska and Fortress Mountain, was an official venue of the 1988 Winter Olympics. But actual alpine and freestyle mogul events were held only at Nakiska.

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