Posted by: Jerry Garrett | July 21, 2010

Where & How Was Inception Filmed? (Re-posted)

[NOTE: This column, originally published July 21, has been continuously updated with new information, as it has become available.]

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.

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.

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 an Italian corner deli near le Pont that filmmakers converted to a sidewalk cafe. (On Google Maps find Da Stuzzi, 6 Rue César Franck, 75015 Paris, France. Read about my lunch at this delightful trattoria, and my conversation with the owner about the movie-making done there.) And here is a little-known factoid that I just discovered while watching the 1998 Robert DeNiro movie “Ronin” – with the classic John Frankenheimer-directed car chase through Paris. Much of it was filmed in many of the exact same locations: Bir-Hakeim, Cesar Franck and its cross street Rue Bouchut, and the area around Sevres-Lecourbe train station.

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

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.”

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

[Editors Note 08/01/2010: The word is out that Hans Zimmer’s weird soundtrack in Inception is just slowed-down fragments of the movie’s Edith Piaf theme song – which is, oddly, left off the soundtrack disc. Anyway, this makes sense if everything is slowed down in a dream. The soundtrack gets weirder as they go down levels in the dream worlds, because just one reverberating note of the song could last a lifetime in the lowest levels. Clever.]

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.]

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Responses

  1. Fortress Mountain in Kananaskis Country, Alberta was not a site for the 1988 Winter Olympics. The downhill venue was at Nakiska, which is 25 minutes north. Fortress is an older ski resort which was in use as early as 1970 (That’s the first time I skied there.)

    • Thank you for clarifying that. 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.

  2. […] to the very visible cables? In post-production, they were digitally erased. (I explain in an earlier column how this technique was also used in the spinning room sequences in […]

  3. where exactly is the “Cafe Debussy” in Le Pont, Paris?

    • For the café scene, shooting was down on the corner of rue César Franck and rue Bouchut. The Café Debussy we see in the film is actually… an Italian deli – Da Stuzzi – completely transformed for the scene. It’s just 10 minutes away on foot from our new hotel, La Belle Juliette.

      • Thank you so much, Klara! That is a question that a lot of the readers were asking. Next, we’ll have to write a review about their food!

  4. […] to the very visible cables? In post-production, they were digitally erased. (I explain in an earlier column how this technique was also used in the spinning room sequences in […]

  5. where exactly is the “Cafe Debussy” in Le Pont, Paris?

    • According to our clever reader, Klara: It is really an Italian deli, Da Stuzzi, at the corner of rue César Franck and rue Bouchut. It was turned into the fictional “Cafe Debussy” for the movie.

  6. Thank you for clarifying that. Kananaskis Country, which consists of Nakiska and Fortress Mountain, was an official venue of the 1988 Winter Olympics

  7. […] to the very visible cables? In post-production, they were digitally erased. (I explain in an earlier column how this technique was also used in the spinning room sequences in […]

  8. Any clue where the anniversary hotel scenes were shot? I had assumed they were on a soundstage, but recently saw a paparazzi shot from what appeared to be street-level that suggested it was a practical location…

  9. […] Source […]

  10. […] I answered, but I did come all the way across Paris, just to check out the location (see my earlier column on where and how Inception was filmed). The inviting atmosphere, however, tempted me to come inside. What's for lunch? Hearty […]

  11. Good read. I’m thinking of having some coffee at the Cafe Debussy. Btw, anyone recognizes the street when Arthur first arrived at Paris and opened the door to the place where the team gathered later? Is it in Paris? It looks like an abandoned factory something. It could be at two different locations, the street/outside door and the inner part of the factory.

    • Say hello to Ingrid for me. The factory was in Los Angeles!

  12. They also filmed at Victoria house in London. I know because I live in the area and received a flyer notifying us of this. And trucks were outside for many days. Victoria House is from the 1920s with art deco interiors. My guess is that it is where the scene was filmed where Maurice Fischer lays dying in his bedroom.

  13. The city scenes were definitely in LA because there is a Famima store in the background. Famima is a Japanese convenience store (short for Famiri Maato or Family Mart) that only has locations in LA. LA worked very well in this film, so the US city scenes came out excellent, and they really could be Anycity USA. I have been to that Famima a few times, so it was interesting to see it in the film.

    • Sharp eye! Thanks for sharing that info!

  14. […] Garrett on the Road — if you’re serious about movie locations, and this guy is, check out Jerry Garrett’s blog.  Makes me realize what an amateur I really am. NolanFans.com — if you’re serious about Christopher Nolan on the other hand, then check out this site. Vagabond Roots — Planning a round-the-world trip yourself?  Check out Catia’s excellent list here. Inception (Two-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray] – the movie IMDB – I love move trivia!  And IMDB never fails.  For example, James Franco was in talks to play the role of Arthur, but was unable to because of scheduling conflicts.  That role of course eventually went to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. […]

  15. Very interesting post! I finally watched the movie this past weekend. I live in Northern Idaho, not far from Calgary, so may have to check out Fortress Mountain sometime. I’m also an architect, and found it to be a fascinating movie, not just for the story. Maybe I can figure out how to make the Penrose stairs actually work! The buildings folding upon themselves may be a tough one to crack.

    • For the folding building trick, tequila helps!

  16. I’ve been living in Paris for a year now and just realized the 6 train I take to work uses the Inception bridge to take me across the Seine each day! Da Stuzzi is nearby too, will definitely check that out. Thanks for your info, glad I stumbled onto it.

    Speaking of movie locales, I just posted a blog about how another great movie, Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”, used one of my favorite hidden spots for it’s pivotal scene. Guess it wasn’t quite as hidden as I thought 🙂

    Thanks for your blog and take care!

    • Many thanks! I’ll check out your blog. Da Stuzzi: Really great food. Please give Ingrid my best regards. Wonderful lady.

  17. Hi. Great site.

    I have one for you. I don’t live in the US, so it took me a long time to find!

    Dream Level 1. The hideout. The whole scene was shot in this warehouse.
    SCS, 516 South Anderson Street, Los Angeles.
    Notice the building opposite on S. Anderson, Where a projection shoots from the roof.
    Also found a website leasing the building for filming use. Some great pictures of the Interior.
    http://www.onlocation.com/displayimage.php?categoryid=95&subcategoryid=&categoryname=&subcategoryname=&searchtype=blueid&blueid=2926

    Apologies if already answered, but although the ‘Parisian Factory’ Interior is in LA, the exterior door Is in Paris.
    Rue de l’Alboni / Square Alboni, Paris. To find it, follow Rue de l’Alboni away from Pont de Bir-Hakeim. Straight ahead.

    The Interior of the Parisian Factory is located at: “K family shoes corp”, 1815 East 7th Street, Los Angeles.

  18. Small nit-picking notes: Saito pulls the safety pin from the fragmentation hand grenade with his teeth–this feat cannot be done in real life as Saito would have broken his teeth in the process. (It is difficult enough pulling the safety pin with one’s fingers–and for good reason.) Also, fragmentation grenades do not produce any fire, flame, etc. but I understand that movie audiences have come to expect such pyrotechnics. Also, where does Eames suddenly obtain a rope to trip up his pursuers while he is skiing downhill and being shot at? How do they administer the intravenous sleep drugs to all the team members without starting I.V.s? When the Ford Van rolls down the embankment, wouldn’t that have trashed the device which administers the sleep medications? All in all, a great movie!

  19. i think the restaurant changed names again from da Stuzzi. i was there in May 2013 and it’s called Russo or something. the awning is different from your pic. i guess business didn’t pick up

    • Thanks for the update. I’m not surprised, as Ingrid had a business arrangement which perhaps was too tenuous.

  20. […] The 18 wheeled tractor trailer was manned inside a hidden cab and was driven with the help of LCD monitors during the scenes. That it was neither CGI nor a real train is evident from the fact that the cars were just pushed and dented, whereas a crash with real train usually results in far more damage.(source) […]


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