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Cinematic Parks: Parks Goes to the Movies

The set of Enchanted (2007) at Central Park's Bethesda Terrace. Credit: Sara Cedar Miller/Central Park Conservancy

Of all the summer events that draw patrons to the city's parks, free movies "feature" high on the list. There are many film series in parks, including Bryant Park and De Salvio Playground in Manhattan and Socrates Sculpture Park in Queens. And Parks & Recreation–sponsored film events are not new; at least as early as 1927, Parks, in cooperation with the Department of Health and other entities, sponsored motion picture screenings that were designed to furnish "good wholesome and educational entertainment to thousands of spectators, young and old, throughout the summer season."

With free film screenings so popular, it's clear that park patrons love movies, but you may not have realized (or remembered) the reverse; in other words, how much the film industry also loves parks. Parks set a tone for cinematic expression—in the famous "Dancing in the Dark" sequence from the movie The Band Wagon (1953), the ever–nimble hoofer Fred Astaire and the elegant Cyd Charisse swirl romantically through a Central Park recreated on a Hollywood back lot soundstage. But parks and the movies have a long and more direct connection, with numerous movies having been filmed actually "on location" in the city's greenswards.

New York City parks have been filmed by some of the best directors of all time: In North by Northwest (1959), Alfred Hitchcock gives us glimpses of Central Park and Grand Army Plaza as Cary Grant leaves the Plaza Hotel, escorted against his will by thugs; Woody Allen, who uses Manhattan as the backdrop for so many of his films, takes us on romantic walks through Central Park and Sutton Place; Paul Mazursky used Carl Schurz Park on Manhattan's Upper East Side as the setting for his bleak take on relationships, as in the jogging scene in An Unmarried Woman (1978); Martin Scorsese documents parks through all the different eras his films cover, from Columbus Circle in the gritty 1970s of Taxi Driver (1976) to Central Park during the 19th century in The Age of Innocence (1993) to the 1940s–50s world of Bronx boxer Jake LaMotta—Raging Bull's (1980) early poolside scenes from were filmed at Carmine Street Recreation Center.

If you curated a film series of movies actually filmed in New York City parks, there would be enough feature films to last decades; Central Park alone has hundreds of credits to its name! Movies and Parks have a long association going back to the beginning of film and the earliest "on–location" shots. Parks are frequently used for critical scenes in major motion pictures made by the big studios, as well as independent filmmakers. To encourage filmmakers, Mayor John V. Lindsay created the Mayor's Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting in 1966 which streamlined the permit process to film in the city (although Parks had its own permitting process). In recent years, the pace of filming has accelerated, especially following the creation of tax credits giving economic incentives to film in the city.

Filming "on location" affords us the opportunity to see the city through time, and parks and open spaces have evolved as much as the city's shifting skyline. Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) shows many fascinating on–location shots of New York, including the East River waterfront. A walk down near the Brooklyn Bridge today is completely different, the dilapidated maritime atmosphere now displaced by waterfront greenways that will only change more in the years to come. It Runs in the Family (2003), a drama starring both Michael and his father Kirk Douglas, shows Abingdon Square Park just before it was renovated. The scene in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) when Madonna and Rosanna Arquette collide while roller skating on the lower promenade shows a 1980s–era Battery Park the worse for wear, long before the Battery Conservancy renovated and beautified the site. And a key plot twist in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) would not have been possible had the film been shot today; Dustin Hoffman's son probably would not have been able to hurt himself like he did when he fell in the Central Park playground while Hoffman was distracted, in an era before safety surfacing.

Central Park

Desperately Seeking Susan also used Central Park for some scenes, making it one of over 240 productions to use the park. From Father Gets in the Game (1908) to I Am Legend (2007), Central Park is the premier park in which to film; the Central Park Conservancy calls the park "the most filmed public park in the world." It likely has the most Best Picture winners—parts of The Apartment (1960), Annie Hall (1977), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) were filmed in Central Park. And don't forget Best Picture nominees Love Story (1970), Tootsie (1983), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Central Park sometimes evokes genteel bygone era, as in The Age of Innocence (1993), starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Daniel Day–Lewis, or a foreboding atmosphere, like with The Fisher King (1991) where Robin Williams sleeps naked under the stars in Sheep Meadow; Marathon Man (1976), starring Dustin Hoffman and Laurence Olivier, where the Reservoir Gatehouse is the site of the climactic confrontation between the two; The Out of Towners (1970), where Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis are forced to spend a harrowing night outside in Central Park; or Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), starring Macaulay Culkin. Lately, however, the park has been increasingly evoking romance, as in Maid in Manhattan (2002), 13 Going on 30 (2004) or Hitch (2005), or the idea of fantasy and possibility, as in Enchanted (2007).

Central Park itself is even the subject of movies. A feature–length Hollywood movie, Central Park (1932), starred Guy Kibbee. The film revolved around a community of homeless men living in Central Park, and the "Mayor of Central Park." It included a scene of a lion escaping from the zoo and depicted mayhem at the Central Park Casino.

Learn More

Central Park in the Movies (Central Park Conservancy)

Iconic Parks

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?s characters share an intimate moment at Riverside Park?s 91st Street Community Garden in the 1998 film You?ve Got Mail.

As much as New York is itself a character in certain films, parks also serve that function. The "New York, New York" sequence in On the Town (1949) starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra—the song explains that "The Bronx is up and the Battery's down, and the people ride in a hole in the ground"—takes its sailors on a whirlwind tour through Manhattan; after exiting an elevated train, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munchin run through Washington Square, rush past Grant's Tomb in Riverside Park, take a carriage ride past the Obelisk in Central Park, ride horses past what appears to be the Dairy in Central Park, ride bicycles on the Central Park Drive, and race down what appears to be Cedar Hill before capping off their day (and the song) on top of Rockefeller Center.

And just as times change, so do the way parks are portrayed. Charles Bronson once staked out muggers in Riverside Park in Death Wish (1974), and Al Pacino spent his days looking to score heroin around Sherman Square in The Panic at Needle Park (1971). But, eventually, the same Upper West Side neighborhood would be used as the setting for a budding romance between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in 1998's You've Got Mail; look for the lush flower beds at Riverside Park's 91st Street Community Garden as the backdrop for the film's big romantic finale.

Washington Square Park

Parks as the backdrop for both romance and danger can also be seen at Washington Square Park, which was featured as a setting for both When Harry Met Sally (1989) and the Larry Clark–directed Kids (1995). Two sides of human relations, where Kids depicted a brutal HIV–positive climate of precocious teenagers set against the hustlers and drug dealers of Washington Square Park, and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, on the other hand, enjoyed a romantic moment in their budding friendship–relationship under the Washington Square Arch. Washington Square Park's history of chess playing is told in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), starring Joe Mantegna and Laurence Fishburne. And film icons Robert Redford and Jane Fonda starred in Barefoot in the Park (1967), also set in Washington Square. Most recently, however, Ridley Scott's I Am Legend (2007), starring Will Smith, tied up the park for months (the story had Smith living in a townhouse off the square in a post–apocalyptic city). The production of I Am Legend and its late–night pyrotechnics disrupted life so much for local residents that Will Smith apologized to the city at the film's New York premiere.

Woody Allen

The writer–director Woody Allen has filmed so often in both New York and its parks, he deserves a special mention. From his Academy Award–winning Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) with Diane Keaton (great scenes of Central Park) to Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) starring Alan Alda and Martin Landau (in Riverside Park), Allen has used New York as a backdrop so frequently that he may have perfected the idea of "the city as its own character." The spot at Sutton Place Park on the east side of Manhattan where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton "canoodle" on a bench overlooking the Queensborough Bridge in Manhattan is one of New York's most recognizable scenes. The movie poster may be as famous as the film itself and can be seen in countless delis and dorm rooms. After a four–film hiatus, Allen is filming again in New York; Battery Park is one of the locations in his new film starring Larry David.

Coney Island

Film fanatics may remember that Alvy Singer, Woody Allen's character in Annie Hall, grew up in a house underneath a roller coaster in Coney Island. That home actually existed and housed the owners of the Thunderbolt roller coaster at Coney Island (it was demolished in 2000).

Parts of the film version of Brighton Beach Memoirs (1986) were also filmed at Coney Island (as well as Brighton Beach). Morris Engel's groundbreaking Little Fugitive (1953) is about a young boy who runs away to Coney Island; the neo–realist film features many scenes of the amusement park and beach in the 1950s.

The cult classic The Warriors (1979) captures a street gang's journey back to their Coney Island base of operations. The Greek myth–like story's denouement takes place in Coney Island amusement parks looking desolate and almost apocalyptic, something hard to fathom if you've been there during the summer.

Parks Standing in for Other Parks

The Warriors begins in a park and ends in a park. The opening scenes of the film are supposed to take place in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, but in fact Manhattan's Riverside Park is used.

The case of the city park standing in for another city park is replicated in the case of Moonstruck (1987), starring Cher, Danny Aiello, and Nicholas Cage (at the early part of his career). In the film, the sitting area of Bleecker Street Park doubles as a park in Brooklyn Heights. Other parts of the movie were more geographically accurate, however; Cher's walk on the Brooklyn Promenade makes geographic sense near the house on Cranberry Street that her family called home (interesting to note, however, that the supposed working class abode was recently on the market for $5 million).

Before New York provided such generous tax credits to movie productions to stay in the city, filming "New York scenes" outside of the state (or the country, as Toronto has been a longtime stand–in for the city) was common. Agnieszka Holland's Washington Square (1990) used Baltimore's Union Square to represent the famous Greenwich Village park in the film adaptation of Henry James' book of the same name (though to be fair, many things in and around Washington Square have changed since the novel was published in 1880, including the addition of a certain arch that now dominates the park, making Baltimore's Union Square a more appropriate set).

And even though it appears between Times Square and the Empire State Building, Peter Jackson's meticulous recreation of Central Park in a New Zealand soundstage for King Kong (2005) is worth mentioning. To that point, the Parks Department's Photo Archives has received many requests from filmmakers for historical images of parks in order to make accurate recreations of New York City scenes; the details are often incredibly accurate (even if the geography is sometimes suspect).

On the Perils of Filming On Location

John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), starring Frank Sinatra, made great use of on location shots, including a memorable scene of a brainwashed Laurence Harvey jumping into a lake at Central Park after being accidentally prompted to do so by a surly bartender. The outdoor scene was shot on one of the coldest days in some time, and crews had to break ice a foot thick with a bulldozer before filming could begin. Sometimes it may be better to use a soundstage.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn has evoked different things through the years, everything from the working class ethnic neighborhoods of Bay Ridge—in Saturday Night Fever (1977), one can glimpse Fort Hamilton Park, a small triangular park with a war memorial in the Bay Ridge—to the urban canvas of Spike Lee—the director (whose headquarters are in Fort Greene) filmed parts of Mo' Better Blues (1990) starring Denzel Washington in Prospect Park. (Spike Lee also uses several Harlem playgrounds in 1991's Jungle Fever.)

The movie version of Smoke (1995), starring Harvey Keitel and penned by Brooklyn–based writer Paul Auster, also was filmed in Prospect Park, as well as elsewhere around Brooklyn. (The ad–libbed Blue in the Face, reportedly made with unused funds from Smoke, also was filmed in and around Prospect Park and Park Slope.) In earlier years, Prospect Park was used as a setting too; the Academy Award–winning Wonder Man (1945) starring Danny Kaye was filmed in the park. And both Helen Hunt's character in As Good As It Gets (1997) and Meryl Streep's character in Sophie's Choice (1982) lived right by Prospect Park. Reportedly, parts of GoodFellas (1990) were filmed in the park too.

And, although it was not filmed in Prospect Park, M.Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004) held its premiere in Prospect Park, where the movie studio set up a faux village green, building on the film's theme of an isolated village.

Queens

The recent Tobey Maguire Spiderman franchise has rekindled Hollywood's romance with Queens, a borough with a long and distinguished film history.

Queens is home to Kaufman Astoria Studios, which has been an active studio continuously since 1920, and Silvercup Studios, which since 1983 has housed productions of Gangs of New York (2002), When Harry Met Sally, Working Girl (1988), and Do the Right Thing (1989), not to mention the hit HBO series The Sopranos and Sex and the City.

Aliens from outer space may have destroyed Flushing Meadows Corona Park's Unisphere in the big budget summer blockbuster Men in Black (1997), but Queens also has several independent films on its resume. The indie film Girls Town (1996), starring Lili Taylor as a disaffected youth, includes key scenes in Astoria Park. And much of the indie film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006), starring Robert Downey, Jr., Dianne West, Chazz Palminteri, and Shia LaBeouf (in his breakout role), was filmed in Astoria. Key parts of the movie were filmed at the landmarked Astoria Pool; writer–director Dito Montiel grew up in this part of Queens and drew on his experience to create the film. Since parks are so much a part of a child's worldview, it is only natural that the park is featured so prominently.

Staten Island

Birth of A Nation

Staten Island, which calls itself the "borough of parks," has thousands of acres of open space to use for nature scenes. A savvy director could film an entire movie set in the woods, and no one would know it was filmed in Staten Island, just miles from the media capital of the world.

The borough has seen its share of film crews in the past couple of years— much of School of Rock (2006) starring Jack Black was filmed in the borough, for example. Film productions have used Staten Island's parks several times more recently. Some scenes of Margot at the Wedding (2007), written and directed by Brooklyn–born Noah Baumbach and starring Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, were filmed at Conference House Park on Staten Island's South Shore. Parts of The Ten (2007), starring Paul Rudd, were filmed in the Greenbelt, and scenes in American Gangster (2007), starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Josh Brolin, were filmed at both South Beach and the Cromwell Recreation Center parking lot. Parts of Little Children (2006), starring Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, and Jennifer Connelly, were filmed in Walker Park in the Livingston neighborhood on Staten Island's North Shore. And the makers of the biopic Neal Cassady (2007), starring Tate Donovan and The Wire's Amy Ryan, used Lemon Creek Park on Staten Island's South Shore.

Filming in Staten Island is not a new thing. In fact, borough historians uncovered evidence that an early silent film, Right of Way (1914), used (what is now) Clove Lakes Park to represent Quebec's St. Lawrence River. And Staten Island's Biograph film company, which owned a studio in the New Brighton neighborhood, produced D.W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation (1915); astute observers note that the film includes scenes filmed in what is now Eibs Pond Park. Finally, the mystery The House of the Tolling Bell (1920) reportedly used the Biddle House in Conference House Park.

Bronx

As we noted before, Riverside Park stood in for the Bronx's Pelham Bay Park in The Warriors, and the Robert De Niro–Chazz Palminteri Bronx Tale was actually mostly filmed in Astoria, Queens, but an important scene in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993) was filmed at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx.

Statuary

True Love (1989), starring Annabella Sciorra, depicts a wedding party the night before the big day getting drunk and abusing the American Boy sculpture at Rice Stadium in Pelham Bay Park (soon after the stadium was demolished, the sculpture was salvaged, and later restored). And Balto the sled dog makes appearances in both Steven Spielberg's animated feature film about the dog's life (1995) and in the offbeat Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Will Smith's breakout film in which the statue not only appears several times but actually sets up the main plot line.

Left on the Cutting Room Floor

Some scenes including parks wind up on the cutting room floor. In Brooklyn's Carroll Park, the filmmakers set up a wooden pavilion for a speech by Al Pacino in City Hall (1996), but the scene was eventually cut. Likewise, director Robert Redford planned sequences for 1994's Quiz Show in Astoria Park that wound up deleted; the Astoria Park scenes referred to real–life quiz show contestant Herbie Stempel's upbringing in the Queens neighborhood.

The Floating Cinema, Little Bay Park, Queens, 1988. Photo: Jon Rubin

Tell Us More!

Figuring out which parks are depicted in film is somewhat a catch–as–catch–can process. If you know of any parks that aren't included, please let us know. We may begin a master list at some point and add it to the site.

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