Top 10 most iconic films shot in Oregon

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Oregon has, for more than a century, been a featured destination for filmmakers and movie studios looking for breathtaking vistas and a certain rustic flare to depict onscreen. As such, Oregon has been a target location for Hollywood studios since before there even was a “Hollywood.”

“That’s part of the message we’d like to get out there,” said Mac Burns, the Executive Director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, which oversees the Oregon Film Museum located in Astoria. “There are over 400 major motion pictures that have been filmed in Oregon.”

So why is Oregon so popular in the film industry? Well, there are the industrial reasons like lower costs of travel and fewer barriers to shoot here. But, there's also the natural factors. As Burns says, “Oregon can be whatever you want it to be.

“We’ve got forests, beaches, mountains, deserts . . . and cities,” he said. “I think this is true of all of Oregon when you get down to it . . . we love being on film.”

So, in celebration of Oregon’s rich legacy of filmmaking, we’ve explored the histories of some of the biggest films to ever come out of the Beaver State. While whittling over 400 films to just a handful is difficult, we have good reasons for highlighting these films in particular.

Without further ado, here’s Curbside’s list of the ten most iconic movies filmed in Oregon:

10) The General (1927) - Cottage Grove

Every list of films shot in Oregon should begin with Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece. But it was only through a stroke of luck that Cottage Grove is known for this iconic piece of American cinema.

The story of a train heist in the American South during the Civil War, The General wasn’t supposed to be filmed in Oregon at all. The plan was for it to be shot in parts of Georgia and Tennessee, but when the locals learned that the film was a comedy that aimed its fun at the Confederacy, they protested the film’s production and the whole thing was moved to Cottage Grove, Oregon, in 1926.

Nearly the entire film was shot in and around the rural Oregon town, and the most iconic and well-known scene is the one in which an actual train, driving over a wooden trestle constructed for the movie, plunges into the Row River following a fiery explosion of the tracks. That’s right, they blew up a real train for the movie and pieces of the set, including the locomotive, still rest at the bottom of the river.

The scene is estimated to have been the most expensive in all of silent film, and the lore behind the filming of The General inspired similar train scenes in films like Stand By Me (1986), which was also filmed in Oregon. You can watch the scene for yourself here.

While Oregon had already been used by Hollywood studios as a cheap alternative for location shooting for years, this is the movie that put its possibilities as a film setting on full display. Its legacy is still felt in Cottage Grove today, and visitors to the Cottage Grove Hotel will still see a mural with Keaton's character depicted on the wall.

9) Elephant (2003) - Portland, surrounding areas

Loosely based on the Columbine High School shootings, this Gus Van Sant feature film won the coveted Palme d'Or at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and spawned a wealth of Oregon indie film productions in the years since.

Van Sant, one of Oregon’s most accomplished filmmakers, is best known for directing Good Will Hunting (1997) and has lived and worked in Portland for more than 30 years. As such, he frequently uses Oregon locations in filming, including for Paranoid Park (2007) and My Own Private Idaho (1991), which he produced.

In another shout-out to films shot in Portland high schools, Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), starring Richard Dreyfuss portraying a real-life music teacher, was filmed partially at Grant High School.

8) Wild (2014) - Various Locations

This film, based on the autobiography of the same name, is about one woman’s search for identity and personal understanding on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from Mexico to British Columbia.

As such, this critical darling was filmed on location all over the trail and some of the most iconic scenes in the movie were filmed right here in Oregon: Ashland, Portland and the Bridge of the Gods near Cascade Locks, to be specific.

Wild received some attention at the 87th Academy Awards, netting Reese Witherspoon a Best Lead Actress nod for her performance as Cheryl Strayed, along with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Laura Dern as the protagonist’s mother.

Due to the highly naturalistic theme of the movie, few films have so spectacularly captured Oregon’s scenic beauty and for that, it earns a spot on this list.

7) Kindergarten Cop (1990) - Astoria

The first of several films on this list to feature Astoria, Kindergarten Cop was a smash comedy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and featuring location-shooting all over the Northern Oregon Coast.

It’s unique in the sense that the film is actually set in the town of Astoria, rather than in a fictional town or place that was captured through filming in the community.

As such, set pieces of the town are featured heavily in the film. The Bayview Hotel, for example, is a real place, and guests can reserve stays in the same A-frame lodges that Schwarzenegger’s John Kimble stayed in while he learned that being an elementary school teacher can be harder than being a homicide detective.

6) Coraline (2009)

A unique entry on this list since it doesn’t feature live-action shots of Oregon and the state’s beautiful scenery, Coraline nonetheless deserves its prominent spot.

This is the first film by Laika Studios and it put the Hillsboro-based animation studio on the world's radar. Owned by Nike co-founder Phil Knight and started by his son Travis Knight, Laika is by far the most successful film studio Oregon has ever produced.

This film, about a young girl exploring the magical mysteries of her family’s old house, sparked a rebirth of artistic stop-motion animation. Laika has continued producing successful animated films, like ParaNorman (2012), The BoxTrolls (2014), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and the upcoming Missing Link (2019).

5) Twilight (2008)

The film may be set in a fictional Forks, Washington, but it was shot largely in Oregon.

The Carver Cafe in Damascus is featured as a diner in the movie, and many of the exterior scenes were filmed at Silver Falls State Park.

Obviously based on the best-selling novel series of the same name, this global sensation has given Oregon a lot of attention from diehards of the series. Since its release, this film has been given lots of ink for how Oregon’s landscapes captured the beautiful-yet-mysterious look and feel of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire cycle.

4) Free Willy (1993)

A great portion of this Warner Bros. smash was filmed in Hollywood sound studios and in Washington. However, the most iconic scene, the one depicted on the film’s cover of Willy the Whale jumping over his child companion and into the wild, was shot in Astoria.

The film is also known for starring Keiko, the orca who was a longtime feature of the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport. It’s ironic that a film whose entire plot revolves around freeing an orca from captivity featured whales who spent most of their lives in human-made tanks.

But this reality, and the touching motif of the film, contributed to people’s understanding of the importance of protecting wildlife and allowing animals to live in their natural habitats. For that, this film’s legacy is a positive one.

3) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) - Salem, Central Coast

Anyone who’s lived in or around Salem ought to know that this Oscar-winning film was largely shot at the Oregon State Hospital, an actual mental hospital that is still operational today and houses a Museum of Mental Health.

It’s white-topped brownstone architecture makes it one of the most iconic and historic buildings in Salem and the aesthetic is a perfect fit for this tragicomedy. Other scenes were filmed along the Central Oregon Coast and locals were featured as extras and even in scripted roles.

Those with a keen eye and film knowledge will know that Jack Nicholson, the star of Cuckoo’s Nest, also starred in another movie that was shot partially in Oregon: The Shining (1980). Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece had exteriors filmed at the Timberline Lodge and near Crater Lake National Park.

Based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey (a famous Oregonian himself), this movie has a lasting legacy as more than just a great film. In its portrayal of the sometimes inhumane practices of Western psychiatry of the era, this film and its source material were catalysts for bringing attention to a broken system and urging needed medical reform.

2) National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) - Eugene, Lane County

One of the most successful and iconic comedies of all time, Animal House’s Oregon legacy is well-known at this point.

Any University of Oregon alumnus is well indoctrinated with the myths and truths of this film’s production on campus in 1977. Extras were cast in the Erb Memorial Union, and rumors of legendary wrap parties and antics from rising star John Belushi are still the talk of the town to this day. Anyone who's attended an Oregon football game knows that the song, "Shout" by Otis Day & The Knights, which is featured in the film's iconic toga party scene, is still screamed by fans after the third quarter at Autzen Stadium.

The UO wasn’t Universal Studios’ first choice for the film, however, and an agreement to film there was only reached after several other universities in the country turned it down for fear of the social fallout of having their campuses depicted in such a raucous light. The culture of Eugene and the UO had fewer reservations, though the filming contract signed by UO President William Beaty Boyd did specify that the university couldn't be identified in any way.

The Eugene Half-way House, now destroyed and replaced with a commemorative plaque along the sidewalk, became the rundown and disreputable Delta fraternity in exterior shots. Actual fraternity and sorority houses on campus were also featured, both for interior shots and to portray the uppity Omega House.

While the film hasn’t aged well in many respects, due largely to its toxic depiction of what college life should be, its legacy and success are undeniable. Because of this, it easily nets the penultimate spot on our list.

1) The Goonies (1985) - Astoria, Cannon Beach

This is, by far, the most iconic film ever filmed in Oregon and it gets bonus points for being filmed here almost in its entirety despite requiring some elaborate set design.

While sound studios were inevitably constructed at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California, for some underground scenes, a great majority of The Goonies was shot in and around Astoria as well as at Cannon Beach’s picturesque Haystack Rock.

The film’s success and cult status has given Astoria a steady tourism industry and is perhaps largely responsible for the success of the Oregon Film Museum. That museum, located in the former county jail, not only houses production pieces from this movie (and others that appear on this list) but was also used as a set piece for the jailbreak scene in the film.

There’s a Goonies Day in town every year as a result, and the 20-year anniversary of this movie saw tens of thousands flood to the small coastal town from all over the world. There are dozens of websites online dedicated to road tripping through Oregon just to visit the iconic locations depicted in this film.

Rumors of a long-awaited sequel to this cult classic have been circulating for years now but no one knows if it will ever actually happen. If it does, prepare to see Astoria once again in the global spotlight!

Agree with our list? What other iconic Oregon films come to mind when you think of movies filmed here? Share your thoughts with us on social media and become a subscriber to Curbside Press for more content about Oregon art!

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