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Top 10 films made in ‘Backlot Petaluma’

In creating this list of the most memorable films shot in Petaluma, a few major factors were in play, chief among them the obvious one: No movie is memorable unless you have seen it. In this case, the author limited his scope to films he’s personally viewed, and left out some potentially worthy, locally-made films that he’s not yet gotten around to seeing (sorry, “P.K. and the Kid”). Of course, tastes (and the dog-eat-dog complications of independent film distribution) being what they are, some of these films may not have been viewed by as many people as some of the titles that don’t appear here.

Of the numerous movies made in Petaluma over the last several decades, there have been many that nobody remembers and a choice few that no one will ever forget.

From its historic city streets to its bucolic country landscapes, Petaluma is one uniquely photogenic town. As Petaluma-based artist and sometime film producer Karen Hess pointed out while promoting “Pill Head,” the trippy 2019 science-fiction comedy she made locally with writer-director Daedalus Howell, “I love the way Petaluma looks on film. Part of the fun of making ’Pill Head’ was getting to showcase all the cool little details of this town — American Alley, the River, Hotel Petaluma, all of it.” Howell, in an Idea Lounge conversation presented locally in 2018 by the Petaluma Arts Center, delivered a talk titled, “On Location in Petaluma: When Your Hometown is Your Movie Back Lot.”

That suggestion, that local folks who grow up to become filmmakers, and sometimes stay or return to make their films in “Backlot Petaluma,“ is further born out by such home-grown movie artists as Mitchell Altieri, Phil Flores, Adam Weis and Ali Afshar, all of whom have gone on to write, direct and or produce movies, in Petaluma and beyond.

Afshar, in fact, is currently producing a film in Petaluma, using downtown film locations, as well as his own ranch on the east side.

“Petaluma is a great place to make movies,” he said last week, while overseeing production of a scene inside Hermann Sons Hall. “It’s Everytown USA. And with just a little creativity, it can become almost any kind of place you need it to be. If I could make every movie here, I would.”

With all of this in mind, we set out to produce a list of the 10 most memorable movies made in Petaluma, from low-budget indies made entirely on location to massive productions that filmed only a single sequence or scene within city limits. We have ranked them from least memorable to most, and offered explanations and descriptions where necessary. Some you will have heard of, but perhaps didn’t know were filmed here. Others, you will be learning about for the first time.

At least one is a certified American classic.

10. ‘A California Christmas’ (2020), ‘Phenomenon’ (1996), ‘Flubber’ (1997), ‘Tucker: The Man and His Dreams’ (1988), ‘Mumford’ (1999) and ‘Howard the Duck’ (1986).

Honestly, if space had allowed, we’d have come up with the 15 most memorable films made in Petaluma. And even that might not have been enough. So let’s give No. 10 to a combination of all of them. Last year’s Netflix hit “A California Christmas” is memorable for being the first major film production made anywhere in the U.S. during COVID-19, and for inspiring quarantining couples to make plans for a Northern California visit once the pandemic is over. John Travolta’s “Phenomenon,” where some scenes were filmed out in West Petaluma, is memorable for marking one of its star’s many comebacks. “Flubber” featured a wedding scene filmed at the historic old church at 16 5th St. “Tucker,” which brought Francis Ford Coppola back to town, filmed a memorable automotive reveal scene, featuring star Jeff Bridges, at the Petaluma Speedway, and “Mumford,” filmed all over the place for several weeks, employing hundreds of locals as extras, is memorable mainly for being fun to watch as it was being made, and for giving Alfre Woodard one of her best, most luminous roles to date. Then there’s “Howard the Duck,” in which producer George Lucas returned to Petaluma to shoot a scene in which an alien duck flies spectacularly over the downtown area and a police car drives into the Petaluma River. “Howard the Duck,” of course, is most memorable for being a movie that the majority of its viewers, with a few notable exceptions — including those lucky enough to be present when that outrageous river scene was shot — would prefer to forget.

9. ‘Inventing the Abbotts’ (1997)

Critics called “Inventing the Abbotts” one of the most boring films of the year, despite a memorably exciting cast that includes Liv Tyler, Billy Crudup, Joaquin Phoenix, Kathy Baker and Jennifer Connelly. During filming, the downtown area was transformed for several weeks to resemble a 1950s farm town, giving locals an extraordinary walking experience during days when filming was taking place inside somewhere. Though the film was directed by Pat O'Connor, it was produced by Ron Howard, for whom the days on set in Petaluma were something of a homecoming, nearly 25 years after making “American Graffiti” on these same streets.

8. ‘Pill Head’ (2019)

In creating this list of the most memorable films shot in Petaluma, a few major factors were in play, chief among them the obvious one: No movie is memorable unless you have seen it. In this case, the author limited his scope to films he’s personally viewed, and left out some potentially worthy, locally-made films that he’s not yet gotten around to seeing (sorry, “P.K. and the Kid”). Of course, tastes (and the dog-eat-dog complications of independent film distribution) being what they are, some of these films may not have been viewed by as many people as some of the titles that don’t appear here.

Possibly the most bizarre film ever made in Petaluma, Daedalus Howell’s “Pill Head,” filmed in black-and-white with an aesthetic the director calls “Artsploitation,” is a science-fiction oddity involving an addicted party girl who submits to an experimental drug treatment that leaves her with psychic abilities. Or has she just lost her mind? Elements of time travel and secret societies are part of the fun.

7. ‘Cujo’ (1983)

The hit horror film from Stephen King, about a rabid dog terrorizing a woman and her son at the ranch of an auto mechanic, was directed by Lewis Teague (“Jewel of the Nile”). He filmed large portions of the drama at Scott Ranch Hills on Corona Road in Petaluma, where Cujo himself was played by a total of four St. Bernards, and number of robotic canines, and reportedly, a black Labrador/Great Dane wearing a St. Bernard costume. The scenes of actor Dee Wallace and her son trapped in their disabled Ford Pinto are among the most terrifyingly claustrophobic sequences ever put on film, with or without Ford Pintos or rabid St. Bernards.

6. ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ (1986)

Francis Ford Coppola’s time-twisting fantasy includes a number of scenes filmed in Petaluma, including the house at 226 Liberty, where Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) lived, and the former Millie’s Chili at 600 Petaluma Blvd., remade into The Donut Hole Cafe. Though the film was a hit — despite a strange performance by co-star Nicolas Cage, who insisted on speaking in a voice inspired by Gumby’s pony pal Pokey — today it is perhaps best remembered as the film over which Cage later sued Turner for claiming publicly that he stole someone’s chihuahua while making the movie.

5. ‘American Wrestler: The Wizard’ (2016)

Not only did Ali Afshar produce this effective sports film, and not only does he appear in the movie as an Iranian car mechanic and wrestling coach, the story was based on Afshar’s own memories of growing up in Petaluma, where he excelled as a wrestler, and was dubbed “The Wizard” by none other than Argus-Courier sports editor Johnie Jackson. Directed by Alex Ranarivelo and featuring performances by George Kosturos, William Fichtner and Jon Voight, there are scenes filmed all over town, including one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, in which the young hero’s fate takes a turn. We don’t want to spoil it, but Afshar’s performance is a big part of why the moment is so powerful, and it’s something viewers won’t soon shake off or forget.

4. ‘Basic Instinct’ (1992)

Paul Verhoeven’s erotic thriller contains one of the most memorable scenes of all time — the iconic interrogation of suspected killer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). But the scene that was filmed in Petaluma is a meeting between Tramell and Hazel Dobkins, a notorious murderer who supposedly lives in Mill Valley, was filmed across the street from St. Vincent’s Church, inside and outside the small house at 26 Liberty St. The looming towers of the church give the scene an eerily Hitchcockian vibe.

3. ‘The Hamiltons’ (2005)

It’s difficult to describe what is so memorable about this gory independent horror film directed by The Butcher Brothers (Petaluma’s Mitchell Altieri and Phil Flores), and co-written by Petaluma’s Adam Weis, without spoiling the shock of the big reveal. Suffice it to say that the locally-made movie features loads of recognizable Petaluma scenery, and is about a teenager who comes to suspect his siblings are serial killers. The film is now considered a cult masterpiece, and has been adapted into a stage play. Altieri has directed several similarly bloody horror films since, and is about to begin work on a new movie in New York City.

2. ‘Heroes’ (1977)

The story of a Vietnam vet with extreme PTSD and dreams of starting a worm farm, “Heroes” was filmed around the Bay Area, with key locations including Petaluma Boulevard, where Henry Winkler memorably ran down the street as bombs explode, having a full Vietnam flashback. In the original theatrical release, Winkler’s big freakout is accompanied on the soundtrack by the Kansas song “Carry On My Wayward Son,” adding memorably to the emotional power of the scene. Unfortunately, the studio had not obtained the proper rights to the tune, so when it was released on video, the Kansas song was gone, replaced by another, which frankly nobody can remember. A major stock car race scene in the film — featuring Harrison Ford once again associated with racing in Petaluma — was shot at the Speedway at the Fairgrounds. Directed by Jeremy Kagan (“The Big Fix”), the movie drew stunningly negative reviews from critics, but made back 10 times its shooting budget at the box office. It also earned a Golden Globe nomination for Winkler for best actor.

1. ‘American Graffiti’ (1973)

“Where were you in ‘62?” was the memorable tagline for the film that jump-started several careers. Directed by George Lucas, starring Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Harrison Ford and Wolfman Jack, huge portions of “American Grafitti” were shot in Petaluma in the summer of 1972. Numerous car cruising scenes were filmed along Petaluma Boulevard. Gilardi's Baitshop on Bodega Avenue was the stand-in for the liquor store where Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark score some alcohol and witness a robbery. The unpaved parking lot next to McNear’s was transformed into the used car lot where Dreyfus and the Pharaohs pull a memorably destructive axle-removing practical joke on a police squad car. And the climactic road race was filmed on Old Adobe Road and Frates Road. The film was a blockbuster, an instant influence on a culture eager for nostalgia, leading to a whole slate of ‘50s and ‘60s-themed projects, including the hit TV show “Happy Days,” starring “American Graffiti” alum Ron Howard, and by notable coincidence, Henry Winkler.

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