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)