Mountains, Deserts, and Robots: How Utah Plays Host to HBO’s Westworld
The second season of Westworld is well underway, but Evan Rachel Wood and her fellow cast members aren’t the only stars that are dazzling viewers week after week. The majestic backdrops on the show— red rock valleys, canyons, mountains, sand dunes, and Lake Powell—are playing a supporting yet pivotal role in setting the scene. While much of the production is filmed on a soundstage in Southern California, the show’s exteriors are filmed in Utah. "It's easy to think shows can just recreate [backdrops] to the green screen, but I know the cast and crew talk about how inspiring it is to be on the actual landscape, and not having to imagine being in the west, but to be able to stand in a field and look at the mountains in front of you," said Virginia Pearce, Utah Film Commission Director.
Utah has a long history hosting film crews, and is home to the classic hit and Pearce's personal favorite, Thelma and Louise. Since her four-year tenure at the film commission, Pearce has seen four films go to the Sundance Festival, drawing the attention of many filmmakers and production crews. Pearce, who came from the Sundance Institute, told NCTA that TV productions like Westworld, Disney's Andi Mack, and Paramount's Yellowstone have had quite the impact on Utah. "We love having television of that caliber both because of the reputational benefits it gives us and the economic impact. They are here longer, and they hire more people,” said Pearce.
The Westworld crew only shot in Utah for about a month for both the first and second seasons, but the production still brought in $1 million to the state for season one alone. "The rural communities where they have shot have really enjoyed having them there. It's a huge boost for a small, rural part of Utah to have a big production like this come in," said Pearce. Pearce explained that many factors led to HBO and the Westworld crew deciding to shoot in Utah, like the incentive and the resources the state can offer, but the landscape was one of the biggest draws. Westworld co-creator Jonathan Nolan has openly stated that he felt strongly the show needed to "feel Western," making Utah the perfect state to bring the show to life. "It's been great for tourism. There's been so much media attention about the gorgeousness of the landscapes. The landscape has become a character in the show," said Pearce.
Andi Mack has also been a boost to the state, and in a different way, added Pearce. Andi Mack shoots in a small community called Magna right outside of Salt Lake City. Filming usually takes 9-10 months out of the year, and the majority of the production crew are local to Utah, ranging from heads of departments to production assistants. "It's been a great talent pipeline for us to get new people working on a set," said Pearce. The production also helped to revitalize the town by painting the exteriors of the businesses on the main street. "Magna has really enjoyed having them there."
In addition to the landscapes, the soundstages, the talent and the resources that the state provides, Utah offers a competitive tax incentive program up to 25 percent of tax credit back to films, which Pearce said has been a consistent influence on productions coming to Utah. The state also spends a lot of time on education and training, from helping film students at local universities take advantage of productions filming in state, to getting their rural communities up to speed with the kind of resources they need to attract productions.
Moreover, the state's proximity to Los Angeles makes Utah all the more enticing to filmmakers. "Producers can shoot here and get back to LA at the end of the day. It's easy to get crews in and out of here, to get around. It's easy to do business here. Your money can stretch a little bit further," said Pearce.
But attracting quality TV and films all boils down to the unique and unbeatable locations that the state offers. The western landscape. The mountains. The small towns. The mid-sized cities. "Utah fits all of that," said Pearce.
Header Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO