From The Batman to Morbius, The Flash to The Crown, a growing number of large-scale films and high-end television productions are using the United Kingdom to double the United States.
High above the gleaming towers of a sprawling city, a hooded crusader watches the bustling streets below. A scientist struggles to contain the burgeoning bloodshed amid yellow taxis and sausage stalls. Desperate citizens escape from the invading zombie hordes and across a large plaza on the state side. These iconic moments—in The Batman, Morbius, and World War Z respectively—might appear in the familiar American cityscapes of Gotham, New York, and Philadelphia, but they were filmed in Liverpool, Manchester, and Glasgow.
The UK is one of the world’s most popular filming locations thanks to competitive financial incentives, facilities, infrastructure and crews, but now productions are discovering another benefit – their escalating ability to double as other global locations, including parts of the United States.
“It’s always a pleasant surprise for productions that they don’t necessarily have to go to the US to shoot the US,” says Samantha Berahia, head of production for the British Film Commission (BFC) in the UK. She notes that locations in northern England and Scotland became particularly popular for New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco.
“The movie-friendly nature of these cities is also a major attraction,” Berahia continues. “It’s a manageable environment and they’ve been a clear success. Local councils and film officials can demonstrate value and efficiency. We’ve always had such confidence in areas like Liverpool and Manchester. At Morbius, we paid to explore the site there because we knew they could provide what the production needed.”
Manchester or Manhattan?
In the case of Morbius, the Marvel/Sony production has transformed Manchester into contemporary New York. The city also doubled as New York for The Crown season four (Left Bank Pictures for Netflix), Little Birds (Warp Film for Sky) and Das Boot Season Two (Bavaria Fiction for Sky), all with productions needing to recreate different eras. Before the pandemic, Cardiff also doubled for New York in Paramount Pictures’ Mark Wahlberg Infinity Motion Vehicle, with a chase shot in and around the Mercure Cardiff Holland House & Spa.
Morbius doubles Manchester United for New York, Credit: Paul Wishart / Shutterstock
“At the end of March 2019, we facilitated Morbius to transform the Northern Quarter district of the city into modern New York,” said Bobby Cochrane, Director of the Office of Film at Screen Manchester. “The following week, we had the crew at Das Boot dressed in the same street clothes as New York in the 1940s. Getting two major productions in a row was a massive logistical challenge in terms of permissions, street clothing, work and contact with residents, but we were able to highlight how viable the city is. to adapt and absorb it.
Adaptability, accommodation and competence are at the top of the list of requirements for any production looking to transform the UK into the US. Visual similarity to US sites – or the chance of it being implemented – is also critical, says UK-based site manager Peter Bardsley.
Bardsley who has worked on Netflix’s The Old Guard and Warner’s The Batman, Fantastic Beasts notes “A number of UK cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, have wide streets, elements of network systems, banking quarters, former docks and brick warehouses.” and Where To Find Them and the upcoming The Flash, all of which used areas of Scotland, Liverpool, London and the Southeast to double the United States.
“We like to leave as little transformation needed as possible, apart from the specific decoration and visual effect work,” continues Bardsley at The Art of Finding Exactly the Right Location. He points to the abundance of American-style municipal buildings, such as St George’s Hall in Liverpool, Manchester Town Hall (currently under renovation) and Buxton Town Hall, along with Hylands House in Essex, which he describes as the “dead contest” of the White House. “It’s amazing what the right signs, traffic lights, water taps and number plates can do.
Depiction of Batman in St. George’s Hall. Credit: John Super/AP/Shutterstock
“It’s also worth noting how site exploration work can inspire the design of a set in the studio,” he adds. “For example, Batman drew inspiration from the foot of the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle for exterior designs to the beautiful interior of Manchester Central Library Wayne Tower.”
A tale of several cities
It’s not just individual buildings that can pass to America, but entire cities. Glasgow, for example, attracts a large number of producers looking to re-establish the United States. These included World War Z in Paramount, in which the city doubled as Philadelphia. cloud atlas for Warner Bros., like the 1970s in San Francisco; Showtime’s small screen drama Patrick Melrose, which saw her shift to New York; and The Flash, standing once again in Gotham City.
“We have completed the chain of command in Glasgow for The Flash, controlling more space than ever before,” Bardsley notes. “It was challenging, but thanks to the collaboration between us, the Glasgow Film Office and Glasgow City Council, we have achieved something amazing.”
Filming of The Flash on St Vincent Street in Glasgow. Credit: Duncan McGlynn / Shutterstock
For Jennifer Reynolds, Commissioner of Film at the Glasgow Film Bureau, the city has a unique allure. “The architecture is very similar to a number of cities in the eastern United States, with grand Victorian civic buildings, plazas and the modern financial district. But our biggest selling point must be the grid system in which our streets are designed. It offers long, straight paths and regularly placed intersections which It proved very popular in stunts.”
With Glasgow hosting everything from high-octane car chases to intruding zombies, Reynolds says the city is developing a reputation for being adaptable and collaborative. “We’ve heard from site managers that they are amazed at the footprint they can secure here. We ask products about their wish list of locations and what they want to achieve, and from there evolve a set of standards they can work on – especially streets or intersections during a specific set of dates. So far, I’ve been able to The city is more than willing to say yes to almost all requests.”
Manchester’s Cochrane, who says his city is “investing heavily in infrastructure,” including stages at Space Studios Manchester and digital and creative hub The Sharp Project, as well as developing a local talent base, agrees: “Versatility is key.” “Our freelance staff is experienced and constantly evolving to meet the evolving requirements of broadcasters and broadcasters.”
This availability of skilled local talent is just as important as the abundance of American-style locations when it comes to persuading production to stay in the UK, rather than set out across the Atlantic, says BFC’s Berahia. “There is still a perception that if you are setting up a project somewhere outside London you will have to bring your crew. But you can get your crew from the UK regions. So, you can’t just build your show or project outside of, say, Space Studios in Manchester. Or The Depot in Liverpool, just go 20 minutes down the road to find a location that can double as New York City.
“This is a very good selling point for any country, especially a relatively small country like the UK.”
This feature appears in the new version of World of Locations.
Main image: Morbius doubles Manchester for New York Credit: Paul Wishart / Shutterstock