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On Location: 5 Great Movies Filmed in Baja

On Location: 5 Great Movies Filmed in Baja

In honor of the recent awards ceremony at the Los Cabos International Film Festival–the 5th annual edition of which wrapped up last week in Cabo San Lucas–we’ve compiled our own list of the most memorable movies ever shot on location in Baja California and Baja California Sur.

Some of these films celebrate the peninsula’s cultural heritage and picturesque vistas, while others utilize it as an economically advantageous stand-in for diverse international settings. So successful was Fox Baja Studios in building enormous tanks in which to shoot ocean scenes in the blockbuster Titanic, for example, that the facility became the go-to spot for filming nautical adventures, from Pearl Harbor and Deep Blue Sea to Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and the James Bond thriller Tomorrow Never Dies.

What each of our selections have in common is a commitment to quality. All five of the feature films we chose have won prestigious awards, and Dust to Glory was nominated for one for best documentary trailer (you’ll see why below).

Rosarito Beach – Titanic (1997)


Although noticeably short on icebergs, Rosarito Beach turned out to be the perfect place to film one of most famous movies ever made, a love story set against the backdrop of an historic maritime disaster. Titanic starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and was directed by James Cameron, whose film Avatar eventually surpassed his earlier classic as the highest grossing film of all-time (although Titanic will forever hold the Oscar lead, having won 11 to Avatar’s nine.)

Cameron and 20th Century Fox decided to build a satellite studio in Baja for two primary reasons: it was conveniently close to Hollywood, and it offered a chance to save money in what was already a massive budget. Thus, Fox Studios Baja was built on 46-acres just south of Rosarito Beach, with enormous filming tanks set against a backdrop of over 3,000 feet of oceanfront land. The tanks and their proximity to the Pacific Ocean provided the illusion of a ship sailing on a seemingly limitless horizon, and added a degree of verisimilitude that drew many other films to the facility in subsequent years.

Even after filming ended, Titanic continued to exercise a profound fascination for both locals and visitors. A Titanic museum and theme park was open for many years, and the spirit of Jack and Rose now lives on at the recently launched Parque Submarino Rosarito, an underwater park and artificial reef whose attractions include “wreckage” from the ill-fated ocean liner.

Cabo San Lucas – Troy (2004)


Where else would one film the most famous conflict ever–the 10-year Trojan War, fought over 3,000 years ago in what is modern day Turkey after a Trojan prince named Paris wooed the ravishing Helen from her Greek husband Menelaus–than on the glorious golden sand beaches of Cabo San Lucas?

The big-budget sword and sandals epic starred Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger and Orlando Bloom, and was shot on the Pacific Coast just north of the Land’s End city, near what are now Pueblo Bonito Pacifica and Sunset Beach Resorts, and the Quivira Golf Club.

Just as the original war dragged on far longer than anyone anticipated, so too did the shooting schedule. It was a case of art mirroring life. Initially budgeted at $150 million, costs for Troy spiraled after a hurricane destroyed sets for the ancient city, which then had to be rebuilt.

The opening fight scene featuring Pitt as legendary warrior Achilles was shot in an arroyo near the bullring, and in its epic grandeur narrowly edges Adam Sandler grilling nude on Médano Beach in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.

Troy won an ASCAP award, and was nominated for an Oscar; one more, as it turned out, than Sandler’s 2008 work.

Tijuana – Babel (2006)


Babel’s complex script features interlocking stories and characters in diverse locations that range from Morocco and Japan to the U.S. and México. When a mother is shot in Morocco, for example, her nanny Amelia, fearful of missing her son’s wedding, takes her two charges across the border without permission.

Filmed on locations in both Tecate and Tijuana, Babel offers both a captivating look at traditional Baja culture, and the terrors of living on La Frontera. When their driver gets drunk and abandons them after the wedding, Amelia and the kids are stranded in the desert without food and water. A nightmarish series of further complications then ensues.

This multi-narrative drama, crafted by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Birdman, The Revenant), garnered the Mexican filmmaker a Palme d’Or for Best Director at Cannes, and later led to seven Academy Award nominations. It won for Best Score, with many songs from Tijuana groups like Los Tucanes and Los Incomparables.

La Paz – Desierto (2016)


Actor Gael García Bernal took up residence in Baja Sur’s capital city for several months while filming this recently released thriller about a racist vigilante that hunts unarmed Mexican immigrants trying to cross the U.S. border. Shot almost entirely on location in the municipality of La Paz–including in small communities like San Juan de la Costa and Los Tamales–the region’s striking and savage desert terrain adds yet another element of suspense to the life-or-death drama.

Desierto was directed by Jonás Cuarón, son of famed Oscar winning Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, Gravity), who acted as a co-producer on the film. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, given its illustrious pedigree, Desierto won the International Critics’ Prize at the Toronto Film Festival.

Documentary Category – Dust to Glory (2005)


Over its 49 year history, the Baja 1000 has drawn a who’s who of professional racers and celebrities (including movie stars Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and James Garner), lured by the challenge of pitting themselves against a harsh and unforgiving land.

Best known for his surfing films, director Dana Brown went all out in Dust to Glory, employing over eighty crew, fifty-five cameras, four helicopters and a dune buggy camera car to document the sights and sounds of the infamous race, an annual off-road adventure in which the lives of both drivers and spectators are sometimes lost.  The live footage was largely gathered during the 2003 event, on a looping course that started and finished in Ensenada.

The results are magnificent. No filmmaker has ever captured the beauty, excitement and danger of Baja’s rugged terrain quite like Brown; and his interviews with legendary drivers like Mario Andretti, Robby Gordon and Mike “Mouse” McCoy offer unique insight into the peninsula’s signature sporting attraction.                                                                                    

Bonus Category – Land’s End (1995 – 1996)


Okay, enough of the high quality films.

Did you ever wonder what Magnum P.I. would be like if instead of Hawaii, the series was shot on location in Cabo San Lucas?

It probably would have looked a lot like Land’s End, a short-lived (22 episodes) crime drama that aired during the 1995 – 1996 season. The series starred Fred Dryer, a former NFL defensive end for the Los Angeles Rams who transitioned to acting in the 1980s, most notably in the hit show Hunter.

In Land’s End, Hunter played the aptly named Mike Land, a disillusioned former LAPD detective who, after moving to Los Cabos, becomes part of a private detective team, working with his friends Willis P. Dunleevy (character actor nonpareil Geoffrey Lewis in a signature role) and Dave “Thunder” Thorton (played by the gloriously mustachioed Tim Thomerson). Land lives at the fictional Westin Regina Resort, where he also acts as head of security.

Sadly, episodes of Land’s End are now hard to find–yes, even classics like “Day of the Dead,” “El Perico” and “Dr. Amore”–but the theme song and introductory montage will live forever.
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About Chris Sands

Chris Sands is the author of Bohemia by the Bay, and writes about wine, golf, and travel for publications such as, Los Cabos Guide, Los Cabos Magazine, 10 Best, and USA Today. He is a full-time resident of Cabo San Lucas.

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