On Location: The Conversation


Welcome to "On Location," a micro-feature taking you to little-known cinematic locations of SF and taking a look at the films shot in the city by the bay over the years.

It seems unnecessary to summarize a film as brilliant (and as lauded) as The Conversation, but for the benefit of those who haven't seen it, here's the story in a nutshell: Gene Hackman is Harry Caul, an isolationist freelance surveillance expert who operates out of San Francisco. He receives an assignment to create a sound recording of a couple for a wealthy client. When the conversation hints that someone may be hurt, guilt from the outcome of a previous job drives him to withhold the tape and insert himself into the situation at his peril. It's a film about being trapped by your own world, by your own rules. In a city that can seem likewise static The Conversation is damning evidence of how much the cityscape has changed over the last few years, and continues to change.

The film's first scene, and its most famous, takes place in Union Square at "twelve noon" as Harry's buddy Fredo… er Stan (John Cazale) puts it. Buzzing with vibrant sights, sounds and one very persistent mime, it's hard to reconcile the lively vibrations of the square with the sedate, logo-driven tourist trap it has become. Across the square, the Westin St. Francis fares better. It underwent a comprehensive restoration in 2008 and the difference shows. Its counterpart in the film looks artless and sedate, and clearly has a bit of an issue with security judging by the ease with which Hackman picks his neighbors' lock.

Considering the fact that Coppola counts among his family some of our city's greatest artistic champions, including San Francisco State University Dean of Creative Arts and Tactile Dome founder August Coppola, The Conversation presents a parsimonious picture of San Francisco–shrouded by mist, viewed only at remove from the windows of downtown office buildings, obscured by the MUNI at night–no wait… I guess that's just how most of us see the city, isn't it? Despite the visibility, The Conversation is San Francisco to the bone. Even Caul's sound-tech batcave is situated on Kansas Street, where design centers and showrooms now flourish. The aforementioned foggy dream sequence will seem to most to be in Alamo Square Park, which does appear as it must by contract in all SF films, but actually takes place in the slightly less populated Alta Plaza Park (serious Wedding Photo tip!), only a few blocks north in Pacific Heights.

Back downtown, a very young, very wide-lapeled Harrison Ford applies a touch of corporate menace to Hackman's paranoia in One Maritime Plaza, or the Alcoa Building as most locals know it. One of the first buildings in the city to receive (still distinctive) external seismic bracing, Alcoa features heavily in the film, likely for its astounding, alienating views of downtown from above. If you're downtown and need to grab a few minutes of peace, it also conceals an exquisite roof garden behind a few baffles and over a few bridges. It's open to the public during the day, but it's probably best if you keep it to yourself.