Laura Palmer to Portlandia: TV and Film in the Pacific Northwest

An opening shot from the hit TV series "Twin Peaks." Photo courtesy of ABC.

GLOOMY, INCESSANT rain produces an evergreen backdrop and quirky culture throughout the Pacific Northwest, much to the delight of film and television show creators. In the 1980s, Hollywood began heavily investing in productions filmed or set in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) with classics such as “The Goonies” before, in the 1990s, developing shows like “Northern Exposure” and “Twin Peaks” as well as the romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle.” The success of these projects turned Oregon and Washington into hotbeds for film production, a lucrative trend that continues to provide considerable economic reward for the region.

Though the climate requires resilience, the PNW offers a unique setting for filmmakers hoping to shoot rugged coastlines, temperate rainforests and snow-capped peaks without significant travel expenses. Within this extraordinary landscape lies several major metropolitan areas boasting Fortune 500 corporations, architectural triumphs and safe havens for the peculiar and unconventional. “Northern Exposure,” while set in fictional Cicely, Alaska, featured the precipitous Cascade Mountains by filming in Roslyn, Washington. Others shows like “Frasier” and “Grey’s Anatomy” highlight white-collar commerce in PNW cities.

While perpetual rainshowers may keep locals cynical and dark, the film industry enjoys spotlighting the PNW as a hub for crime and psychopathy. Creators certainly notice PNW is home to a bizarrely high number of serial killers, including Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer. The television series “Bates Motel” follows handsome young Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) through his spells of murderous dissociation in fictional White Pine Bay, Oregon. “Twin Peaks” investigates the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) while filming in the Washington towns of Snoqualmie,  North Bend and Fall City, effectively utilizing the mysterious PNW ambience that creators enjoy featuring. Viewers can track the probes of detectives Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) in “The Killing,” a particularly dark crime show set in Seattle. “The Twilight Saga” film series, adapted from the books of the same name, combined the supernatural with the PNW’s peculiar environment, filming primarily in Forks, Washington and Portland.

Of course, no analysis of the Pacific Northwest film industry would be complete without mentioning “Portlandia,” the Peabody Award-winning sketch comedy series starring creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. The dream of the ’90s may not actually be alive in Portland, but “Portlandia” perfectly satirizes the ridiculous aspects of this city we love and hate. The Pacific Northwest righteously defends its title as home to any and all counterculture, much to the disgust of traditionalists. Perhaps that is why show creator Justin Roiland decided to base “Rick and Morty” in the suburbs of Seattle, an ideal location for the Smith family’s shenanigans.

Legislators in the PNW eagerly provide incentive packages to filmmakers in hopes of supporting a permanent PNW film industry. Elected officials recognize the important role film and television could play in the region’s economic development and advertise to attract a range of production projects. Oregon, in particular, invests heavily in projects exclusively aimed at promoting the regional film industry, which results in near-annual revenue records being broken. Washington, on the other hand, has failed in recent years to wholeheartedly support production by reducing industry incentives, pushing film projects to Oregon and British Columbia. Despite Washingtonian reservations, however, filmmakers continue flocking to the Pacific Northwest.

Detectives and killers, physicians and patients, a gaggle of adventurous Goonies and two beloved feminist bookstore owners comfortably call the PNW their imaginary home. Somehow, the PNW has found its way into the minds of creators, resulting in now-regular productions emphasizing the strange and cryptic yet curiously attractive nature of Oregon and Washington. The profitable Pacific Northwest film industry already produced plenty of memorable personalities and it is reasonable to assume other colorful characters are already in production.

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