‘Social Network’ taps other campuses for Harvard role

Sarah Thomas
Boston Globe (for Boston.com)
September 24, 2010

With its impeccable pedigree and movie-star good looks, Harvard is cinematic shorthand for academic excellence. But most of the movies that say they take place at Harvard — including “The Social Network” — don’t.

Since 1970, Harvard has had a policy of not allowing film crews on its campus, and filmmakers have had to find clever strategies to depict the Ivy League school.

“People who ask to use the Harvard name/logo in TV shows or films are asked to send the request to the offices of the Harvard Trademark Program,” said Kevin Galvin, Harvard’s director of news and media relations. “We have a long-standing policy of not permitting commercial filming because it would be disruptive to campus life.”

The most recent production to be blocked from Harvard Yard is ’’The Social Network,’’ a David Fincher film about the founding of Facebook, which will reach theaters Oct. 1. Locations at Milton Academy, Wheelock College, and Phillips Academy in Andover were used to portray Harvard in the film, according to officials from those schools.

‘‘It was a bit of a nervous moment for administrators,’’ said Stephen Porter, public information director at Phillips. Porter said ‘‘The Social Network’’ was one of two movies to use the school as a set recently (the other was ‘‘The Invention of Lying’’ in 2009). ‘‘But everything turned out well. There was a presentation for the students by director David Fincher, and they were very excited to have the film crew around.”

Other productions have tried to evoke the Crimson’s campus using locations ranging from California to Canada, according to the Massachusetts Film Office, the Internet Movie Database, and the book ‘‘Big Screen Boston: From Mystery Street to the Departed and Beyond’’ by Paul Sherman.

The 2001 comedy ‘‘Legally Blonde’’ filmed many of its Harvard scenes at USC, trucking in realistic-looking fall leaves to simulate the East Coast. Still others, like the 1993 thriller ‘‘The Firm’’ or 2001 drama ‘‘Harvard Man,’’ have filmed Harvard from locations off-campus, gaining an air of authenticity to lend credence to interior shots done on soundstages.

A few productions have even managed to capture footage on Harvard’s grounds.

The 1979 political coming-of-age drama ‘‘A Small Circle of Friends’’ filmed on campus for a week, before the antiwar protest signs used as props in the film sparked complaints from professors. According to Hollywood lore, director Rob Cohen, a Harvard graduate, found ways to sneak crews back on campus for later scenes, though additional material was also shot on Bridgewater State College’s campus, as well as at Tufts and Wellesley.

The 1984 film ‘‘The Bostonians,’’ a Merchant Ivory adaptation of the Henry James novel, only used period buildings as its sets, including Boston’s Gibson House and Harvard Memorial Hall. And ’’The Great Debaters,’’ a rousing tale of a segregated debate team taking on Harvard University in the 1930s, filmed its climactic scene in Sanders Theater.

“The filming of ‘‘The Great Debaters’’ was not really an exception,” Galvin said. ‘‘Sanders Theater is operated as a performance space and frequently rented out for concerts, presentations and other events.”

Nick Paleologos, executive director of the Massachusetts Film Office, said there are six to 10 dedicated location scouts with pictures of Harvard stand-ins in Massachusetts at any given time, and that his office does its best to help filmmakers find ways to achieve that Harvard atmosphere.

“Our goal is to put filmmakers in touch with officials we know have a film-friendly outlook. Filmmakers don’t have time to waste trying to convince a school that has a well-known policy against films on campus,” Paleologos said. “We will point them in the direction of schools that have been used to depict Harvard in the past, send them pictures, and let them come out and kick the tires to get a feel of the locations.”

The Massachusetts Film Office, which was started in 1979, has facilitated dozens of productions in the Bay State — most of which are documented in a book Paleologos says he hands out gratis to filmmakers considering a trip east. That book is ‘‘Big Screen Boston: From Mystery Street to the Departed and Beyond’’ by Sherman, a former president of the Boston Film Critics Association who now, coincidentally, works at Harvard.

“In the grammar of film, Harvard has come to mean both tradition, and a certain amount of stuffiness,” Sherman said. “Someone from Missouri who has never lived in Boston may not be able to tell the difference between a portrayal of Harvard using a school in Southern California or a soundstage, but they can get this idea that it’s all trust fund babies and ivy-covered walls. I didn’t work at Harvard when I wrote the book, but I do now, and I can tell you that the mythology doesn’t match the reality.”

Click here to see where those Harvard movies actually filmed.

Sarah Thomas can be reached at sarah.m.thomas@gmail.com.

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