This week the cast and crew travel to Big Basin State Park to film what has come to be known (mistakenly) as the Muir Woods scene. The full account and the rest of the making of Vertigo story is available in the Kindle VERTIGO: THE MAKING OF A HITCHCOCK CLASSIC SPECIAL EDITION.
When cast and crew made the move from San Francisco to San Juan Bautista, the refined elegance of their Fairmont accommodations was abandoned for decidedly more humble surroundings. Hitchcock, James Stewart, Herbert Coleman, Doc Erickson, Robert Burks, and Peggy Robertson were all put up at Hitchcock’s home in Los Gatos, according to Erickson; Novak stayed in nearby Watsonville with the crew. Next on the agenda was the filming of the picture’s dreamlike redwood—forest sequences.
Vertigo aficionados have often assumed these were filmed at Muir Woods, close to San Francisco, especially since there is a reference to that location early on in the film’s development; the scenes have even become known collectively as “the Muir Woods sequence.” Muir Woods also features a dated redwood cross section as one of its exhibits, like the one used in the film. But the Vertigo sequence was filmed far away, in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The drive from Los Gatos or Watsonville to Big Basin is a long one: As the crow flies, Big Basin is thirty or forty miles away, but the twisting roads turn this into a two-hour drive.
Why did Hitchcock choose Big Basin over Muir Woods, which is much more convenient to San Francisco? Leonard South recalled that when Hitchcock first visited Big Basin “he loved it. He thought it was great. We didn’t care for it, though. We felt the light wasn’t as good as the Muir Woods—we had to bring in brutes [large studio lights] to make it work.” Herbert Coleman, on the other hand, remembers choosing Big Basin for the opposite reason: that the light was too poor in Muir Woods.
The Spaniards “discovered” the Big Basin redwood forest not long before building missions Dolores and San Juan Bautista. Located about twenty three miles northwest of Santa Cruz, the basin isn’t a true basin, but a slight depression in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The 2,500-acre area became California’s first state park in 1902, after a photographer’s interest in the trees began to call attention to the awesome landscape. The park now comprises more than sixteen thousand acres.
Sequoia sempervivens is the classic redwood that gives this forest its beauty, and its ancient splendor would of course have attracted Hitchcock. The stand of trees through which Novak and Stewart wander is more than a thousand years old. The Latin name and definition is prominent in all the literature connected with Big Basin; the film’s explicit reference suggests the same was true even in 1957.
No one at the park has any recollection of the Vertigo filming; nor does any park record remain of the two-day visit. The crew’s shooting days were shorter than usual-under five hours. On October fourteenth, most of the time was spent on the conversation just prior to the redwood cross-section scene. Judging from where the Jaguar is parked and where the redwood cut is positioned, the scenes were filmed on a trail known today as the Redwood Trail. The two-and-a-half-page sequence was completed in a number of setups, the most difficult one requiring seven takes; in the final cut of the film, only a page of this material remains.
Though Big Basin had (and still has today) a cross section like the one in the film, all of the dialogue surrounding the cross section itself was shot later on a soundstage, then integrated seamlessly with the location footage. The cast and crew returned to Big Basin early the next day to film Novak and Stewart walking through the trees—the shots seen just before Madeleine seems to disappear behind a large redwood.
The conversation itself, like almost all the other significant dialogue scenes at this location, was filmed back at Paramount. The location shoot ended at 2:48. The entourage packed it in for Los Angeles and Paramount Studios after filming sixteen days without a break. But there would be no rest for the weary: At eight o’clock the next morning, shooting commenced on Stage 5, to film the scene set in Gavin Elster’s office. Hitchcock, Stewart, and the crew faced three more days of shooting before their first weekend off.