Based on the non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by journalist Martin Sixsmith, Philomena is a film directed by Stephen Frears starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope). Philomena centers around a mother's search - with Sixsmith's help - for her son who was taken away from her almost 50 years ago without her consent.
Accolades aplenty, Philomena was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress for Judi Dench, Best Adapted Screenplay for Coogan and Pope, and Best Original Score for Alexander Desplat at the 86th Academy Awards. It was also nominated for four BAFTA Awards and three Golden Globes.
Filmed in beautiful Northern Ireland, England, Maryland, and iconic Washington, D.C., Philomena is not just an award-caliber film, but also a visual feast. Let's now visit the 12 gorgeous - and some even mysterious - film locations of Philomena.
1. PETER OLSSON'S HOUSE
For the Maryland shoot, most of the scouting responsibilities fell into the hands of location scout Carol Flaisher. Her mission was to find a home with a nice long driveway in a rural area of Maryland. And should the house come with a few horses too, that would be even better. Ms. Flaisher patiently drove around Montgomery County until she spotted Bill and Diana Conway’s colonial farmhouse on River Road in Potomac, one of Maryland's most affluent towns.
The Conways' house was originally built in 1820 by Thomas Levi Offutt. Captain John McDonald, a Civil War veteran and state legislator, later bought the house. (He also helped change the town's name from Offutt’s Crossroads to Potomac.) In 1873, the house was burned down in a fire and Captain MacDonald built a brand new house on the original foundation. From 1949 to 1972 the house belonged to Newbold Noyes, editor of the Evening Star. The Conways' house has had many names over the years. One of its most interesting names is "Trespassers W" (a Winnie The Pooh reference). With such history, no wonder there are rumors that "Trespassers W" may even be haunted.
Flaisher is good at her job. It didn’t take long before she convinced the Conways to let the production film at their house. As a matter of fact, the Conways were thrilled to have their home be a film location for a Judi Dench movie. Flaisher has been a location scout in the Washington D.C. area for over 30 years. Philomena is the latest in a long list of productions she’s worked on. Her portfolio includes White House Down, Body of Lies, True Lies, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Wedding Crashers (Eastern Shore).
“Once they find out what it is, very few people say no,” Flaisher said. “Because it’s fun! It’s different. It’s something to talk about.”
Most of us often wonders what happens to a location once it's chosen for filming. For starters, the rooms where the filming takes place usually get an entirely different face. New furniture comes in, existing furniture temporarily takes a vacation. The walls sport new colors and new drapes grace the windows.
All these changes shouldn’t make the owners worried however. The crew carefully snaps photos of the rooms before the swap and takes great care to put everything back the way it was after the production wraps. Producers are very serious about honoring their contracts. Clauses about restoring the properties used for filming back to the way they were before are always included in the contract.
For the Philomena film set, the crew turned the Conways’ home into the house of Peter Olsson, the lover of Philomena Lee’s son. “You have no idea you’re 30 feet from River Road and the state highway with all these cars and trucks whizzing by,” Diana Conway describes the first scene in which Dench and Coogan drive up to the house. “I don’t know how they did that, but they made you feel like you’re just coming around this little country barn.”
Filming also took place in the Conways’ vegetable garden. In a few scenes, the audience can even see their dog Athena running around. And yes! The Conways also met Judi Dench and director Stephen Frears. As a token of gratitude, the production gave the Conways' Potomac house a fresh coat of new paint after filming is over.
2. ST. ANTHONY'S CATHOLIC CHURCH
Another Maryland location featured in Philomena is the historical St. Paul’s Community Church on Sugarland Road in Poolesville. Steve Coogan mentions in the movie's commentary that this was also the first church to perform a mixed race marriage in America in 1966. Coogan also shares that there's a secret passage way to escape the "KKK" beneath the church.
For the movie, the crew transformed the historically Protestant St. Paul’s church into the very Catholic St. Anthony’s Church. They built confessional boxes inside the church, repaired the church’s bells, and even brought in a font for holy water which ends up playing an important role in the movie.
For a scene that lasts just a few minutes on screen, the BBC production spent two days filming at St. Paul's. When she first heard a film production wanted to use the church in a movie, Caroline Taylor, the consultant coordinating filming logistics between the church and the film producers, thought it was a local cable company. Since the church has a rich history as the center of a freed slave community whose descendants still live nearby, it would make an interesting topic for a documentary.
“To walk into the church knowing what it was [before] … and seeing the transformation of the church, it was absolutely beautiful,” said Gwen Hebron Reese, trustee of St. Paul’s and an extra in Philomena.
3. THE LINCOLN MEMORIAL
Countless of movies and television shows have been filmed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. It's one of the most iconic locations in the world and the main reason why the Philomena production made its trek to Washington. The Philomena script specifically calls for a scene at the Lincoln Memorial. Even when faced with the threat of Hurricane Sandy, the production still didn't give up its mission of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to film at this historically-significant location.
The rules and regulations for filming at the D.C. Monuments are strict. The production couldn't use any lighting other than the ambient lighting of the Lincoln Monument itself. They also couldn't block the Monument off from tourists and visitors during filming so most of the filming there was done late at night.
“You can’t have more than five people in chamber, including your crew," said producer Tracey Seaward in the film's Production Notes. "And you’re not supposed to record sound in the chamber.”
The above scene in Philomena is an unspoken homage to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, don't you think?
To solve the lighting restrictions, Martin's and Philomena's crucial conversation at the Monument was done in front of a hot dog stand which nicely provided just enough lighting to make everything look beautiful.
4. THE WASHINGTON COURT HOTEL
The Washington Court Hotel is a sophisticated, independent Capitol Hill hotel located near Union Station and Capitol Hill. It also has a brief appearance as a film location in Philomena. Remember the scene when Martin drives his car to the front of their Washington hotel? It was filmed on location at the Washington Court Hotel.
Interestingly enough, only the exterior of the hotel made it to the big screen. The interior scenes were filmed in another hotel in London, the London Marriott Hotel Regents Park.
A few D.C. artworks on the wall completed the illusion. The Marriott hotel in London was magically transformed into a Marriott hotel room in Washington, D.C.
With a bit of CGI magic, we have the view of the Capitol building from Philomena's hotel window, even though it was actually filmed in London.
Again ... this is another homage for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
6. Chinatown Express Restaurant
Blink and you will miss this location. After finding out about some very bad news while in D.C. (I'm being vague here so as not to spoil the movie for you in case you haven't seen it), Philomena and Martin were in a car on their way to the airport. The car passes a young couple in love hugging joyfully in public - something that was frowned upon when Philomena was young. This very brief scene was filmed in D.C.'s Chinatown, at the corner of 7th and H Streets in front of Chinatown Express Restaurant, a hot local hangout in Chinatown.
If you're ever in D.C., this popular hole-in-the-wall eatery is worth a visit. They make their noodle fresh here and the food is delicious and authentic.
7. THE NATIONAL MALL
Filming in Washington, D.C. is not complete until you have a scene at The National Mall. The Mall is a national park in Washington, D.C. which includes the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol, with the Washington Monument slightly off center in between.
In Philomena, Martin goes for an evening jog on The National Mall when he visits D.C., passing the beautiful and famous Smithsonian Building in the background.
In the below screenshot, Martin and Philomena go for a walk on the Mall toward the end of their D.C. visit. The U.S. Capitol sits prominently in the background of the frame.
8. THE TIDAL BASIN
Another iconic D.C. location is The Tidal Basin. Approximately 107 acres, The Basin is a partially man-made reservoir connected to the Potomac River. It's the main reason why each spring millions of tourists flock to D.C. during the National Cherry Blossom Festival with their cameras. Many Washington monuments were constructed on or near the Tidal Basin such as the Jefferson Memorial, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial.
In Philomena, there's a brief scene in which Martin was jogging along The Tidal Basin in the evening. The wide shots of that scene were filmed on location in D.C., but interestingly enough the close-up of Martin on the phone was filmed against a green screen with the Tidal Basin added to the background.
If Coogan didn't share with us that tidbit in the DVD's commentary, none of us would have been the wiser. Talk about movie magic!
9. STANSTED AIRPORT
The airport scene in Philomena was filmed at Stansted Airport, an international airport located at Stansted Mountfitchet northeast of Central London. Kim Ruskin, Stansted Airport’s Commercial Filming Manager, was thrilled to have the production filming at the airport.
"We were delighted to welcome Dame Judi, Steve and the Philomena crew to Stansted," said Ruskin in a press release. "They filmed scenes at number of locations around the terminal, including check in and the domestic baggage reclaim hall. As always, we planned the shoot meticulously and nothing was left to chance to make sure it didn’t get in the way of the normal operation of the airport."
Stansted Airport is no stranger to the big screen. Filmmakers love the airport for its many tall floor-to-ceiling windows letting in a generous amount of light which is perfect for filming. “Traveling through Stansted you could find yourself rubbing shoulders with many famous actors and actresses earning their living filming scenes for a major movie, TV show or advertisement," said Ruskin. "Directors love the airport because the light is so good and there are lots of different backdrops to film against."
In addition to Philomena, Stansted Airport has starred in many movies and TV shows including Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies, Brigit Jones and the BBC’s hit comedy Come Fly With Me. Also shot there recently was Connection, a short movie starring Jude Law.
10. THE DUFFERIN ARMS PUB
The Dufferin Arms in Killyleagh, Co Down, is the charming pub where Philomena was filmed. To celebrate the premiere of the movie, the pub even held a party in its honor. Austin McCullough, the proprietor of The Dufferin Arms said he was delighted that his pub was chosen to be the film location for an authentic pub scene in Philomena.
During the filming, Mr. McCullough was responsible for keeping the pub's fire burning while a few short scenes between Philomena, her daughter Jane (portrayed by Anna Maxwell Martin), Martin and the pub owners were shot and re-shot many times. "They must have done the scene 30 times," said McCullough. "I could not tell the difference between the first time and the last time. It was a tedious process for them."
11. THE MOURNES OF NORTHERN IRELAND
Philomena was also filmed in Northern Ireland against the gorgeous and magnificent backdrop of the Mournes. The Mournes are a granite mountain range in County Down of Northern Ireland which is well-known for its stunning natural beauty. It has inspired numerous creative works in the past including The Mountains of Mourne, a song written by Percy French in 1896, C.S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and John Lennon's song The Luck of the Irish.
12. ROSCREA CONVENT - HAREFIELD HOUSE
Harefield House is part of Harefield Grove Farm, a small estate three miles northeast of London's famous Pinewood Studios. The property includes a manor house (where Philomena was filmed), outbuildings, barns and greenhouses. Harefield Grove Farm has been a film location for many productions in the past, among which were The Adventures of Black Beauty, Dave Allen At Large, The Professionals, and The Two Ronnies.
For Philomena, Harefield House was transformed into the Roscrea Convent where Philomena and her infant son Anthony had lived. An interesting note I learned while watching the film's commentary is that the red brick building to the right of Roscrea (see below image) was added in using C.G. afterward. (That building in real life is on the estate of Shirburn Castle, approximately 15-20 miles away from Harefield House. See number 12 below.)
Inside Harefield House, the reception room was 'dressed’ to resemble the convent's interior complete with religious statues, pictures of Christ, crucifixes hanging from the walls, photographs of nuns, and religious artifacts on every available surface.
13. ROSCREA CONVENT - SHIRBURN CASTLE
Remember I mentioned that part of the facade of Roscrea Abbey was digitally added in during the post-production process? The red brick building next to the main house is actually miles away located on the mysterious estate of Shirburn Castle owned by the Macclesfield family (not to be confused with the more well-known Sherborne Castle also in Oxfordshire owned by the Wingfield Digby Family).
Privately-owned and not open to the public, Shirburn Castle remains a bit of a mystery. I couldn't find much background information on the estate other than it was built in the 14th century, circa 1378, on the site of a moated grange.
In addition to serving as an extension of the main house at Roscrea Abbey, Shirburn Castle was also where the cemetery scene in Philomena was filmed.
For information on filming in Maryland, visit our client The Maryland Film Office.
For information on filming in Washington, D.C., visit our client The Office of Motion Picture and Television Development (aka The D.C. Film Office).
Banner image via Google.