On the Big Screen On the Big Screen

Here’s a glimpse of our favorite cultural pieces that were set or filmed in Michigan.

MICHIGAN—The natural beauty of our state makes it an instinctual choice for stunning cinematography. Over 300 movies have been filmed in Michigan, and countless more have used it for fictional settings. Several movies made after 2008 were motivated by Governor Jennifer Granholm’s film incentive, which offered a return on production costs and helped to attract filmmakers to Michigan. Pure Michigan even has filming location tours by region.

We’ve assembled a list of must-see pop culture references where Michigan was either the filming location, setting, or both.

8 Mile (2002)

Where: Metro Detroit

It made one “Mile Road” stand above the rest, spawned internet jokes and a restaurant about Mom’s spaghetti, and made Michiganders everywhere say “the correct lyrics are ‘ope,’ not ‘oh.’” Detroit rapper Eminem’s acting debut movie has kept Michigan relevant in pop culture for nearly two decades.

A semi-autobiographical exploration of the rap scene, 8 Mile follows Jimmy Smith Jr. (Eminem), who is trying to start a rap career under the name “B-Rabbit.” The film was shot entirely in the Detroit metropolitan area, with plenty of visible references to the Motor City. The trailer park where Rabbit lives is a real park off 8 Mile Road, A&L Mobile Home Park. The stamping plant where Rabbit works is also real, New Center Stamping. At one point, Rabbit and his crew shoot a cow with a paintball gun. The cow is located on the east side, on the former Ira Wilson & Sons Dairy building. The Penobscot Building in downtown Detroit serves as the radio station in the film. Several houses are also featured which are in the Detroit city limits.

Watch a trailer here. 8 Mile is available to stream on HBO Max and DIRECTV.

Evil Dead (1981)

Where: Elk Grove (Fictional)

Five Michigan State students took a vacation to an isolated cabin. And the rest was horror movie history.

When Royal Oak childhood friends Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell decided to start shooting Super 8 mm film projects, they probably didn’t imagine the franchise that would follow. Evil Dead is a series of movies and media that are all bloodbaths of demonic possession. The first Evil Dead movie, filmed in 1979, was truly a grassroots labor of love. Raimi made it on a small budget and recruited actors from an ad in The Detroit News. He took the film to the Cannes Film Festival, where horror novelist Stephen King praised the film. King’s attention brought further interest and money to the film, so much so that it spawned three additional films, a television series, video games, comic books, and even a musical stage play.

Although very few scenes from the franchise are actually shot in Michigan, the state is woven into the narrative and the essence of the franchise itself. The canon usually agrees that the cabins are somewhere in the Michigan wilderness. Bruce Campbell’s character, Ash Williams, is the main protagonist that is tasked to kill Deadites, creatures possessed by an ancient demon. His hometown is Elk Grove, a fictional town located somewhere in central Michigan. The town is prominently featured in season two of Ash vs. Evil Dead.

The Evil Dead films are currently streaming on HBO Max. Ash vs. Evil Dead is streaming on Netflix and Starz.

Transformers (2007)

Where: Detroit

Michael Bay has a love affair with the Motor City. The director known for explosive effects has directed five movies in the Transformers series, and all five featured Detroit at least partially.

What was once a popular toy in the 1980s has now turned into a movie blockbuster. In the Transformers series, teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is caught in a conflict between two races of extraterrestrial robots, Autobots and Decepticons, after his new car turns out to be the Autobot Bumblebee. What follows is a non-stop stream of action and destruction involving Optimus Prime and his foe, Megatron. Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is featured in the first movie. Other locations featured include the Packard Automotive Plant, the Old Wayne County Building, Capitol Park, Cadillac Place, and the Fisher Building.

Watch a trailer here. Transformers is available to stream on HBO Max and DIRECTV. Other films in the series may be streamed from other platforms.

Escanaba in da Moonlight (2001)

Where: Upper Peninsula

What could be more Michigan than a movie about deer hunting and Yooper culture?

Reuben Soady (Jeff Daniels) is set to become the oldest person in his family that has never shot a deer. He’s determined to remedy the problem by the end of the season, lest he becomes jinxed. At deer camp, Reuben’s father Albert (Harve Presnell) and brother Remnar (Joey Albright) are ready to help. What comes next is a spiritual journey of comedic proportions, where family jinxes aren’t the only supernatural occurrence of the evening. 

The film was based on Jeff Daniels’ play of the same name. The film was shot almost entirely in Escanaba, using locals. Jeff Daniels is an authentic Michigander, having grown up in the Ann Arbor suburb of Chelsea and attended both Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University. 

Escanaba in da Moonlight is available to stream on Roku and Tubi.

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)

Where: Ann Arbor

If only Jason Segal really worked at Zingerman’s. The Five-Year Engagement is a romcom about the ups and downs of an engaged couple who must delay their wedding when they move to Ann Arbor. The majority of the film was shot in Ann Arbor in 2011, and the result is a cinematographic love letter to the city.

The film features a well-known cast, with Jason Segal and Emily Blunt as the leads, and a supporting cast of Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Kevin Hart, Chris Parnell, and Mindy Kaling. Director Nicholas Stoller’s wife was from the Ann Arbor area, prompting him to make it the movie’s setting. Liberty Street and the University of Michigan Diag are immediately recognizable, as well as Zingerman’s, the Old Town Tavern, and other Ann Arbor landmarks.

Watch a trailer here. The Five-Year Engagement is available to stream on HBO Max.

Somewhere in Time (1980)

Where: Mackinac Island

Fudgies will be familiar with this movie, which is enshrined in the very essence of Mackinac Island tourism. Mackinac Island’s signature hotel, The Grand Hotel, is the primary setting for this time-traveling romantic fantasy film.

Somewhere in Time focuses on theatre student Richard (Christopher Reeve) in 1972 traveling back in time to meet famous actress Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour) in 1912. It is an adaptation of Bid Time Return by Richard Matheson. Somewhere in Time takes a few creative liberties with the material, including the location of the hotel. Scenes were shot on location, with some scenes shot in the present-day Mission Point Resort. The film features a gazebo that was built specifically for shooting, but is now a permanent feature of the island. The Grand Hotel hosts an annual Somewhere in Time Weekend where guests can learn more about the filming process and even dress in period costume.

Watch a trailer here. Somewhere in Time is not available for streaming, but can be digitally rented for a fee.

30 Minutes or Less (2011)

Where: Grand Rapids

As the first film shot in Grand Rapids for theatrical release, 30 Minutes or Less is an action comedy movie that’s worth a look.

Nick Davis (Jesse Eisenberg) is a delivery driver for Vito’s Pizza that never completes deliveries according to the “30 minutes or less” policy. He seems stuck in his ways until two criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) kidnap him and give him a new time-sensitive task—come up with $100,000 in ten hours or face death. It’s up to Nick and his reluctant friend Chet (Aziz Ansari) to find the money. 

Both set and filmed in Grand Rapids, 30 Minutes or Less features West Michigan locations and references to the city. Some filming locations include Brookside School, the Family Dollar in Wyoming, a handful of homes, and a car chase down South Division Avenue. Grand Rapids locals were hired as crew and extras for the film.

Watch a trailer here. 30 Minutes or Less is available to stream on Hulu.

Home Improvement (1991)

Where: Metro Detroit

Michigan’s most beloved 90s sitcom is Home Improvement, a parody of the PBS show This Old House. It was often based on Tim Allen’s stand-up comedy, and was the big break of his career.

Tim “The Toolman” Taylor (Tim Allen) is your typical man’s man, with a passion for tools. He loves his Detroit sports teams, and hosts the show-within-a-show “Tool Time.” Episodes revolve around Tim, his wife, and his three sons, and the problems the family deals with day-to-day. Though the series was not actually shot in Michigan, it offered Michiganders a rare opportunity to see aspects of their lives on the small screen. Tim Allen himself spent his teenage years in Birmingham, and attended both Central Michigan University and Western Michigan University. The Taylors’ neighbor, Wilson, was based on a real neighbor that Tim Allen had in childhood.

Home Improvement is not currently available for streaming, but can be purchased digitally.

Detroiters (2017)

Where: Detroit

Metro Detroit natives and comedians Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson have packed this sitcom full of references that Michiganders will love.

The buddy-comedy sitcom Detroiters is about two best friends who are building their fledgling advertisement firm in the Motor City. The pair are next-door neighbors in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood. Location manager and Detroit native George Constas serves up visual references to Detroit landmarks, while the script cracks wise about Vernor’s Ginger Ale, Michigan-shaped cutting boards, and suburban Red Wings fans. Richardson and Robinson wanted to revamp Detroit’s film image as an urban wasteland, so they made the city feel like a character in the show.

Shot entirely on location, Detroiters used programs like Grow Detroit’s Young Talent to build their crew and extras cast almost entirely of locals. Saturday Night Live alums Lorne Michaels and Jason Sudeikis are executive producers for the show.

Watch a trailer here. Detroiters is available to stream on Paramount+ and Comedy Central.

“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (2019)

Where: Flint

Singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye was a breakout star of Detroit record label Motown Records through their subsidiary Tamla. One of his songs, “What’s Going On” was recently given a music video, nearly 50 years later, through Universal Music Group’s new “Never Made” project.

The song, originally released in 1971, took its inspiration from police brutality, after Four Tops member Obie Benson witnessed an anti-war protest in Berkley, California which turned violent. Instead of a protest song, though, it is described as a love song. Benson convinced Marvin Gaye to record the song. The song won two Grammy Awards and was voted #2 in “Detroit’s 100 Greatest Songs” by Detroit Free Press.

In 2019, director Savannah Leaf reimagined “What’s Going On” to address the topical situation of the Flint Water Crisis, as well as racial tension, police brutality, healthcare costs, and mass shootings. Thus, Flint was chosen as the backdrop for the new music video.

Watch the video here.

Gran Torino (2008)

Where: Highland Park, Metro Detroit

The film that the American Film Institute called one of their Ten Best Films of 2008 was filmed entirely in Michigan.

In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood) is a Korean War veteran, retired Ford factory worker, and recent widow. His Highland Park neighborhood is entrenched in gang violence. Walt keeps to himself until his young neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) tries to steal his 1972 Ford Gran Torino as part of a coerced gang initiation ritual. After preventing the theft and defending Thao from his gang, Walt takes a liking to Thao and becomes determined to change the youth’s fate.

Filming locations were all within Metro Detroit. Walt’s house is located on Rhode Island Street in Highland Park. Other filming locations include Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic Church and Pointe Hardware in Grosse Pointe Park, the VFW Post in Center Line, and Widgren’s Barber Shop on 11 Mile Road in Royal Oak.

Watch a trailer here. Gran Torino is available to stream on HBO Max.

Good Girls (2018)

Where: Metro Detroit

What do you do when you’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck as a suburban mom? If you’re the ladies in Good Girls, you go on a crime spree, of course.

In the crime comedy-drama Good Girls, sisters Beth Boland (Christina Hendricks) and Annie Marks (Mae Whitman) conspire with waitress Ruby Hill (Retta) to rob a supermarket, but end up with more than they bargained for, and fall into a spiral of illegal activity. Often compared to Breaking Bad, the female leads deal with their children and husbands while living double lives. Good Girls was not actually filmed in Michigan, and series creator Jenna Bans is not a Michigan native, but she wanted to accurately portray the Detroit metro. The episodes are peppered with geographic references to the Detroit area.

Watch a trailer here. Good Girls is available to stream on Netflix.

Portal (2007)

Where: Upper Peninsula

Valve’s groundbreaking puzzle-platform game Portal is cited as one of the greatest video games ever made. Portal and its sequel, Portal 2, popularized the internet references of “the cake is a lie” and the Weighted Companion Cube. Both games sold over 4 million units and both just so happened to be set in Michigan.

Portal takes place in a science fiction alternate universe shared by Valve’s other popular game series Half-Life. In Portal, the player takes control of Chell, a test subject in the abandoned Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center. With only the artificial intelligence GLaDOS to guide her, Chell completes a series of puzzles using the Portal Gun, a teleportation weapon developed by Aperture Science. The Portal Gun makes two trademark portals, one blue and one orange, through which objects can pass. Players make use of the innovative game design of the Portal Gun and the game’s three-dimensional physics.

Portal 2 revealed the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, the setting of the majority of the two games, is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The expansive research facility was built in an abandoned salt mine. In the real world, though, the Upper Peninsula is known for its many copper mines and has no salt mines. Perhaps in Valve’s fictional universe, the U.P. was known as Salt Country instead of Copper Country.

Portal can be purchased digitally through the Steam platform.

Roger & Me (1989)

Where: Flint

Flint native and critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker Michael Moore made his cinematic debut in this unsettling documentary about his hometown.

In Roger & Me, Moore addresses the sudden closure of the General Motors auto plants that left 30,000 Flint residents out of work. At the time, GM, the largest automobile manufacturer in the world, had more auto workers in Flint than any other city in the world. But GM relocated production to Mexico because it was cheaper. The movie follows Moore’s investigation of the situation and demands towards GM’s then-chairman, Roger Smith, for answers. Moore also documents the human element of GM’s business decisions and the economic devastation to Flint that followed.

Though the film can be hard to watch at times, it was a critical study of post-industrial America and the movie that made Michael Moore famous. The documentary was critically acclaimed and has been described as prophetic, considering Flint’s later troubles such as the water crisis.

Watch a trailer here. Roger & Me is not currently available for streaming, but can be rented or purchased digitally.

“Born Free” by Kid Rock (2010)

Where: Upper Peninsula

Romeo native Kid Rock is a musician known for his fusion of hip hop, rock, and country genres. “Born Free” is a patriotic anthem that has been heard at political campaigns, car commercials, and even a WWE special. The music video, though, is noteworthy for including shots of the Upper Peninsula.

“Born Free” uses shots from Brandon and Groveland townships in the U.P. Cook’s Farm Dairy was used as the farm for the shots. Most noteworthy is the footage of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a national park on Lake Superior and popular vacation spot. The cinematography of the music video truly brings the natural beauty of the U.P. to life.

Watch the video here.

Freaks and Geeks (1999)

Where: Chippewa (Fictional), Metro Detroit

The 90s had plenty of teen sitcoms, but Freaks and Geeks turned out to be an underrated cult classic that deserved a second look.

Though it only lasted for 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks featured several known comedy actors closer to the beginning of their careers, including Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogan, Jason Segal, and Busy Phillipps. The show captures “the sad, hilarious unfairness of teen life” and is set in a Detroit area high school in 1980.

Like most television shows, Freaks and Geeks was filmed in California, but based on personal experience in Michigan. Almost everything on the show was something that happened to either series creator Paul Feig or one of the writers. Paul Feig attended Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township, which the fictional town is named after, and based his writing on his time there. Most of the characters were also based on people Feig knew. James Franco also went to Michigan for two weeks to help get into character.

Freaks and Geeks can be streamed through Hulu, Paramount+, and DIRECTV.