The 8 Best Salt-City Flicks

A cinematic roundup of movies that showcase Syracuse, its history, and its surroundings.

Words by Madison Flavin

Syracuse lacks the dream-factory studios, the endless parade of A-listers exiting black SUV’s, and those iconic letters announcing “Hollywood” on its hills. But that doesn’t mean the Salt City lacks movie-making mojo. Although its filmmaking economy remains in its infant stage, Syracuse and the surrounding Central New York possess a long list of silver-screen props. “We have a great heritage of movies in Central New York,” says Stuart Lisson, director of electric media at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

Consider the evidence: the first film projection took place in Syracuse in 1896. Edison planned to bring the projector to New York City for its debut, but Eugene Lauste, a former associate of Edison, sidestepped the itinerary and brought the magical moving-pictures machine to Syracuse first. Then there’s the town of Chittenango, the birthplace of Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. It hosts an annual Oz-Stravaganza! (formerly Oz Fest) that celebrates the 1939 movie classic every June (cue the blue gingham and the red shoes). There’s also Seneca Falls, which claims to be the real-life inspiration for Bedford Falls, the fictional village in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. On campus, Syracuse University’s Bird Library houses composer Miklos Rozsa’s Oscar, which he won for his score to 1959’s Ben-Hur.

But Oscars aside, Central New York’s forests, lakes, rolling hills, and valleys, its gritty Rust Belt city scape, and its history provide ample material for cinematic storytellers. So if you want an introduction to the area, start with these eight films. They demonstrate the Salt City and surrounding area’s strengths — quirky characters, a campus filled with history (not all of which is sunny), a passion for sports, and, like all places (even L.A.), some seriously flawed folk.

1. Adult World (2013)

Aspiring poet takes sex-store job, challenges ensue.

Filmed on the Syracuse University campus, Adult World stars Emma Roberts (Scream Queens) and John Cusack (Say Anything) in a coming-of-age drama that demonstrates professors can be seriously messed up. Roberts plays Amy Anderson, a post-collegiate aspiring poet with a job at an adult bookstore. Cusack plays Rat Billings, a poet, college professor, and jerk. The Carrier Dome, Maxwell Auditorium in Maxwell Hall, Phoebe’s Restaurant & Coffee Lounge on East Genesee Street, Recess Coffee, and The Gear Factory all make guest appearances in the film. “It made me feel a sense of pride watching the movie,” says Eric Vinal, Syracuse’s film commissioner. Vinal credits Adult World with changing the game for the Syracuse filmmaking community by spreading positive word-of-mouth about the region.

2. American Dresser (2016)

Two friends, two motorcycles, one soul-cleansing journey.

Easy Rider taught us that two friends on motorcycles with a cross-country quest can illuminate a country’s cultural issues and carry a film project. That same formula is reimagined in this film, which features Keith David (The Princess and the Frog) and Tom Berenger (Platoon) as two life-long friends, who embark on a cross-country motorcycle roadtrip to face their inner demons. The film’s supporting cast includes Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Gina Gershon (Bound), and Penelope Ann Miller (The Artist). “We’re going to make Central New York the new Hollywood,” Berenger told The Post-Standard during the shoot. The production team filmed scenes at the New York State Fairgrounds, during the annual New York State Fair, and at the Ramada Inn at Carrier Circle, Heidi’s Restaurant in Liverpool, Pooch’s Leisure Bar in Solvay, the Geddes Town Hall, the Limp Lizard in Liverpool, and the Crossroads Tavern in Manlius. The production crew became the first to use the new sound studio in Dewitt, and the filming attracted a lot of interest. Locals gathered to watch the day-to-day action on set, and The Post-Standard provided extensive daily coverage. An open casting call sought out people to play character types ranging from “salty old bar patrons” to “motorcycle cops” and “rough-looking truck drivers.” Wayne Goppelt of West Monroe landed a spot. “I’m not worried about getting paid,” Goppelt told The Post-Standard. “It’s just a good time.”

3. Brother’s Keeper (1992)

A sensational murder trial fueled by community, class, fratricide.

Winner of the Audience Award for Documentary at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival, this film by the team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (they also directed Paradise Lost together) focuses on the murder trial of Delbert Ward, a milk farmer and one of four functionally illiterate brothers, who was accused of murdering his brother, William. The four brothers shared a shamble of a farmhouse and worked on land that belonged to generations of their family in Munnsville, a town 40 miles from Syracuse. “The strength and the beauty of this film is that the story is told by members of the community. We hang out in kitchens and bedrooms, barns and diners and see for ourselves who these people are,” says Richard Breyer, co-director of the graduate program in documentary film and history at Syracuse University. “Also we are witness to a dramatic trial with characters that could easily be out of a Dostoevsky novel.” The town rallied to support Delbert, but the visiting press put the salacious details of the story on blast (the brothers shared a bed, and semen was found on clothing and on William’s leg) and characterized Delbert as an uneducated hick. “The film certainly illuminates to everyone that there are rich, rich stories within easy reach of campus,” Breyer adds. “It is also noteworthy that a number of persons featured in this documentary are SU alumni.” And if that doesn’t convince you, it earned a 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes’ tomatometer.

4. Crooked Arrows (2012)

A lacrosse film featuring 350 local Haudenosaunee.

Starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) and Gil Birmingham (Twilight), Crooked Arrows chronicles an Onondaga Nation lacrosse team and their coach as they rediscover their spiritual roots on the road to an unexpected state championship. The ensemble features four members of the Onondaga Nation in starring roles as lacrosse players. Though the film was shot in Boston, Syracuse Haudenosaunee community assisted with the movie. The production company hired Neal Powless, director of Syracuse University’s Native Student Program, as a cultural consultant. Powless said the first script was “really culturally insensitive and inappropriate. And that’s putting it nicely.” He helped rewrite a more culturally sensitive script that included nine script overhauls and 12 rewrites. For the state championship game at the end of the film, Powless helped bus 350 Haudenosaunee extras from the Onondaga Nation to Boston. Powless’ work helped earn him the title of co-producer for the film. “Everyone has a gift to share for the betterment of the group,” Powless says.

5. The Express (2008)

A biopic of the first Black Heisman winner.

In the early 1960s, SU football player Ernie Davis became the first Black athlete to win the Heisman Trophy (and joined a long line of outstanding SU athletes to wear the number 44 on their jersey). The sports drama The Express captures Davis’ time at SU and features Rob Brown (Finding Forrester) as Davis and Dennis Quaid (The Rookie) as then-SU football coach Ben Schwartzwalder. The Express filmed on the SU campus for two days. Scenes were shot on the Quad and by the Abraham Lincoln statue in front of Maxwell Hall. The film’s production designers utilized archival footage to recreate Archbold Stadium, where SU football games were played in the early 1960s. SU professors and students served as extras in the film.

6. Impossible Choice (2012)

When love beats bigotry.

Produced, written, and directed by Ronald Marquisee of Cicero, New York., Impossible Choice employs a cast of local actors to tell the story of love’s triumph over bigotry. Over the course of one Central New York summer, two young men, one of them the son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher, fall in love. “For me, the important thing was to carry a whole bunch of messages,” Marquisee says. Most of those messages involve the importance of acceptance and the price of intolerance. For example, the film includes a “play within a movie” when, in one scene, the real-life deaths of gay teens Matthew Shephard and Tyler Clemente are acted out. After years of experience doing industrial video and commercials, Marquisee decided to challenge himself by making a nearly two-hour feature-length film. Having a 60-member cast, all of whom had day jobs, produced its own scheduling challenges, and Marquisee sometimes considered abandoning the project. A lifelong fan of the Erie Canal and co-author of Cruising America’s Waterways: The Erie Canal, Marquisee shot several of the film’s riverboat scenes at various points along the famous canal. He shot one of the film’s smaller scenes involving two street dancers at the gazebo on the shores of Skaneateles Lake.

7. The Lovely Bones (2009)

A candy-hued ghost story.

In 1981, while a freshman at SU, Alice Sebold was raped when walking through Thorden Park. One of the police officers who responded to her crime report called her “lucky” to survive the attack and that became the title of her memoir about the crime. Two decades later, in 2002, Sebold returned to similar territory with The Lovely Bones, a novel about a teenage girl who is raped and murdered. It also explores how her death changes those who loved her. The book became a New York Times bestseller and ultimately an Oscar-nominated film directed by Peter Jackson and starring Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn). In a review of the movie for the New York Times, critic A.O. Scott said that it was “a serial-killer mystery, a teenage melodrama, a domestic tragedy and a candy-hued ghost story — a cinematic version of the old parlor game in which disparate graphic elements are assembled into a single strange picture.” Although inspired by an event that took place in Syracuse, the film includes no shots of the city or Thorden Park. Instead, Chester County, Pennsylvania and New Zealand serve as the setting for the lives of Susie’s grief-stricken family and for her dog-friendly, psychedelic version of heaven.

8. Slap Shot (1977)

Paul Newman plays hockey.

Syracuse loves more sports than basketball, and the proof resides in this cult classic of the sports film genre. This cuss-happy drama stars Paul Newman as the coach of a struggling small-town hockey team that decides to use violence to boost their popularity. The movies features scenes shot at the Onondaga County War Memorial. About 2,500 locals served as extras for those scenes, which mostly consisted of watching the film’s characters fight on ice. “We had arguably one of the greatest actors of all time, playing in one of the greatest sports movies of all time, and part of it was filmed in our building,” Syracuse Crunch president Howard Dolgon told the Post-Standard in 2014.