Joe Blake (Bruce Willis) and Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) are bank robbers, fugitives hoping a final string of scores will finance their South-of-the-Border retirement dream. Irresistible Joe and his hypochondriac partner Terry become “The Sleepover Bandits,” the most famous thieves in the country, cutting a swath from Oregon through California and leaving terrified bankers, bad disguises, and an adoring public in their wake.
Their gimmick: Take the bank manager and his family hostage the night before a heist, have dinner and sleep over, then go into the bank with him in the morning before business hours. No break-in necessary. No complicated surprise midday raid. It works like a charm.
Harley Peyton grew up in the northwest, so that part of the country was very familiar to him and seemed like a perfect setting for Bandits. “I liked the idea of going from a very green, lush place,” says Peyton, “then gradually having it become more and more arid until they finally arrive in Los Angeles. Also, in order to have some sense of reality, we needed to use smaller towns where these kinds of robberies could take place. “
Not including work done on stages in Los Angeles, Bandits was a true road movie – Levinson and his crew filmed in nearly 60 different locations throughout Oregon and California.
The first location was the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, where the company enjoyed an unusual amount of cooperation from staff, considering Levinson was filming a prison breakout. At a certain point, the 150 prisoners working as extras were placed near a main thoroughfare within the prison that led to the outside gates. When stuntmen, driving a cement truck, broke through those gates (under the direction of Conrad Palmisano, Levinson’s stunt coordinator), Levinson had no problem getting the prisoners to cheer the heroes as they made it through to the outside, even after several takes.
Bandits continued filming in Oregon for another month in a variety of locations: a working bank in the town of Silverton; a peaceful neighborhood in Lake Oswego; a Colonial-style home in Oregon City (which proudly proclaims itself “the end of the Oregon Trail”); Portland’s revered Crown Point Overlook, with its majestic views up and down the Columbia River Gorge; a spectacular glass-riverstone and wood residence overlooking the Willamette River in West Linn that sat in for Kate’s house; and Portland’s historic Broadway Bridge.
Moving south to northern California, the company based itself in Sonoma County’s Santa Rosa, filming there as well as at roadside locales in Sebastapol, Tomales Bay, Dillon Beach, and the very-hard-to-find Bodega Bay. Filming also took place in the Marin County towns of San Anselmo, Mill Valley, and Nick’s Cove.
The company based in Burlingame, California, for scenes filmed at the Point Montara Lighthouse Hostel in Half Moon Bay, which stands in for a Motel Six where the bandits hole up after one of their robberies. Established in 1875, the Montara Lighthouse guided ships along that treacherous coast through World War II when it served as a Naval Training Base. The facility has been a hostel since the 1980s.
Before returning to Los Angeles for two additional weeks of filming, the final distant location for the Bandits cast and crew was historic Salinas, California, home to John Steinbeck and the unforgettable characters of his well-known novels and films East of Eden, Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row, among others.
Explaining his decision to film most of Bandits on location, Levinson says, “What I wanted in the movie was not to have a ‘sitcom look,’ which is what I see a lot recently when there are elements of comedy and romance. On the one hand I wanted a very real look to the film, and on the other I wanted a stylistic quality. I was fortunate enough to have Dante Spinotti and Victor Kempster work with me, and we were able to get that feeling. “