It’s never all that difficult to predict what Harvard will look like onscreen. Brick buildings, green quads, and extras in peacoats are all usually part of the visual equation. “The Social Network” is a recent and prominent example: Its opening sequence features Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) running across the peaceful brick-lined expanse of what appears to be Harvard Yard and the Houses.
Spoiler alert: It isn’t.
Despite the Yard’s ubiquity in popular culture as a center of elite education, Harvard has notoriously closed its campus off to film crews for decades. “Commercial filming is not allowed anywhere on campus,” the Harvard Public Affairs and Communications website informs the general public. This forces directors to improvise workarounds: “The Social Network” was filmed in part at Johns Hopkins University and prep schools Phillips Academy Andover and Milton Academy. Other than a brief cameo in 2007’s “The Great Debaters”—featuring Sanders Theatre as the venue for the climactic debate—Harvard has largely kept itself out of the movies in recent decades.
Why has the school become so screen-shy? After all, the Yard is on full display in “Love Story.” The 1970 movie is quintessentially Harvard—it’s screened for every year’s incoming freshman class—and features Harvard locations from Tercentenary Theatre to the Bright Hockey Center. And the campus makes another appearance in “A Small Circle of Friends,” a movie about three Harvard students living through the turbulent protests of the 1960s.
Both of these film shoots, it seems, caused significant collateral damage. “My understanding of the folklore is that the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that in the late ’70s, lots of trees were damaged during the filming of ‘A Small Circle of Friends’ by use of fake snow,” Joe Wrinn, a former University spokesperson, said in a 2002 Crimson article.
Fake snow wasn’t the only problem. The film’s crew was only on campus for a week before being kicked off, after clashing with University officials over unwanted changes such as a fake anti-war memorial hung on Memorial Hall. “The University's action was totally predictable,” director Rob Cohen ’71 told The Crimson at the time. “The character in the film says, ‘The more things change the more they stay the same.’ How true.” Maybe his movie would have been better equipped to fight the power if it had gotten better reviews.
Ever since these experiences, Harvard has maintained its closed-doors policy towards filmmakers. Even “The Great Debaters” isn’t really an exception, as then-Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin told The Boston Globe: “Sanders Theater is operated as a performance space and frequently rented out for concerts, presentations and other events.” The rest of campus, meanwhile—especially the Yard—remains insulated from the outside world.
Although the University’s rules aren’t absolute, they tend to be hard to circumvent without an inside connection. The 1994 film “With Honors,” for instance, was directed by an alum, Alex Keshishian ’86. “I wanted to dispel the clichéd image of a Harvard student. It's not really a bunch of people in blue blazers and ties," Keshishian told The Crimson in 1993. "And as an alum, I'm perhaps more sensitive to making sure that it's portrayed accurately." Accordingly, Keshishian returned to his alma mater while filming to conduct some “research” at undergrad parties, bringing his cast and crew along for the ride.
Directors without such connections are usually forced to choose from an established selection of faux-Harvards. The University of Southern California is an easily accessible option for nearby Hollywood; both “Legally Blonde” (which carted in fake leaves to impersonate New England in fall) and “The Social Network” were filmed there. And Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., is another frequent stand-in. It infamously hosted 1986’s “Soul Man,” which features a white student who dresses in blackface to win a diversity scholarship from the University.
Ultimately, though, there’s no substitute for the real thing. Fans of real, vintage Harvard in the movies can always rewatch “Love Story”—or simply take a walk around the Yard and enjoy what Hollywood is so eager to capture.