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I watched Jason Bourne yesterday and I was wondering why so many American made — especially spy — movies take place in Europe.

I have some theories (as a European person that has spent some time in the US):

  • Europe is considered this place with loads of different secret services and lots of spies.
  • Europe is a place outside the US — no killings, no terrorists, no danger to the US population — all the "bad" stuff isn't happening in the Land of the Free. Also we fear what we don't know: Europeans.
  • Americans fancy the idea of being somewhere else and romanticize the "culture": old buildings (that make it easier to hide?), the narrow roads (that make for a good car chase), all the people that relax outside and have coffee in crowded places (perfect for suicide bombings!!!) in France, Italy, Spain, Germany
  • It's boring to shoot action movies in the US. I cannot remember a single action movie set in I dunno South Dakota.
  • American Spy Movies need spies from other countries to make a good movie — China is a hot topic, Russia's been in a thousand different spy movies (Cold War ...) and Europe always makes for some good spies from France, etc.

I also have a slight feeling that my views are Euro-centered because I live in Europe and only get to watch American movies that are playing in local theaters but since those were made to be seen by a large audience, I still think it might have something to do with Europe and not just with me.

I am not too sure if this theory makes any sense, but I can think about some spy movies that would hold up for it:

  • Jason Bourne (Greece, Serbia, Germany, Italy, GB)
  • MI: Rogue Nation (Austria)
  • From Paris With Love
  • 96 Hours
  • The International
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    @martinkm .... "aren't American-made moveis, well, made for Americans?" ... short answer no, they are made for a worldwide market that includes their domestic market. – iandotkelly Aug 15 '16 at 16:27
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    "I do have some theories" - why not put those in an answer instead of including them in the question? :-) – Rand al'Thor Aug 15 '16 at 17:26
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    The only point in your question I disagree with is "it's boring to shoot action movies in the US." Note, for instance, that many Bond films (such as Goldfinger) take place partly in the US, and there are a plethora of successful non-spy-related action films set there (the Terminator and Die Hard franchises spring to mind). Even parts of the Bourne franchise take place in the U.S., don't they? – Kyle Strand Aug 15 '16 at 17:44
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    > It's boring to shoot action movies in the US. I cannot remember a single action movie set in I dunno South Dakota. LOL! Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" is #3 in Esquire's "10 Greatest Spy Films of All Time" And Mt. Rushmore (just south of Rapid City, South Dakota) played a key role in the movie. And the national monument was a key part of other action movies like "National Treasure", etc. etc. Ref: esquire.co.uk/culture/film/news/a6990/… – Richard Crowley Aug 16 '16 at 16:48
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    Because that's where Americans do their spying.... – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 17 '16 at 16:23

11 Answers 11

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First of all, many of the actual activities involving espionage happened, originally, against the backdrop of the Cold War. Obviously, having more different nations in a more compressed space gives a lot more chances for interactions.

If we take a U.S. spy, Jason Bourne, and send him on a mission, we must, by definition, deploy him to take actions against foreign agents and foreign governments. The genre can be described as "international espionage," so we need OTHER countries.... so, Europe. Middle East is also popular.

However, I do think this is your own Euro-centric viewpoint. A huge portion of the Jason Bourne films splits time between him tracking down his past in Europe, but also coming back to the USA, to infiltrate the CIA and its training facilities.

Here are some spy or international terrorism-based movie themes that pit US intelligence services against "bad guys" that are almost entirely based in the USA (most of these are actually pretty good, too):

(I'm not sure about the ratio of USA domestic to foreign in those last two, but I think they're set mostly in the USA)

Many movies in the US backdrop focus more on law enforcement and FBI because our spy agencies are prohibited by law from performing espionage against domestic targets, so you get more of a law enforcement angle, like in the movie Betrayed about an FBI agent infiltrating a domestic terrorist organization.

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    Gotta add North By Northwest first in this list; it set the stage for all the bond movies and perhaps the spy genre in general. – axsvl77 Aug 16 '16 at 7:31
  • Also see (T)ERROR, set in the US, where the FBI thinks they're infiltrating a domestic terrorist organization, but the "terrorists" aren't. – WBT Aug 17 '16 at 3:20
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier also takes place in the United States. – Rogue Jedi Aug 19 '16 at 1:51
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    I think the overhang from the Cold War is more significant than this otherwise excellent answer suggests. I mean for 45 years or so the primary national security and intelligence concern for the USA was the Soviet Union, and while that was borne out in armed conflict in Asia, it was all covert ops in Europe. Note that most American war movies set after World War II are set in Asia. Berlin divided into east and west during the Cold War provides an especially dramatic setting for espionage. – Todd Wilcox Aug 19 '16 at 3:11
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    The birth of modern intelligence agencies in the West is attributed to the British OSS, and my understanding is that Russia had Secret Police going back to the Tzars, but certainly as early as 1917--under the Soviets the secret police and intelligence service was a single organization, which ultimately became the KGB. Adding to @Andrew Mattson's list: Pickup On South Street has to be mentioned. Directed by the legendary Sam Fuller (The Big Red One) and set in NYC. – DukeZhou Aug 19 '16 at 23:19
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Because a European setting is a standard part of the genre.

The genre of Spy Fiction was popularized by British writers during the Cold War. Being (sort of) European themselves, it is quite natural for said writers to stick to locales they and their readers would be most familiar with.

Also, the primary "theater" of the Cold War was in fact Europe, so it made sense that most Cold War spy activity would be set there. However, even pre-Cold War exemplars tended to be set in Europe.

Today non-British people write such works, and spying can happen anywhere, so other locales are used. However, the expectations of a genre are a really strong force. For example, there's no real reason why you couldn't write a "Western" set in central Asia, or Australia. Tom Selleck has done one of each. But we all know the standard setting is the western USA in the late 19th Century.

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    Why the "sort of" qualification of British writers being European? – Shaggy Aug 20 '16 at 21:44
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    @Shaggy - Ask a Brexit voter. – T.E.D. Aug 21 '16 at 4:32
  • +1 For funny. I think lots of non-Europeans would find the notion of Brits not considering themselves European kinda ridiculous lol Iceland I think is the only one that can get away with a "sort of" European. – unknownprotocol Aug 21 '16 at 5:22
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Who would the spies spy against, if the movie was set in the USA? In Europe there are lots of countries, so there can be lots of targets for espionage. Especially during the cold War, there was plenty of opportunity for espionage between eastern and western countries, but the current tensions between Russia and the West can also create interesting plots.

If set in the USA, the only thing the heroes could do was counter-espionage. This would get boring pretty soon. Outside the USA, an American (or US-allied) spy can have a different villain from a different country to fight against in every episode, and can be fighting alone against a large number of henchmen, something very unlikely to happen inside the borders of his own country. A spy drama usually has the lone hero exploring a hidden location on foreign soil, otherwise it would be a police procedural movie.

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    I disagree with the get boring pretty soon part. The truth is that most stuff in movies is actually really boring most of the time, even real spying. There is a lot more waiting around in real life. Thats what the movies are good at - getting rid of the cruft and dramatizing the good parts. – David says Reinstate Monica Aug 15 '16 at 20:26
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    Yes. This answer is correct. American spy films are usually (and unsurprisingly) about American spies. The U.S. government typically doesn't spy on itself. That leaves only counter-espionage operations and those acting outside of the government as possible lot lines. The latter has been done with much success (Bourne trilogy and Burn Notice, for example.) The former just really isn't very interesting most of the time. How many movies, American or otherwise, are based on counter-espionage? There are probably a few, but they're quite a minority of spy films. – reirab Aug 15 '16 at 21:38
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    @reirab The U.S. government typically doesn't spy on itself. I agree, but there is still plenty of people to spy with impunity in the land of the free... Of course, it is still that is not suited for a good "us (good) vs them (bad)" movie. – SJuan76 Aug 16 '16 at 9:03
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    @SJuan76 That was 60 years ago. Also, it's a bit irrelevant to the answer to this question. It might make an interesting documentary, but tapping MLK's phone wouldn't really make a very exciting spy thriller (nor would NSA listening to phone calls and the like.) – reirab Aug 17 '16 at 6:07
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    @reirab Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy would be the obvious example of counter-espionage. – David Richerby Aug 17 '16 at 9:27
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Domestic intelligence gathering is the domain of the FBI, and fighting bad guys on American turf is usually called law enforcement. This has an entire genre of its own.

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    This is basically the answer I was going to give except fleshed out a bit: most spy agencies aren't allowed to operate within America, so the enemies have to be in a foreign country (or the protagonist is breaking the law and therefore morally grey at best - a different genre). – Crow T Robot Aug 16 '16 at 7:24
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    This is what I was going to say as well. The CIA isn't legally allowed to operate inside the US (there are exceptions, like when they're working directly with the FBI). We don't call the FBI agents "spies", even the ones in counterintelligence, so any "spy movie", by definition, would most likely be set outside of the US. – jfren484 Aug 16 '16 at 20:47
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    Isn't NSA doing domestic intelligence too? – Taladris Aug 19 '16 at 3:43
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Here are a few possible reasons...

Maybe US audiences see Europe as something of a melting pot - harmonious on the surface but with many deep underlying resentments. We've all fought each other many times, there are many former communist/soviet states and we share land borders with the Middle East and Russia so there are several wildly differing factions pushing against each other.

There's the option to show the hero as a "fish out of water" or "man of the world". Drop them into the middle of a foreign country and watch them either struggle with culture clashes or mix it with the locals. It may also give the writers the opportunity to show the hero's improvisational skills in unfamiliar surroundings.

Amazing locations. Narrow cobbled streets a brilliant for car chases.

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It's boring to shoot action movies in the US. I cannot remember a single action movie set in I dunno South Dakota.

Slightly strange to hear that given the overwhelming number of action movies set in SF, LA, or especially New York. Of course, they're not necessarily shot there - you might have an establishing shot of stock footage of Manhattan then cut to a car chase in a trash-strewn alley that's actually in Toronto. Other US cities do seem to be under-represented in Hollywood. Then there's the entire genre of action films set in unpopulated states: the Western.

That article does point out an important influence on where a film is shot, though: cost. Plenty of countries have a lower cost of living than the US and/or offer tax breaks to filmmakers. The Czech Republic is one such, and has an impressive collection of castles and forests to film in and local stuntmen and crew to assist your on-location shooting. With a bit of set dressing and the same establishing aerial shot technique used to film NY in Toronto, Prague can stand in for anywhere in Europe.

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Europe is a convenient setting because there are so many countries with varying languages and customs in close proximity. This functions as a showcase of the spies skills and preparation, that they can speak or understand many different languages fluently, navigate through cities in many different settings with ease (and often in high speed pursuit!), and often have fake passports for several countries. Also, at least for American spies, it makes sense that they would be spying on other countries rather than their own :)

I wanted to point out though that many of these franchises are filmed in many different locales, not just Europe. Mission Impossible has had heists take place in Asia, the Middle East and the US as well.

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For the TLDR challenged: A ton of history available to further any absurd plot.

Any rotten brick in Europe has a far longer history than anything in the US. This allows the use of famous backdrops (Collosseum in Rome, Acropolis in Greece, Sagrada Familia in Spain, Castles in Germany, ...) But I'll give you that Europeans like movies shot in NYC, Chicago, LA, Frisco. It's the fascination of the unfamiliar.

The missing history also allows for aura-laden lineages of persons or families. The Rothschilds, the Medici, the British Aristocrats, Ancestors of Galilei, Kings and Queens (to this day! not just in the UK, also Denmark, Sweden, Spain), secrets hidden in paintings by the great painters, messages from the past, bat-shit crazy Illuminati--no bounds to a creative writer's mind! No way to place such action in Onehorsetown, Wyoming. (With apologies to Wyomingians(?), Wyomians? Wyomee?)

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    Minor correction, Sagrada Familia does not have a longer history than anything in the US. The first stone was laid in 1882. Its fame is not due to its age. – Michael Kay Aug 16 '16 at 0:01
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    “Wyomingites” (source: Wikipedia). Wyoming is an incredibly beautiful state to drive through; though I wouldn't live there, I can easily see how some would. – Slipp D. Thompson Aug 16 '16 at 2:39
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    -1 The examples of history that you list are all completely irrelevant to spy movies. Conversely, there are nuclear missile silos in Wyoming, which could make for an interesting movie based on somebody selling the weapons' secrets to a foreign state. – David Richerby Aug 17 '16 at 9:41
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There's a lot of good answers already, so let me just add a few more reasons to the bunch:

  • Europe seems scenic and exotic to many Americans. In part this is related to the common occurence of historical buildings or outright historical districts, in part simply through the nice balance of familiar and unfamiliar (or "funny" like with the typical stereotyping of European nations).
  • The familiar unfamiliarity also means that when the screenwriters make mistakes, they might avoid detection by their main target audience; you also get a nice kick from your brain when you get the "Oh! I know where that is!" moment, which helps with enjoyment and emotional attachment to the movie. And of course, it may be easier to avoid offending Americans when you spend most of your movie "offending" Europeans (this also works for movies set in e.g. China, of course).
  • There's a lot of potential for conflict - many individual nations, West vs. East (especially in a Cold War-ish setting) etc.
  • Due to subsidies etc., shooting in Europe may be way cheaper than in the US. For example, during the time the Czech republic "encouraged" film-making, a lot of high profile movies (including spy movies) were shot in Prague. Some of those weren't set in Prague story-wise, despite being shot there - that probably classifies as a half-example. So there was a good chance that if your movie doesn't care too much about the setting, it would be rewritten to be European just because that's where you can do the filming cheap and easy; and even if it weren't set in Europe, it might have just been a reskinned Europe.
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In the case of Jason Bourne, I would suspect it is more so because the novels it is based upon are set there. Why the spy novels are often set in Europe is another matter.

As many have suggested here this may be because of pre-existing influences on the Genre in film and novels. Particularly since prominent examples of the spy, mystery, and detective genres such as James Bond 007 and Sherlock Holmes originate in and are predominantly set in Europe.

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One other concern for directors and location scouts regarding this subject that I've not seen anyone else mention is the architectural variance of filming outside of the US. Although there are generally not that many architectural styles on display even in Europe there are still many more than seen in typical US cities and town. This is simply a result of the age of the nation, the longer a civilisation sticks around the wider the range of building designs and thus our eyes are drawn to different surroundings. If you look at Europe in particular there are many styles, often very close to each other, meaning productions can make scenes visually arresting while also not blowing their budget on transportation or sets.

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