If you ask filmmaker Victor Levin, Paso Robles is “paradise.”
“We loved our time there,” he said. “It (is) a remarkably beautiful part of the country and the state.”
That’s why Levin decided to set his new romantic comedy “Destination Wedding,” starring Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder, in San Luis Obispo County. The movie, which premiered Aug. 31 and opens in wide release Friday, features scenes shot in a Paso Robles winery as well as a few San Luis Obispo locations.
In their fourth on-screen pairing, Reeves and Ryder play two snarky strangers who wind up at the same wedding in wine country. They may have differing opinions on love — Frank (Reeves) is still reeling from past emotional trauma, while Lindsay (Ryder), left at the alter, retains a degree of optimism — but they share a cynical sense of humor.
“These people are divorced from life, divorced from happiness, divorced from the joyous activities of having a wedding,” explained Levin, who directed and wrote “Destination Wedding.” “They’re miserable in the face of this pageant of happiness.”
Yet, as the two trade insults and swap wisecracks, they forge a prickly connection.
Levin said he chose Ryder, whose credits include “Edward Scissorhands,” “Little Women” and “Stranger Things,” to play Lindsay because of her innate sweetness and idealism.
“Winona has a certain ineffable quality, a certain Winona-ness,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful, spiritually beautiful.”
According to Levin, it was Ryder who suggested Reeves, star of “The Matrix” movies and the “John Wick” film franchise, for the role of Frank. She and Reeves previously appeared together in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “A Scanner Darkly” and “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.”
“I give her a lot of credit. She knew they would have chemistry on camera,” Levin said of Ryder.
Levin, whose first feature film, 2014’s “5 to 7,” also explored an unconventional romance, originally set “Destination Wedding” in Carmel-by-the-Sea. But filming in that Monterey County beach town proved “way too expensive” given the movie’s $1 million budget, he said, so he and producer Elizabeth Dell looked at alternative shooting locations.
“I said, ‘I have this connection to an amazing winery in Paso Robles. What if we made it a destination wedding on the Central Coast?’ ” Dell recalled.
Her godparents, Curt and Kate Dubost, own DuBost Vineyard & Winery.
Levin said he spent “about 11 seconds” at the winery before he came to the same conclusion as Dell.
“There was this ocean of effusive emails saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes. That’s the place. We must make it happen,’ ” he recalled.
Principal filming for “Destination Wedding” took place over nine and a half days in August 2017 — a speedy schedule even by indie movie standards.
The time frame wasn’t the only challenge. The shoot coincided with a late-summer heat wave, with temperatures soaring into triple digits. “It was astoundingly hot,” Dell said.
“We were trying to keep a low profile while we were shooting,” Dell said, but that didn’t stop Reeves from being spotted while jogging, exploring the Downtown SLO Farmers Market and dining at Foremost Wine Co. in San Luis Obispo. “He was out and about.”
San Luis Obispo shooting locations included the San Luis Obispo Regional County Airport, massage parlor Happy Feet Spa and the Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant in San Luis Obispo. (The hotel and eatery previously appeared in the 1990 movie “My Blue Heaven.”)
“Destination Wedding” also features footage shot at the Santa Maria Public Airport, Dell said. But the bulk of filming took place at DuBost Vineyard & Winery, which is co-hosting a sold-out reception and screening of the movie Thursday.
According to Kate Dubost, a 55-member production crew spent five days filming at the 320-acre property, shooting scenes at the tasting room, crush pad and other spots. Filmmakers even recruited Curt Dubost, his son Ted Dubost and several of the Dubosts’ friends, family members, neighbors and wine club members as extras.
A hill that’s hosted private weddings in the past served as the backdrop of a marriage ceremony scene, Dubost said, while the vines where the Dubost family grows grapes for their wines can be seen in a scene in which Frank and Lindsay encounter a mountain lion.
According to Levin, the mountain lion scene replaced a scene in his original script that called for Lindsay to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean.
“I can’t imagine it any other way now,” Levin said. “Paso Robles is so beautiful. There would not have been anything in Carmel to compare to the shots of the vineyards and the colors.”
Dell agreed. “We couldn’t have picked a better place than the Central Coast,” she said.
“Destination Wedding” is far from the first film to showcase San Luis Obispo County. Movies filmed here include “Arachnophobia,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “Spartacus” and “We Were Soldiers.”
In 2017, the county played host to more than 120 productions, including movies, TV shows, web series and commercials, according to Film SLO CAL, the film commission branch of countywide tourism bureau Visit SLO CAL.
As of Aug. 1, about 50 productions had been filmed locally in 2018, including Showtime’s “The Affair,” Discovery’s “Twin Turbos” and Netflix’s “Stay Here.” A camera crew for “Ad Astra,” an upcoming sci-fi movie starring Brad Pitt, shot a sequence at a ranch in rural Arroyo Grande in May, said Jordan Carson, Film SLO CAL marketing coordinator.
For folks on the Central Coast, “ ‘Destination Wedding” (is) a really big deal,” said Kim Wykoff, assistant to the general manager at Apple Farm.
“Our county is very well represented in that movie,” she said, which will likely boost interest in local landmarks and businesses. “It’s really going to be wonderful for all of us.”
‘Destination Wedding’ special screening
Want to see “Destination Wedding” in style?
The Apple Farm Inn and Restaurant and Downtown Centre Cinemas are teaming up for a special screening Friday at the movie theater, 888 Marsh St. in San Luis Obispo. A reception featuring dessert, wine and music by Black Market Trio starts at 6 p.m., followed by the screening at 7 p.m.
Tickets for the 21-and-up event cost $25 apiece. Visit eventbrite.com for more information.