When Steven Spielberg wanted to film his latest movie at an airport, he didn't just scout the perfect spot—he built it from the ground up.


From E.T. to the raptors in Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones to Oskar Schindler, Steven Spielberg's characters are larger than life. But for his latest film, The Terminal, the director has conjured up what may be his biggest character yet: an international airport.

The film, which opens this month, tells the story of a man (Tom Hanks) stranded at JFK, who, due to an immigration snafu, is forced to live in a place where everyone else is merely passing through. In many ways, the terminal is more than just a symbol of 21st-century life, it is also one of the stars of the film. In a nod to old-school moviemaking, Spielberg decided against dropping actors into a digitally created environment and commissioned a full-sized terminal, 60 feet tall and nearly 100,000 square feet. The result was so similar to an actual airport that his crew often did a double take when arriving for work. "Everybody would get very disconcerted the first time they'd walk in, like it was something out of the Twilight Zone," production designer Alex McDowell recalls. "You really had to look hard to realize it was fake."

McDowell found the raw space for his set at Hangar 704, a former B-1 bomber assembly facility that once briefly housed the Columbia shuttle, in Palmdale, California, about an hour outside of Los Angeles on the edge of the Mojave Desert. The set's structural frame required 650 tons of steel, produced by a crew that employed almost every certified welder in the film industry. It took more than 200 workers putting in 19 six-day weeks to complete construction.

"In the real world, it might have taken five years to build," notes McDowell, who didn't cut any corners, installing 58,000 square feet of polished granite flooring from China and 112,000 square feet of glass windows. Rather than create airfield views using computer-generated imagery, McDowell opted for a 31,200-square-foot scenic backdrop—the largest ever—lit from both front and back to simulate changing weather, seasons, and times of day. It was also equipped with thousands of tiny lights "so that when you had a night scene you could see runways lit in the distance."

When scouting locations for The Terminal, McDowell considered using an airport like JFK, but after 9/11, "there was always a possibility that there would be a security alert and the set would be shut down." In order to ensure uninterrupted shooting for two months, Spielberg, who had hired McDowell to create a futuristic world in Minority Report, asked him to invent a space that they could completely control.

Understanding that his design needed absolute authenticity, McDowell devised an atrium-style interior that included three levels with working escalators, retail stores, a food court, and a roof. "Normally a set doesn't have a ceiling because you're always lighting it from above," McDowell explains. "We built a 360-degree space where the camera could look in any direction—including up—and the audience would be convinced that they were in an actual terminal."

Although the terminal was designed to look new, Spielberg had another stipulation. "This wasn't supposed to be some spectacular piece of architecture," McDowell recalls. "It really had to look like an airport that the audience would believe they had visited before." For inspiration, McDowell visited JFK, LAX, and Denver International, and also spent time at London's Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and several German airports. Consequently, he added arrival and departure boards like those commonly seen in European airports, displaying white type on a black background. He also duplicated color-coded way-finding signs, designed by the Dutch firm Bureau Mijksenaar and just adopted for use at JFK. To get every detail exactly right, McDowell consulted the Transportation Security Administration, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and even Gate Gourmet, which supplies onboard meals to planes.

Virtually all of the movie, very loosely based on the story of an Iranian exile who lived in Charles de Gaulle for 12 years, takes place inside the terminal McDowell designed. Viktor Navorski (Hanks) is a hapless tourist who arrives at JFK on the same day that his small Eastern European country is wiped off the map in a political uprising. His passport no longer valid, Navorski ends up residing in the airport's international arrivals and departures area for almost a year.

Spielberg re-created the mod, colorful airports of the 1960's two years ago in Catch Me If You Can. But the public space of The Terminal is much less welcoming. "Though familiar and reassuring, the set also represents what is cold, bureaucratic, and impersonal in our culture," McDowell says. This airport is a deliberately idealized public space for a transient culture. When Navorski has to make the terminal his home, we too are forced to reevaluate how we think and feel about airports.

Indeed, the tension between form and function in modern airports has given rise to a niche in commercial architecture that must promote comfort as well as safety. The transportation industry was caught in an economic bind even before 9/11, says Ron Steinert, a principal in Gensler Airports & Transit, a division of the architectural firm that has built and renovated more than 40 terminals in the past 24 years. "Airlines were failing. More and more communities are now owning airports and leasing spaces to the carriers," he says. "So they have to become businesses. The only way to compete is to offer convenience, comfort, speed, and price—to become a brand."

Branding is something McDowell is intimately familiar with. Thirty-five well-known retail outlets are featured in The Terminal, including Swatch (which built a fully outfitted watch boutique in their headquarters in Switzerland and shipped it to the set), Verizon Wireless, Hugo Boss, Brookstone, Borders books, La Perla, and Godiva. In the food court, there are outposts of Burger King, Panda Express, Auntie Anne's pretzels, Baskin-Robbins, Starbucks, and Krispy Kreme. McDowell defends the use of such name brands as necessary to making Navorski's experience as real as possible. "It's not just product placement. For a lot of people, airports are defined by the logos on the shops. If you lose that, the audience is not going to recognize the environment."

But these days, well-planned terminals are more than just a collection of shops. Now that many post-9/11 security upgrades are in place, "airports have to humanize what essentially has been a people-moving machine," says Steinert. Some of the most common improvements, he notes, are larger waiting areas with clustered seating instead of rows, and architectural designs that reduce stress. At John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, "there are only eight signs in the entire airport. From the main entrance you can see every place you have to go."

To counteract what architect Rem Koolhaas has called "junkspace," or areas with uncomfortable and disorienting clutter, the design of new airports tends to be unmistakably directional, with flooring and lighting that create strong horizontal lines. In Terminal 5 of LAX, for instance, a "street" lined with awning-clad stores and potted palms leads directly to the gates. Other terminals are designed to symbolize a sense of place. In Palm Springs, structures resembling desert tents connect open-air walkways, while architectural elements in Guam's international airport mimic native outrigger canoes. For a new terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, to be unveiled in 2007, Gensler opened up a vista onto the city's skyline that can be viewed from the immigration hall. Adapting its design for the Times Square Toys "R" Us store to Atlanta, the firm is also installing an eye-catching 340-foot-long scrim that can flash hundreds of regional images.

Such attention to design is good news to Jochen Eisenbrand, curator of "Airworld," an exhibition running through January 9, 2005, at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany. "Airlines were one of the first businesses to have all-encompassing corporate designs, color schemes, and uniforms created by fashion designers. Air travel has become mass transportation, but very few airports are able to enhance the flight experience, to give the idea that it is still something special."

Increasingly, airports are expressions of civic pride, both cultural and commercial. In Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, there is a museum filled with Dutch masters. Vancouver's airport has a display of native Inuit art, while San Francisco International offers an aviation museum and library with interiors based on the airport's 1930's passenger waiting room.

This trend certainly did not go unnoticed by McDowell and Spielberg. Anyone who has passed through JFK will surely recognize the signs for Dean & DeLuca, Hudson News, and Nathan's Famous hot dogs. These New York-area businesses offer Navorski insight into the character of the city that lies beyond the airport doors, a character that gives Spielberg's terminal a personality as distinctive as a New York accent.

DAVID A. KEEPS is the Los Angeles correspondent for Travel + Leisure.