It's the reel thing: the film industry belongs to Glasgow

Want to shoot a Viking epic or a Brooklyn drama? Go north of the border. Ian Burrell reports

Idris Elba, as well-informed fans of The Wire know, can present himself as a highly credible American gangster, in spite of his east London roots.

But disguising the streets of Glasgow for a film set in New York's Brooklyn, as was done in Elba's latest movie project, was an altogether different exercise in transformation. Though not as difficult a challenge as you might imagine, thanks to the shared Victorian architecture of the two cities, a common legacy that Glasgow hopes will persuade an increasing number of film producers to see it as an alternative location for plots set in America.

So in Legacy, in which Elba stars as an American serviceman alongside Clarke Peters, his fellow actor in The Wire, Glasgow's City Chambers was dressed as a New York City courtroom. The Brooklyn motel room where Elba's character takes refuge after returning from an undercover operation in Eastern Europe, is in fact a studio within the red-bricked Govan Town Hall, which has become the home of Glasgow's Film City project.

Legacy's writer and director, Thomas Ikimi, believes the buildings of some Glasgow streets are barely distinguishable from those in parts of the Big Apple. Even a native New Yorker such as Peters had to agree, he says. "Much of the New York architecture was actually based on Glasgow. The brickwork is the same as you would see in the older parts of Manhattan, in Fifth Avenue or Madison Avenue," says Ikimi, 30, a Londoner who attended New York's Columbia University. "The biggest difficulty we had was with taxi cabs, the way people are dressed and the street markings. We had to paint over or cover the markings that looked British."

It's not the first time that Glasgow has doubled for New York. The film adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, made in 2000 and starring Gillian Anderson, saw the City Chambers presented as early Twentieth Century New York rooming houses. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum was disguised to appear as Grand Central Station in Manhattan.

The city's adaptability is a key ingredient in its remarkable recent success as it emerges as Britain's second film-making hub, after London. Kevin Macdonald's saga of the Roman army north of the border, The Eagle of the Ninth, starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell and Donald Sutherland, was filmed last year in Glasgow, as well as in more rural parts of Scotland. The natural beauty of the country has, of course, long been beneficial to the Scottish film industry, attracting production of blockbusters such as Highlander and Braveheart. But Glasgow has now moved beyond that, offering good quality studio and post-production facilities.

Film City also has four casting agencies under its roof, one devoted to supplying actors of ethnic minority backgrounds. "It's not just the tartan and chocolate box stuff anymore. Glasgow is quite a gritty, urban, cool city now," says Tiernan Kelly, Film City's general manager, highlighting recent international recognition of the city's achievements in music and art. "This all adds to the cachet of Glasgow, that it's a good place to work."

Film City, a £3.5m redevelopment of the old town hall building, includes several film and television production companies, including KEO, the team behind Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage on Channel 4. Also being made in Glasgow is the romantic drama The Last Word, directed by David Mackenzie and starring Ewan McGregor. It is a co-production involving Sigma Films, based in the same building. Meanwhile another Romans in Scotland movie, The Centurion, starring yet another actor from The Wire, Dominic West, was shot largely in the Highlands and is due for release at the end of this year.

The Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn was intending to set his Viking saga Valhalla Rising in both Canada and Scotland. He decided to film entirely in Scotland after Glasgow-based producer Karen Smyth introduced him to the beauty of the ancient forest of Glen Affric, outside of Inverness. "It's almost a prehistoric forest which has the last Douglas Firs and Canadian Pines," she says. "We persuaded him to shoot the whole thing in Scotland and it was a lot more cost-effective."

Refn wanted to shoot in places that had never been seen by film audiences before. So after long drives into the forest, the crew boarded tractors that took them up into mountainous areas of the Highlands. "The vistas were just never ending but we definitely didn't make it easy," says Smyth, who argues that it is the combination of these natural locations and the quality of production staff and facilities that has made Glasgow attractive to film-makers.

The American director Joe Pytka last year came to Dunnottar Castle, outside Aberdeen, to film Clydesdale horses for Budweiser's Superbowl commercial, reckoned to be the most-watched advert of the year on American television.

Smyth, the managing director of Glasgow production company La Belle Allee, is also co-producing Mary's Ride, a new biopic of Mary Queen of Scots which should begin filming this year. Smyth's co-producers, who are Swiss, have been impressed with the depth of production talent in a country that has produced the likes of Rob Roy, Local Hero and Trainspotting. "We have a film culture in this country. We have studio facilities, and we have world class crews – people don't really know that until they come here."

Ikimi understands this, having worked for Glasgow company Black Camel Productions in filming Legacy, which was made with finance from Nigeria. By using the countryside of Dumfries for the Eastern European scenes of a thriller inspired by Hitchcock classics, Ikimi made his budget go further. The movie, in which Elba's character is a former soldier involved in "black ops" covert operations, has been selected to be the closing feature at this year's Glasgow International Film Festival next month.