Lori Balton knows L.A. really well including the parts that scare the daylights out of her.
As a location scout for Michael Mann’s crime epic “Heat,” she had to shoot 20 rolls of film a day in search of some of the grittiest parts of town places where the movie’s two lead characters played by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro would do battle.
Sites included those with luminous urban views, as well as downtown streets littered with used condoms and dead rats. Mann would reject most of them, peering over his glasses at location presentations and saying, “This is good. Now find me better.” At first, Balton said she wanted to run out of the room screaming, but eventually she realized that Mann was the reason she now knows practically every crevice of the most filmed city in the world.
“He is making the best movie he can and he is slowly turning you into the best scout you can be,” she said. “We are the filters through which the director and designer create their world.”
The love affair between directors and the City of Angels is a long one. “Chinatown,” “L.A. Confidential,” “The Graduate,” “Blade Runner,” “Shampoo” pick your classic and there’s a good chance that an L.A. street or skyline will be part of the picture. For all the concern about runaway production, far more movies, television shows, commercials and music videos are made here than anywhere else. Last year, there were 28,633 location days shot in 2003, compared with 19,309 in New York and 9,049 in Toronto.
While the use of L.A. is as old as movies themselves, a new breed of filmmaker now uses features of the city in important supporting roles.
In “Collateral,” it’s the subway system and parts of Koreatown. In “The Italian Job,” part of Hollywood Boulevard is turned into a traffic gridlock as a major heist is carried out. Most recently, there is the popcorn thriller “Cellular,” which winds its way through several of the Westside’s beach attractions.
Being a diplomat
But before the director’s vision for a film can spring to celluloid life, a small army must undertake an intense orchestration of pre-planning, city approvals, location scouting, stunt coordination and community relations.
Location managers are charged with coming up with new locales in a town that has been filmed to death. They must also negotiate fees and contracts and arrange special-effects permits, wardrobe racks, signage and maps, changing areas, street closures, environmental safety and parking.
“In this business you have to be a diplomat and make sure you are taking care of the concerns and the people impacted,” said Steve Dayan, a former location manager who now represents film industry workers in Teamsters Local 399.
Even a minor complication could stop production and result in cost overruns running into many thousands of dollars. “In some ways, it’s easier because everyone knows the drill here,” Balton said of Los Angeles. “In some ways, it’s more difficult because everyone knows the drill here.”
In 1995’s “Heat,” the toughest location proved to be the Los Angeles International Airport, where officials reluctantly allowed filming in a restricted area near the radar tower. Shortly after setting up, location manager Janice Polley received a call from the FBI that almost derailed plans: Unabomber Ted Kaczynski had threatened to blow up the airport’s post office. Polley got the green light after it was determined the site was far enough away.
Polley knows all about the demands of shooting in L.A.
When she started working on Mann’s recent release “Collateral,” which chronicles the overnight adventures of a hit man and his hostage taxi driver, she and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti set out every night to look for locations that would shoot well at night, from downtown to East L.A.
In all, there were about 35 locations in the film some of them downright unnerving.
One Friday night during scouting, Polley said she and Cesaretti had a “slight incident” while standing on a bridge over the San Bernardino Freeway in City Terrace. (The bridge was later used in a pivotal scene where the character played by Jamie Foxx throws a briefcase belonging to the Tom Cruise character onto the freeway.)
“I heard this gang whistle, and sure enough, a group of guys blocked one end and another group stood at the other end,” she said. “One gentleman said something in Spanish, but the producer knew Spanish and told them that we were from a movie company.
“I’m sure they were wondering what we were doing there at midnight,” she added. “It’s interesting to scout at nighttime because you’re not used to how lively it is at night, and you get this incredible appreciation for how extraordinarily beautiful the city is.”
During the actual 65-day shoot, Polley said she was lucky if she slept five hours each night not that she’s complaining.
“Michael is extremely visual and Los Angeles becomes one of his characters,” she said. “There are not a lot of films that shoot only at night. The challenge was giving Michael the freedom to go where he wanted to go while covering myself with permits.”
She worked her contacts with the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., the California Department of Transportation, various police departments and the California Film Commission to line up approvals. Shooting at night requires an additional set of hassles namely getting 80 percent of a community’s residents or a resident group to sign off on filming. Most days she needed two or three city permits, though one night Mann filmed across multiple jurisdictions, and representatives from various agencies lined up in a parking lot to monitor the scene.
Mann insisted that everything be based on reality, from actual addresses the 1049 S. Union St. Building, for instance to the time it takes to drive from the Fourth Street Bridge to a neighboring street.
One the most complicated scenes came at the end, when the characters played by Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith met on a building rooftop, which was really the office of the U.S. Secret Service. When Polley first scouted it, a Secret Service agent turned her away. But Mann was insistent that the views and the look of the rooftop would provide his money shot.
After several dead ends, Mann called on a friend in Washington, who suggested the request be faxed directly to the director of the Secret Service. Three days later, Polley got a call saying, “We love Hollywood, but we can’t allow it.” Polley offered to scale down the scene, with only a handful people getting access. She finally got the approvals.
“We told them we’d only bring eight people, but that turned into 15,” she said. “We told them we’d only shoot until midnight but we went until one. Hopefully nobody noticed.”
Because “Collateral” was shot entirely at night (with the help of sophisticated digital cameras), Polley had to pay managers of downtown office high-rises to keep their lights on. She also finagled a deal to keep Staples Center lit after midnight when they shot the crash finale involving a helicopter and a car flipping over at an intersection.
“Logistically it was difficult because there were Lakers games on,” she said. “We went in there four or five times and Staples Center was extremely helpful. But their priority was the game.”
Closing Hollywood Boulevard
Logistics posed a problem for another film shot almost entirely in Los Angeles: “The Italian Job.”
One major sequence involved a traffic jam running along Hollywood Boulevard that encompassed 20 pages of the script. The street was closed off for portions of six days to regular traffic between Beverly Boulevard and Highland Avenue.
Greg Lazzaro, the second unit location manager who handled most of the action sequences, said months of permit negotiations with Caltrans were required to close the streets. But negotiations with owners of the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex, where the chase scene culminated, turned out to be one of the biggest challenges. “That took months of one team dealing with Hollywood & Highland to get it done,” Lazzaro said.
At one point in the film, an armored truck gets stuck in traffic and comes to a stop, only to fall 30 feet into the subway station below. The three Mini-Coopers featured in the movie are driven down the stairs of the Hollywood Boulevard station and into the Metro tunnel (actually filmed at the Seventh Street Metro downtown). The high-powered Minis had to be converted into electric powered vehicles, since the city would not allow motorized cars on the property.
The subway below was actually a set built in a Downey complex used to construct the space shuttle. The 70-foot-high stage stretched 500 feet and was used to film the sequence after the armored truck fell through the street. Stunt drivers sped the Minis through the “tunnel” back onto the streets and the concrete channels of the Hansen Dam, courtesy of permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It was a lot of work but we had a fair amount of time to prepare,” Lazzaro said. “We had the luxury of doing that and getting all the permits together.”
Lazzaro said the film’s “wow” shot came when he was able to get a permit to fly and land a helicopter on a small street called Thaddeus Kosciuszko Way, underneath downtown’s Museum of Contemporary Art. While a shot like this typically uses miniatures and computers, Lazzaro said a smaller helicopter was used to film the showdown sequence. “We thought it would take an act of God to get it done,” he said.
‘Not brain surgery’
Director David Ellis thought the same thing when he first saw the script for “Cellular.” The plot centered on a mother and wife played by Kim Basinger who is held hostage but manages to piece together a phone smashed by her captor and fatefully contacts a character played by Chris Evans.
“Cellular” was originally set for Boston around the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but Ellis was determined to keep the movie in L.A. The Malibu native hit the streets for about a week scouting his own locations and came up with a workable budget for 57 days of shooting. He rewrote the script to play out in Los Angeles around a Heal the Bay concert on the Santa Monica pier.
“What I was going for was beachy, with a lot of good looking people talking on cell phones and not paying attention to anything,” said Ellis, himself a former stuntman.
At $250,000 a day to film, his first location challenge was to find a street for a central car chase in which Evans pursued the kidnappers in a tiny, two-door school security car. In L.A., few streets can be shut down for extended periods, let alone five days, the time Ellis needed for the sequence. After scouting numerous locations, he secured permits to block off a three-mile stretch of Westchester Parkway, which runs parallel to Los Angeles International Airport, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
To simulate rush hour, Ellis paid extras $90 a day to sit in their cars and honk. Precision stunt drivers a step above an extra were paid $150 a day to swerve out of the way during the head-on portions of the chase. When Ellis ran out of time to film on one side of the street, he took the action to the other side of the three-lane road.
In other scenes, he transformed the oft-filmed 1960s-era Unocal Building in downtown Los Angeles into a bank, used the old Otis Chandler home in the oil fields of Century City as the kidnapper’s lair, and shot the attic where Basinger’s character was held captive in a sound stage at L.A. Center Studios.
For the final scene, Ellis gained access to a portion of the Santa Monica Pier, which he was allowed to film on for four-minute stretches. The cameraman cropped out looky-loos who tried to sneak into shots.
But in contrast to his bigger budget peers who have sculpted a careful philosophy about filming in Los Angeles, Ellis is more circumspect. “You have to have a sense of humor about it,” he said. “We’re only making films. We’re not saving the world. This is not brain surgery.”