Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Real Life Movie Locations: LA and San Fran

A recent trip to Los Angeles and San Fransisco gave me the chance to visit a few locations featured in some of my favourite movies.

I mean, of course I did. I didn't realise it before I left home, but I have always wanted to go; 'Holy shit... It's Doc Brown's House!!'


Doc Brown's House

So we may as well start there: Doc Brown's house!

I thought I might venture out of the central part of LA, and was thinking about spending half a day in Pasadena, which I had heard was like Main Street USA from fifty years ago. And while I was reading about what to have a look at out there, I came across the historic Gamble House.

Built in 1908 for David Gamble, one of the founding partners of the pharmaceutical firm Proctor and Gamble, this place is best known as Doc Brown's 1950's residence in the 'Back to the Future' series. It stands on a busy road a few minutes walk from central Pasadena, and the surrounding neighbourhood is full of other houses built in this unusual style; dark timber, Japanese influence, large and rambling,

The house is open for tours, run by the local historic society, but of course the day I was there was the only day they didn't run them (and I was leaving LA the next day). A middle aged American woman, taking photos next to me on the sidewalk, was in the same boat; 'It's so disappointing! I mean, I still went and knocked on the door and asked the man in there if we could come in, but he said no. They were having a meeting, or something.'


Joe Gillis' Apartment Building

Possibly the greatest, and probably the most depressing, film ever made about Hollywood, Billy Wilder's magnificent 'Sunset Boulevard' is a classic that has aged well. The cynical, world weary tone of the film is, if anything, better suited to contemporary times than it was to the 50's, when it was released.

And while Gloria Swanson memorably fills the screen as faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, sadly the mansion that was used as her house in the film was knocked down some decades ago. But, what you can see, looking almost identical to how it does in the film, is hack screenwriter Joe Gillis' apartment building. Standing at the top of a small hill on North Ivar Street, with a fairly dismal view of one of LA's many freeways, the apartment building is but a short stroll away from the Walk of Fame.

And so I stood in the rain for a few minutes (the one rainy day I had in LA), and looked up at the top floor window, hearing William Holden's bitter voice over: 'I hadn't worked for a studio for some time...'


Echo Park Lake

Chinatown. The ultimate LA film, Jack. Faye. Roman. One of the greatest films of the 70s, and probably my favourite movie of all time. 

In this early scene, private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is on the trail of prominent public servant Hollis Mulwray, trying to catch him two timing at the behest of Mulwray's 'wife.' He hits pay dirt at a local lake, snapping a few pics of his quarry rowing around a young girl he takes to be his girlfriend. 

This scene was filmed at Echo Park Lake, a local leisure spot in the inner northern suburbs of the city. Echo Park Lake nowadays is ringed by busy roads, but the park itself is quiet, and still retains some of the pleasant charm as depicted in the movie. The wooden walk bridge in the background of the shot above is still there, and there are still rowboats for hire at the small boathouse on the east side.

Evelyn Mulwray's Safehouse

Later in the film, as Jack starts to unravel the serpentine plot, he find himself drawn to the real Mrs Mulwray, the enigmatic Evelyn. After they sleep together, Evelyn receives an urgent phone call, and rushes off into the night. Jack tails her to a house in the suburbs, where this femme fatale is keeping all of her secrets...

Theses scenes were shot at the well kept suburban residence above, part of a long stretch of lookalike houses on Canyon Drive, north of Hollywood. As a trivial footnote, the same house was used in the 1999 comedy 'Blast From the Past'; it's the house where Alicia Silverstone lives with her brother.


SanDeE*'s Apartment Building

Harris: What was your name again?

Sandee: It's Sandee.

Harris: It's nice. Everyone seems to have such weird names nowadays. You know, it's Tiffany but with a p-h-i. Or instead of Nancy it's Nanceen.

Sandee: So it's capital s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e.

Harris: What?

Sandee: Captial s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e. And there's a little star at the end!

Steve Martin's 'LA Story' is a favourite 90's comedy of mine, and the most distinctive location is probably his sortof girlfriend SanDeE's apartment building. Located half a block from the board walk in Venice Beach, on Windward Avenue, this unmissable visual feast is actually home to a small market; the door and steps you can see above were props, added for the flick.

The mural was created in 1989 by local artist Rip Cronk. It looks a little different to how it appears in the film as the artist retouched it in 2010, to paint over some graffiti. The building itself, known as the Venice Beach Cotel, was also featured in an even more famous movie; Orson Welles' classic 'Touch of Evil' from 1958.

In the movie, the Venice Beach Cotel (disguised as The Ritz) is the hotel where Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh are staying. To commemorate this, artist Jonas Nevas created the above mural on the other side of the building to SanDeE's, in 2012.


Beverly Hills Police Headquarters

'Hey, this place is nice!'

So says Axel Foley, Detroit Police Detective, when he first sees the Beverly Hills police headquarters. And in comparison to the dirty, noisy and chaotic environment he has left behind back east, you can see why. I mean, I felt the same way myself, wandering around the palm tree lined boulevards of LA's most famous ritzy suburb; everything is clean, and expensive, and you feel like you don't belong.

In trouble for getting thrown through a window ('Are you kidding me?! The guy threw me through a fucking window!!') Axel has been arrested, and is about to meet up with Taggart and the gang for the first time. And the station that the beat cops have taken him to probably qualifies as the most grandiose precinct in movie history.

In reality, this is the Beverly Hills City Hall, a handsome stone building one block off Sunset Boulevard.


Alfalfa Sprouts and Mashed Yeast

Woody Allen in LA.

For fans of his movies, this almost seems unthinkable. But in Woody's hilarious and bittersweet romantic comedy of 1977, 'Annie Hall', he visits La La Land not once, but twice. And amidst all the zingers aimed at Hollywood, these LA trips serve as road signs as his relationship with Annie falls apart; young and carefree, she is drawn to the bright lights and breezy lifestyle on the west coast, while he prefers grim and gritty New York ('If I get too mellow, you know, I ripen and I rot').

In the above scene, Woody has trekked out to LA for the last time, where Annie has moved to pursue a career as a singer, part of a last ditch effort to win her back. They meet at a restaurant, which is when Woody famously orders alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast for lunch.

The restaurant itself has a remarkable backstory. 

The Source in the 1970s.
When 'Annie Hall' was filmed, this was the 'The Source', one of LA's first organic restaurants. Founded in 1969 by former movie stuntman James Edward Baker, AKA Father Yod, The Source was the commercial front of a hippie-ish healthy living commune that Baker had founded called The Source Family. Mixing Eastern philosophy, yoga and vegetarianism, Baker's cult attracted a small following, but his restaurant was a raging success. 

The Source menu.
With a distinctive menu and a prime location at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, The Source attracted the cream of the film industry (notables such as Marlon Brando and Julie Christie were said to be regulars). It was so successful that Father Yod was able to open up two further eateries in the surrounding neighbourhood,

But success was at odds with The Source Family's principals. In 1974, Father Yod sold his businesses, and the remainder of his collective family moved to a new commune in Hawaii. The following year, this most enigmatic of restaurateurs died in a hang gliding accident. 

The Source restaurant changed hands several times subsequently, and was badly damaged in a fire in the 1980s. But it has survived through to the present day, a little worse for wear. Currently it is a cheap Mexican joint, The Cabo Cantina.


Fort Point

Fort Point, at the southern foot of the Golden Gate, where Madeline throws herself into the bay. Sadly the authorities have blocked off the walkway round to the front of the old fort - it looks a bit rickety so I guess it is a safety thing - but in every other respect this was totally spectacular. The burnt rust colour of the bridge towering overhead, the golden brown of Marin County directly opposite, the eerie drone of the fog horns. The best place to see the bridge from, and I am only moderately biased.

The Palace of The Legion of Honour - Entrance

Carlotta's Portrait

The bench is gone, and the room has been painted, but the Palace of the Legion of Honour (a stylish art gallery in the Presidio) marks the room where Hitchcock filmed this scene in their program.

The Elster's Apartment Building

Perched at the very top of the tallest hill in central San Fran, is the appropriately named mini suburb Nob Hill. A perfect place for a wealthy couple like Madeline and Gavin Elster to live. And their building looks absolutely identical to the movie, to the point where you almost feel like you are walking onto a set as you approach.

Mission Dolores

Built by Jesuit missionaries in the 1790s, Mission Dolores is the oldest building in San Fransisco. The original mission building is simple and beautifully crafted, with some wonderful 19th century art adorning the walls. And the adjoining cemetery is quiet, and quietly mysterious, with its shaded, narrowly winding baths and decaying statues. 

It is here that Jimmy Stewart's obsession starts to get the better of him, and it seemed the prime spot for it. There was a timeless quality behind the stucco brick walls of the building, you felt quite disconnected from the busy suburb outside, and I realised that these locations are not chosen by accident.

And that brought me to the end of my movie scene tourism. There were loads more that I didn;t get to; more Chinatown locations, the hotel where they shot that scene in Ghostbusters, the high school where the exteriors for Pretty in Pink were shot, the lobby of the hotel Barton Fink stays at, countless others.

But I know, with an absolute degree of certainty, that I will be back.