Forget your noisy trucking corridors where big rigs skid from lane to lane like errant hockey pucks. Disregard the mist-shrouded mountain passes where cars come together in explosion-punctuated chain reactions.
Yard for yard, there's more freeway mayhem on a half-mile stretch of Shoreline Drive in Long Beach.
One day last month, a squad of speeding cars smashed into the side of a skidding tanker truck on the three-lane strip just as a helicopter swooped in, swiping at the back of the tanker like a big hornet. Then a black Ford raced up, rocketed into the air, smashed through the helicopter in a glorious ball of fire and slithered upside-down along the roadway before coming to a stop 50 yards away.
Of course, it was all painstakingly choreographed ahead of time in minute detail so that movie cameras could catch it all on film and stunt drivers could walk away unscathed.
Long Beach's Shoreline Drive--a short six-lane highway that winds through the city's downtown waterfront--has become one of Hollywood's favorite places to film automotive mayhem.
It has the look. "You really feel like you're on a freeway, but you're not," said Scott McAboy, one of the directors of "Men in Black," the film with the exploding helicopter.
Scenes from such recent movies as "Speed," "Forget Paris," "Last Action Hero," "The Last Boy Scout" and the soon-to-be-released "Clueless" have been shot on the drive, along with a slew of TV shows and car commercials.
"The California freeway system has probably the most filmed freeways in the world," said Hugh Cooper, film permit coordinator for the California Film Commission. "Foreign companies are even coming to Southern California specifically to capture the freeway look."
But staging a crash or an explosion on a freeway usually involves some major stumbling blocks. Block off a section of any freeway in the county-- particularly the ones near those photogenic skylines that filmmakers love--and you quickly generate a major traffic jam.
Here's why Shoreline Drive--a "look-alike freeway" in movie-making parlance--is such a gem, movie producers say.
One side of the highway, winding between the Long Beach Convention Center and a glassy row of office buildings on Ocean Boulevard, can be closed without any major traffic disruptions. Vehicles on the little-traveled road can easily be shunted onto adjoining streets.
About twice a year, Caltrans closes down a major section of freeway in Los Angeles County for filming--usually on Sunday mornings. Long Beach has shut down Shoreline Drive about 20 times in the past year, often for round-the-clock work. Movie-makers pay only $400 a day for the privilege, but there's a significant ripple effect, officials say--"everything from nails bought at the local hardware store to lumber for sets," said Jo Ann Burns, the city's film liaison.
PM Entertainment, a Sun Valley-based production company specializing in action adventures that usually go straight to video, was back for a third time with "Men in Black."
"It's hard to find a place where you can blow things up," production manager Amy Sydorick said. "If you do, it's usually in some abandoned spot, not a central city location."
In September, the company closed down Shoreline for 10 days for the movie "Last Man Standing" with its hair-raising car chases, mid-air flips and stunt men dragged by ropes behind careening cars. More than two dozen cars were detonated for that one, whose release date has still not been set.
Last month, it was helicopter maneuvers and fiery collisions. The movie, about sinister aliens who travel around in black helicopters, stars Jack Scalia, a Brooklyn-born former fashion model with chiseled features.
But the real stars were the 10 stunt men, who bounced around Shoreline in speeding cars like billiard balls.
Cole McKay, the movie's stunt coordinator, handles the tour de force stunt himself. It's McKay, strapped so tightly into the black Ford that he can only maneuver the steering wheel with slight bends of his wrists, who flies explosively through the mock helicopter.
Onlookers hooted in appreciation as the Ford screeched to a stop.
"Killer!" enthused prop maker Adam Paris, who had helped to construct the exploding mock chopper. "The helicopter--it was perfect the way it disintegrated."