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Blowing L.A.'s cover

Three new cop shows have been chasing after unusual locations and angles to portray the city in new ways.

October 13, 2002|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

A group of SWAT officers swarms before a run-down house on 36th Street in southwestern Los Angeles. Yet the residents on the street barely blink an eye.

No wonder. This is L.A., after all, and the most anxious people on the scene aren't the cops, but the young men and women carrying walkie-talkies and dressed in Hollywood casual attire.

Since the city's canyons and brushlands figured prominently in early westerns and since Laurel and Hardy fruitlessly tried to move a piano up a steep staircase in Silver Lake, Los Angeles has served as a backdrop for film, and then television.

This season, however, the old perennial locations just don't cut it. The premiere this fall of three new cop shows all set on the streets of L.A. -- "Robbery Homicide Division" on CBS, "Boomtown" on NBC and "Fastlane" on Fox -- has prompted a high-stakes scramble to capture unfamiliar views of one of the most filmed cities anywhere.

The three productions are practically falling over each other on city streets, filming within blocks and hours of each other in the search for unique sites that have previously escaped Hollywood's attention.

Residents in poorer areas of East and South-Central Los Angeles may complain occasionally about police inattention, but the TV cops are there in force. The other actors, directors and crews that accompany them are mixing with the homeless denizens of skid row, turning their bright lights on the almost invisible garment manufacturers underneath the Santa Monica Freeway, and zeroing in on the artist community of Leimert Park. Seedy streets populated by gang members and vagrants also have been overrun by film crews and star trailers.

Even a familiar filming location like the Los Angeles River is getting viewed in a different, decidedly less romanticized light. Don't look for John Travolta drag-racing in "Grease"; the nooks and crannies of the ditch and its unseen populace living in caves and holes around its concrete banks have been invaded by "Boomtown."

The dreadlocked owner of a reggae music store on Crenshaw Boulevard has reluctantly allowed crews to film in his shop. One producer bragged about filming a scene high in an abandoned wing of City Hall that had never been filmed before.

"I've been shooting L.A. for 20 years, trying to make it not seem like Los Angeles," says Flip Wylly, a location manager for "Robbery Homicide Division." "Now, we're going out of our way to show the bittersweet beauty of Los Angeles."

Or, in the case of this night's shoot on 36th Street, the aim is to satisfy producer-director Michael Mann's quest for realism, using real SWAT personnel. And as sirens wail nearby and police helicopters occasionally pass overhead, the glamorous Hollywood machinery comes nose-to-nose with the often grimy reality of city life.

"L.A. is a fascinating and unique three-dimensional city," Mann says as he sits in his trailer. "There's this fusion of cultures that you don't have in other places. We're trying to approach L.A. as realistically as we can. Everything is loaded with color here, but there's this patina of corrosion on top of it all."

Mann, who created the pastel look for TV's "Miami Vice" and who directed "Heat," a feature film that showed L.A. in a stylized light, is aiming for a grittier feel with "Robbery Homicide Division." Although many of the city's picturesque vistas are shown, the production also is centered in lower-class communities. That's posed some problems: Gang members have threatened crew members in some areas, and equipment has been stolen. Yet there's a creative payoff: Mann is overseeing some filming in the middle of the night to capture a more ominous feel, instead of shooting in early evening.

In NBC's "Boomtown," each week's crime is examined "Rashomon"-style, from the viewpoints of cops, district attorneys, paramedics and journalists. They bring their distinct perspectives, filtered through their experiences in such a diverse city.

"I've been told I have this romanticized view of Los Angeles," says Graham Yost, creator of "Boomtown." As a screenwriter, he previously offered a street-level perspective on L.A. -- notably the then-incomplete 105 Freeway -- in his breakthrough project, "Speed."

"I love all the odd stuff about the city, the juxtapositions," says Yost, a Canadian by birth. "I remember years ago when I was here with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I was looking up at this palm tree that was blowing in the breeze and I thought it was the greatest thing. Then my girlfriend pointed to this other palm tree, and said, 'Notice how that one is not moving?' I said yes, and she said, 'That's because there's rats up in there.' And that really summed up L.A. for me, the whole irony of it."

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