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L.A. Doubles for Iraq as Bomb Site

Filmmakers create a mock Baghdad market for an ad aimed at deterring suicide strikes.

May 21, 2006|Myron Levin | Times Staff Writer

Flying bodies and booming pyrotechnics turned the warehouse district east of downtown Los Angeles into a make-believe killing ground Saturday, with the filming of an unusual public service ad for Iraqi TV meant to discourage suicide bombings.

About 200 actors and extras took part in the filming at 8th and Kohler streets, transformed by Arabic banners and crowded stalls into a busy Baghdad market.

Suddenly, a fireball and a tableau of hysteria and carnage: A stuntman was blown onto the hood of a passing car. A woman wearing a head scarf, wired to an overhead crane, was jerked into the air, her body and her baby's stroller flying in opposite directions.

Designed to simulate the impact of suicide attacks on innocent civilians, the commercial is the work of EFX Films, based in Beirut, and 900 Frames, a Los Angeles production company that takes its name from the amount of film it takes to make a 30-second commercial.

The high-tech spot being shot Saturday is to be twice that long, costing more than $1 million. It involves the use of 120 cameras to produce the "still array" effect popularized in video games and "The Matrix" film trilogy in which action is shot simultaneously from every conceivable angle. The two-day shoot is scheduled to wrap up today.

Without any dialogue, the commercial aims to recreate the fleeting seconds before, during and after a suicide attack. The action involves a young boy smiling innocently as he makes eye contact with a passerby entering the market and the horror reflected on the child's face when the man blows himself up.

It's unclear how many would-be bombers will be susceptible to the ad's message about the consequences of violence or how many TV stations will air it. But deterring a single suicide attack would be a real triumph, the producers said.

"If we do our job right, it could actually save lives," said Drew Plotkin, a partner in 900 Frames, adding that he would be "truly proud to be part of that."

The sponsors of the commercial aren't eager to take credit, however.

Jonathan Zaleski, a publicist for 900 Frames, said funding for the spot came from a group of private Iraqi citizens, in the country and abroad, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Previously, 900 Frames and EFX teamed up in a public service ad promoting Iraqi unity that was sponsored by a group called Future Iraq Assembly. The group's website, www.futureiraq.org, features a series of professional and expensive-looking ads on themes of peace and national unity.

The site says the group's members are Iraqi business people, scholars and activists, but none are identified.

In the past, some Iraqi groups have received money covertly from the U.S. or other governments with a stake in Iraq's political struggles. There has been speculation in the media that Future Iraq Assembly has received U.S. funding for its work.

EFX Films personnel present Saturday would not speak to The Times.

Casting agencies had put out a dragnet for actors who were, or looked to be, of Middle Eastern descent. Some said it was just another job, but others were enthusiastic about the message of peace.

As an actor of Indian descent, John Deonarine, 40, of Glendale said he usually refuses to participate in public service ads that are "even remotely stereotypical" in their use of actors of Asian heritage. But Deonarine said he was happy to participate in the suicide bombing spot "because it was anti-terrorism."

Eddie Perez, 43, a Los Angeles stuntman who was blown up Saturday in at least two scenes, said that was "all in a day's work." But "it's nice that it's a public service," Perez said of the commercial.

His face cosmetically changed to a mask of cuts and burns, Nick Hotaly, a 45-year-old actor from Sherman Oaks, said he too was happy about the message of nonviolence.

"Anything to get the point across is very important," he said.

Jim Gill, president of Reel EFX Inc., a North Hollywood firm responsible for special effects, was focused more on packing the work into a two-day shoot. As for the ad's intent, Gill said he was "sorry to have to do something like this -- that the world is in a state that it is necessary to convince people" not to kill one another.

John Romano, whose produce store El Ruisenor (the Nightingale), at 8th and Kohler streets, was virtually blockaded, watched with mixed emotions.

Romano said he had lost customers because of the blocked-off streets. "The objective is good," he said, "but anyway they affect the business."

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