SMITTEN: Scoot McNairy and Sara Simmonds star in "In Search of a Midnight… (Robert Murphy / Midnight…)
If a young filmmaker was to make a romantic comedy in Los Angeles, using the city not only as its setting but also as its guide, its muse, maybe even its soul, where might he be best-served in finding a model for such an undertaking? Oddly enough, he might try Manhattan. Alex Holdridge's new film, "In Search of a Midnight Kiss," which kicks off the Downtown Film Festival tonight ( www.dffla.com), is a bittersweet, often melancholy film that gives L.A. a bit of a New York spin -- a la Woody Allen's "Manhattan" -- despite the apparent contradiction.
A significant portion of "Midnight Kiss" finds the protagonists, each in search of a date as they approach the emotional abyss that is New Year's Eve, walking the streets of downtown L.A. amid its old banks and theaters. Shot in HDDV and transferred to a color-corrected, rich, black-and-white 35-millimeter, "Midnight Kiss" has a few modern conceits that distinguish it from Allen's classic New York film (the lead couple meets via Craigslist, for one), and each film gives a unique homage to its respective city.
" 'Manhattan' is a very good film to compare it to: They both glorify architecture and are classic in their style -- very wide shots and very clean," said Holdridge recently, just before heading off for the film's New York premiere. "I wanted the story to be modern but to give it an old-fashioned flair by using as long lenses as possible, and shooting over the shoulder -- a '40s or '50s style of shooting -- to break against how modern the story is."
Holdridge and his director of photography, Robert Murphy (who plays a small, villainous role as the female lead's ex), were cognizant of the visual as well as the psychological in their approach to tackling one of the world's most filmed cities.
Settings include the well-trodden (that is to say frequently filmed) La Poubelle restaurant in Los Feliz, the beach in Santa Monica and the Santa Monica Pier's Ferris wheel on a final spin prior to being replaced. Meanwhile, the fleeting, single shots of a number of buildings downtown are the most elegiac, encountered not as settings but as subjects of emotional intent.
Having gone through a very difficult transition after arriving here from Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2003 -- he'd lost his girlfriend, his car and went broke (all of which is represented in "Midnight Kiss") -- Holdridge aimed to infuse this inner turmoil into the downtown landscape.
"My emotional state at the time was, on the one hand, raw, depressed, frustrated and feeling a bit hopeless," he said. "And yet for me, just recognizing how unbelievably beautiful it is down there, I couldn't believe how gorgeous those theaters were, how beautiful the banks were."
Shot with a minuscule budget even by independent film standards (about $25,000), the outdoor filming, which is substantial, had to happen as quickly as possible. Yet Holdridge worked this to his advantage.
"Shooting discreetly with wireless mikes, you capture all the flavors of the city," he said. "It's as if you were stuck in a bus or walking the streets. It's hard to capture if you're a big studio film, which is all so planned."
It's an MO that goes back to the French New Wave, which instigated its own DIY approach. "Godard and [his peers] rejected the controlled nature," said Holdridge, "by picking up their friends and shooting them. Everything about that feels young and free and cool. They're not forgoing the ability to capture the flavor of the environment for the sake of: 'I can't get the perfect dolly shot here.' "
Holdridge, not surprisingly, is obsessed with film and has a deep admiration for the cinematic minds of David Lean -- he of "Brief Encounter" and "Lawrence of Arabia" -- as well as the cinematographers Allen worked with at the height of his career, from the late '70s to the early '90s. Gordon Willis, who shot "Manhattan," was also behind "Annie Hall," which was rather merciless in its L.A.-bashing. That "Midnight Kiss," made by a young filmmaker admittedly influenced by Willis' work, presents Los Angeles as a city with a downtown where people ride the subway -- and sometimes even walk -- is sort of a reverse twist on coming full circle.
The film had its theatrical premiere in London in mid-July and continued its rollout throughout the U.K. before opening stateside, and audiences there, according to Holdridge, "were shocked to see that L.A. -- 'We only know it as beach bimbos or ghetto or Beverly Hills.' They're thinking: 'We've seen thousands of movies from L.A., but we never get to see what L.A. looks like normally.' "