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'Inception' film set is something to gawk at, even in jaded Los Angeles

Movie shoots are common here, but the one that swallowed four blocks of downtown was in a league of its own -- complete with a train wreck, fake rain, shootouts and an injured actor.

September 20, 2009|Esmeralda Bermudez

It was still dark when Dominga Cornejo parked herself outside her swap meet stand along South Spring Street, her ruffled pink apron tied around her waist and her giant bin of Mexican candy within arm's reach.

At any moment, the 77-year-old expected a torrent of rain to drench her, a series of gun blasts to boom and a locomotive engine to come barreling down the street, possibly in her direction.

"I'm ready for it," she said in Spanish. "I hope everyone sees my little store."

Cornejo and the rest of downtown Los Angeles was abuzz Saturday as four blocks were transformed into an elaborate film set calling for fake rain storms, gunfights, smoke effects and even a train crash. Staff on the streets were closelipped about the project, but the scenes are for "Inception," an action thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

A posted permit announced in fine print that the filming would include a "simulated car crash with train, breaking glass, simulated bullet effects on body and things, atmospheric smoke effects, weapons brandished . . . near hits & misses," among other things.

To keep media, particularly paparazzi, from sneaking into the set, security manned nearly every shop, building and parking structure from Main Street to Broadway and 6th to 8th streets. But that didn't keep Angelenos from cutting through orange cones and production assistants to get to work, to visit nearby shops or to simply stop and take in the commotion.

With swap meet sales sagging, Cornejo didn't mind the extra attention.

"They even paid me $300, which is way more than I make in two days," said the Salvadoran from Montebello.

Several hundred crew members milled about, starting as early as 4 a.m., delivering orders on walkie-talkies. Semi-trucks, cranes, generators, catering trucks and cars, and taxi cabs with New York license plates flooded streets and parking lots.

Just before 6 a.m., 83-year-old Nancy Chang and her neighbor walked up to their usual bus stop on Spring and 7th Street, only to find it had been moved.

"We need to get to church," Chang said, rushing off into the morning darkness, ignoring the West Horizon Railway locomotive parked across the street.

About an hour later, the sun began to rise and so did downtowners. Although accustomed to the hubbub that follows movie sets, many had never seen a production of this magnitude. They spent much of the morning strolling by with their pooches, not far from extras clad in business attire. Others rolled their eyes at another day of inconvenience as paths were blocked and parking lots taken over by film crews.

Amid the roar of generators, Matthew Niles sat in the corner of a packed coffee shop reading a book on how to remain Zen. The downtown resident, who moved to Los Angeles four years ago from a tiny town in Iowa, planned to spend the day watching the action from his apartment window.

"I want to see what happens," he said.

Light crowds began to gather about 8 a.m. when 7th Street turned into an action scene. A BMW plowed into a cab, creating an ambush that erupted in gunfire. Onlookers reached for cellphone cameras as one actor injured his head and an ambulance was called to the set.

"This is wild!" said Diana Forbes, a tourist from Pismo Beach, videotaping the action alongside her husband and son. On a one-day trip to L.A., the family squeezed in the filming before a trip to the Getty.

"We never get anything like this in Pismo Beach," said her husband, Erik. "The most we have is a clam festival."

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esmeralda.bermudez @latimes.com

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