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L.A. Period Film Hits Road to Find a Place Like Home

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If the upcoming movies "Hollywoodland" and "The Black Dahlia" prove anything, it's that making a movie set in old Los Angeles ain't what it used to be.

Both films are set in Hollywood's more glamorous past -- "Dahlia" in 1947 and "Hollywoodland" in 1959 -- and deal with mysterious deaths: "Dahlia" concerns the murder of aspiring actress Elizabeth Short, while "Hollywoodland" investigates the supposed suicide of George Reeves. And for both, the majority of their shoots took place not only out of the city but out of the country: "Hollywoodland" decamped to Toronto, and "Dahlia" flowered in Sofia, Bulgaria.

"It's an ironic truth," "Hollywoodland" director Allen Coulter says.

The films were made on moderate budgets -- "Hollywoodland" for $16 million, "Dahlia" for $65 million. And it was primarily budget considerations that forced the filmmakers to shoot outside the U.S. "Hollywoodland" producer Glenn Williamson says his production saved about $2 million shooting in Toronto, and "as a percentage of the budget, that is very meaningful."

Williamson and Coulter tried everything to shoot in Los Angeles, but even if the financial barriers hadn't been there, other roadblocks existed. The current owners of Reeves' house had no interest in working with the filmmakers, and neither did the owners of venerable restaurant Musso & Frank's.

And then there's the sad state of historical architecture in Los Angeles. "The ground floors on virtually every street in Los Angeles have been doctored and look like a contemporary facade," Coulter says. "Changing those facades is prohibitively expensive. In Los Angeles, there's no real interest in maintaining any kind of sense of its own historical architectural past. It's a shame."

But Toronto, in the Great White North, as Hollywood? Coulter and Williamson were skeptical, but Toronto-based exec producer J. Miles Dale changed their minds, stunning them not only with the city's intact 1950s architecture but also buildings from the decades leading up to the '50s.

The production found that it could shoot a 1950s interior apartment and have a 1920s-style building in the background. A '20s Spanish-style estate outside the city doubled for the home of famed MGM exec Eddie Mannix. At Toronto's King Edward Hotel, the production took over two entire floors, plus the lobby, in lieu of filming at cost-prohibitive Los Angeles hotels like the Roosevelt. And, almost impossibly, they even found a site that looked like a '20s beach club. "That doesn't exist here anymore," Coulter says. "And if you did it in Santa Monica, it would cost a fortune, and it would need a ton of CGI to hide all the other buildings."

The makers of "Dahlia" took another route entirely. They hired one of the best production designers in the industry, Dante Ferretti, to re-create 1940s Los Angeles on Bulgarian soundstages.

Using meticulous research, Ferretti built 25 interiors as well as part of Chinatown, L.A. streets and the infamous crime scene. He re-created the police department, historic apartments, the Red Arrow Motel and such nightspots as the Brown Derby and the Laverne Club.

Two months before the start of shooting, the filmmakers imported seven big containers filled with props from the U.S. and imported about 50 period American cars from London and Italy. Then Ferretti oversaw his Bulgarian carpenters and painters and other crew as they painstakingly built a world from more than 50 years ago.

Ultimately, each movie did some shooting in Los Angeles, mostly exterior work. "Normally I prefer to make the movie in the right place, but this is the way the business is," Ferretti says.


Borys Kit writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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