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Avast, Johnny Depp! You’re Crushing My Petunias!

Want to know the plot of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie months ahead of time? Just ask someone who lives next to the studio lot

Illustration by Ben Kirschner

Johnny Depp was in my backyard. It wasn’t the first time, either. He’s spent many a night romping around outside my bedroom window. I live in a hilltop neighborhood called Hollywood Manor, where my house overlooks the Universal Studios back lot. From practically any room in my house I can see pretty much everything that goes on. During the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean 4, there was a castle turret within 100 yards of my fence. The land beyond had been transformed into a sandstone bluff, with cranes and trailers scattered about. Depp and his shipmates were filming regularly from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. If any of this piqued my interest, the appeal was lost after I tried going to sleep with the pyrotechnics, gunshots, production lights, and swashbuckling exclamations boring through my oleanders. One night the turret went up in a mushroom cloud. On another, neighbors discovered a paparazzo perched in a hedge with his megaphone-size telephoto lens, snapping pictures of Depp along with Rob Marshall, Penélope Cruz, and Salma Hayek, who was visiting the set.

The day my boyfriend and I first looked at the house three years ago I remember thinking how quiet it was. Quiet and historic. After all, Alfred Hitchcock directed on that lot. Aside from a handful of fake houses and a giant green screen, there wasn’t much to see other than some towering trees. I was a bit naive to think things would stay so serene, but there was nothing shooting at the time, and all the deed stated was that the house is next to Universal Studios. When I moved in, I saw that I was not the only recent arrival: Outside my living room window a movie set around a lake had suddenly materialized, with workers Jet Ski-ing on it. I thought it was kind of interesting. And then the ruckus began. Friends I knew when I lived in New York thought I was lucky to see stars through my window. “Well, that’s more exciting than being here,” they’d say. But seeing Johnny Depp and trying to sleep while Johnny Depp and his crew are yelling their lines into the night sky are two different things.

After the cast of Pirates moved on, the movie Cowboys & Aliens moved in. My days were starting on cue with Jon Favreau shouting “Action!” over and over on the crane-filled set. At one point an explosion jolted my house. That was followed by gunfire that echoed through the canyon. I felt like I was in my own personal Truman Show. Two hours later another explosion rattled the foundation just before a wave of fire crossed the sky. It reminded me of the time when flames swept through the lot a couple of years ago, burning down the King Kong ride. Little Fockers was being filmed at the same time as Cowboys & Aliens, but at least they used a soundstage so that I was spared having to hear any dialogue.

It’s not only the filming that makes living here unique. Residents in my neighborhood are also treated to the jabbering of studio tour guides, the distant wail of car alarms in the massive parking structure, growling chain saws on Halloween Horror Nights, and the occasional fireworks display. I suppose that’s what you get when you live next to a back lot. So we try to ignore it. But the filming—the yelling and lights and explosions and production trucks rumbling around—that’s not so easy to blot out.

The neighborhood has been battling NBC Universal over this issue for years without success. The company notifies us the night before one of its cinematic extravaganzas by posting an 8-by-11-inch flyer on our front doors. A recent one informed us that “between the hours of 12:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., the following back lot production activities are planned: Production lights, wind machines, explosions, gunshots. Every effort will be made to complete all explosion and gunshot activity before 10:00 p.m.”

Not that that lessens the cacophony. When I called the LAPD about noise violations, I was told that Universal City was out of its jurisdiction. When I contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the person on the other end of the line said she wasn’t sure it had jurisdiction, either. Even though my house is within the borders of the City of Los Angeles, if you cross my backyard fence into Universal City, the laws go out the window. Universal seems to follow its own laws, since it considers itself to be “its own city.”

So I’ve resorted to calling a Noise Manager hot line the company set up last fall. The reply I usually receive is something to the effect of “Oh, didn’t you get the note that we would be filming tonight?” When my boyfriend or I e-mail Cindy, an executive there, she’ll respond, “We got your noise complaint yesterday. As you know, we’ve got a big production prepping back there, and we confirmed that is what you heard yesterday. Thanks for keeping us posted.” She even calls on occasion to warn me of particularly loud shoots. I know she’s doing her part, but it’s not like I can plug my ears with her phone call and actually get some sleep. The company has sent out statements about sound mitigation efforts—installing sound baffles during Grinch-mas, for instance. I’ve heard that another of NBC Universal’s solutions has been to offer residents a chance to sack out in one of the company’s hotels—because, you know, sleeping at Universal Studios is just the thing to help settle your nerves when Universal Studios is staging a miniwar in your backyard.

People have circulated petitions around the neighborhood in an effort to establish better noise control. But the area is home to many people in the Industry, some of whom are afraid to cross NBC Universal. Other residents—including me, I admit—have tried to give the company a taste of its own medicine by blaring music in their yards during loud productions. But NBC Universal will quickly dispatch its security into the neighborhood or call the police. Things are only getting more intense now that the studio has unveiled the chilling details of its NBC Universal Evolution Plan—a long-gestating project to pack almost 3,000 condos, apartments, and other buildings onto the property over the next two decades.

As I was recently skimming part of the 39,000-page draft of the environmental impact report for the project, cranes began to bang around steel beams in the back lot. Workers were constructing a complicated bridge for the next Spider-Man movie. All girders and crossbeams, it’s an amazing piece of art intended to look like New York’s 59th Street Bridge. Along with the bridge came a convoy of NYPD patrol cars and a fleet of NYC Yellow Taxis, some of them presmashed. It looks as though I never left Manhattan.  

Want more Pirates? Also read Pirates Booty