During the winter months in Los Angeles, when the rains make a cameo appearance and temperatures dip below 70 degrees, I’m often reminded of a 30-year-old man-on-the-street interview by KYOY 14’s wacky weekend weatherman, Harris K. Telemacher.
Harris: And when the weather dropped down to 58 degrees this weekend, how did you cope?
Man: I just made sure all the windows were shut.
Harris: And what about your pets? Were they outside? What happened?
Man: Well, the cats were out till around ten. When it got a little too cold for ‘em, they came in.
Harris (to camera): The cats were out until around ten, but it got a little too cold them and they came in. Well, that’s how L.A. coped with that surprise low of 58 degrees that turned the weekend into a real weenie shrinker.
This playful interaction, of course, is right off the page of Steve Martin’s screenplay for 1991’s fanciful satire, L.A. Story, in which Martin plays the lovelorn weatherman trying to navigate the idiosyncrasies of Los Angeles while guided by the light bulbs of a sagely freeway sign.
L.A. Story was directed by Mick Jackson, the English filmmaker who later directed The Bodyguard (1992), Volcano (1997), Temple Grandin (2010), and Denial (2016). Over a period of about 20 years prior to L.A. Story, he made a number of social and politically minded documentaries for the BBC and a couple of hard-hitting feature films like Threads (1984) and Chattahoochee (1989). During his time with the BBC, Jackson often traveled to Los Angeles. He admits that he “hated” L.A. “I thought it was vulgar and showy and trashy and shallow,” says Jackson, who grew up on movie versions of L.A. that often depicted the tough guy in neon-lit or back alley settings.
So, how does a filmmaker who wasn’t fond of L.A., or known for directing comedy, come to make one of the most whimsical and endearing cinematic portraits of the city?
Jackson says that Martin had seen some of his work for British television and thought that an outside set of eyes on L.A. would be advantageous. “I realized quickly, reading the script, that it was a love letter to Los Angeles,” says Jackson. “I loved all the qualities about it. It was zany, it was satirical, it was magical, and it was romantic.”
Upon meeting Martin, the two went on a tour of L.A. much like the tour that Harris gives Sara (Victoria Tennant), an English journalist writing a profile on the city. “It opened my eyes to aspects of it, the villages of it really, the neighborhoods, the idiosyncrasies of it,” says Jackson, who moved his family to L.A. and has lived here for 30 years. “The first five movies I made here [in the U.S.] were in Los Angeles because I couldn’t bear to leave the place.”
According to a 1990 L.A. Times article, L.A. Story shot for 57 days at a staggering 87 locations. From the San Fernando Mission to the Long Beach shoreline, from the L.A. River to the Venice Beach boardwalk, the production averaged about one-and-a-half locations per day. The final film has a roster of almost 60 locations.
Looking back, location manager Jerome Ariganello says, “I’ve always thought it was around ninety to one hundred locations. I re-watched that opening sequence and that had probably over twenty-five locations in it. Some of them were really complicated. Things that looked simple enough weren’t.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of L.A. Story, released on February 8, 1991, here’s a roundup of ten of the film’s standout and/or more challenging locations.
Jackson says he wanted to bring a European sensibility to L.A. Story. The film opens with French crooner Charles Trenet singing “La Mer” whilst a foam replica of the iconic Tail o’ the Pup hot dog stand is suspended from a helicopter—an homage to the opening of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). Jackson singles out the work of French impressionist painters as inspiration. References to Shakespeare punctuate the film.
“The idea was it was kind of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the romance between these two people [Harris and Sara], and the idea that for all its sophistication, Los Angeles is a kind of a jungle like the forest in which the misadventures occur in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” says Jackson.
That lush quality is a visual motif seen at a number of locations through the film and it’s what drew Jackson to a Spanish-style abode in West Hollywood as a potential location for Harris’s apartment.
“We chose it to get this idea of a man trapped in a magical jungle,” says Jackson. It was surrounded by banana palms, succulents, and palm trees.
Jackson had his heart set on this location, says Ariganello, who admits that he almost didn’t show the property, built in 1921 on Orange Grove Avenue, because West Hollywood had basically banned filming at the time. “It took a lot of work petitioning the board,” says Ariganello. “They finally said, ‘If you can get everybody within two blocks in each direction to sign a petition, then it’s OK to film there.’”
Other fires had to be extinguished as filming was set to commence at the location.
The guy who owned the building across the street started another petition to block filming. The production paid him handsomely and he had a change of heart.
When Jackson scouted the location with his camera crew, all the vegetation around the house next door—used for deleted scenes in which Scott Bakula plays a down-on-his-luck boxer—had been pruned. Jackson says, “The guy next door had learned that we were coming to shoot there and thought, ‘Oh, this is so untidy with all these banana palms and things,’ and chopped them all down. So the greenery department spent $35,000 putting in palm trees and banana palms so we could shoot.”
Sometimes life imitates art and, today, all of the greenery that once surrounded Harris’s apartment is gone.
1206 N. Orange Grove Ave., West Hollywood.
The Freeway Sign
“You should try shooting on a real freeway,” says Jackson, laughing. He recalls a scene from his film Clean Slate (1994), in which Dana Carvey’s forgetful detective character trails someone onto the 10 freeway in Santa Monica. “I think it’s the last time they ever gave permission because it tied up the whole of downtown Santa Monica for the whole day. I got an earful from [my] kids’ nanny saying she had been stuck in traffic for four hours while we filmed. Obviously, you can’t do things like that,” says Jackson.
Other films like Falling Down (1993), Bowfinger (1999), and La La Land (2016) have successfully filmed on L.A. freeways, but more often than not it’s for one particular scene that doesn’t typically require more than one day of shooting. But L.A. Story needed a location that afforded the filmmakers complete control and one that could be shut down for multiple days while Steve Martin conversed with a freeway condition sign.
Ariganello went up in a helicopter to scout the then-uncompleted 105 freeway. (A few years later, Speed jumped the gap in the 105 before the freeway opened.)
Instead, the production’s permit coordinator steered Ariganello to Burbank Boulevard between Woodley Avenue and Hayvenhurst Avenue. The stretch of road in the Sepulveda Basin is three lanes in each direction and is void of any buildings, stoplights or sidewalks.
Jackson says he wanted the location to look like a stretch of the 10, and through a series of visual effects, existing trees and foliage were replaced with office buildings and palm trees.
L.A. Story also used Shoreline Drive in Long Beach, another go-to freeway double that can be seen in the chaotically hysterical freeway scene from Clueless (1995).
Burbank Blvd. bet. Woodley Ave. and Hayvenhurst Ave., Encino
The Ambassador Hotel
L.A. Story was shot almost entirely on location, but when the production needed hotel rooms for the film’s fictional Santa Barbara resort, El Pollo del Mar (the Chicken of the Sea), they were built inside the Embassy Ballroom of L.A.’s iconic Ambassador Hotel. The historic property, with its famed nightclub the Cocoanut Grove, closed in 1989. From that point on, it was used almost entirely as a filming location until it was demolished between 2005 and 2006.
The filmmakers had initially scouted the Ambassador for a garden-like brunch location, Dr. Delmar’s, the look of which was inspired by the Bel Air hotel. Ariganello says that not long after he shot at the Bel Air in the mid-‘80s the hotel stopped allowing filming. “It wasn’t even negotiable,” he says.
Upon scouting the Ambassador, an area near the pool with an existing trellis was selected for the brunch spot. Greenery was brought in to give it the lush quality Jackson desired. His cinematographer hung camouflage netting over the trellis to create dappled light and shadows on the actors’ faces. Silk Dior stockings were ordered from Paris and were placed over the camera lens. “It looked like a Renoir or a Monet or something,” says Jackson.
The rest of the El Pollo del Mar hotel was filmed at a private residence in Long Beach, but the Ambassador was a goldmine of locations, says Jackson. Upon scouting the rest of the property, it was clear that another important setting could be shot there: the interior and exterior of the trendy, militantly managed Hollywood restaurant, L’Idiot.
3400 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown
Jackson wanted to include as much visual variety of architecture as possible in L.A. Story.
Sara’s apartment was found at the Hollywood Rivera, a mid-century modern apartment complex built in 1954 by Edward H. Fickett. The building can also be seen as the San Dimas home of Bill and Ted in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), among a number of other films and TV shows. Its slanting roofline cuts across a tangle of dense foliage. Unlike the current state of Harris’s apartment, the greenery at the Hollywood Riviera still exists as part of the building’s retro charm.
Ariganello remembers he was looking for something that was a reflection of the character, something friendly, as opposed to the hard edge of the postmodern West Hollywood apartment building chosen for Trudi (Marilu Henner), Harris’s self-absorbed girlfriend.
One of Ariganello’s three assistants turned him onto the Hollywood Riviera, but with 57 days to shoot nearly 90 locations, it was critical to find a usable apartment at the building rather than cheat it elsewhere. They selected one of just a couple of condos at the location that had two floors.
1400 N Hayworth Ave, West Hollywood
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Martin’s character has a penchant for roller skating through art museums while his friend Ariel (Susan Forristal) videotapes the antics for a private, amateur video series called Harris K. Telemacher’s World of Art. The image of Steve Martin appearing in shoes with retractable roller skate wheels is one that adorns the film’s teaser poster, the cover of the published screenplay and various editions of the DVD and Blu-ray.
Jackson says it was imperative to film at LACMA, but getting permission to roller skate around priceless pieces of art would have been near impossible but for the fact that Martin served on the museum’s Board of Trustees from 1984 to 2004. Jackson remembers a meeting with the museum’s management. “I said, ‘We’d like to have Steve roller skating down here and just zooming in and out of these sculpture busts.’ They went, ‘Mmm hmm,’ and you could see the look of terror start to dawn on their faces. And they said, ‘Will it be the trustee who is doing the skating?’ We said, ‘Yes, yes. Steve.’” The museum acquiesced.
Ariganello says, “That was one of those [locations] that was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. This is set up. Just worry about getting all the trucks and parking.’”
In Jackson’s 1997 film Volcano, LACMA was almost completely obliterated on screen when a geyser of lava erupts from the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits.
5905 Wilshire Blvd., Miracle Mile
Hard Rock Cafe
Like LACMA, the screenplay for L.A. Story was written with the Hard Rock Cafe at the Beverly Center in mind. (Jackson almost destroyed the Beverly Center in Volcano, too.) It was perhaps the most challenging L.A. Story location to secure.
The Hard Rock Cafe opened in 1982 and closed in 2006; the Beverly Center location was the first in the U.S.
“Nobody had ever shot at the Hard Rock Cafe before that,” says Ariganello. Upon his initial inquiry, Ariganello was told that the restaurant didn’t allow filming. He later met with one of the restaurant chain’s co-founders, but the prospect of filming was not a priority. “He said, ‘Why do you think I should close for this movie? What am I going to get out of it,’” Ariganello recalls. “I said, ‘Well, you’re going to get a lot of publicity. It’s going to be a big movie with Steve Martin.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘You know, people pay me to advertise all the time. You see those hats and T-shirts? People buy those from me.’”
Ariganello eventually made a deal to film at the Hard Rock; they could shoot on a Monday, but the production had to clear out by 6 p.m. so the restaurant could open for dinner. The producer first balked at the price of filming there, but Ariganello broke down the cost of trying to recreate something similar on a soundstage. “Or you get the Hard Rock for $25,000,” he told the producer. “It was a no-brainer, really,” says Ariganello.
Coming full circle from the opening titles, Tail ‘o the Pup, once located catty-corner from the Beverly Center, makes an appearance in one continuous flow of action following the scene in the Hard Rock.
8600 Beverly Blvd., Beverly Grove
When Harris goes clothes shopping at NOW, filmed inside an Esprit store on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Cienega Boulevard—today a CVS—he meets a bouncy beach chick (Sarah Jessica Parker) whose name is spelled big s, small a, small n, big d, small e, big e, with a little star at the end. After a date at the Hard Rock Cafe, Harris and SanDeE* end up at her place in the historic 1905 St. Mark’s building in Venice. Seen on the west-facing façade is Rip Cronk’s mural, “Venice Reconstituted,” painted in 1989 as a satire of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” Cronk restored the mural in 2010 and renamed it “Venice Kinesis.”
“We had the idea that it would be fun to take Rip Cronk’s mural and have her live in the mural,” says Jackson. The mural depicts Venus on roller skates at Venice Beach, her blonde hair blown by the wind god Zephyr. It seems an appropriate image for SanDeE*, whose effervescent energy never ceases through the film.
The film’s production designer, the late Lawrence Miller, built a false stoop and doorway along the wall, enforcing the idea of entering the mural.
25 Windward Ave. at Speedway, Venice
The Edgemar Complex
One of the subplots that didn’t make it into L.A. Story was Harris’s search for a new job after being fired from his position at KYOY. One afternoon, Harris has a lunch meeting with Hollywood super agent Harry Zell (John Lithgow), who turns heads as he lands in the restaurant patio by way of a jetpack.
The restaurant was shot at the mixed-use, Frank Gehry-designed Edgemar center in Santa Monica. At the time, the location was home of the Santa Monica Museum of Art and various retail businesses including a Ben & Jerry’s that’s still in operation today.
“It was a big deal shoot,” says Ariganello, as it involved lowering Lithgow into the space on a crane while wearing a fake jetpack.
“The fly-in was quite fun. We had a camera crane and built an extension, beyond where the camera is mounted on the tip of it, for holding John Lithgow,” says Jackson. “So, we swooped in over the buildings and over the roofs and down onto the landing point.”
2439 Main St., Santa Monica
The Bowler House
“There was an early discussion with Steve, Dan Melnick the producer, and me that we wouldn’t just go for the old symbols of L.A., like that bank that’s at Highland and Hollywood [the Hollywood First National Bank Building],” says Jackson. “Part of that was the look of LACMA; part of that was the Lloyd Wright house.”
Ariganello tried getting Lloyd Wright’s (son of Frank) 1963 Bowler House in Rancho Palos Verdes into films he had worked on prior to L.A. Story. He first suggested it as a possibility for Christian Slater’s house in Heathers (1988), but the production ultimately ended up at another home in Beverly Hills.
The mid-century modern home is also known as the “Bird of Paradise” house due to its birdwing roofline accentuated with turquoise fiberglass. Ariganello, determined to get Wright’s house into a film, pushed its potential for L.A. Story. It was the perfect match, as Jackson wanted something striking for a scene in which Harris and Sara sneak out of a boring fundraising dinner and make love in the garden.
The Bowler House can also be seen in a 1992 episode of Tales From the Crypt called “Split Personality,” which stars Joe Pesci and was directed by producer and modern architecture enthusiast Joel Silver. The house is so extraordinary that when Pesci’s character first lays eyes on it, his critique of the property – in pure Goodfellas fashion – is less than stellar.
3456 Via Campesina, Rancho Palos Verdes
As Sara is about to depart for London at the end of the film, the freeway sign helps Harris manifest blinding fog and torrential downpours, making it impossible for Sara’s plane to take off. As the freeway sign predicts, “The weather will change your life.”
Ariganello still has his location notebooks from L.A. Story. His notes for the LAX scout go something like, ask if we can do fog effects, rain, ask about height restrictions. “My first answer on that was no fog unless it dissipates,” says Ariganello. “I remember they came up with a whole different fog to use.”
The scene was shot around an American Airlines aircraft, at night, on the LAX taxiway. The plane got slightly dinged up by the production. “One of the cranes just barely hit the wing of the plane and took out one of the little red lights on it. It became a big deal because they had to get the FAA involved. Thankfully it was the end of the shoot,” says Ariganello.
1 World Way, Westchester
Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.