Though David Lynch didn’t grow up in L.A., the man behind the Lady in the Radiator has been consumed by the mysteries of this city since his days at the American Film Institute in the 1970s. L.A. has played a big part in the auteur’s movies and TV projects, even those that didn’t take place here, like Twin Peaks (1989-1991, 2017). But from Eraserhead to Lost Highway, from Wild at Heart to Inland Empire, no Lynch movie is more steeped in the lore and love of cinema, the light and the shadows of the city, than Mulholland Drive.
What started as an ABC pilot became one Lynch’s most acclaimed feature films after the network decided not to pick up the show. A year after the pilot was rejected, Lynch wrote an additional 18 pages of material that were shot over 17 days in late September through early October of 2000. The two-and-a-half hour neo-noir played in competition at Cannes, where Lynch won the Best Director prize in a tie with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). Mulholland Drive opened wide on October 19, 2001, and Lynch was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, his third nod in the category after The Elephant Man (1980) and Blue Velvet (1986).
As for the inspiration and creative decisions behind the L.A. filming locations of Mulholland Drive, putting the pieces together proved to be a futile task. Lynch, who famously won’t discuss the meanings behind his work, politely declined an interview for this article through an assistant; two email inquiries to production designer Jack Fisk’s agent were not returned in time; the film’s location manager, Julie Duvic, who also worked on the original Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), passed away in 2010 at the age of 55; another credited location manager couldn’t recall if he had signed a non-disclosure agreement, but said that he didn’t have any creative input into the locations, most of which were carried over from the ABC pilot.
In the Lynch biography/autobiography Room to Dream, the director had this to say about the street for which the film is named:
“Mulholland Drive is a magical street, and many people feel that when they drive on it at night. It twists and turns and Hollywood is on one side and the Valley is on the other and you kind of get lost on it. It’s an old road, too, and there’s a mood to it, and you can feel that many people from the golden age of Hollywood drove on that road. It’s really got a history, and if you’re in Los Angeles long enough you start hearing stories about things that have happened on it that get your mind going.”
To mark the 20th anniversary of Lynch’s L.A. masterpiece, we revisited the film’s iconic locations.
A stretch limousine snakes around the blind turns of Mulholland Drive, at night. Two men ride up front while a sultry brunette wearing a black, spaghetti-strap dress rides in the back. When the limo makes an unexpected stop in front of a lamppost along the winding road, the woman in the back says to the driver, “What are you doing? We don’t stop here.”
While the limo is parked, two cars race in tandem, skidding as they round the vicious turns of Mulholland. One of them collides head-on into the limousine, sending both cars into an explosive spin before smacking into the hillside.
It turns out that the scene wasn’t shot on Mulholland Drive at all. In Room to Dream, special effects coordinator Gary D’Amico mentions a hundred-foot construction crane that was set up in Griffith Park in order to film the stunt.
After stumbling down the hill, the limo passenger who will come to be known as Rita (Laura Harring)—or is it Camilla?—finds herself on the desolate, late-night neighborhood streets of Hollywood, first crossing the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Vista Street, where backlit palm trees rise into the night sky. Then, she crosses Sunset Boulevard at Alta Vista Boulevard in front of the Saharan Motel, today the Sunset West Hotel. As a cop car drives past, the camera tilts up to reveal a sign for Sunset Boulevard, just one of a handful of nods to the 1950 Billy Wilder classic.
Aunt Ruth’s Apartment
Exhausted and trying to get off the streets, Rita ducks into the bushes in front of a classic Spanish courtyard building. After spending the night out of sight, Rita watches a woman leave the building and get into a taxi as various pieces of luggage are scattered along the curb. Rita sneaks into the building and takes refuge in the apartment just vacated by the woman later revealed to be Aunt Ruth (Maya Bond), the aunt of the film’s other protagonist, Betty—or is it Diane?
The apartment complex is Il Borghese, built in 1929 at 450 N. Sycamore Avenue on the border of Hancock Park. A real estate listing for the property states that Shirley Temple is rumored to have lived here and other celebrities were known to have frequented the building.
In arguably the film’s most frightening scene, two men dressed in suits sit in a booth at the film’s fictional Hollywood coffee shop, Winkie’s. One man tells the other of a dream he had that takes place at that particular restaurant. The sequence concludes with a realization of that dream in a horrific, heart-stopping confrontation in the rear of the restaurant.
Today, a hexagonal sign rises above the shuttered Googie-style restaurant at 1016 W. El Segundo Boulevard in Gardena that was a Denny’s and later renamed Caesar’s, a franchise name once owned by the former.
Los Angeles International Airport
Upon arriving in L.A., Betty, an aspiring actress, is all smiles with a starry look in her eyes as she escorts Irene (Jeanne Bates), a silver-haired older woman, through terminal 2 of LAX. Betty and Irene exit to the curb on the top deck—the departure level—of LAX, but Angelenos know that arrivals are on the lower level. The departure level, however, provides impressionable golden sunshine for someone arriving in L.A. for the first time.
When Vincenzo (Dan Hedaya) and Luigi (longtime Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti) Castigliane meet in the Ryan Enterainment offices to discuss their most recent film investment, the discussion turns sour when auteur director Adam (Justin Theroux) bluntly refuses to accept the brothers’ intimidating casting mandate.
The Ryan Entertainment exterior and wood-paneled conference room were filmed at the 1930 Banks-Huntley Building at 634 S. Spring Street in downtown.
In a low-rent office, filmed on the top floor of the historic Barclay Hotel in downtown L.A., a hired hitman (Mark Pellegrino) shoots a guy over “Ed’s Famous Black Book.” In order to make it look like a suicide, the hit man shoots into the wall, accidentally injuring the woman in the office next door.
Pink’s Hot Dogs
A slightly bruised blonde woman is escorted along the driveway of the classic L.A. hot dog stand by the shooter from the Barclay Hotel and his associate. The hitman asks her if she’s seen any new girls on the street. “A brunette? Maybe a little beat up?”
When Adam returns home from his disastrous meeting at Ryan Entertainment, he discovers that his wife is sleeping with Gene the pool guy (Billy Ray Cyrus). The house was originally built in 1951, perched above Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, but the minimalist landscaping and a concrete exterior remodel give the home an ultra contemporary feel.
In the middle of the night, Adam is summoned to a corral at the top of Beachwood Canyon to rendezvous with the Cowboy (Monty Montgomery). At Sunset Ranch, Adam meets with the soft-spoken, mild-mannered character in country-western clothing that fits right in to Lynch’s rogues’ gallery of mysterious personalities.
In what is perhaps the film’s most direct homage to Sunset Boulevard, Betty arrives for an audition at the main gates of Paramount Studios, the same gates through which Norma Desmond’s aging Isotta Fraschini limo enters for her impromptu meeting with Cecil B. De Mille.
Sierra Bonita Apartments
After suffering a bout of amnesia from her Mulholland Drive car accident, Rita and Betty head to the Sierra Bonita Apartments to find out if Rita might really be Diane Selwyn. They’re able to rule out that possibility when a neighbor doesn’t recognize Rita, and a woman’s decomposing corpse is discovered in Diane’s bed.
The apartments were filmed around eight storybook cottages built in 1931 at 2900 Griffith Park Boulevard in Los Feliz. Being that Walt Disney’s original studio was located a few blocks away—and it’s said that animators of Snow White worked out of the complex—the property was later bestowed the nickname of the Snow White cottages.
Rita, repeatedly uttering the word silencio, awakens Betty at 2 o’clock in the morning. When Rita asks Betty if she’ll go somewhere with her, the two wind up inside an old theatre where a gravely voiced emcee (Richard Green) preaches of an illusionary band—no hay banda.
The club was a combination of two historic downtown theaters. The back alley main entrance of Club Silencio was created at the stage door of the Palace Theatre; the interior was that of the Tower Theatre, which opened in 1927 and was the first L.A. movie theater wired for film sound. Before the Tower Theatre was completely restored and reopened as an Apple store this past June, Lynch also used the location for his return to Twin Peaks (2017), where it appeared in the mind-shattering black-and-white episode, “Part 8,” also known as “Gotta Light?”
Please keep in mind that some of these locations are on private property. Do not trespass or disturb the owners. Follow Jared on Twitter at @JaredCowan1.
Stay on top of the latest in L.A. news, food, and culture. Sign up for our newsletters today.