Director Allan Arkush arrives at the Roxy wearing an appropriate article of clothing: a T-shirt emblazoned with a with a black-and-white illustration of Johnny Ramone posed in his iconic bent-knee, split-leg guitar stance. In 1978, during a 20-hour marathon shoot in this very venue, Arkush captured punk rock vanguards, the Ramones, in some of the most wildly electric concert footage ever filmed.
As the famous Sunset Strip venue would suggest, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Arkush’s 1979, fan-favorite about a rock ‘n’ roll band taking over oppressive Vince Lombardi High School, is clearly a Los Angeles film. However, the director didn’t specifically set out to make an L.A. movie. “I don’t think we had a choice in terms of what our resources were and getting the film done,” says Arkush, who is one of the most accomplished directors working in television today.
Produced by indie movie king Roger Corman, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, was shot entirely at practical L.A. locations, as were most of Corman’s New World Pictures of the ‘70s.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School producer Mike Finnell says, laughing, “I mean, [Roger] certainly didn’t want to put people up in hotel rooms. He didn’t want to pay for that.”
Corman, 93, says there’s more to it. “Purely and simply, the best crews in the world are here in Los Angeles.”
Occasionally during the ‘70s, Corman made movies outside the region including Cockfighter (1974), which was filmed in Georgia, and a series of Filipino co-productions including The Big Bird Cage (1972). Chatsworth, Newhall, and Vasquez Rocks were go-to locations for car chase movies, like Ron Howard’s feature directorial debut, Grand Theft Auto (1977), and sci-fi action flicks like Deathsport (1978), which Arkush co-directed. The open, expansive land in those areas was perfect for detonating mind-melting explosions, a signature Corman motif.
Arkush goes on to explain, “I think I always wanted to make sure that [Rock ‘n’ Roll High School] was suburban in feel and that you had to travel to go to the concert.” It’s a world where Arkush’s own childhood and young adult life growing up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a stone’s throw away from New York City, paralleled that of the film’s main character, number one Ramones fan, Riff Randell (P.J. Soles). “For me to go to a concert in New York, I would walk or hitchhike to the George Washington Bridge, take the bus over and then take a subway to Greenwich Village.”
Arkush moved from New York to L.A. in 1973 and was immediately overwhelmed by the far-reaching horizontal landscape of the city. He moved between apartments in Sherman Oaks and Hollywood, which, like the Fort Lee—New York City dichotomy, represents the suburban to urban transition that Riff experiences in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
Following territorial rollouts through the Southwest, Southeast, Northern California, and the Midwest, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School opened on August 3, 1979 at New York’s 8th Street Playhouse. (The film premiered in a sneak preview at the long-gone World Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, but it didn’t open citywide in L.A. until October 12, 1979.) Arkush remembers that the Village Voice seemed offended the filmmakers took the Ramones, a band that was the epitome of East Village culture, put them in a suburban setting, and made a beach party type of movie. What they didn’t understand, says Arkush, “is that Riff Randell was a cheerleader the year before; that she was a suburban girl. But when she heard this music, she said, ‘Wait a minute. That’s how I feel. That’s me,’ even though the Ramones could not be further from who she is.” The flipside being that the Ramones look completely alien in Los Angeles. When Arkush and the Ramones watched the dailies of the band arriving at the high school location, bassist Dee Dee Ramone said out loud, “We look like we’re from another fucking planet,” says Arkush. “And that’s exactly what I wanted.”
Though resources were limited, aesthetic and character-driven choices clearly place the film in L.A. during the uprising of L.A. punk culture. “We had the access to the number one punk community in the country. They were all there,” says Finnell, who lives on the East Coast today. KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer, the beloved L.A. disc jockey and the first to blast the Ramones over the city’s airwaves, was on the set almost every day and occasionally appears in the film. The late “Real” Don Steele, another of L.A.’s legendary DJs whose boisterous voice can be heard on Rick Dalton’s car radio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, cameos as radio announcer “Screamin’” Steve Stevens. Finnell adds that they didn’t bother trying to hide palm trees, something that could have easily been done if the filmmakers had decided to shoot in, say, South Pasadena, which is often used for an Anytown, America vibe. Shots overlooking the San Fernando Valley from Mulholland Drive as well as the Spanish Mission Revival architecture of one of the film’s main locations convey the unmistakable: “[Los Angeles] was absolutely inherent in the DNA of the movie,” says Finnell.
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School did not have an official location manager or scout, which was typical for New World productions, says Corman. Much of those responsibilities in the pre-production phase fell on the shoulders of Finnell, who later produced just about all of the films of New World alumnus, Joe Dante. Finnell was already out looking at locations prior to submitting the proposed budget. (Depending on who you talk to the proposed budget was anywhere between $185,000-$195,000. Ultimately the film cost $300,000.)
Finnell recalls looking for locations for a couple of months. He says, “I wanted as much time as possible, especially since I was pretty much doing everything by myself.”
Arkush still had to perform his regular duties editing trailers for Corman. “[Allan] and Joe Dante had been our two top trailer editors,” says Corman.
Arkush remembers Corman saying, “You boys can direct, but you can’t stop making trailers. You’re too valuable.”
“I used to go out the weekends and drive; literally just get in my car and drive around,” says Finnell. “I remember spending all day, like on Sundays, doing this. Drive around with hardly any idea of what I was doing or where I was going.”
Using the Thomas Guide, Finnell set out to look for the film’s high school location that would be named for the Green Bay Packers’ no-holds-barred head coach, Vince Lombardi, and run by fascist principal, Miss Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov). Finnell says he looked at every school he could find with the now-obsolete spiral-bound atlas. When the producer pinpointed something worthwhile, Arkush would join him on a follow-up scout. Arkush estimates that they scouted at least ten different schools around Los Angeles.
“Inevitably we had to talk to the principal and they only wanted to talk to us before school started, never when school started,” says Arkush. “So we would get there at like seven in the morning and we’d walk into the Principal’s outer office and we’re told to sit there and wait.” Almost always the director and producer would find themselves sitting next to some kids who were in deep trouble. Arkush remembers Finnell looking over and saying, “ ‘I feel really guilty.’ I said, ‘I know, just sitting here in the school I feel guilty.’ ”
The filmmakers went to schools armed with an innocuous version of the script that was also penned by Rock ‘n’ Roll High School screenwriters Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch. “I think it might have been called School Days or something silly like that, and it didn’t have any of the blow up the school stuff,” says Arkush. The filmmakers were already breaking the rules for a film about breaking the rules, something Corman encouraged among his crews.
The pseudo-script tactic is one Corman used a number of times, including once on a film he directed in Sikestown, Missouri, about racial integration. “We pretty much got away with it everywhere except in the closing days of shooting The Intruder (1962) when people began to realize that scenes had been changed. We got some death threats,” says Corman.
For the school location that was going to be set ablaze by its students and the Ramones, Finnell found a deserted Catholic school in South L.A. to which the production could have unfettered access.
Construction on Mount Carmel High School began in 1934 and the building was dedicated in 1935. It closed in 1976 due to reported decline in enrollment. However, the filmmakers heard it was closed because it wasn’t earthquake resistant. The school was actually built following the 1933 Long Beach earthquake and had to adhere to seismic standards of that era.
Finnell says of Mount Carmel, “It wasn’t trashed, but it wasn’t that great.” The only thing that mattered, however, was that it was cheap. In lieu of a standard location fee, the production made a donation to the diocese.
Corman says that there was never a specific figure in terms of location fees for his films. He simply told his producers to be aware of the total budget and to determine how much of it should be spent on locations.
Finnell estimates that location fees for a Corman production in those years were about $50 a day, “maybe a hundred for something really spectacular. I would think that $200 a day would be absolutely out of the question.”
“[Roger] never really wanted to pay location fees, police—which you have to have in L.A.—or production insurance,” says Arkush, laughing.
“That’s true,” says Corman, who recalls once dealing with the police when shooting in South L.A. “The police came and said, ‘You should have police protection. What will you do if there’s a problem?’ I said, ‘I’ll call the police.’ ”
Upon negotiating the deal to film at Mount Carmel, there had been no mention to the location’s site rep, “Father Bob,” about blowing up the school. “Father Bob looked like the hip young priest in the bad-boys-in-the-neighborhood movie,” Arkush says. “A regular guy, but he’s wearing the [clerical uniform].”
The non-disclosure of the film’s climatic explosion wasn’t just a sly workaround like presenting a fake script. In actuality the explosion wasn’t slated to take place at a practical location. Initially, the filmmakers discussed doing it with a set of models designed by Corman’s go-to effects guy, Jack Rabin. After drawing some storyboards of the explosion, plans changed. “Unless you’re doing it with a great deal of money, so you really build a detailed model, it just, in my opinion, doesn’t come off,” says Corman. With limited technology available, the filmmakers couldn’t green screen the students in front of the burning model. As proposed, the scene would ultimately lack energy.
Eventually a plan was devised to detonate the explosion outside the main entrance of Mount Carmel High School, located at 70th and Hoover Street. Father Bob was not involved in the discussion. “He was not tremendously, if at all, concerned about anything that we might do to the place,” says Finnell.
The filmmakers also didn’t necessarily have permission to spray paint the hallways for the film’s musical number of the Ramones performing “Do You Wanna Dance.” Arkush says, “We [were] on a commando, kamikaze mission to make this movie. By that point in the movie, we are just out to kill.” Father Bob was only on-site during some of the filming. “Thank God,” says Arkush.
Corman’s pyro technician, Roger George, who was scarred with a big, red burn mark on his face, rigged the fiery effect. “[The scar] didn’t inspire a tremendous amount of confidence among the crew,” says Finnell, laughing.
The permit for the nighttime explosion expired around 10:30 p.m., which was very liberal, says Arkush, considering the film was shot over 20 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas when it’s dark by 6 p.m. The extras, including students and the cheer squad from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, had to be released by a certain time, but the hours kept passing. Arkush says that the clocks in the school were turned off so the students wouldn’t know what time it was and leave before the explosion could be filmed.
The explosion was created with the chemical compound naphthalene, which reacts based on the applied amount and the temperature—the colder it is, the larger the explosion. Finnell meticulously researched the temperature for that time of year in Los Angeles, which was typically in the mid-50s. That night, however, the temperature dropped to the mid-30s to low-40s. “You can see the breath of some of the people,” says Arkush.” The explosion took place well past midnight and ended up being three times larger than the filmmakers anticipated. In the scene you can clearly see the building getting scorched and the American flag going up in flames. “We may have lost a couple of windows, I don’t remember now, but I think that was… Yeah, we probably did,” says Arkush, abashedly. “We got in so much trouble. The neighborhood was furious and the police were furious because we had broken the permit,” adds Arkush. “I think that Mike Finnell is still concerned that he’s going to go to hell.”
Mount Carmel High School became a Historic Cultural Monument in 1979 before eventually falling into complete disrepair. It was demolished in 1982. The gym was used as a community center until 1983 until, ironically, it burnt down. Today, the Mount Carmel Recreation Center stands in its place.
Because Mount Carmel didn’t have a great exterior courtyard area, the filmmakers resorted to one of the most shot schools in Los Angeles: Van Nuys High School. After Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Van Nuys was perhaps most famously used in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). Arkush says that the school was attractive mostly because of its main quad at the center of the school that was used in the film’s opening title sequence set to the Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker.” “It felt suburban,” says Arkush, who later used the school in an episode of Dangerous Minds (1996). The gym, auto shop and classrooms at Van Nuys High School were also employed in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
Unlike Mount Carmel, Arkush says that someone from the school was supervising at all times. “I would never have had the use of Van Nuys High School if we gave them the real script.”
“I don’t think that even the L.A. Unified School District asked to read a script,” says Finnell. “I mean it seems inconceivable to me. Now they definitely would.”
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School featured roughly ten locations in all, including driving shots. Corman says, “I urged, if not demanded, within the script that nobody write a series of half a page scenes in different locations because you’re using up too much of your time moving from location to location.”
“That’s standard in any movie, but on Roger’s movies it was particularly important,” says Finnell.
A phone booth scene in which Riff calls a radio station to win Ramones tickets was shot on Sepulveda Boulevard just a few blocks away from Van Nuys High School.
The location budget was called into question when it came to the concert venue, which is a seamless combination of three locations.
The grandeur and Mesoamerican motifs adorning the 1927 Mayan Theatre in downtown L.A. made the location attractive as the venue exterior. “If Riff is going to wait three days [for tickets],” says Arkush, “you couldn’t just say, ‘Oh, they’re playing Friday night in a little club.’ … The mise-en-scène of that was you had to make it look like it was a going to be a big concert.” Realistically, and hard to fathom today, the Ramones were only able to fill small clubs across America at the time.
The Mayan Theatre was also inexpensive. At the time, it was showing adult films and making them in the basement. The filmmakers inquired about shooting the backstage area, but weren’t allowed anywhere inside, which is why all of the action stops at the front door after the Ramones’ thunderous screen entrance. Outside the theatre, Ramones posters obscure existing porno movie posters.
For the concert interiors, Arkush, without knowing it, pulled off a trick that was executed a year earlier in Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke. He filmed the Ramones’ concert inside the Roxy and then moved to the backstage area and larger dressing rooms of the Whisky a Go Go.
Corman got involved in choosing the storied Sunset Strip concert venues, which he felt were “iconic to a certain extent.” Also, they were only a couple of blocks away from his offices at the time.
“We chose the Roxy and the Whisky because of convenience and because it seemed like the Ramones would play there because they had played [there],” says Arkush. The Ramones first played the venues in 1976 and 1977, respectively. “The stage [at the Roxy] is in a corner, which is nice,” adds Arkush. “It’s not too high, which is good. It’s got its own lighting system.”
“[The Roxy] was just the right size and plus it was already equipped with everything that a rock band would need. It wasn’t like some other location that we had to turn into a concert venue,” says Finnell.
The Roxy-Whisky combo was an expensive proposition, however. “It was a location fee that was definitely out-of-bounds for what Roger would want to spend,” says Finnell. Though Corman had instructed his producer to negotiate as much as possible, there was no compromising.
To offset the location cost and fill the audience, too, the filmmakers charged three groups of extras—morning, afternoon and night with ascending ticket prices through the day—to see the Ramones perform. Each set included six songs and every tune was played multiple times to capture various angles. The audiences eventually got restless hearing the songs performed repeatedly. Finnell says, “Just when they were about to riot it and kill us, we got rid of them and brought in a whole new batch of extras, paying also. And then they were all fresh and all enthusiastic, excited.”
Standing in the Roxy today, Arkush says he doesn’t have an emotional connection with the location, which is surprising considering that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was his first solo feature and because Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee Ramone have all passed. (Original Ramones drummer, the late Tommy Ramone, was not playing with the band when the film was shot.) “I’ve been here so much for shows, I don’t really feel that as much for this place and I don’t associate [the Ramones] with this place. We were here for one day,” says Arkush.
Arkush does, however, have a strong attachment to one particular location from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. The night after photographing the director at the Roxy, he emails about a location that was overlooked and didn’t appear in the film. A series of photographs of a modest, two-floor Hollywood office building hits my inbox. Arkush writes that this is 1607 N. El Centro Avenue, where the New World Pictures editing rooms were located. A Google maps search shows the building still standing amid a cluster of luxury apartment properties.
Though not technically a filming location, Arkush explains that 1607 N. El Centro was significant because a number of filmmakers from the Corman school of the ‘70s—Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, John Sayles, Arkush himself—got started there. “Everyone who worked on New World Pictures was in that editing room at some time or other, or would come by each day even after they weren’t working there.”
More important, however, was that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School was conceived and edited in that space. “Mike commandeered an editing bench and basically did all his prep out of that place,” adds Arkush. “That building was the heartbeat and the center and where all the camaraderie took place…and that cannot be discounted as to why Rock ‘n’ Roll High School turned out the way it did.”
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.