Under the pre-dawn, indigo blue light shrouding Griffith Park, two coyotes stare into the tree line near the park’s Canyon Dr. gate. As they patiently wait for their morning meal, this daily ritual feels more spiritual than instinctual. The act is akin to a piece of sage advice delivered by a character in David Robert Mitchell’s neo-noir, L.A. fever dream Under the Silver Lake, which turns the park into a mystical realm of intrigue.
“Coyotes are blessed creatures,” says the Homeless King, one of the film’s many idiosyncratic characters. “If you ever find yourself alone with a coyote, it’ll run away. Follow it. See where it leads you.”
Mitchell’s followup to his critically acclaimed Detroit-set horror film, It Follows, stars Andrew Garfield as Sam, an unemployed idler who, like many who’ve entered the Dream Factory, had hoped for success in L.A., but has clearly given up. Instead, his days are spent playing video games and watching his neighbors through a pair of binoculars. It’s a lonely perspective that many experience of Los Angeles.
When Sarah (Riley Keough), Sam’s mysterious neighbor with an affinity for How to Marry a Millionaire, suddenly vanishes without a trace from their Silver Lake apartment complex, Sam finds himself caught in a web of conspiracy, paranoia, and hidden codes scattered throughout the L.A. landscape.
Under the Silver Lake has had a long journey to the screen. It premiered in competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, but two subsequent release dates were postponed. Last November, it was announced the film would finally be released on April 19, 2019. In another puzzling move two weeks prior to its release, reports began to surface that Under the Silver Lake would be available for online streaming on April 23, a few days after its limited theatrical release in Los Angeles and New York. A representative from ID-PR, the public relations firm handling just Under the Silver Lake, explained that the VOD release would simply make the film available to more people outside of NYC and L.A.
If nothing else, the release schedule has only added to the enigma of Under the Silver Lake. The phrase, “dumped to VOD,” which a number of outlets have used as a headline, doesn’t seem fair to what’s one of the best L.A.-set films in recent memory.
Its locations, mostly found along the Los Feliz-Silver Lake-Echo Park corridor, are not merely settings that the characters inhabit. Much in the way Indiana Jones searches for an X that marks the spot inside a Venetian library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, many of the locations in Under the Silver Lake advance the story as Sam finds clues around and within the places he explores. Instead of Henry Jones’s diary revealing the secret location of the Holy Grail, Sam navigates the city by decoding song lyrics and following a map of L.A. found in a cereal box.
Mitchell, a native Michigander who’s lived in L.A. for over a decade, specifically wrote into his original script locations that were both personal and familiar. Production designer Michael Perry, who also worked on It Follows, says that this is one of Mitchell’s unique qualities. “Where It Follows was shot was literally the suburban area where David lived as a kid,” Perry says. The locations in Under the Silver Lake are no less intimate to the filmmaker according to the production designer. Perry adds that upon scouting a location, Mitchell would occasionally mention that a story element was devised while having previously spent time at that place.
Location manager Jay Traynor agrees that Mitchell’s specificity towards the film’s locations helped drive the story. “I couldn’t count how many locations were written into the script, but I would say at least 75 percent were,” Traynor says. “There was mention of all kinds of streets where things needed to happen for our hero.”
Chinatown, which shot a number of scenes in Echo Park, was certainly on the filmmakers’ minds as they scouted locations, Perry says: “I think…it leant itself more to the noir than, say, if we went and shot in Santa Monica.”
Under the Silver Lake shifts between previously untapped locales to frequently shot locations approached in a self-reflexive manner. “One of the things I was trying to keep in mind for all these locations [was] when you see an L.A. film, a lot of it’s the driving,” says Perry. However, Sam’s car is towed a half hour into the film so he walks everywhere. “I was very cognizant of that,” Perry adds. “Some of those street scenes, that’s not how you usually see the city. It’s a slight change of perspective, but it goes back to noir, you know? They’re walking the streets.”
Traynor’s challenge in pitching locations was finding what he called the “connective tissue” to create a mosaic of the neighborhood in which the story unfolded. “It’s an authentic layer in the movie that’s evident,” Traynor says. “I think there’s something about getting lost in an intentional way and kind of going down the rabbit hole that that neighborhood really [provided] for David.”
“This is definitely a very weird postcard of love, if you will, because it’s very skewed,” Perry says. “It’s a very bizarre, slacker, weird look, but it is a love letter to L.A. in it’s own way.”
We spoke with Perry and Traynor about finding the film’s identity through locations, balancing familiarity and originality in L.A. settings, and how a Kubrickian aesthetic punctuates Under the Silver Lake.
The opening shot of the film reveals a cryptic phrase, “Beware the Dog Killer,” painted on a storefront window. The camera pans around the location to reveal a bakery-coffee shop filled with customers. As he waits in line, Sam watches an employee in a Jim Morrison T-shirt try to erase the large black-painted letters scrawled across the window.
The location is fairly easy to identify if you look quickly. An address of 1945 is seen on a red building across the street. A neon sign in the window reads, “Grey Goose Custom Framing.” This puts the bakery at the Mustard Seed Café, located at the corner of Hillhurst and Clarissa avenues. The Mustard Seed Café, it turns out, was not the filmmakers’ initial choice, however.
The aforementioned scene was one of the last shot. “We had a bakery; we loved it and then it went away,” Perry says. “There was a camera move that we were not able to do in this place that we were kind of excited about.” That place was the Village Bakery on the next block from the Rancho Los Feliz Apartments on Los Feliz Boulevard where, according to Perry and Traynor, Mitchell once lived.
The Village Bakery, which opened in 2009, was where Mitchell wrote his script, says Traynor, who first met the director at the location. While the Village Bakery is film friendly, it was evident after a few scouts that the concept of filming the graffiti-covered window and specific camera move couldn’t be done effectively without a massive amount of art direction. This meant closing down the store for an entire prep day on a film with an estimated $8.5 million budget.
The filmmakers looked at dozens of substitute locations while they were in the midst of shooting the rest of the film.
The Mustard Seed Café was chosen, in part, Traynor surmises, due to its close proximity to a number of other locations within the film’s Los Feliz footprint. While Traynor admitted that the Mustard Seed Café filled a purpose and the director found a way to make it work, he doesn’t think Mitchell ever really loved it. Traynor explained that there was a certain amount tension created by the location specificity of script. “At times we embraced that tension and other times we let it go.”
Sam’s apartment complex
Perhaps the most central location in Under the Silver Lake is the fictional Rancho Silverlake Apartments where Sam is on the verge of eviction for not paying his rent. The complex is actually an amalgam of four locations.
From the outset, Perry, who considered building the entire complex around an existing pool on a movie ranch, didn’t think there was a chance that any apartment complex with a pool in the middle would allow filming over multiple days and nights, much less being able to afford it. “I was completely wrong,” Perry admits.
According to Traynor, Mitchell initially envisioned filming at the Rancho Los Feliz Apartments. “There are a lot of locations, a lot were written into the script, and we did our best to honor that and there were other times where I just couldn’t clear them,” says Traynor. Rancho Los Feliz was one of those locations.
Traynor told us that Mitchell wanted “the quintessential, midcentury, kidney-shaped pool, courtyard building where the voyeur part of this story could occur; where you can look straight across the way and maybe not actually know the other person across the way.” Critical were the sight lines between Sam’s apartment balcony and the center of the complex where Sam first sees Sarah lounging poolside.
Traynor credits location manager and scout Michael Chickey, who worked on the project for a couple of weeks prior to Traynor coming aboard, for discovering what would become the Rancho Silverlake complex interior. What he found was a two-level, open-air apartment building called Holiday Manor, located in the center of a cul-de-sac above Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Its triangular layout, asymmetrical pool, and arterial walkways convey a perplexing, maze-like quality as Sam navigates the mystery of Sarah’s sudden disappearance.
“If you told me that [complex] existed I would’ve called you a liar, but there it was,” Perry says. “That’s almost exactly what I would have designed for the layout based on the script.”
“We looking were at the building on Google Earth and if you actually pull up the Holiday Manor you’re like, ‘This place is completely un-shootable,’” Traynor says, laughing. “It’s a small street and you’re like, ‘What the F are we gonna do? How am I gonna shoot four days here?’”
Negotiations with the building’s owner, who was understandably concerned about the inconvenience filming might cause for her tenants, went on for months, Traynor says, and it took awhile to “crack the code.” Eventually a deal was struck. A minimal amount of trucks were brought up to the location and Traynor set up catering for cast, crew, and tenants in the middle of the narrow street.
In addition, the filmmakers were able to shoot near the complex in Los Feliz that originally inspired Mitchell. The intersection of Veselich and Garden avenues was used as the apartment’s street exterior. Mitchell shot a scene at the intersection taken from a bewildering event that he once observed. In the film, a group of hopeful actresses descend upon the intersection and congregate at a neighborhood garage where a handwritten, cardboard box sign posted on an easel reads “movie auditions.”
“That all happened behind where he lived and it was really important for him as a storyteller and the personal part of this story to do that [scene]. We all got that very early on and understood what that was about,” Traynor says.
Doubling for a tree-lined area of the Los Feliz Golf Course, Ferndell trail in Griffith Park was used for a forest walkway supposedly along the backside of the film’s apartment complex. Perry copied some of the Holiday Manor’s interiors and built Sam’s apartment on the production’s warehouse stage in Frogtown. “The amount of work and time that was done inside that apartment, it would have been astronomical to shoot in a real place,” Perry says.
The Last Bookstore
Located inside a former bank that opened in 1915, downtown L.A.’s the Last Bookstore seems like it would be a popular location for film and television. However, other than David Fincher’s Gone Girl and a handful of shorts and music videos, it hasn’t been featured much on screen.
“Ultimately you have to deal with the landlord, then this location service company reps the building, and The Last Bookstore wants you to do it in a certain way,” Traynor tells us. Initially, the filmmakers planned for a larger scene than what was ultimately shot there.
Crouching in front of a spinning bookrack, Sam picks up a black-and-white illustrated ‘zine titled Under the Silver Lake. Sam takes the comic to the register and asks the clerk if he can get in touch with the mysterious author.
On any given day of the week, the Last Bookstore is full of customers, which makes the scene in question immediately striking to those familiar with the store: the location appears almost void of people except for Sam and the clerk. “That’s how David wanted to play it,” Perry says. “There’s a lot that you’re not sure if it’s real or if it’s in Sam’s head, and there are a lot of times that we isolate him. He’s walking the streets of L.A. and there’s nobody else there.”
Another sought-after location that ultimately didn’t make it into the film was a neighborhood dive bar on Hillhurst Avenue. Traynor told us that the Drawing Room, another of Mitchell’s hang outs, was the first choice for a scene in which Sam meets up with with Topher Grace’s hipster Bar Buddy character.
Traynor took Mitchell to the location for a director’s scout on the morning of Halloween. Decorations were plastered around the bar and the place was jumping at 7:30 in the morning. “Everyone’s already getting hammered,” Traynor recalls. Though the bar would have been a suitable location, the visceral reaction of the moment seemed off-putting to the director. This poses the question: How do you present a location to a director during a scout?
“You want to set yourself up for success when you visit that location and I remember how disappointed he was, like, ‘Man, that’s not what I wanted,’” Traynor explains. The location manager admitted his approach to the location wasn’t in the director’s best interest. “It’s not so much where you’re taking them,” Traynor says. “It’s actually how you get them there. You have to be really mindful of the tone of the scene that you’re doing [and] do your best with the location contact to make sure, maybe, the place isn’t open.”
After filing away the location, the filmmakers eventually punted to another bar down the block from the Rancho Los Feliz Apartments: the Roost in Atwater Village. The bar, with its Christmas lights and rooster statues adorning the walls, was toned down to convey the dive atmosphere that the Drawing Room would have provided. Though the Roost was a second choice, Mitchell ended up embracing it.
In addition to film noir, 1950s musicals served as inspiration in Under the Silver Lake. As an example, Perry sites the pink and green pastel palette used on the interior set of Sarah’s apartment unit. “All those colors,” Perry says, “they all are very much out of a Doris Day movie, and I think we tried to sort of keep to that.”
Heightening the film’s reality was an aesthetic choice that sometimes transferred over from the constructed sets to a number of familiar locations featured in Under the Silver Lake. For a rooftop party scene where Sam discovers Jesus & the Brides of Dracula, a local indie rock group that factors heavily into the film’s unraveling mystery, the production went to downtown boutique hotel, the Standard. “We did the Standard more about, ‘What do you think the Standard would be,’ as opposed to what it actually is,” Perry says of the location, which opened in 2002. The rooftop furniture was changed out and practical lighting was brought in. “So it was always bumping up that value to a cinema piece as opposed to, you know—we weren’t interested in doing real life.”
Traynor says that the Standard roof, though it attracts filming, is not the easiest place to shoot as there’s only one elevator to get up and down from the roof. “It’s one of those things where it’s almost un-shootable for a little movie, and we ended up throwing a party up there for, I think, three days right after Thanksgiving, and it looked amazing.”
A scene inside the Standard’s red-tiled restroom immediately evokes the work of a master auteur whose influence is felt throughout the film. “There’s no question that Michael was definitely doing the Kubrick bathroom [from] The Shining,” Traynor says of the scene in which Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) meets the ghost of Delbert Grady (Phillip Stone), the Overlook Hotel’s previous caretaker.
Perry also designed the bathroom in Sam’s apartment in green and yellow tones seen in the bathroom of the Overlook’s room 237, where Jack discovers, bathing in the tub, a beautiful woman who transforms into a revolting hag.
Comic Man’s House
The comic book that Sam finds at the Last Bookstore leads him to the Los Feliz home of its paranoid author, simply identified as Comic Man (Patrick Fischler).
Initially, the filmmakers toyed with the idea of filming Comic Man’s house on a compound at the top of White Knoll Drive in Echo Park where the sculptor of the Maltese Falcon, Fred Sexton, once lived. The location, since demolished, was used for Bar Buddy’s house and features panoramic views of downtown L.A. and Dodger Stadium. It previously attracted the filmmakers of 2012’s Seven Psychopaths.
The concept of Comic Man’s house then changed, Traynor says, and it was imperative for Mitchell that the house have a view of the Griffith Observatory, another key location in the film.
A knock on the door during a cold scout led Traynor to a Los Feliz home built in 1923. The house had bars across the windows and front door, perfect for a character with security cameras strategically placed throughout his home, fearing death from a mythical figure called the Owl’s Kiss. Traynor points out that the location was an intriguing dichotomy: “[Comic Man] was able to create this fortress and yet it also sat on a corner in a vulnerable way.”
Hitchcock headstone at Hollywood Forever
Plastered above the couch in Sam’s apartment are vibrant, color posters of various Hitchcock films, another clear influence on Under the Silver Lake. Therefore, it would make sense that the filmmakers incorporated a shot of a Hitchcock headstone at Hollywood Forever, where Sam is attending a cemetery screening. The headstone doesn’t belong to the Hitchcock, whose ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean after his death in 1980. The Hitchcock buried at Hollywood Forever is a doctor who lived from 1854 to 1922. “That was not planned. We discovered it when we were scouting the location,” Perry says. “David and I were like, ‘Huh. Hitchcock. Let’s shoot this.’”
Ironically, Perry built a headstone for silent film star Janet Gaynor, who’s referenced throughout Under the Silver Lake and, unlike Hitchcock, is buried at Hollywood Forever. Her lakeside resting place in the Garden of Legends is identified with a modest grave marker not far from Cecil B. DeMille.
The Crypt Club
Keeping with the motif of Egyptian iconography in the film, Hollywood Forever’s Abbey of the Psalms, designed during the 1930s in the Egyptian Revival style, was used for an establishing shot that sets up a decadent party inside. The interior, however, is the Cathedral Mausoleum on the opposite side of the cemetery. “One of the big reasons for using that [mausoleum] was the central barrel has the great statues of the saints,” Perry says. More attractive was that the location had corridors where Sam could walk and the camera could follow as he descended into the Crypt Club, a private nightspot supposedly underneath the mausoleum.
For the club interior, the production used Bronson Caves in Griffith Park. Widely known as the Batman caves from the ‘60s TV show, it is arguably the film’s most dynamic use of a familiar L.A. location. It wasn’t written as a cave, Perry told us. When the filmmakers talked about using the canyon surrounding the caves for latter scene, Perry suggested that the club could be created inside the caves.
“Totally fuckin’ genius,” Traynor says of the idea. “It was like, OK, what’s the speakeasy version of going down some stairs or a cellar at Hollywood Forever, or somewhere in that neighborhood?”
The caves are almost unrecognizable as the Crypt Club. Perry created cocktail tables made of headstones and built doorways and a bar into the openings of the cave. Lighting trusses were also added for atmosphere.
The production used a number of other locations throughout Griffith Park. The bust of James Dean and the Astronomers Monument at the Griffith Observatory are critical pieces of the puzzle. At the Old Zoo, Perry built walls into one of the bear enclosures to create a dungeon where the Homeless King holds Sam captive.
One location that Traynor found early on in the scouting process was a La Cañada Flintridge home built in 1921 that was being considered for an afternoon party scene. Perry says the scene is a reference to 1920s Hollywood affairs where the affluent would socialize. The home, which had previously been used for photo spreads in Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, was visually perfect, but Traynor put it in his back pocket for one main reason: the pool wasn’t heated, which was problematic during the fall months when the film shot. “We really needed people in the pool and there was no way that were gonna get this pool heated,” Traynor says. “I have to find another house with a pool that will work,” he remembered thinking. “We looked at every house with a pool. Even ones that we couldn’t afford, we looked at them anyway.”
Eventually, the filmmakers circled back to La Cañada, but they were not allowed to film inside the house, putting a kink in the plans for a bathroom scene that was tied to the party location. Instead, Perry constructed the bathroom in the dining room of the 1937 Boddy House at Descanso Gardens where the production set up basecamp while filming at the party house a mile down the road. The stark white bathroom where Sam assaults the lead singer of Jesus & the Brides of Dracula is a reminder of the white room from the conclusion of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Songwriter’s Mansion
Of all the unusual characters in Under the Silver Lake, a decrepit old man called the Songwriter is perhaps the most peculiar. The musician who lives in a cavernous stone mansion is believed to have anonymously written every popular song going back decades including “Smells Like Teens Spirit” and the theme song to Cheers. As the Songwriter plucks out familiar tunes on a piano, Sam watches in disbelief from the middle of a modest ballroom filled to the brim with musical instruments.
After looking at five or six places, Traynor’s key assistant location manager suggested the Paramour Estate in Silver Lake. “I just rolled my eyes,” says Traynor, who wasn’t keen on the idea because of its frequent use as a location. Built in 1923, the Paramour, also known as the Canfield-Moreno Estate after its original owners, has been seen in a number of feature films including Halloween H20, Scream 3, Gangster Squad, and The Neon Demon. However, Mitchell and Perry saw the location with completely fresh eyes, Traynor says.
“The only thing that was hard was the color of the walls,” which were painted purple as seen in The Neon Demon, Traynor says.
“David’s very color sensitive and we keep to a very tight palette with him,” Perry says.
Traynor had the room quickly painted to fit the film’s tight shooting schedule. He recalls, “I don’t even know if the paint ever dried when we shot it. I think the paint was all wet.” After painting the room teal, Traynor had it returned to purple.
The Silver Lake
Perry agrees that the film presents a lonely vision of Los Angeles. “I think that’s truly it: about how much of a lonely place—I mean, David says that this all started when he was walking along Silver Lake and looking up at the houses at the top of the place [and thought], ‘Gee, I wonder what those people are up to. What do they do?‘” Perry and Traynor both recalled Mitchell’s desire to shoot in a specific spot on the southwest side of the reservoir where the inspiration for the film began.
Traynor had taken Mitchell to scout the Silver Lake Meadow on the east side of the reservoir. “He wanted to be on the opposite side where it’s really hard to shoot,” Traynor says with a laugh. “I would bring him to the meadow and he was like, ‘What am I doing over here? I want to be on the other side.’”
Traynor was able to secure signatures from the residents along Silver Lake Drive despite an all-night shoot near the bluffs overlooking the reservoir. More sensitive than the overnight inconvenience, however, was the fact that the Silver Lake Reservoir didn’t have any water in it when it came time to film. The reservoir had already been empty for two years after being drained in 2015 to build a pipeline from a new underground reservoir on the north side of Griffith Park to the city’s water distribution centers. “People were tired that there was no water in it. They kind of felt that the city…you kind of felt that heavy energy that they just wanted their neighborhood back,” Traynor says.
LADWP began refilling the adjacent Ivanhoe Reservoir in April 2017, but spillage into the Silver Lake Reservoir had not yet had a substantial visual impact when shooting Under the Silver Lake. The filmmakers shot background plates of the reservoir and added water in postproduction.
Catch Under the Silver Lake at Arclight Hollywood through April 24. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and actor Andrew Garfield will appear for Q&A’s at select screenings. The film will available online on April 23. 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.