Gate Crashing


Illustration by Bill Brown

Sometimes I wonder where I would be today if I hadn’t gone into journalism. I can see myself as an archaeologist (oh, to uncover a shard of a Grecian urn) or a landscaper (is it obvious I enjoy digging earth?) or a script supervisor (I am detail oriented). This last is especially appealing because it would mean someone would pay me money to spend time on a studio lot. I’ve always been enchanted by these cities within the city. Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Disney, Universal—they are not only our steel mills but our Lands of Oz, emerald cities lorded over by wizards where strange and beautiful visions are realized.

As a teen I gained entry through their gates when my brother Greg, who is a production designer, hired me to help in the art department. I ran errands and schlepped crates for films like Ken Russell’s twisted Crimes of Passion, with Kathleen Turner as a designer by day/hooker by night, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun, a mindless romp with Sarah Jessica Parker and Helen Hunt. For a budding cineast like me, the joy of illusion remained even after I peered behind the wizard’s curtain: How did they make the cheap plywood walls and doorways that led to nowhere look so real on film?

Almost 30 years later, having shunned a showbiz career (the gigs are unreliable, the hours brutal, the shoots too slow for my hyperdrive personality), I still get excited driving by a studio lot, not to mention driving onto one. With their fake streetscapes and gargantuan stages, their overflowing prop houses and storied archives, they are unique to L.A. and represent the best of what we do: fabricate worlds that move and inform a global audience. Once when profiling actress Cynthia Nixon, I arranged to meet her at Warner Bros. in Burbank, where she was filming an episode of ER. I arrived on a pitch-dark morning and was directed by the security guard to Stage 11, only to find no one there. I roamed the ward where George Clooney had performed his Emmy-nominated work; up close the set looked as sophisticated as the Anatevka backdrops I built in high school. I made some toast in the crew’s kitchen. Spinning around on a chair at the nurse’s station, I thought about the millions worldwide who were so invested in this make-believe community. A grip finally appeared who informed me that the call had been pushed back an hour. As I watched the soundstage fill and the magic begin, I traveled to a place where skepticism and doubt couldn’t possibly follow.

In this issue photographer Dan Winters takes us on a rare and in-depth tour of the Warner Bros. back lot, which is coming up on its 90th birthday. Seeing his images of vast spaces that have been transformed over the decades to evoke Casablanca, Camelot, and Jurassic Park reminds me that L.A. is, quite possibly, the most creative place on earth.