There’s something about the West Coast that has always drawn me. I have a love-hate relationship with the Hollywood part of L.A., but this is a place people gravitate to in search of something. And a lot of the movies I work on have to do with very masculine guys who tend to be protecting some girl or wayward spirit who wandered here looking for salvation and got lost. I’m fascinated by this churn-and-burn qualityof Los Angeles—the concept of L.A. as a place of angels, a kind of modern Sodom and Gomorrah, where all your highest aspirations walking in can leave you suddenly, 30 years later, head spun and sun blinded and wondering where it all went.
In the 1970s, the problems in L.A. were porn and smog. Hollywood Boulevard was a pit. Every other store was X-rated. A film had come out in the ’70s that changed everything. Deep Throat was a huge movie; people were talking about it the same way they were talking about The French Connection or The Exorcist. That’s why porn, which had power and newfound legitimacy, works so well as a plot device for this movie. There were air raid sirens for smog and routine announcements: “Get inside—the air’s too bad.” The most romantic city in the world is literally covered by a crust of sin. The city in that respect becomes a character in the movie because every time you pop wide for a shot of a car driving or someone walking down the street, the sky in the background is purple or brown with smog.
For however many days we shot in L.A., we traveled up and down the hills, looking for the biggest, most lavish and evocative sense of the city, the expanse, with an eye toward the CGI effect that would be put there, which is smog. We chose Covina Bowl because a bowling alley is something that is fast becoming, particularly in L.A., a relic. There used to be a lot of attention given to the glamour, the exterior, the architecture of it. So Covina Bowl seemed like something that still represented where you’d go as a kid in the ’70s. But shooting in L.A. is difficult with the current financial situation. There’s a lottery. If you’re independent—and we were working with a lot of independent money—the only way to maximize that is with a rebate. We didn’t make the lottery in L.A. Atlanta had a very aggressive rebate.
So when we were filming in Georgia, we were looking for buildings with hard roof-lines—hard matte lines—in order to put in L.A. sky. We arrived there with some memories and a stack of photographs representing parts of L.A., and we would march up and down Atlanta, looking for something that could become that. For instance, we found this wonderful party house, which we thought could be a great Hollywood Hills porn house. It was surrounded by trees, so we took them out and replaced them with L.A. city lights. It’s fun to fill in L.A. using stuff shot in Atlanta, but there’s no substitute.
The exterior of Ryan Gosling’s character’s house was a ’60s modern on a cul-de-sac in Baldwin Hills that overlooks the flight path of LAX. You have the airport towers in the background with the blinking lights; you’ve got all the city laid out. If the background is sufficiently out of focus, it doesn’t require a lot of alteration, but we had to alter L.A. skylines on a couple of occasions to get rid of non-’70s buildings.
There are so many detective films, from the Chandler reduxes all the way through to Chinatown, that are about someone standing with a cigarette on a lone hilltop, looking out onto the city that they preside over, this idea of the lone guardian being able to look out upon Sodom and Gomorrah and take it all in and assess his life—I think that’s very important to the detective genre.
The interior of the house was on a soundstage in Atlanta. We tried to create this beautiful oasis. Basically we took the floor plan of the house we had chosen for our exterior shots, and then the production designer, Richard Bridgland, went nuts, doing whatever he wished. In the production offices Richard had a wall of pictures he liked, and I had a wall of color palettes and different angles and pieces of furniture and pieces of rooms that I liked. We put the pictures up and talked.
This film was an attempt to try to do L.A. in the ’70s with a compromise toward cool. The clothes that the detectives wear are period, but they’re not silly. There’s a kind of gruff, impromptu feeling to the Hawaiian shirts that Russell Crowe wears. And the leisure suit-type things that Ryan wears actually look really cool.
There are certain directors whose work I inevitably study. I will always look to Ridley Scott as an example of somebody who does it better than anyone cinemawise. David Fincher—with his color palette and his imagination and his playfulness—is someone else I look to. And going back in terms of style and pace, Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder. I still watch Double Indemnity obsessively, just looking at the little bits of L.A. that you can see in the exteriors as they drive in Los Feliz. I’m fascinated by the fact that this is a city that changes but stays the same. You can clearly see Hollywood evolve and buildings change, but it’s still unmistakably Hollywood; it still has the same flavor, the same faded glamour, the daytime tawdriness, and the nighttime spark, you know?