Early in Paul Thomas Anderson's '70s private-eye movie Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, our gumshoe — or, rather, gumsandal — Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is pulled into a variety of cases pertaining to real-estate developer Mickey Wolfman. His confidante Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), our narrator, makes note that the plot-driving real-estate scheme that razed an African-American neighborhood so it might be the site of a future suburb is just part of a repeating L.A. story: "The long, sad history of Los Angeles land use: Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center ... and now Tariq's neighborhood, bulldozed aside for 'Channel View Estates.'"
Just as Phoenix's Doc Sportello is part of a long line of L.A. private eyes and skewed sleuths on screen, from The Big Lebowski to The Big Sleep, Devil in a Blue Dress to Chinatown and Kiss Me Deadly to The Last Boy Scout, Inherent Vice is part of a tradition of L.A.-shot crime films that locate the most hellish places in the City of Angels and find glimmers of hope. For Anderson — whose films Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood and The Master are fictional but still illuminate the real California and L.A. — Pynchon's Inherent Vice was too intriguing not to adapt. As he explains in the film's production notes, "I’m from California, I’m from Los Angeles, I was born in 1970, so there was a straight flush of reasons to be interested in this era."
Of course, L.A. is a city where the buildings are as susceptible to refurbishing and renovation as the people, and just as disastrously: Anderson notes how re-creating Pynchon's L.A. in the here-and-now was a harder proposition than you might think. “It’s getting harder and harder to find the past — much harder than it was in 1997 when we made Boogie Nights,” he says.
To get a sense of that movie-making magic — and the hard work that goes into it — we spoke with Inherent Vice location manager and Anderson collaborator Larry Ring about how you create the past out of the present by finding hidden beauty and lost history between L.A.'s strip malls and franchise-logo sprawl. As a bonus, we also name some places from past crime films in the vicinity of each location, to visit during your Inherent Vice L.A. tour.
Location in the film: Pynchon's fictional "Gordita Beach"
Shooting location: 4210 The Strand, Manhattan Beach
The very first shot of Inherent Vice — a pastel sunset over a small slice of West Coast beachside, between two buildings — fixes the film in the real L.A. Set in Pynchon's invented "Gordita Beach," the film actually shot Manhattan Beach as Larry's base of operations, even though Ring explains that the small surfside neighborhood was, perhaps, not the best place for a film shoot.
"Manhattan Beach is not where you bring a film company to do what we did — controlling streets, shutting down traffic," he says. "It's impossible. There's no parking for film people; in Manhattan Beach, even the residents don't have parking. You can't bring trucks and people and equipment — that, to me, felt like the craziest thing we did. And Paul wanted to be in Manhattan Beach, because that's where Pynchon lived and that's where he wrote the novel."
In fact, Ring even found other, more accessible locations that could sub, only to be shot down: "We found places where you could fake it ... and Paul would have none of it."
While you're in the neighborhood: Larry's beachside neighborhood was featured in the almost-P.I. crime tale Against All Odds (1983) — and less than 2 miles south at Manhattan Beach Pier is where Keanu Reeves buys his surfboard in the 1991 undercover-surfer actioner Point Break (1991). You're also very close to LAX, whose tile walls and arrival areas have signified trouble flying into town in films including Jackie Brown (1997), Point Blank (1962) and The Limey (1999).
The DA's office
Location in the film: Hall of Justice, downtown
Shooting location: 433 S. Spring St., downtown
One of the more striking interior shots in Inherent Vice sees Doc picked up and braced by the FBI, ruining his lunch date at the Los Angeles Hall of Justice — a real building damaged by the 1994 Northridge quake — with deputy district attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon). As Ring explains, re-creating the 1970s-era corridors of power involved shooting a less-seen part of an often-used downtown location, 433 S. Spring St., which Ring calls "a great old building; you'd be stunned how much shooting goes on there. In fact, Paul used it as the department store in The Master."
However, even with 433 S. Spring having been used before — "they used it as the big detective's room in Zodiac" — Ring says Anderson still took advantage of every nook and cranny of the building: "Paul went up to the top floor, and he found these old offices that nobody uses anymore, and he used that. ”
While you're in the neighborhood: You're a few blocks from both Angels Flight — the hillside railway seen in 1955's two-fisted L.A. P.I. classic Kiss Me Deadly — and the Bradbury Building, home of the final fight in 1982's sci-fi P.I. tale Blade Runner.
Location in the film: Parker Center, 180 N. Los Angeles St.
Shooting location: Parker Center, 180 N. Los Angeles St. (exterior), and Union Rescue Mission, 545 S. San Pedro St. (interior)
The stomping grounds of Larry's old friend and LAPD "renaissance detective" Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Parker Center was the LAPD's headquarters from 1954 to 2009, and it still stands. As Ring explains, "Paul knows right away that's where he wants to shoot, because for the '60s and '70s, that was the police station. It's still there, but it's gutted — in fact, the city won't even let you go in it."
Parker Center was featured in the opening credits of Dragnet, that seminal L.A. cops-and-robbers show, from the fifth season on. For interiors, though, Ring noted that the photo they found wasn't at all what they were expecting: "So now you're looking for the interior of the Parker Center, and Paul has done research, and yeah, you do have to do some digging: What did the floors the detectives worked on in 1970 look like? You do a lot of searching, our designer David Crank did a lot of searching, and you're in old archives ... and Paul came up with this one photo. It wasn't the cliché detectives in the bullpen area, and they're all at their desks, which is what you picture. It was a long room full of tables with phones on them, and there were rows of them with detectives, standing, on the phone. It was really an odd photo. So we ended up looking for this room all over the place, and oddly enough, for the interior of Parker Center, we used the Union Rescue Mission, on San Pedro Street; it's their media center, but the room had the right bones to it."
While you're in the neighborhood: A short walk away, L.A.'s 1930s-built Union Station is much loved by directors looking for pretty places to have ugly things take place. It's a site of crime and chicanery in films including Catch Me if You Can (2002) and the James Garner–starring Raymond Chandler adaptation Marlowe (1969).
The Wolfman Residence
Location in the film: Beverly Hills
Shooting location: Loma Vista Drive, Beverly Hills (see top photo)
When Doc goes to talk to Mrs. Wolfman (Serena Scott Thomas) about her husband's disappearance, her mansion is a snapshot of '70s monied L.A. — glass, class and views to die for, with a tastefully minimal modernist look. She purrs, knowingly, "Like the lighting? Jimmy Wong Howe did it for us a few years back." It's a sly nod to the real, brilliant noir cinematographer who shot Seconds (1966) and Sweet Smell of Success (1958).
As Ring notes, the location has its own link to Anderson's history as a filmmaker, as it's located just across from a Beverly Hills landmark where Anderson found the perfect place to shoot before. "It's right across from the iconic Greystone Mansion, where Paul shot There Will Be Blood. And we searched and searched, and after a long look we found it."
While you're in the neighborhood: You're not that far from the Astral Drive home of Peter Fonda's escaped-from-the'70s super-creep Terry Valentine in Steven Soderbergh's 1999 The Limey, high above the smog. You're even closer to the Sheats-Goldstein residence, better known as the home of pornographer and bad guy Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) in The Big Lebowski.
Lunch between Doc and his lawyer
Location in the film: San Pedro
Shooting location: The Chowder Barge, Long Beach docks
In Pynchon's novel, Doc and his lawyer, Sauncho Similax (played in the film with nautical breeziness by Benicio Del Toro), meet for lunch in San Pedro, at "a local fish place called the Belaying Pin." Since the Belaying Pin never existed, Ring had to get inventive to find the perfect restaurant that combined a lived-in air and agreeable views, ultimately discovering his search would take him off dry land — and onto one of L.A.'s only restaurants-on-a-boat, the Chowder Barge.
It's an old-school restaurant with great views, and the vessel was originally a support ship for the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty before being made into an eatery more than 40 years ago. Ring says the venue created challenges, as he was "concerned about hiding the sailboats that weren't period, and the parking lot that wasn't period."
While you're in the neighborhood: After enjoying lunch at the Chowder Barge, take the eight-minute drive to the Queen Mary. This vast and classic ship has had its art deco interiors shown off in crime films and tough tales from Barton Fink to L.A. Confidential.
Headquarters of the Golden Fang
Location in the film: 4723 Sunset Blvd., East Hollywood
Shooting location: Pomona (exterior) and former Ambassador College, Pasadena (interior)
At first, 4723 Sunset Blvd. is the address named on an answering machine message promising plenty of dope, a message reached when Doc and his girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) dial a phone number they get from a Ouija board during a weedless time of emergency. Later, Doc returns to find the same address is now the office of the dental tax shelter/heroin importing cartel called the Golden Fang.
Ring laughs when you ask him about the tactics used to re-create '70s Hollywood in this instance — namely, going 35 miles east to Pomona. "We were in Pomona, we found a lot on a street that looks right, and we tore a fence down, and we did this and did that," he says. "Pomona's good, because there are sections of it that are just dead."
The headquarters' tooth-shaped, gold-tipped exterior in the film is computer-created — "We knew we were going to do something CGI," Ring notes — while all the offices and dental area interiors, in their white- or wood-paneled glory, were filmed at the former Ambassador College in Pasadena.
While you're in the neighborhood: The actual 4723 Sunset Blvd. is not the headquarters of the Golden Fang, but it is close to another L.A. crime-film location, the gorgeous house occupied by David Strathairn's disturbingly Disney-esque pimp, Pierce Moorehouse Patchett, in L.A. Confidential, at 4616 Dundee.
Doc and Bigfoot's pancake summit
Location in the film: Not specified, but the book calls it "a Japanese greasy spoon around the corner" from the Parker Center
Shooting location: Restaurant on First Street, Boyle Heights
The site of a breakfast meeting between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen, this restaurant appears on-screen for just a few moments as they talk about the Golden Fang and Bigfoot howls for more pancakes — in Japanese. ("The pancakes aren't as good as my mom's ... but I really come here for the respect," Bigfoot explains.)
For Ring, the site of the shoot was a last-minute victory: "We had a place all picked out, but Paul decided it wasn't right — it was an old diner in Baldwin Hills — and everybody's in a panic. I find myself in Boyle Heights, because I was looking in Little Tokyo, and I do a double take and say, 'What the hell is that?' because there's a little Asian area in Boyle Heights. I walked in and said, 'It's absolutely too small, and I wouldn't show it to any other director on the planet except Paul' — because Paul isn't daunted by the fact you can't get a camera through the door."
That was part of its appeal, as Ring explains: "In L.A., directors say, 'Take me where no one's ever shot,' and you're like, 'Come on — we've shot everything!' But Paul, I think he knows no one's ever shot there because no one could get a camera in there. Just this tiny space."
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While you're in the neighborhood: Boyle Heights has been seen in films including the Edward James Olmos gangster epic American Me (1992) and Colors (1988). The less violent, more real version of the neighborhood can be seen in Real Women Have Curves (2002) and A Better Life (2011). More specifically, the Linda Vista Community Hospital building in Boyle Heights (at 610 S. St. Louis St.) is a historical 1904 building complex that has been used in crime films such as In the Line of Fire (1992), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) and Suicide Kings (1997).
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