We don’t tend to think of Joel Coen and Ethan Coen as quintessential Los Angeles filmmakers in the same way we might directors such as Paul Thomas Anderson or John Singleton, who are well known for making films that speak to their upbringings in the city. The Coen brothers grew up 1,900 miles away in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Their prolific body of work has transported moviegoers to the icy landscapes of their home state, the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, seedy Mexican border towns and many other locations and time periods that have defined the distinctive films they’ve made during their 30-plus-year careers.
Yet the Coens are no strangers to telling L.A. stories, and their newest film, which speaks to their genuine affinity for movies, could be their most personal next to 2009’s A Serious Man. This Friday marks the release of the much-anticipated Hail, Caesar!, their fourth L.A. movie following Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty. Taking place in 1950s Hollywood, the film follows Capitol Pictures’ savvy studio fixer Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin. Mannix must find the studio’s biggest movie star, Baird Whitlock (played by George Clooney), after the actor, who is starring in the studio’s prestigious Roman epic, Hail Caesar, is abducted. The anonymous group calling itself — in wonderfully absurdist Coen fashion — “the Future,” is demanding a hefty ransom for the star’s return. And that’s just one of the many headaches Mannix has to squash during one particular day in the Coens’ self-reflexive whodunit comedy.
Hail, Caesar!, like all of the Coens’ work, is set in a clearly defined world that, while familiar, is also somewhat skewed, creating an unpredictable heightened reality in an environment that becomes a character itself. In Hail, Caesar!, the backdrop is the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when the major studios were forced to compete with the advent of television.
Finding golden-era locations in L.A. is no easy task, as we’re told by Hail, Caesar!’s location manager, John Panzarella. “Period locations are disappearing fast,” he says. “A lot of places that were around when I did L.A. Confidential are gone. It’s a very limited palette, a very limited number of places you can go to when it comes right down to it.” You can be sure, though, that if one person could do the job it’s Panzarella, who with L.A. Confidential amassed the filming locations for arguably the greatest L.A.-location film ever made. Panzarella adds that it didn’t hurt he could tell property owners that their location would be featured in a Coen brothers film. “When you say, 'Coen brothers,' doors open. Everybody was super excited to be part of a Coen brothers movie. There are few names that carry that kind of respect around this town.”
So grab your Roman gladius, put on your tap shoes and saddle up your horses — here’s your guide to the L.A. filming locations of the Coens’ newest romp, Hail, Caesar!
When discussing the film’s locations with Panzarella, a location professional for more than 30 years, one of the most striking things about Hail, Caesar! is the Hollywood sleight-of-hand used to create a convincing 1950s Los Angeles. Cutting between multiple locations during a scene to make up a singular location is classic filmmaking. However, creating the fully realized Capitol Pictures required much more than combining a couple of places. In fact, to create the archetypal studio lot, the filmmakers branched out to five locations throughout L.A., not to mention various studio soundstages including Sony’s Stage 30, which houses the famous water tank from the synchronized-swimming films of aquatic star Esther Williams.
For most of the studio lot exteriors, though, Warner Bros. was the natural choice. “I think [Joel and Ethan] wanted as much of an old-timey, authentic period studio look as they could get, and Warner Bros. clearly, heads, hands and feet, had it above everything else,” Panzarella says. He adds that the studio was incredibly supportive of the picture. Although the film is a Universal Pictures release, Warner Bros. “went to a tremendous amount of trouble to clear things out for us to make it look period; all the trailers, all the electrical hookups, all the transportation pieces for different TV shows that had to be moved.” The result is a fascinating look at a movie studio at the beginning of the TV age, devoid of today’s technological advancements. The studio’s rose garden and various soundstage exteriors appear in the film, but short of taking over multiple areas of the lot for many days, the filmmakers came up with creative ways to expand the overall scope of the studio.
“When Jess [Gonchor, the production designer] and I went to scout Union Station, we went to look at the Fred Harvey restaurant for the nightclub [which was not used in the film]. When he started walking around and realizing the similarity of architecture between Warner Bros. and Union Station, that kind of sparked him to think about using it in addition to Warner Bros.,” Panzarella says. Mannix is seen a couple of times walking briskly through the main courtyard at Union Station while his assistant reads off his agenda for the day. “The courtyard is so grand at Union Station, and there’s really nothing quite like that at Warner Bros.” Additionally, the main driveway leading to the Metropolitan Water District building adjacent to the train station was used, incorporating visual effects of the studio’s soundstages to replace the administrative buildings of the water company.
For a scene where Mannix pitches Hail Caesar to a group of local religious leaders, the filmmakers chose the Cravens Estate in Pasadena, which is headquarters of the San Gabriel Valley branch of the Red Cross. Completed in 1930, the baroque-inspired brick mansion is a staple among L.A. filming locations and can also be seen in Being There, The Muppets and as Glee’s Dalton Academy. In Hail, Caesar!, the house’s wood-paneled drawing room was turned into Capitol Studios’ conference room. “Finding a great conference room is not as easy as you might think it is,” Panzarella says. “At one point we wanted a conference room [made of] travertine marble … but ultimately everybody really loved the Cravens Estate as much for it being quiet as for the look. So many places downtown, if you were to go and try to shoot, you’d have so much traffic noise. We looked at the Crocker Bank Building, we looked at the Twin Springs Building and a couple of other places, but ultimately they were noisy as hell.”
City Hall also became part of Capitol Pictures, but not the grand entrance or exterior staircase we’re used to seeing in films. Rather, one period-appropriate hallway on the building’s second floor was used when Mannix steps out of the conference room filmed at the Cravens Estate. “At Warner Bros. there just isn’t a hallway of that nature,” Panzarella says. “The Pacific Electric Building, where we had shot L.A. Confidential, has an interesting hallway of a much different kind, which we considered, but it lacked that look of importance for an executive office building.”
To round out Capitol Pictures, office space of the studio’s general counsel, Sid Siegelstein (Geoffrey Cantor), was shot inside a two-story building designed by the same architects of a famous structure on the UCLA campus, and you can immediately see the similarities. The brick building located at 635 Mateo St. in downtown's Arts District was built in 1929 and designed by the architecture firm of Allison and Allison, brothers who also built Royce Hall. The Romanesque/Byzantine-style brickwork is prevalent at both locations. Today the building is owned by the Southwestern Bag Co., a wholesale distribution firm that’s been family-operated for four generations. While the exterior design certainly stands out in the neighborhood, it’s the interior that may be more familiar to movie fans. It can be seen as the Detroit police station in Beverly Hills Cop as well as the police department in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Charlie Sheen fraternizes with Jennifer Grey. “Many period offices are like little rabbit warrens; they don’t have a lot of space, and Southwestern Bag does,” says Panzarella. “It just had so many different things that were available.” The location also serves as the downtown office for Jonah Hill’s accountant character, Joseph Silverman.
In the first scene of the film, we quickly learn that one of the only sanctuaries Eddie Mannix has from his hectic days at the studio is the confessional at church. Within a 27-hour span, Mannix goes to church twice to confess his sins.
While the actual confessional was shot on a stage, the film’s opening shot of a sculpture of Jesus hanging on the cross was filmed in the cathedral of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles near MacArthur Park. The church, completed in 1932, has played host to a number of films including National Treasure and Spider-Man 2, and loads of television. Though it’s seen only briefly at the opening of the movie, the filmmakers did scout a number of churches around town. “We looked at a lot of Catholic churches, but they were too ornamental,” says Panzarella. He adds that the Coens liked the austerity of the First Congregational Church. It was also important to the directors that the actual Christ sculpture was of a certain type. “They wanted a Christ that was in pain,” he says, “and all of the Catholic churches that had Christ on a cross just weren’t right. … We actually brought in our own crucifix when it came right down to it.”
Capitol’s No. 1 Western star, Hobie Doyle (played by Alden Ehrenreich), is instructed by Mannix that he’s going to take actress Carlotta Valdez, who is modeled after Brazilian actress-singer Carmen Miranda, to his movie premiere. A scene where Hobie picks up Carmen at her house is actually split into two different locations. “Joel and Ethan are not shy about cheating reverses; they really embrace it,” Panzarella says. “They want the visual they have conceived. They have no hesitancy whatsoever to cheating reverses, and we did it time and time again.”
Going into the project, one location the Coens had in mind was the top of Whitley Avenue at Whitley Terrace. “Before we had Carlotta’s house, we had Whitley Terrace.” Hobie displays his talent for rope tricks while standing in the street waiting for Carlotta. “They wanted him out in the street. Whitley Terrace was perfect for that, with the view of Hollywood in the background,” says Panzarella.
The location manager explains that going into any neighborhood, especially one at the top of a steep incline with narrow streets like Whitley Terrace, can be a crap shoot. “When you go in, there’s no predicting whether everybody’s going to love you or you’re going to have somebody who hates you. Sometimes it’s the person’s house you’re using that generates that. If everybody in the neighborhood likes that person, then it usually goes very smoothly. If that person has recently done a renovation and has pissed off everyone in the neighborhood, then it doesn’t go so well,” Panzarella says, laughing. Luckily, everything worked out in this case.
However, none of the houses at the top of Whitley Avenue would work for Carlotta’s residence. The filmmakers looked at plenty of sprawling palatial estates around the city, something that would convey the grandeur of movie-star status, but ultimately none of them really panned out. Panzarella says, “They thought that all of those places, considering the scene with Hobie performing his rope tricks, almost looked like embassies or schools.”
Ultimately, the filmmakers were thrilled to find Carlotta’s gorgeous Spanish-Colonial house, designed by architect Paul Williams. That Williams designed the house, built in 1927 in the Los Feliz hills, made all the more sense as the architect had built homes for Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and other stars of the era. “It was the perfect house on a hill — it was a great match" for Whitley Terrace, Panzarella says.
The resulting scene, in which both characters are outside Carlotta’s house, is actually comprised of each actor delivering his lines from two completely different locations. The same technique is used when Mannix goes to Joseph Silverman’s downtown office at the Southwestern Bag Co. Mannix looks across the street to see what is actually the Harvey Apartments, located at 5640 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.
Premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre
“We looked at every single theater on Broadway,” says Panzarella when discussing the movie palace premiering Capitol’s new Western picture starring Hobie Doyle. The filmmakers decided to use the Los Angeles Theatre. “The lobby is the selling point. It has a lot more scope than the Palace or the Orpheum. The Orpheum is a great interior theater, but the lobby doesn’t have the scope, it’s more of a vertical space.” Panzarella adds that the directors’ storyboards had specifically incorporated the idea of a long walk up to a grand staircase. “That’s what you have at the Los Angeles,” he says.
Imperial Gardens Restaurant
At a couple of points in the film, Mannix meets with an acquaintance who works for a major corporation that would like to hire him for a job that would take him away from the circus of Hollywood. The scenes take place inside the intimate Imperial Gardens Chinese restaurant, which was actually the Good Luck Bar in Los Feliz. “We went all through Chinatown, looked at lots of restaurants. There’s a restaurant out in Reseda [the Great Wall] that we looked at.”
The dimly lit, Chinese-inspired bar in Los Feliz, with its red color palette, was just one of the places in the mix, Panzarella says. “When [Joel and Ethan] got there, they were like, ‘Fantastic.’” Panzarella was pleasantly surprised by the choice because the space is fairly tight, and “sometimes you’re looking for a lot of volume, a lot of space.” He compares it to filming in the close quarters of the Frolic Room for L.A. Confidential. “I would have never imagined that [director] Curtis Hanson would have gone for that, but it worked perfectly.”
Silver Lake Houses
For a couple of brief scenes, we’re taken inside the Mannix house, a single-family home built in 1913 in Silver Lake just off Sunset Boulevard. We don’t get too much in terms of scope of the house other than his children’s bedroom and the kitchen, though we don’t have to see too much as Mannix is hardly ever home, having to tackle all of the challenges at the studio, 24 hours a day.
One of the opening scenes finds Mannix at night in the rain, pulling up to a quaint Spanish-style house off Silver Lake Boulevard. As we get only a fleeting glimpse of the home’s exterior, and the interior scenes were filmed in a house off of San Vincente near the Miracle Mile, Panzarella says the choice of the house for the start of the film had a lot to do with the street itself. There were other houses that could have worked but none of the streets fit what the directors had in mind for Mannix stepping out of his car and walking up to a house where he would find one of his starlets engaging in some debauchery. “Sometimes when you’re scouting for something, you get caught up in the architecture of it all, and there was one house that was just incredible, and they liked the house too, but the blocking did not work for them,” Panzarella says. “The blocking is critical to them. … It was really about the reverse and where the car was parked.”
“We came very close to using the Fred Harvey restaurant at Union Station,” says Panzarella of the film’s swinging nightclub location. However, the decision to go elsewhere was dictated by a certain plot point, which required a particular arrangement of the room that the art deco event space couldn’t provide. “The way [Fred Harvey] was situated with the booths that are built in there, it just didn’t quite work. We had asked if we could take out part of a booth and they wouldn’t let us do it, so we just moved on.”
The filmmakers changed course and went with the interior of the Hollywood Palladium, where they built their own bandstand in front of the auditorium’s main doors, opposite the actual Palladium stage.
The front doors of the nightclub, however, are those of the Fonda Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, and a point-of-view shot looking across the street is actually a third location, that of the Chapman Market West building in Koreatown.
Locations of the Movies Within the Movie
When it came time to consider the locations for the movies being shot within the world of Hail, Caesar! decisions were easily made. The filmmakers went to two of the most iconic filming locations in the Los Angeles area: Vasquez Rocks and Bronson Caves. Though some might think of these locations as overused, and they could be right, putting them in Hail, Caesar! is a respectful nod to the history of the locations themselves, which have hosted everything from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Army of Darkness, 1931’s Dracula, Woody Allen’s Sleeper, the Batman television series of the 1960s, episodes of Star Trek and much more.
“For a Western scene for a movie that’s being shot in the '50s, Vasquez Rocks was archetypal,” says Panzarella, referring to a scene in which Western star Hobie Doyle is shooting his new film. “Vasquez Rocks was a place that Joel and Ethan knew that they really wanted to shoot at before I came on board.”
Additionally, Bronson Caves are unmistakable as part of a sprawling wide shot as the “Well of Jehosophat” in the studios’ Roman epic.
Shots of Rome’s Appian Way were done at Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, famous as the main location from Little House on the Prairie. “It’s one of the good places nearby where there’s a grand vista,” says Panzarella.
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A couple of other locations you can catch glimpses of in Hail, Caesar! include the side of the Pacific Theatre on Wilcox Ave. just north of Hollywood Blvd., and Palos Verdes Dr. South near Pelican Cove, which doubles for Malibu.
Hail, Caesar! opens Friday, Feb. 5. Special thanks to Universal Pictures. 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.