The great thing about a cult movie is that it can be anything as long as the fans are there. It can be a low-budget horror film, a teen comedy, a nightmarish experimental movie, or even a studio film that found a second life on a grainy VHS tape. It can be good, so bad that it’s good, or so bad that it’s bad. If the result is bringing groups of people together, then who cares?
Likewise, filming locations for some of our favorite cult films vary greatly. Sometimes they’re architectural marvels, and other times they’re just street corners that were good enough … and free. However, in either case, the scenes shot at these places are equally memorable to fans.
So get your friends together at midnight, dress up like your favorite characters and take your movie obsession to the streets, because here are some of L.A.’s well-known (and unknown) cult movie locations.
The Mayan Theater from Rock ’n’ Roll High School – Downtown L.A.
EXT. TICKET OFFICE – DAY
…All heads turn as a limousine pulls up. The GROUP gets out and sings an appropriate song. The fans go crazy as they walk down the line, singing… -From Rock ’n’ Roll High School by Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch and Joseph McBride
While growing up in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in the 1960s, Allan Arkush daydreamed about what it would be like if one of his favorite rock & roll bands took over his high school. It was a fantasy most likely shared by other teens as they stared out foggy classroom windows. In 1979, Arkush’s dream made it to the big screen when he landed the band that is arguably most responsible for creating the punk-rock sound.
After putting in time cutting trailers and directing second unit for B-movie king Roger Corman, Arkush was given the opportunity to make his own films for the legendary producer. Co-directing on both Hollywood Boulevard and Deathsport proved his ability to deliver an entertaining film on a Corman budget.
When Corman wanted to make a new film that would appeal to teenagers, Arkush’s rock & roll daydream was just the ticket, and he developed the story with fellow director Joe Dante. Instead of a rock film, however, Corman wanted to call the movie Disco High because two recent John Travolta films, Saturday Night Fever and Grease, had just blown up at the box office. Arkush always felt that the film, which became Rock ’n’ Roll High School, should feature a rock group akin to A Hard Day's Night, which starred The Beatles in an off-hand manner, “not a serious examination of the life of a rock band,” as Arkush says. After obtaining permission from Corman to make a rock & roll picture, which group could the director get as the band around whom the film revolved?
Arkush first approached rocker Todd Rundgren. “I was a big fan of his, and he had done a song called ‘Heavy Metal Kids,’” Arkush says. “I liked the lyrics [I feel like trashing some windows and crunching some feet] and in a way it’s how I pictured the high school kids, rebellious in that sense.” Rundgren liked the script but didn’t want to appear in a comedy at the time.
While discussions were taking place and other bands such as Cheap Trick, Van Halen and Devo were being investigated, an executive at Warner Music Group suggested punk band The Ramones. Arkush, an avid record collector who was familiar with the group’s music and blown away by their third album, Rocket to Russia, says he had a “Eureka!” moment. “When I thought about The Ramones and thought about a girl from the suburbs like [the film’s main character] Riff Randell trying to be a punk like The Ramones and the people around CBGB, it was a funny idea that would push the concept as far as it would go,” he says.
The intro of The Ramones in Rock ’n’ Roll High School was among the last material shot for the picture. Filming took place in downtown L.A. along Hill Street and outside the Mayan Theater, which stood in as the fictitious Rockatorium. Riff Randell, Vince Lombardi High School’s No. 1 Ramones fan, played by P.J. Soles, has camped out for days at the front of the line to buy Ramones tickets in hopes she can get close enough to the band to hand off some songs she wrote just for them, including “Rock & Roll High School.” Out of nowhere the unmistakable guitar chords of Johnny Ramone can be heard coming from a pink Cadillac convertible (chauffeured by KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer). The car’s license plate reads “Gabba-Gabba-Hey,” The Ramones’ signature catchphrase. As the car, complete with a full drum kit, moves along Hill Street and pulls up to the Mayan, the band performs “I Just Want to Have Something to Do” for a group of screaming fans.
In the late 1970s, the Mayan, which opened in 1927, was a porno house. “They were running porno movies upstairs, and they were making them in the basement,” Arkush says. The theater owners didn’t care when the filmmakers wanted to shoot as long as they didn’t go inside. “We could not in any way, manner, shape or form go inside, or light anything inside,” he says. “That’s why the scene ends at the doors.” (Concert and dressing room interiors were shot at the Roxy and the Whisky a Go Go.) With the freedom to use the exterior at no cost, along with the added bonus of the theater’s Mayan Revival–style frontage, it was a perfect location for The Ramones’ intro because it said, “This is the big show.”
As the scene progresses, and The Ramones continue to perform on the sidewalk, the line of dedicated fans rapidly grows over a short period of time. “Rather than lose extras we would gain them,” Arkush says. “Those kids would call their friends and say, ‘The Ramones are actually here!’ so if you look at it, the line actually gets bigger as time goes by. We had some really great Ramones fans.”
Today, the scene filmed in front of the Mayan plays out as a dynamic tribute to one of rock’s greatest bands and perfectly visualizes the rock & roll daydreams Arkush had as a teen. “Music provides an identity for you when you’re in high school,” says the director. “It becomes part of your fantasy life and how you dress and who you identify with in class. … You will always become attached to that music.”
1038 S. Hill St., downtown; (213) 746-4674.
“Top That” Street Corner from Teen Witch – Glendale
I’m king, and they know it – When I snap my fingers everybody says show it.
I’m hot, and you’re not – But if you wanna hang with me I’ll give it one shot.
Top that, top that! –From Teen Witch, music and lyrics by Larry Weir
It’s an ordinary middle-class neighborhood in the Glendale foothills that almost anyone would be happy to call home. However, in 1989, a low-budget teen musical immortalized the corner of Olmstead and Virginia avenues with a hip-hop tune that fervent fans and YouTube videos have kept alive over the last quarter of a century.
Teen Witch has played to midnight movie audiences of all ages, and more fans discover it every year as one of the staples of ABC Family’s “13 Nights of Halloween.” But the teen-friendly film that we know today didn't start out as the bubble-gum, pop music–filled movie about timid teen Louise Miller, played by Robyn Lively, who uses her newly discovered powers as a witch to become the most popular girl in school.
After major revisions of an R-rated, 125-page script that was anything but sweet and wholesome, producer Alana Lambros and director Dorian Walker created something completely different. “I started taking things out [of the script], and I would just put the words ‘musical number,’” says Lambros. She believed audiences would accept characters breaking out into song and dance because magic and fantasy were key ingredients of the story.
Likewise, Walker responded to the universal theme buried between the lines of the initial script: The real magic is believing in yourself. Walker thought, “There’s some heart in here despite all of this gratuitous Porky’s stuff that was thrown in to make sure people came to see it.”
In the 1980s, when low-budget slasher films and raunchy teen comedies were gold mines, Trans World Entertainment, known for distributing and/or producing such B-movie fare as Troll 2, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and Redneck Zombies, was unconvinced that a musical would sell. Lambros, who earned the lead producer gig on Teen Witch after working on numerous films for the company, stood her ground and was given the green light to move forward with Walker directing a musical version of the film — if it could be shot in 25 days.
A touchstone of the cult favorite, and arguably the reason it remains in the hearts and minds of so many, is its awesomely '80s soundtrack. Written by Larry Weir, songs including “Popular Girl,” “Never Gonna Be the Same Again” and “I Like Boys” are jam-packed with high-spirited camp and catchy lyrics you can’t stop singing, almost as if you’re under some sort of spell. Interestingly, the tune most beloved by fans was not originally planned.
When Lambros showed a trailer of the film’s musical numbers to potential foreign buyers, all of the distribution rights were quickly snatched up. Astonished, the president of Trans World asked Lambros, “Is this really a good movie?” to which she replied, “It’s amazing!” The decision was made to shoot more musical numbers, and the infamous hip-hop classic “Top That” was born.
Filming for “Top That,” a two-minute rap that could have been on New Kids on the Block’s Hangin' Tough album, was shot at that quiet intersection in Glendale, chosen due to its close proximity to Herbert Hoover High School, where all of the school scenes were filmed. “It was a good enough corner that I could take the camera and shoot three different directions and get three different scenes out of the way without having to move,” Walker says. “It was all about economizing the amount of moves so that I could maximize the amount of takes.”
When best friends Louise and Polly round the corner on their bikes, they come across resident school rapper Rhet Capaletti. He's free-styling in a Hawaiian shirt layered over a midriff-exposing tank top, with his boombox and B-boys in tow. Polly, who has a crush on Rhet, doesn’t have the nerve to talk to him, so Louise, using her newly discovered powers, discreetly gives her friend the confidence she needs. With her newfound courage, Polly confronts Rhet and a rap battle for the ages ensues.
Because “Top That” was shot after Teen Witch had initially wrapped, Mandy Ingber, who played Polly and is now a yoga and fitness instructor, had no clue she was going to have to rap when she signed on to the project. “Looking back, I’m actually really glad that I didn’t know because I probably would have been totally dreading it the whole time,” she says, laughing. Ingber was equally surprised to learn that her character was now supposed to have a massive crush on Rhet. She remembers thinking, “You mean to tell me all of a sudden my character loves him and the whole time we did the movie I didn’t even know?” Reservations aside, Ingber decided to throw down, and throw down she did.
Ingber, who now looks back on the scene fondly, still remembers the lyrics to “Top That,” and over the years eager Teen Witch fans have asked her to evoke her inner rapper. “When I was younger, it was 10-year-olds who would get excited,” Ingber tells the Weekly, “and then it started to be like, ‘Oh, they’re 30.’”
The old-school dance moves and dueling rap lyrics even Donnie Wahlberg would be proud of is the stuff that’s burned into the minds of '80s kids everywhere. There are some who say “Top That” is so bad it’s good, and others who say it’s so bad it’s, well, bad. Still, die-hard Teen Witch fans cherish “Top That” for its ideals, which are central to the story. “It underscored the heart of what the film was about,” Walker says. “Just think about the statement alone: Top that. You want to show your neighbor, ‘Look at me, look what I can do.’ How many people have wished they could secretly do something or say something, but they wouldn’t, or they couldn’t? But top that, why don’t you!”
Olmstead Avenue at Virginia Avenue, Glendale
The Sepulveda Dam from The Adventures of Bucakroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – Lake Balboa
“Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai … Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League” –From The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension by Earl Mac Rauch
1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension concerns the exploits of a neurosurgeon/test pilot/rock star/physicist/martial artist from New Jersey, Dr. Buckaroo Banzai, and his group of trusted compatriots and backup band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, as they attempt to stop the alien Red Lectroids from taking over Planet 10, home to the Black Lectroids. From there, Buckaroo doesn’t get any easier on the brain. How did a comedic sci-fi mash-up including Rastafarian aliens, a tie-in to Orson Welles’ famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds and a dimension-jumping hero make it to the screen?
Buckaroo director W.D. Richter explains, “I was a fan of the material because of the way it was written and because it was crazy in a wonderful way. It had a preposterous central character – kind of believable, but not – and the people around him … it all just seemed like such a wonderful world to try to create.”
When infamous producer David Begelman at Sherwood Productions read the script written by Richter’s friend Earl Mac Rauch, he somehow thought it was comparable to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the film was greenlit. Richter, who had previously written the screenplays for 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1979’s Dracula and 1981's Brubaker (for which he received an Oscar nomination), was tapped by Begelman to helm Buckaroo, which was his first directing gig.
Production on the low-budget picture was an uphill struggle, to say the least. “Once [Begelman] started seeing footage, he knew it wasn’t what he thought it was going to be,” Richter says. Begelman’s concerns ranged from the cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth, who two years earlier had helped create the iconic look of Blade Runner and was fired from Buckaroo, all the way down to a pair of red horn-rimmed glasses that the hero, played by Peter Weller, occasionally wore in the film.
Strangely enough, after all of Begelman’s problems with the material, the producer surprised the filmmakers by asking them to shoot more footage for a finale not originally scripted. “The end-title sequence was sort of a gift he gave us,” Richter says. While the scripted ending of Buckaroo is appropriate enough, Begelman thought the film should have a grander finale and asked the filmmakers if they could come up with something.
Following a black-and-white title card announcing a never-produced sequel, the picture fades up on a large concrete structure instantly recognizable to most Angelenos. “We knew we were going to move across a large surface. We wanted to be able to have tracking shots and that sense of no confinement,” Richter says. The Sepulveda Dam was quickly chosen for the end-credits sequence, which assembled all of the film’s heroes – even a character who died – for a stylish musical dance number that would act as an exuberant sendoff.
The dam, which was completed in 1941 and designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to control potential winter flooding from the Los Angeles River, “has a weird, epic scale,” in Richter’s opinion. The configuration of its sloping base topped by eight curvilinear towers that support a spanning bridge gave Richter the vague sense of an alien civilization. “[The supports] look more like dwellings than arches,” he says, “so when we’re doing a movie about strange creatures who have different shaped ships, this thing just seems to be haunted in its own real way.”
Richter regrets not finding the dam earlier, as he feels it could have been used for multiple scenes. “It might have had more resonance if you suddenly saw it again at the end,” he says. On the other hand, the sudden appearance of the location, along with the minimalist dance style, dynamic tracking shots, colorful costumes and brigade of likable characters, are the reasons why the scene resonates with audiences more than 30 years later.
Fans of the film have shot and uploaded to the web many of their own versions of the energetic finale, which was originally choreographed to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Even director Wes Anderson has cited the end of Buckaroo as an inspiration for the finale of his film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (but it’s just a coincidence that Jeff Goldblum stars in both movies … right?).
15758 Burbank Blvd., Lake Balboa
Circus Liquor from Clueless – North Hollywood
EXT. PARKING LOT – NIGHT
He starts the car and screeches away. Cher is surprised he actually left her. –From Clueless by Amy Heckerling
The term “cult movie” almost immediately conjures up images of scratched film prints and low-budget aesthetics. That’s not to say studio films can’t eventually become cult classics; there are plenty of them, but more often than not, their second lives were born on home video, cable, in second-run theaters or revival houses. One film that seems to have bypassed the longer, slower path to cult movie fandom is Paramount Pictures’ Clueless, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Grossing more than $77 million worldwide on an estimated $12 million budget, Clueless, the story of spoiled but sweet Beverly Hills high school socialite and matchmaker Cher Horowitz, was a box office phenomenon, but it also proved to be a cultural touchstone of the time, influencing fashion trends and the way young people spoke. The film became and remains somewhat of a rite of passage for teenage girls, who can usually quote memorable scenes.
Though writer-director Amy Heckerling, who also helmed '80s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, sat in on Beverly Hills High School classes to get a feel for the culture she was delving into, she tells the Weekly that Clueless was never intended as a realistic interpretation of teen life in California. “It is a fantasy of a happier, color-coordinated, well-dressed, nonviolent world where all races have enough money for the nicer things in life, all teachers are intelligent, all parents are loving and everywhere you go has valets,” Heckerling says.
With this strong concept in mind, all Heckerling needed to do was turn it upside-down when her main character, played by Alicia Silverstone, ventures outside the comfortable confines of Beverly Hills and into the unfamiliar territory of the San Fernando Valley for a skater party. Heckerling says, “I wanted it to seem to be her nightmare of garish design. And what is scarier than a 32-foot clown?”
After rejecting the advances of Elton, played by Jeremy Sisto, and becoming annoyed with his snobbish attitude toward the new girl in school whom he considers beneath his social class, played by Brittany Murphy, Cher storms out of his parked car. Elton then drives away, leaving Cher alone and stranded in the parking lot of North Hollywood’s Circus Liquor. Things only get worse from there. Cher is held up at gunpoint, forced to hand over her cellphone and purse, and ordered to lie face-down on the ground in her designer mini-dress. “Oh no, you don’t understand, this is an Alaïa,” Cher explains to the mugger about her expensive wardrobe. All the while, Circus Liquor’s gigantic neon clown looms over her, smirking in the background.
Circus Liquor, one of the most recognized filming locations in town, was brought to the table by location manager Jeffrey Spellman. “It’s always been one of my favorite L.A. locations,” he says. Being a Valley resident, Spellman had the giant clown in mind as soon as he read the scene in the script, and once Heckerling saw it, it was a done deal.
“Los Angeles does have a number of crazy, oversized signs and statues,” says Heckerling. “I’ve shot a giant cowboy at a fast food place on PCH and the huge donut, Randy’s, on Manchester, but the creepy clown is my favorite.”
The absurdity of the situation combined with Silverstone’s pampered and innocent portrayal of Heckerling’s character and — of course — the smiling clown, sell the idea that Cher is officially at her lowest point. “She’s just been mugged in a parking lot and all of a sudden there’s this clown looking down on her,” says Clueless production designer Steven Jordan. “It’s a visual dichotomy.” The scene is clearly a turning point for Cher, he adds: “There’s no one to back her up, no one to help, she has to deal with it. … All of a sudden the thought of maturity becomes a factor.”
The visual character of Circus Liquor made it so that even out-of-town audiences could better understand the dynamic of Beverly Hills versus the Valley. “It was believable to everyone who lived outside of Los Angeles, and that’s not an easy task,” Spellman says.
The liquor store at the corner of Burbank Boulevard and Vineland Avenue, which has become a must-visit destination for movie fans, has been in business for more than 50 years, but it has Clueless to thank for being one of the best-known purveyors of alcohol in L.A. Heckerling, who has not been back to Circus Liquor since shooting Clueless, will occasionally spot the store when it appears in commercials or TV shows and feels a personal connection to it. She tells the Weekly, “I always feel like saying, ‘Hey, that’s my clown.’”
5600 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood; (818) 769-1500
Tillman Water Reclamation Plant from Brain Dead – Van Nuys
INT. WARD 8 – DAY
Martin has a thick bandage on his head and both his eyes are blackened and swollen. He stands by the window looking out … not at the accident but the quiet bucolic grounds of Lakeside. -From Brain Dead by Charles Beaumont and Adam Simon
Produced and distributed by Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons Pictures, Brain Dead is the story of neurosurgeon Dr. Rex Martin and his unraveling sanity. Yet it is among a group of cult movies not widely written about. Laughing, director/co-writer Adam Simon says, “It’s a secret cult film.” The truth is that its journey to the screen is somewhat David Lynchian, and its main shooting location was something no one had seen before.
In the late 1980s, as he was nearing the end of USC film school, Simon, the co-creator and writer of TV series Salem, returned home to his L.A. apartment one day to find a mysterious script waiting at his door. The young filmmaker, who had previously had some success with a short film he made, was puzzled as to how and why the script ended up at his door, because he had not yet directed anything professionally. “I looked at the envelope, and it was clear that it was from Roger Corman’s company, which was pretty exciting to me,” he says. The script inside the envelope was titled Paranoia, and, although it was a photocopy, it was obvious that the original manuscript had been written on a typewriter. What piqued Simon’s interest further was that sci-fi/horror novelist and screenwriter Charles Beaumont, one of his heroes, had penned the script. But how could this be? Beaumont tragically died in 1967 at the young age of 38.
Beaumont, who wrote some of the most famous episodes of the Twilight Zone, also wrote Corman-directed pictures including The Intruder and a number of the filmmaker’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Paranoia, which was written for Corman to direct, never came to fruition. About 25 years later, Corman saw Simon’s short film, which had a Twilight Zone mystique about it, and was interested in having the young filmmaker direct Paranoia. Simon updated the story, which became Brain Dead, and, with the blessing of the writer’s family, he was given co-screenwriting credit alongside Beaumont.
The film, in which the very nature of reality is called into question, takes place largely at Lakeside mental institution, the residence of John Halsey, played by Bud Cort. Halsey, a former employee of the Eunice Corporation, is now a psychotic who holds important company secrets in his head. Dr. Martin, played by Bill Pullman, visits Lakeside at the request of his friend, Eunice executive Jim Reston, played by Bill Paxton, to determine if there’s any way to unlock the valuable information in Halsey’s brain, even if it means cutting him open.
For Lakeside hospital, Simon chose the administration building of the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant, designed by futurist architect Anthony J. Lumsden. Brain Dead was among the first films to shoot at Tillman after the plant opened in 1985. Since that time, the building has been featured in numerous movies and TV shows such as Austin Powers, Rising Sun and Bio-Dome; it also was Starfleet Academy in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Simon was blown away when he first saw the ultramodern building that sits on the edge of Woodley Park’s Japanese Garden. “You can live in L.A. all your life and not really know that it exists. It’s not exactly someplace you typically drive by,” he says.
Likewise, the building made an impression on Brain Dead’s production designer, Catherine Hardwicke. “I remember the first time I visited, and my eyeballs just popped out of my head. I thought, that’s so cool that the city actually hired a good architect, a thoughtful architect, that made an effort,” says Hardwicke, who studied architecture in school and is now known as the director of Thirteen and Twilight. Tillman’s sloping metal roof, glass enclosures and geometric concrete walkways were perfect for the Eunice-owned mental hospital, as they evoke a sense of faceless corporate greed.
The location was also attractive to the filmmakers of the low-budget movie because different parts of the facility could be used for various scenes. “It’s the mental hospital itself, but we also used a piece of the parking lot,” says Simon. “We got to actually use the interior atrium and the front entrance, and as I remember we shot some stuff in the bowels of the place.”
“I was trying to figure out how to give a big look to that movie on 10 cents,” says Hardwicke, laughing. “I had a general feeling of what I thought could elevate the movie and make it really cool … and that informs your search for a location.” Tillman’s character and composition then helped further the overall visual concepts and the look Hardwicke wanted for the constructed sets. One set in particular, Dr. Martin’s lab, could have fit right in at the water reclamation plant with its bleak gray walls and metallic tabletops, not to mention a wall full of live brains.
Looking back, Simon feels lucky that he was allowed to shoot at a practical location such as Tillman. “It was so unusual for a Corman movie of that time to get to do any shooting outside of the old stages that Roger owned,” says Simon. “That alone was a sign of the fact that Roger and Julie [Corman] were giving this a little extra attention, that they were actually willing to pay to have a real location like that for as long as we had it.”
6100 Woodley Ave., Van Nuys; (818) 778-4108
Rancho Los Amigos Hospital from Bubba Ho-Tep – Downey
EXT. REST HOME – DAY
Elvis, wearing a KHAKI BUSH JACKET over his pajamas, clumps outside with his walker. He scans the horizon and sniffs the air. –From Bubba Ho-Tep by Don Coscarelli
Not far from the 710 and 105 freeway interchange in Downey stand the abandoned ruins of a massive hospital compound. Upon walking the eerily quiet streets surrounding the fenced-in grounds just south of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, it’s easy to imagine horrific images of mental patients receiving shock therapy or being locked away in padded rooms. While this isn’t too far off, it’s not the whole story.
What’s also been called the Hollydale Mental Hospital or the Downey Insane Asylum was built in 1888, and while it did house the mentally ill, it also provided temporary residence to the homeless, who could work in the hospital’s gardens or make clothes and other household goods that would be sold to the public. In exchange, the hospital would provide medical assistance and a place to live.
Over the years, the buildings have also served as a public hospital, an Army base, a rehabilitation center and training facilities for the Marine Corps and local police departments. In 2001 the boarded-up hospital added another function to its resume: movie studio.
“We wanted a place where the production office and the main 'stage' — because we didn’t have any money for a real stage — could be together,” says Jason Savage, producer of Don Coscarelli’s horror/comedy mashup Bubba Ho-Tep. Upon his first scout of the location with the director, Savage, who previously worked on Coscarelli’s Phantasm IV: Oblivion, remembers thinking that the compound was perfect for the film. “It was just amazing. We pull in and it’s like a [studio] … We felt like it had everything,” he says. It also seemed too good to be true. With the film having an estimated budget of $1 million, the question became how they would be able to afford such an expansive location and get through the red tape of approvals required to secure it. “We’re going to pursue this,” Savage remembers thinking, “but we also know we’re not going to get it, so we’ve got to keep looking.”
Luckily, there was someone high up in the property’s administration that became a champion for the film. “We told this guy what the movie was about, which is an interesting thing, telling somebody what Bubba Ho-Tep is about,” says Savage, laughing.
The film, based on the novella by Joe R. Landsdale, blurs the line between sanity and dementia. Cult movie star Bruce Campbell plays Sebastian Haff, or Elvis Presley, depending on how you interpret the story. The movie finds a fat and tired Presley at the Shady Rest Convalescent Home in present-day East Texas. Instead of jetting around the world and eating peanut butter and banana sandwiches, the King now spends most of his time in a dreary bedroom, dwelling on his glorious past and regretting the day he switched places with an Elvis impersonator, Sebastian Haff. He maintains that he is actually Presley and switched places with Haff due to the exhaustion of being a rock icon. Is this actually Elvis Presley or, as the hospital staff is convinced, just a look-alike who fell off a stage while performing, went into a coma and now thinks he’s really Elvis? All the while, an Egyptian mummy roams the corridors of Shady Rest feeding on the souls of its occupants. To defeat this ancient evil, Presley teams up with Jack, another resident who thinks he’s JFK, even though he’s black. “They dyed me this color!” exclaims Jack, played by Ossie Davis.
The administrator at Rancho Los Amigos miraculously liked the idea and arranged for the filmmakers to shoot there. The film’s content being what it was, there couldn’t have been a more ideal location for Bubba Ho-Tep.
Most of the exterior action takes place at a house on the property, which plays as the main entrance to Shady Rest. All of the interiors, however, were shot inside other buildings in the compound. Bubba Ho-Tep’s production designer, Danny Vecchione, was tasked with turning certain hallways and rooms of the abandoned buildings into the nursing home.
The film’s small art department would work around the clock — and spend some time living at Rancho Los Amigos — turning the vacant hallways into something that could be put on film. “It looked like it hadn’t been shut down that long because most of the medical equipment was actually still in it,” says art director Justin Zaharczuk. “When we ended up staying there overnight, we just brought a couple of sheets from home [because] the beds were intact, everything was intact.”
As is common of most old, boarded-up buildings, rumors are rampant of the abandoned hospital being haunted. Vecchione says that police officers using the grounds for training did not go into certain rooms and relayed horror stories of nurses committing suicide. “One of the rooms, I never went past ever again,” Vecchione says. “There was a flickering fluorescent light and a perfect triangle of dead bees on the floor.”
Upon leaving one night, Savage came across a group of people who weren’t associated with the production. “It turned out they were ghost hunters and they were there to see if it was haunted,” he says. “They just happened to stumble across this company making a movie.”
While Vecchione didn’t experience any paranormal activity at the hospital, he does remember once coming across what he thought was a dead body. “I lost my mind,” says the production designer. After further investigation, it turned out to be a police department training dummy.
7600 Consuelo St., Downey
The Bradbury Building from Blade Runner – Downtown L.A.
INT. LOBBY/SEBASTIAN’S – NIGHT
Deckard steps cautiously into the gloom and looks around. The shadowy areas look dangerous. The place looks vacant. Deckard pulls his blaster out. –From Blade Runner by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples
On any given day, visitors from all over the world can be seen snapping photos inside downtown L.A.’s glorious Bradbury Building. The structure’s glass-covered atrium houses open-cage elevators, decorative wrought-iron railings and Victorian-era woodwork not commonly seen in other pieces of architecture. While still a fully functioning office building, the Bradbury is perhaps most synonymous with a film whose history is almost as controversial as the building’s own.
Lewis L. Bradbury, a millionaire gold miner and real estate developer, commissioned architect Sumner Hunt to design a grand building at the corner of Third Street and Broadway. Supposedly, Bradbury was unhappy with the architect’s designs and replaced him with draftsman George Wyman, and the building opened in 1893. Though both architects are given credit, some sources say there is no valid evidence to conclude that Wyman changed any of Hunt’s original plans. Conflicting accounts suggest that Wyman based the design on a building described in Edward Bellamy’s 1888 utopian novel, Looking Backward. Its mysterious history aside, through the years, the building has inspired the imaginations of everyone from foreign tourists to foreign filmmakers.
Ridley Scott had never shot a feature film in L.A. prior to his sci-fi noir masterpiece, Blade Runner, which is equally famous for its celebrated prophetic vision of the future as it is for the levels of controversy surrounding its creation. By now, stories of the film’s financing, script revisions, escalating budget, disappointing box office and the infamous Harrison Ford voice-over are the things of cinema legend. What’s more interesting to consider, however, is that almost 35 years ago, the British filmmaker captured a claustrophobic and overpopulated version of Los Angeles circa 2019 that differs little from today.
The iconic and often imitated look of Blade Runner was largely created on the Warner Bros. backlot, guided by the concepts of futurist artist Syd Mead, along with production designer Lawrence G. Paull and art director David L. Snyder. Still, the aesthetic created on the backlot had to be conveyed at a number of practical L.A. locations.
“We would have a specific list of places to go and see,” Snyder says. “As we’re walking from one location to another … and instead of going to the places we thought we were going to go, [Scott] would walk along and see something interesting.” It was improvisational scouting, as Snyder puts it.
“Ridley didn’t know Los Angeles,” says location manager Michael Neale, “and I’m a fourth-generation Angeleno, so we spent a lot of time discovering the town.” Though Neale knew L.A. like the back of his hand, he was able to discover it anew through Scott’s eyes. “Many things I took for granted he turned on their heads and made me look at them differently.”
A handful of L.A. buildings can be seen in Blade Runner, including Union Station, the Million Dollar Theatre, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis-Brown House and, most famously, the Bradbury Building. The Bradbury, which is arguably associated with Blade Runner more than anything else, was used as the cavernous home of J.F. Sebastian, an employee of the Tyrell Corporation, who is developing lifelike androids called replicants.
At the time of shooting, the Bradbury and the surrounding area was not what it is today. “It was not a thriving building because, back in the '70s, everybody was running from those spaces. … Downtown was not ‘hip,’” says Neale.
Even though the Bradbury is a visual marvel in its own right, the trick was to make sure that the backlot sets and downtown L.A. looked the same. “I would take things from the backlot, like the serpentine columns that I built on the façade of the Bradbury Building with the canopied sign,” says Snyder.
As with any historic building, there were strict guidelines that needed to be followed. “There were restrictions, like, ‘You cannot put a nail, you cannot put any putty, you can’t put anything on our building,’” Snyder recalls. Likewise, the Bradbury had to be dressed and cleaned every day for consecutive days because it was still in use with the 9-to-5 crowd. Snyder says, “We went in there every day at about 6 o’clock when offices would close, then we would turn it into a derelict building, and then by 6 o'clock the next morning it all had to be cleaned up and pristine as if we’d never been there.” To quickly soak up water that was used to make it appear as though rain was coming through the roof of the building, Snyder developed a quick and easy solution. Instead of using dirt or fuller’s earth, he employed crumbled cork, which would look like fallen plaster from the ceiling and would also absorb the water. “We would just take 12 people and sweep it up,” he says.
Because the movie was filmed more than 30 years ago, it’s difficult to say exactly how many days of Blade Runner’s shooting schedule were spent at the Bradbury, but Snyder has a good way of putting it into perspective: They were there long enough that the name of the movie changed on the marquee of the Million Dollar Theatre across the street. The continuity error could be seen in the original version, but it was corrected in Scott’s final cut.
Though the Bradbury Building is in the collective consciousness of L.A. as “the Blade Runner location,” the film's co-screenwriter, Hampton Fancher, originally tried suggesting to Scott that he shouldn’t use the building because of its overexposure as a location in other movies. Nevertheless, the director was excited about the Bradbury and knew he could shoot it differently. Upon seeing the film, Fancher quickly changed his mind. Paul M. Sammon, in his book Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, quotes Fancher as saying, “My God! Ridley was right! No one’s ever seen the Bradbury like this before!” And no one has seen it in the same light since.
304 S. Broadway, downtown; (213) 626-1893
Jared Cowan is a photographer, camera operator and avid filmgoer living in Los Angeles. In 2002, he graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a B.F.A. in film and video production. See more of his photography at jaredcowanphotography.com and follow him on Twitter at @JaredCowan1. Special thanks to the Location Managers Guild of America, AFI’s Louis B. Mayer Library and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library for their assistance.