Thursday, July 10, 2008

Roger Corman's L.A.

L. and I were thinking of going to Big Sur for the 4th of July weekend… right up until it caught on fire, along with (it seems) every other patch of semi-wilderness in California. Lately, it’s hard not to think of all the apocalyptic books and films that have been set in this corner of the world – fires, floods, and earthquakes have repeatedly ravaged the late, great state of California. Wildfires in the L.A. hills provided a suitably ominous backdrop for Joan Didion’s novel Play It As it Lays (1970) and at least one film that made a big impression on me – Roger Corman’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1960).

In his autobiography, Corman writes: “The one exterior at the outset of Usher – when Philip Winthrop rides his horse through woods to the castle – had to have a stark fantasy look. As ‘luck’ would have it, there was a forest fire in the Hollywood Hills just as we were going into production. I heard about it on the car radio, turned my car around, and drove to the scene. I watched the firemen put out the tail end of the fire… The next day I went out to the hills with a skeleton crew, the second male lead, Mark Damon, and a horse. It was great. The ground was gray with ash; the trees were charred and black. And we threw a little fog in to add some effect. I got exactly what I wanted: to not show green grass, leafy trees, or any other organic signs of life. The film was about decay and madness.”

Corman made his Edgar Allan Poe series at the very beginning of the counterculture movement in California – just before a transitional period in which America would get bogged down in a long and costly war with a third-world country, then betrayed by the power-hungry president who perpetuated that war, before being saddled with the economic woes of an oil crisis. Sound familiar? But I digress...

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Big Sur this past weekend is because that’s where Corman shot one of his most influential films about the counterculture movement (The Trip). Instead, we stuck close to home over the holiday weekend and took a mini-tour of some of Roger Corman’s filming locations in and around Los Angeles. One location is practically in our backyard. The lagoon sequences for Corman’s first sci-fi/horror picture The Day the World Ended (1954) were shot in the patio area at The Sportsman’s Lodge on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. Corman says, “We were allowed to film there only because the restaurant didn’t serve lunch, but I had to promise to clear out before dinner.” (Update: The Daily News recently reported that The Sportsman's Lodge will be closing its doors at the end of the year.) Other outdoor sequences for the film were shot in Bronson Canyon near Griffith Park – where the geography perfectly suits the storyline: A group of strangers have survived the mutating effects of a nuclear blast by hiding out in a steep-walled canyon.

When he was getting started as a director, Corman also made a few westerns – including his debut film Five Guns West (1955), which was shot among the rock formations at Iverson Ranch in Simi Valley. This is a strange location to visit because it now sits right in the backyard of a small suburb and you almost can’t help peering into the windows of the nearby houses. Of course, that wasn’t the case in 1955 when Five Guns West was shot here in 9 days on a $60,000 budget. It’s been a few years since I saw the movie... (In the summer of 2001, I was working on the backlot at a TV production studio in Virginia – helping to clean up a disastrously organized collection of art department props. Among the debris in a huge outdoor container was a VHS collection of cheap westerns. The only tape that still played was Five Guns West, which I watched simply because it had Roger Corman’s name on it. I don’t remember being very impressed, but that was before I had really learned to appreciate the western genre. And, again, I digress...)

In his autobiography, Corman recounts his first day as a director: “I had planned everything. Then I awoke on the first day of shooting and drove to the location through an incredible torrent of rain. This wasn’t possible. My first day! I hadn’t even started and I was already behind schedule! I got so worked up and tense that I pulled off the road and threw up. Then I just leaned against my car in the rain and pulled myself together. I made it to Iverson’s and after about an hour’s wait the rain stopped… Actually, the opening shot was quite beautiful. We had great dark rain clouds with the sun just starting to shin through as the criminals were gathering on a hillside to be sworn in. It was the kind of shot you wait for on a big-budget picture.”

I loved standing on the tallest rock at Iverson, overlooking the sprawling suburbs of the San Fernando Valley and imagining that first shot. Corman returned to Iverson Ranch and Bronson Canyon for his forgettable film The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1957), which I’ve only seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I have to assume that the bulk of that movie was shot on the coast, possibly at Leo Carrillo State Beach.

One of my favorite Corman movies, Attack of the Crab Monsters, was shot at Leo Carillo... except for a handful of scenes that were filmed at Marineland in Palos Verdes. Marineland was the first amusement park in California, opening its doors in 1954 and closing them in 1987 when it was essentially co-opted by SeaWorld. What’s interesting to me about the coastal bluff where Marineland once stood is that it was used as a filming location both before and after Marineland: parts of the original King Kong (1933) were shot there, as well as scenes from The Lost Boys (1987) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). For the past few years, it’s been a popular destination for scuba divers, snorkelers, and movie geeks… but we learned that public access is now restricted due to construction of a new subdivision.

Sportsman’s Lodge - A startling number of people have gotten married in this gazebo, right next to where Lori Nelson was carried off by a horned mutant. How romantic.

Iverson Ranch


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