On Location: Skid row finds new home in 'Lost Angels' documentary [updated]
Downtown Los Angeles has been a favored filming location since the days of the silent movies.
But rarely do filmmakers get a chance to shine a spotlight on people who actually live on its streets, especially in a 50-block area known as skid row.
All that changed when Karen Gilbert and other crew members collaborated on “Lost Angels: Skid Row Is My Home,” a 75-minute documentary featuring wrenching stories of the men and women who live downtown and are struggling to turn around lives ravaged by mental illness and drug abuse.
The film, which has yet to be released in theaters, has been screening at festivals and conferences around the country and recently won a prestigious national award for promoting awareness of mental health issues.
It shows a less glamorous side of L.A. that is rarely seen on the big screen and is one of the first films to depict life from the point of view of people who live in a place often called the homeless capital of America.
The documentary is also unusual in that many of the crew worked with little or no pay for a passion project that grew out of the 2009 movie “The Soloist,” starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. That film was based on stories by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless musician who was trained at Juilliard.
Whereas “The Soloist” focuses on Ayers, “Lost Angels” highlights the life stories of several other former and current skid row residents, most of whom appeared as extras in the DreamWorks/Paramount Pictures’ feature film. They include a former Olympic runner, an eccentric cat lover who collects trash, and a transgender punk rocker from New York named Bam Bam.
“Everybody should see this film because it's about our back lot,” said Gilbert, who worked as a location manager and associate producer on “Lost Angels.” “This is where we film and these people live there and they could be anybody we know.”
The catalyst for the project was its director, Thomas Napper, who served as a second-unit director on “The Soloist.” The idea occurred to him when the extras met with the cast during an acting session and took turns sharing their stories.
“We just sat in a circle and went round the room and in that moment I realized there was more work to be done and that there was a film just in this group of people,” Napper recalled.
A tall, baldheaded Englishman, Napper stood out on skid row, but struck up a rapport with a number of its residents, who would later be featured in the documentary. Among them was Danny Harris, a former track and field star whose successful career was derailed by drugs. He turned his life around and now works at the Midnight Mission.
Napper also befriended Kevin Cohen, known as K.K., a soft-spoken 6-foot-7 ambassador for skid row who served as an advisor.
The director initially tried filming discreetly on skid row with a small hand-held camera until a stranger threatened to shoot him if he didn’t stop. Napper ended up using a much larger, more conspicuous camera and enlisted the help of Cohen and others to provide security. The end of production was marked by tragedy when Cohen was shot to death on Easter Sunday in 2009.
“It was the most amazing journey and when K.K. got murdered it was a terrible end to the process,” Napper said. “It broke my heart.”
The film was shot over 24 weeks in late 2008 and early 2009 on locations that included San Julian Street, Broadway (during the Downtown Art Walk), the Church of the Nazarene, the Midnight Mission and at buildings owned by Lamp Community, a nonprofit organization that helps the homeless.
“Lost Angels,” initially conceived as a bonus feature that would accompany the DVD release of “The Soloist,” was produced on a shoestring budget of about $300,000. The bulk of the financing came from DreamWorks, Paramount, Participant Media and Universal Pictures, but contributions from groups like the Hilton Foundation helped complete the project.
Others who worked on the documentary with little or no pay included actress Catherine Keener, who narrated the film, composer Walter Werzowa, who deferred payment for his musical score, and Susan Klos, who served as an executive producer and supplied her production offices and editing facilities.
Napper also tapped documentary veteran Agi Orsi, producer of the acclaimed 2001 film “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Orsi acknowledges that it has been tough to get the movie into theaters, but is optimistic that she’ll soon find a distributor.
“It’s got humor, it’s full of hope and there are great characters,” Orsi said. “It’s a film that can really make a difference and open people’s eyes.”
Although “Lost Angels” is partly a polemic — it says the Safer City anti-crime initiative of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and then-Police Chief William J. Bratton unfairly targeted homeless and low-income residents — Napper said his goal was to let skid row residents speak for themselves.
“To a nimble Englishman, who knew nothing about the place and was terrified to walk its streets when I arrived in January 2008, I can say from my heart that I ended up in a place of unconditional love for the people and the place.”
[UPDATE: "Lost Angels" may offer a unique take on the community of L.A.'s skid row, but it's not the only documentary about the plight of the city's homeless. Another documentary with a similar title called "Lost Angeles" followed the lives of four homeless residents of "Tent City," the 12-acre urban campground created by former Mayor Tom Bradley in the summer of 1987. Originally broadcast locally on KHJ-TV (now KCAL), the film produced by Tom and Linda Seidman was nominated for an Emmy and was seen on PBS's national "P.O.V: The American Documentary" series. "We wanted to show the public who the homeless really were, '' Tom Seidman said last week. "Sadly the issues depicted in 'Lost Angeles' have not gone away." More recently, an award-winning documentary "Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists" was completed in 2008. "Humble Beauty," about talented homeless and formerly homeless artists who live and make their art on ski row, aired on KCET in July. "Their art work is stunning and their life stories are fascinating,'' said Judith Vogelsang, who produced the film with Letitia Schwartz. Video clips are available at www.humblebeauty.com.]
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: Agi Orsi, left, producer of the documentary "Lost Angels," and Karen Gilbert, associate producer and location manager, greet Terri "Detroit" Hughes and Linda Harris, subjects of the documentary about people living on Los Angeles' skid row. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times