On Location: Venice Beach rides Hollywood wave
The crew of “NCIS: Los Angeles” was in the middle of filming a scene on the Venice boardwalk when a man wearing only his underwear and a cape rode by on his bicycle shouting obscenities. On another occasion, a stranger wielding a plastic light saber showed up on the set and challenged one of the actors to a duel, temporarily halting production.
“Those kind of things continually go on in Venice, but we love going down there because it's so colorful and captures the essence of what people think Southern California is -- the beaches, the sunshine, the palms and the craziness,” said Tony Salome, a location manager for the crime drama starring Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J.
Venice Beach, a storied cinematic backdrop since the silent film era, continues to play a starring role in Hollywood. In fact, the beach community enjoyed a major resurgence in 2011, ranking as the second busiest place for location shooting from its last-place standing a year ago among the 10 top film sites in Los Angeles. Perennial favorite Griffith Park came in first.
Venice Beach generated 184 production days this year, nearly doubling the number it clocked in 2010, according to a 2011 survey by FilmL.A. Inc., which tracks filming on city streets, unincorporated areas of the county and noncertified soundstages.
Film industry officials attributed part of the increase in filming activity in Venice Beach this year to an upswing in commercial production. The community attracted dozens of still photography shoots and commercials from such brands as Chevy, T.J. Maxx, L’Oreal and Geico.
“We had a high number of commercials that chose to use the beach and we suspect that contributed to the increase in standing versus last year,” said Todd Lindgren, spokesman for FilmL.A.
Venice is especially appealing because it is seen as a symbol of Southern California lifestyle, with the beach, palm trees and colorful characters who frequent the boardwalk. When scouting for a location for an episode of “NCIS: Los Angeles,” Salome said he noticed an elderly homeless woman wearing a giant hat adorned with fake birds. “The director said, ‘We’ve got to have that woman,’” recalled Salome, adding that the woman became the inspiration for a minor character in the episode.
Location managers also note that it is easier to film in Venice than Santa Monica, in part because of the greater availability of parking lots north and south of Venice Boulevard.
A number of TV shows routinely shoot in Venice Beach, among them “NCIS: Los Angeles.” In fact, O’Donnell’s character lived in Venice Beach in the first season of the show, which follows a criminal investigation branch of the U.S. Navy.
This summer the crew filmed a gun battle and car chase at Windward Avenue and Ocean Front Walk. Last season, they set off an eye-catching car explosion near the beach, a spectacle for many of the tourists who flock to the boardwalk.
“Californication,” the Showtime comedy starring David Duchovny, also has had a frequent presence on Ocean Front Walk. Much of the show takes place in and around Venice, featuring local eateries such as Chaya Venice and Hama Sushi, the canals and especially the boardwalk, a backdrop for Duchovny’s character, the troubled writer Hank Moody.
“It offers so much flavor in such a compact place,” said Christopher Lee, location manager for “Californication.” “When you ask people in Nebraska and you say what do you think of Southern California –- most of them have an image of beaches, sand and free-spirited folks, which is what you get in Venice Beach.”
Home to artists, celebrities and plenty of eccentrics, Venice boasts a long list of credits, dating back to the 1920s when Charlie Chaplin filmed the 1928 movie “The Circus” on the old Venice Beach pier. Orson Welles transformed Venice Beach into a run-down Mexican border town in the 1958 classic “Touch of Evil.”
Over the decades, Venice Beach and its bars and restaurants have also been used in scores of movies, including “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “The Doors” and “Million Dollar Baby,” according to the book "Hollywood Escapes," which chronicles the history of location filming in Southern California.
The FilmL.A. 2011 survey shows the busiest locations, in addition to Griffith Park and Venice, included Elysian Park; Linda Vista Community Hospital in Boyle Heights; a pit stop east of Lancaster on the edge of the Mojave Desert called Club Ed; Los Angeles Center Studios, which is the base for AMC’s television series “Mad Men”; and two other beaches, Will Rogers State Beach and Dockweiler Beach.
-- Richard Verrier
Photo: A car explodes on Ocean Front Walk in Venice during shooting of "NCIS: Los Angeles" in July. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times