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Hollywood: A river runs through it [video]

September 27, 2011 |  2:26 pm

Lee Marvin Point Blank mgm 

This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

About 150 crew members, supported by three motor homes, a giant crane and 10 semi-trucks, huddled under downtown’s 6th Street Bridge to film a “winter scene” on the Los Angeles River.

Tampering with the river, which is regulated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, was off-limits. So producers of the “Batman” sequel “The Dark Knight Rises” built a platform over the riverbed designed with a special surface to make it look like ice.

The sequence for the movie — which is scheduled for release in theaters in July — was part of a nighttime shoot that lighted up the industrial area, complete with fake snow, fireballs and plenty of billowing smoke.

The elaborate film shoot this month was the latest example of how the L.A. River, which runs nearly 48 miles from the Simi Hills in San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, remains not only an enduring character of the city but also a meandering back lot for Hollywood.

“In other parts of the country you don’t have concrete riverbeds, but in L.A. it’s kind of symbolic of the city," said Tony Salome, former location manager for “24,” the now defunct TV series that once had a fighter jet fly over the 6th Street Bridge to take out a van sitting in the riverbed. “With the L.A. skyline around it, the river is very dramatic.’’

This month alone, along with “Dark Knight Rises,” the L.A. River was the backdrop for key scenes for another Warner Bros. movie, “The Gangster Squad," about the anti-mafia unit of the LAPD during the 1940s and '50s. That production filmed a scene with some vintage cars parked beneath the 6th Street Bridge alongside the river.

The river is also getting the star treatment in the current movie release “Drive,” starring Ryan Gosling, who plays a Hollywood stuntman who takes his girlfriend on an unusual date by driving into the L.A. River.

While location managers say it has become more difficult in recent years to secure permits to film along the river, it remains a popular location because of its downtown vistas and ample industrial space, especially downtown where it is easier to perform stunts and set off explosions than in residential neighborhoods. The numerous bridges, some dating from the 1920s, also are a big draw.

“The bridges are pretty great," said J. J. Hook, key assistant location manager on the 2007 action hit “Transformers,” which had a memorable scene of helicopters flying through the tunnel of the Olympic Boulevard bridge, where Optimus Prime, the leader of the autobots, was hiding out.

“They are very photogenic, and you can get quite a lot of control at night over the use of those bridges,” Hook said.

Over the years, the L.A. River has proved remarkably versatile, serving as a gritty urban setting for the classic 1967 film noir movie "Point Blank” starring Lee Marvin, who carries out a killing below the 4th Street Bridge, and a battleground for aliens in “Transformers” and “Terminator 2,” in which a young Arnold Schwarzenegger ripped through the river on a motorbike with his shotgun at the ready.

The river also was the site of John Travolta’s drag-racing scene in “Grease” and even served as a nest for giant ants in the 1954 horror movie “Them,” notes local film historian Marc Wanamaker. “There are just so many films that have shot out there, I can’t even begin to tell you,’’ he said.

In fact, the L.A. River has been a fixture in Hollywood since the silent film era, when it benefited from its close proximity to the major studios.  Behind the historic Culver Studios, Universal used Ballona Creek to stage battle scenes for the 1930 war epic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” constructing a French village connected by a bridge over the waterway that came under siege by the Germans.

Universal Pictures also filmed a number of western movies in the river, decades before it was covered in concrete in the early 1950s after a series of devastating floods and still looked like a natural waterway.

“When Universal settled in the Valley in 1912, the river was a major part of their operation,’’ Wanamaker said. “They used it to save money.”

For the record, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 28  A previous version of this post said the Los Angeles River runs behind Culver Studios. In fact, the waterway behind the studio is Ballona Creek, which was once part of the L.A. River but is now within a separate watershed.



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-- Richard Verrier

Times staff writer Nicole Sperling contributed to this report

Photo: Lee Marvin on the prowl near the 4th Street Bridge in the 1967 film noir classic "Point Blank." Credit: Photo courtesy of Marc Wanamaker / Bison Archives.