Locations for 'Hail, Caesar!' and 'Birth of a Nation'

hailcaesar-warner-bros.jpgScene from "Hail, Caesar!" shot at Warner Bros' studio in Burbank. Top two photos: Universal Studios.

If you're an Angeleno and you go see the Coen brothers' new movie "Hail, Ceasar!," you'll find yourself taken out of the film by all the familiar locations that appear. I mean that in the good way; it's just another part of the movie's fun (along with the casting and weird Hollywood story.) To help you place the locations, Chris Nichols of Los Angeles Magazine debriefed the film’s location managers, John Panzarella and Leslie Thorson, and also Hollywood location historian Harry Medved, co-author of "Hollywood Escapes: The Moviegoer's Guide to Exploring Southern California's Great Outdoors." Panzarella and Thorson also did the locations for "L.A. Confidential," and Panzarella says in LA Weekly that it's getting harder to find period locations like the ones they used then. (For instance, the Formosa Cafe now looks completely different inside than the bar featured in "L.A. Confidential."

"Period locations are disappearing fast,” Panzarella says. “A lot of places that were around when I did L.A. Confidential are gone. It’s a very limited palette, a very limited number of places you can go to when it comes right down to it.”

hail-Caesar.jpgCity Hall and Union Station are pretty obvious stand-ins for the film's Capitol Pictures studio, and the water stage where Scarlett Johansson does the swim ballet thing is Sony's Stage 30, not as I suspected Warner Bros.' famed Stage 16. There is plenty of Burbank in "Hail, Caesar!" though, with numerous outdoor scenes of Josh Brolin and George Clooney at Warner Bros. and a story line built around Lockheed, the defense contractor that made its home at Burbank Airport at the time the movie is set, in the 1950s.

On the other side of the Hollywood Hills, the cave mouth in Bronson Canyon that was the entrance to the bat cave in "Batman" of 19690s TV makes an appearance, as do the Los Angeles Theatre on Broadway downtown and Vasquez Rocks. One of the inside gags of the movie is a Hollywood hangout called Imperial Gardens, which when it existed on Sunset Strip was a Japanese restaurant. In "Hail, Caesar!" the restaurant is Chinese. The location is the Good Luck Bar on Hillhurst Avenue.

Speaking of locations:When the new film coming from Nate Parker, "The Birth of a Nation," was the talk of the Sundance film festival this year, I couldn't help but think about the landmark film of the same name shot in the Los Angeles of 1915. It used one of my favorite all-time local movie locations.

That first Birth of a Nation was directed by D.W. Griffith as an epic — Hollywood's first 12-reeler — to show the Confederacy's side of the Civil War and the aftermath. It's a racist film, but it became a classic for breaking new ground in Hollywood and remained the highest-grossing American film until "Gone With the Wind." In those days, when a film company wanted an exotic location, they drove out from Hollywood or Los Angeles to the San Fernando Valley. Before sound stages and big studio lots, the Valley offered open space and sunny days with little or no fog, for long hours of shooting. The terrain — pasture lands and sandy washes encircled by rugged canyons and craggy rocks — could stand in for the old west, the desert, the Holy Land and many other locales.

Griffith knew the Valley well. He brought his New York-based Biograph Pictures to California in 1910 to make movies with a company that included Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett and Lionel Barrymore. They filmed "Ramona" on the Camulos Ranch north of the Valley, and used the crumbled ruins of Mission San Fernando for "Over Silent Paths." Griffith and his cameras and actors ventured all over "the San Fernando desert," as his wife Linda called it, for those early silent movies. In the Chatsworth rocks, Griffith had his carpenters build a Biblical walled city for "Judith of Bethulia," which featured battle scenes, sword fights and a crucifixion.

"The Birth of a Nation" was to be the biggest production yet attempted &mdash with full battle scenes staged on a large scale. Griffith’s father fought on the Confederate side, and the director, from Kentucky, based the film loosely on "The Clansman," a novel of the Civil War and Reconstruction era by Thomas Dixon Jr. Gish starred and the extras included future Hollywood stalwarts John Ford, Walter Huston and Raoul Walsh. The KKK was treated as a heroic force in Griffith's film, and most of the African Americans depicted were played by white actors in blackface.

The location for the battle scenes was reached by driving part way through Cahuenga Pass, then steering down through Dark Canyon to the bank of the Los Angeles River. Today, you could follow the same route by driving Barham Boulevard into the Valley, then turning right before crossing the river. Trenches and roads were dug to recreate a Virginia battlefield, and elaborate preparations were made for horsemen to storm across a wide field below Cahuenga Peak sprawling down to the river. Some of the actors on horses began more than a mile from the camera and mirrors were used to communicate, according to "Focus on The Birth of a Nation," a 1971 study of the film that says Griffith was the first director to place his cameraman in a trench to film a stampede of horses from below. The movie also featured a battle scene filmed at night lit with bonfires.


In Hollywood lore, the acreage where Birth of a Nation was filmed is known as the Lasky Ranch. Today, that spread of land is the Valley-facing slope of the Santa Monica Mountains where Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills is located. John Bengston, an author and historian whose books prove the locations of hundreds of silent film scenes, last year showed meticulously that the Three Stooges also filmed on the same part of the old Lasky Ranch — and that trees dating from The Birth of a Nation (above) are still growing at Forest Lawn.

Griffith, by the way, was so smitten with the Valley that he acquired a ranch in the Sylmar area, where he retired.

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