On Location

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
So many classic movies have been made in downtown Los Angeles, even if they didn’t take place in downtown Los Angeles.

Lori Balton:
It’s always fun when you’re watching a movie that takes place in New York and you spot a palm tree. It’s like, “Ah, gotcha!”

Roman Mars:
Palm trees are just one of the factors that a location scout has to worry about. For most films, they really have to avoid them.

Lori Balton:
And then everyone’s like, “Oh yeah, we can just digitally remove them now,” but it’s at a cost.

Roman Mars:
Lori Balton is a location scout in LA. She’s worked on ‘Inception’, ‘Heat’, ‘A River Runs Through It’ – a whole lot of movies. She was the first-ever location professional ever asked to join the Academy.

Avery Trufelman:
“You’re not the only one, right?”

Lori Balton:
“I am the only one, the first and the only, yeah.”

Roman Mars:
On location with Lori is producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
Lori’s job is to find interesting, plot-conducive locations – lots of them.

Lori Balton:
I frequently will show someone over a hundred different options for one location before they get a sense of what they want.

Avery Trufelman:
But scouts also have to make sure that the locations they find are actually usable. So a big part of Lori’s job is convincing property owners to say yes, a part which she is really, really good at.

Lori Balton:
“I have a question for you.”

Man:
“Maybe I’ll have the right answer.

Lori Balton:
“Okay, the right answer is yes. She’s from Oakland. I want to show her-”

Avery Trufelman:
Lori sweet-talked our way up to the top floor of City Hall up to a panoramic view of Los Angeles.

Lori Balton:
“It’s a great river. So you know LA has its problems, but I think any location person you’d talked to is just really proud of the city and the variety of locations and how much fun it is to drive around and discover things.”

Avery Trufelman:
From the top floor balcony, we could see the massive city unfurling around us, and Lori pointed out all of her favorite locations.

Lori Balton:
“There’s so much variety here. It’s amazing.”

Roman Mars:
But even with all the architectural variety of Los Angeles, some buildings just keep coming back on screen again and again.

Lori Balton:
Those architectural gems are very particular and very kind of binding. If someone’s watching it for 10 minutes going, “My God, this feels so familiar. What is this location? I know I know it.” And then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh my God, that’s the Bradbury Building.”

Roman Mars:
The Bradbury Building, arguably the biggest architectural movie star of Los Angeles. It’s one of Lori’s favorite locations. It can be modern, it can be period, it’s kind of upscale steampunk.

Lori Balton:
The ironwork, the open balconies. It’s just a beautiful building.

Avery Trufelman:
The Bradbury made its first on-screen appearance in 1943 in the movie ‘China Girl’ when it played a Burmese hotel. It played a London military hospital in ‘White Cliffs of Dover’. It was the background of the film-noir style thriller ‘DOA’ in 1950.

Clip from Marlow:
“Mr. Marlowe?”
“Yes?”

Avery Trufelman:
In the 1969 movie ‘Marlowe,’ Bruce Lee steps into an office of the Bradbury and kicks all the furniture apart.

Roman Mars:
It played an office again in the final scene of ‘500 Days of Summer.’

Clip from 500 Days of Summer:
“Nice to meet you, I’m Autumn.”

Roman Mars:
It was a movie studio in ‘The Artist’. It was a chocolate factory in a recent commercial for Twix.

Avery Trufelman:
But the Bradbury’s most famous role of all was as the toymaker’s house in the 1982 movie ‘Blade Runner’.

Clip from Blade Runner:
“Do you live in this building all by yourself?”

Roman Mars:
In Blade Runner, the Bradbury is a dark moody ruin, which seems like some real Hollywood magic when you see what the building actually looks like.

Avery Trufelman:
From the outside the Bradbury just looks like a brick office building at the corner of 3rd and Broadway downtown, kind of unremarkable. But then you step inside and it’s like, “Ahhhh!” There’s this great biblical shaft of light shining through it.

Roman Mars:
It’s basically a tall narrow courtyard, walled in with terracotta, covered with a glass ceiling and flanked by two iron clanking, hydraulic-powered elevators, the kind that are still run by human operators. Avery rode in one when she visited the building.

Avery Trufelman:
(sound of cage elevator closing) “Thank you.”

Roman Mars:
There’s a reason the Bradbury is in so many films. For one, it’s really beautiful.

Avery Trufelman:
Its floors are tile, its steps are marble and each floor rims the atrium with a layer of ornate wrought-iron balcony.

Roman Mars:
But it’s not just aesthetics.

Lori Balton:
“You have the balconies and all of the different levels and you can shoot across and down and catty-corner.”

Avery Trufelman:
The balconies allow the crew to shoot at many different angles and create a whole range of different moods for various genres.

Lori Balton:
“The romantic comedy would probably be straight on. The horror movie would be more shooting up, shooting down, maybe that sense of vertigo.”

Avery Trufelman:
And the Bradbury can accommodate all the film gear.

Lori Balton:
“They just have to get in so many toys, the lights and the boom arm and this and that, but look at the ceiling height. This is great.”

Avery Trufelman:
Also the Bradbury is near a parking lot, which is surprisingly crucial because a film shoot involves vans and trailers and tons of people and tons of equipment, and the parking lot is the place to put it all. It’s also nice that the Bradbury is close to downtown and the crew can just go grab lunch.

Kim Cooper:
There’s like nothing like it in Los Angeles and we’re so, so glad it’s still here.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Kim Cooper, architectural historian. She brought me back to the Bradbury along with her husband Richard Schave.

Richard Schave:
We are founders of Esotouric, which is a bus tour company that gives tours of Los Angeles focusing on architecture, true crime and literature-

Avery Trufelman:
Three elements which all come to a head in the Bradbury building.

Roman Mars:
The Bradbury opened in 1893, way before the movies ever came to LA.

Avery Trufelman:
And for the record, it’s not named after the sci-fi novelist Ray Bradbury. It’s named for Lewis Bradbury, a gold-mining millionaire.

Richard Schave:
In the mid-1890s, Mr. Bradbury decided he was going to build a building with this name on it because he was an important man that had built up the city.

Roman Mars:
So in 1892, Bradbury commissions this big deal, famous architect Sumner Hunt to design his building, but Bradbury didn’t like any of the plans that Hunt showed him.

Avery Trufelman:
Bradbury disappointed, turns to leave Hunt’s office, but as he goes out for some reason his eye is caught by one of Hunt’s draftsman, this young guy named George Wyman.

Richard Schave:
He’s 29, 30, he has no professional training yet as an architect.

Roman Mars:
And no one knows why, but-

Richard Schave:
Bradbury takes Wyman, pulls his sleeve and says, “I have an offer to make to you.”

Kim Cooper:
Well, that offer is completely impossible and inappropriate. He wants to hire this kid who isn’t an architect to build this very important half-million dollar office building.

Avery Trufelman:
And this young guy, George Wyman, is a bit weirded out, understandably, because he is totally unqualified for this job, and he didn’t want it to seem like he was taking business away from his boss. But on the other hand, this opportunity was incredible.

Kim Cooper:
It’s an irresistible offer, but George Wyman is an ethical man and he’s also scared to death. And so he does what any good Angeleno will do in the very late 19th century, which is he will consult dead relatives.

Avery Trufelman:
Spiritualism was huge at this time, and George Wyman thought that his deceased brother Mark might have some wisdom to offer from the afterlife.

Roman Mars:
So Wyman sits down with a planchette, a precursor to a Ouija board, which wrote out sentences with a pencil when you rested your hands on it.

Kim Cooper:
Planchettes would typically be consulted when someone had an issue that they wanted some guidance on. So he and his wife were sitting together saying, “What on earth should I do about Mr. Bradbury’s wonderful, terrifying offer?”

Avery Trufelman:
The planchette, overcome with the spirit of Wyman’s dead brother, began to move.

Kim Cooper:
And it wrote, “Take Bradbury.” In in a very childish script hand, “You will be blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Avery Trufelman:
Just this nonsense script.

Roman Mars:
And Wyman and his wife are like, “Whaaat?”

Kim Cooper:
And it was when one of the two of them walked around the other side of the table and read it upside down. This Palmer type script actually said successful.

Avery Trufelman:
“Take Bradbury, you will be successful.”

Roman Mars:
That was a clear enough message for Wyman. He says yes to Bradbury.

Avery Trufelman:
The design of the Bradbury was directly inspired by a novel, ‘Looking Backwards by Edward Bellamy’, which was written in 1887. But in it there is a description of a building in the year 2000 – the future.

Richard Schave:
What Wyman was trying to do with this building, I think we can answer just simply by reading the passage: a vast hall full of light received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome. So that’s what this building does.

Roman Mars:
And that’s why even though the Bradbury is quite old by California standards, it feels current. It was designed for the year 2000. It’s this blend of styles that makes it an architectural gem.

Avery Trufelman:
But aside from the occasional film shoot, the building spent a lot of its life totally ignored.

Kim Cooper:
This building by late ’40s, early ’50s is once described as a chicken coop, and that just refers to the dustiness and the sort of untidiness.

Richard Schave:
By ’74, this place has really fallen apart.

Roman Mars:
So when Ridley Scott shot Blade Runner in its central atrium, it wasn’t actually that hard to make it look so shabby.

Adele Yellin:
Oh, Blade Runner, that was just amazing. That was before we’d actually fixed it up and you can tell that from the movie.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Adele Yellin.

Adele Yellin:
I no longer own the building but my husband bought the building in the late ’80s and he retrofitted it.

Avery Trufelman:
Adele’s late husband, Ira Yellin, spearheaded LA’s downtown revival by restoring old historic buildings and turning them into housing and businesses.

Adele Yellin:
But the Bradbury was just a jewel and he wanted to work on it. And he felt if you build it, they will come. So I don’t know, they ultimately came but he did have to use the city to help him.

Avery Trufelman:
Ira Yellin asked if the City of Los Angeles could find a steady tenant for the Bradbury.

Adele Yellin:
He ended up getting the police department.

Roman Mars:
Most of the office space in the Bradbury Building belongs to the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD.

Eric Bender:
They’re there all the time and they don’t mind the filming generally.

Avery Trufelman:
That’s Eric Bender. He now handles all the filming requests for the Bradbury.

Eric Bender:
When we do a police drama, we take extra precaution to make sure they know that we’re filming and the person running around with a gun type of thing is not someone… I get very concerned about that.

Avery Trufelman:
But filming isn’t the priority for the property anymore. Since it’s renovation, the tenants’ needs come first.

Eric Bender:
And we try not to bother the tenants too much so we try to do the filming, or not do more than one or two filming projects per month.

Roman Mars:
And generally, this is the case throughout buildings downtown. Now that people live and work there, they don’t want production crews periodically taking over. These days film crews can’t blow up cars in the street or have 300 zombies stampede down Broadway in the middle of the workday.

Avery Trufelman:
The downtown revival is a part of why filming is leaving Los Angeles.

Lori Balton:
It left. I mean, there’s no feature films shooting here. It’s scary because as I said, I love living here and I would like to continue sleeping in my bed if possible.

Avery Trufelman:
Location scout Lori Balton just spent almost a year scouting and shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, which might just become the new Hollywood.

Lori Balton:
Because I’ve spent so much time in Atlanta I’ll look at a movie and go, “Oh yeah, that’s Atlanta. You can’t fool me.”

Roman Mars:
Atlanta, like a lot of other cities in the South, Midwest and Canada, is offering major incentives to encourage filming. These tax breaks can save producers millions of dollars.

Lori Balton:
I don’t understand how these places are not going broke giving the incentives that they are.

Avery Trufelman:
Cities like Atlanta are also developing state of the art studios and attracting good production talent.

Lori Balton:
We really need to do everything we can to keep filming in LA.

Avery Trufelman:
Which would mean making the public more open to the disruptive film shoots and keeping the cost of permits down, and adding new tax incentives and to stop developing so rapidly.

Lori Balton:
What’s happening in LA is we’re losing a lot of our parking lots. They’re tearing them down and putting buildings up, so-

Avery Trufelman:
That’s so funny to hear people bemoan the loss of parking lots.

Lori Balton:
Not people, location people. There’s a difference. We’re kind of a weird breed.

Roman Mars:
But however state-of-the-art studios in Atlanta, Toronto or Chicago are becoming, there are elements of Los Angeles that cannot be replicated, even on the finest soundstage, like the experience of entering the Bradbury Building. It’s a place so unique, so remarkable that after it was built, the draftsman George Wyman decided to take some classes and actually become an architect.

Roman Mars:
99% Invisible was produced this week by Avery Trufelman with Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Linda Dishman, head of the LA Conservancy.

  1. JDM

    Great episode. Nice use of Lower Dens at the end there. That Twin Hand Movement album is one of my favorites.

  2. Frank Flynn

    You can’t just leave it here – we gotta’ know what happens to George Wyman after he takes architecture classes? Is he still great or at least unique? Or does architecture school make him common place?

  3. Laura

    Great story. The comment about how can states afford to give filming tax breaks hit home. Tons of films and tv shows film in Louisiana and our state is broke. Filming tax breaks are a pretty hot button issue here.

    1. Marc

      Louisiana does something very different with the tax breaks they give — they GIVE the production money to spend however they wish; even if it means it disappears into the producers pocket. Most other states do not operate that way.

  4. Scarlette Chapman

    I loved this episode! Us Angelenos are very proud of the Bradbury Building. I too, was wondering why you didn’t let us know what became of George Wyman. As I recall he only ever designed the Bradbury Building.

  5. Avery

    Hey Scarlette and Frank (and anyone else wondering about Wyman),

    So. George Wyman actually went on to make many more buildings, but today, the Bradbury is the only one still standing.

    Some say Wyman never made another building quite as beautiful as the Bradbury, and that his architectural training did indeed sap his idealistic creativity. Kim Cooper and Richard Schave, on the other hand, believe that Wyman’s other works were just as majestic. But hey, we can’t know. We have nothing else to compare the Bradbury to.

    You beautiful nerds. You’re the greatest.

  6. Di

    For anyone further interested in LA on screen, check out “Los Angeles Plays Itself” for a lovely montage of scenes shot here.
    Also, there’s no need to “sweet-talk” your way to the top floor of LA’s City Hall.. it’s always free and open to the public during business hours. :)

  7. dmsorensen

    Great post. And don’t forget Joseph Losey’s bleak 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s ‘M’ – which includes a tense floor-by-floor manhunt for the child killer/kidnapper in the Bradbury. The dolls and mannequin parts that surround the killer in his hideout are similarly echoed in Blade Runner. So creepy. Much lovelier views can be found in Douglas Sirk’s noir ‘Shockproof’ – where it plays, appropriately enough, a police station!

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