On a business trip to Los Angeles in 2005, I decided to take a side trip to try and find an empty field somewhere near downtown L.A. Well, not just any empty space but a scene location for Falling Down.
Falling Down follows a day in the life of Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) a Los Angeles worker drone whose life is falling apart around him. The first scene (reminiscent of Fellini’s 8-1/2) has Foster stuck in that quintessentially Los Angeles annoyance, the traffic jam. A series of irritants annoy him, and finally out of exasperation he bursts out of his car and walks away. “I’m going home,” he says to the irate driver behind him (played by the film’s screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith). For as easy and simple as “going home” for his daughter’s birthday should be, the comforts of home are elusive. His wife has left him, and we finally learn that he lost his job. Falling Down is a terrific glimpse of (and commentary on) the early 1990s, and 1990s Los Angeles in particular. The film captured the zeitgeist so well, in fact, that a frame from the film made the March 29, 1994, cover of Newsweek.
The film’s poster depicts the bespectacled quasi-nerd standing defiantly atop a graffiti-scrawled concrete slab. He has his briefcase in one hand and a gun in the other. Behind him, hazy through the smog, looms the Los Angeles skyline.
I have always wondered where exactly that scene was shot. (The poster art, by the way, is technically inaccurate; in the plot’s sequence, he doesn’t pick up the gun until he leaves that location.) As far as I knew the film was shot entirely in Los Angeles, including on the freeways and at the Venice Pier (which was closed at the time of filming and had to be reopened for the shoot).
A few weeks before I left, I bought a map of L.A. and tried to figure out where the scene might have been filmed. From a close examination of the poster, I was able to faintly make out the name ARCO at the top of one of the buildings. I searched online and scoured the city map, finding an ARCO plaza in the downtown area. I tried to get a rough idea of where the scene would have to be shot judging from which buildings were in the background. My best guess was within a half-mile west of the 100 Freeway between Wilshire Boulevard and 3rd Street.
A friend and I circled downtown L.A. for about half an hour, trying to match up the buildings in the background to the movie poster art. Nothing seemed to quite work; we could recognize a few of the buildings, but the actors were all too far away for the scale to be right. So we then re-examined not the poster itself but a still frame from the film I had brought. I suspected that the poster was in fact a graphic composite, not really of any technically accurate place but an overall scene. The still frame photograph, however, was almost certainly an actual location in the area. In that, Michael Douglas, sitting on the concrete steps, is fairly near a tall building with black and white vertical lines.
Aha! That helped narrow it down, but still we weren’t quite there.
After another half an hour in the warm California sun, I eventually asked people who would know the city far better than I: the police. I asked two cops in different parts of the city, one to get to the general area and another once I got there. Both peered at the 4 by 6 photo and pretty quickly told me it was near the Rampart area, not far from Cesar Chavez Avenue. You’d think that finding a sizeable vacant lot near downtown L.A. might be easy, but in fact it turned into quite a chore.
After a bit more walking and driving, we drove up a small hill and found it. The area where the scene was filmed is near where the 110 Freeway meets W. 1st Street, near Boylston. The exact address is 100 N. Boylston Ave. at 168 Edgeware N. The skyline had changed slightly since the film was shot in 1991, but the landforms are more or less the same and a pile of concrete rubble sits at or near the site. (Once I returned home and watched the DVD carefully, I noticed that I could have saved myself quite a bit of trouble had I simply paused and zoomed in on a scene where Foster is walking up a hill, followed by gangsters. The sign in the background is fuzzy but decipherable: Edgeware Rd.).
Off to the right, up the hill a few hundred yards, sits a white house on a cliff overlooking the area. I spoke with the owner. He said that he didn’t live there when the film was shot, but that his property (and the surrounding area) had been used for film locations several times before. He pointed to what looked like ragged brick stonework at the entrance to his driveway. At first glance it seemed unremarkable, but upon closer inspection he showed that it was leftover set dressing from a film. The brick is fake. His house was used for several films including Like Mike and the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.
As of 2009 a school was being built on the site, and it was officially a not-terribly-active construction site. A slightly-built Asian guard allowed my friend and I to walk a short distance onto the site, but beyond that, as Foster was told as he entered the area, “No trespassing.” So we got some photos and wrapped up a successful search.
At the time of my search there were no other references available to me for deciphering the exact locations used. Since then, however, the Internet Movie Database has listed about a dozen filming locations, including Nick’s surplus store (Surplus Value Store at 3828 W Sunset Blvd at Hyperion, Los Angeles); the plastic surgeon’s house (1000 N. Crescent Drive, Hollywood); Whammyburger (Angelo’s Burgers at 10990 Atlantic Avenue, Lynwood); Beth’s house (18 Ozone Avenue, Venice Beach); and Mr. Lee’s market (458 N. Madison Avenue, Los Angeles).