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L.A. Times reporters move into the spotlight for 'The Soloist'

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WHEN film producer Gary Foster walked across the frayed green carpet into the Los Angeles Times newsroom for the first time, he encountered an expanse of cluttered desks walled off by journalistic kitsch: notebooks stacked against Mao statues and Elvis paintings, Mexican piñatas hanging above mounds of legal briefs, old photographs of Richard Nixon and Saddam Hussein.

The deeper he penetrated the reporters' sanctum, the weirder it got. There was the Lego Statue of Liberty over by the Web desk, half a surfboard in Foreign. But where others might see squalor, Foster saw inspiration. "I thought, 'This organized chaos is gorgeous,' " he said.

The artistic directors Foster brought in with him agreed, which is how the paper's newsroom last month became the set for "The Soloist," a film about the formerly homeless violinist Nathaniel Ayers, whose life on skid row has been chronicled in the Times by columnist Steve Lopez since 2005 and who will be the subject of a soon-to-be-published book.

For The Times' staff, the scrutiny was unsettling. Reporters are observers, looking outward and telling the world what they see. We rarely look inward, perhaps because we know it's a mess in there. But suddenly, in the glare of hot lights, we confronted set and costume designers, actors and extras, all dedicated to making a movie that mirrored our lives.

Set designers showed up with a truckload of props but chose only a few items of their own, instead relying on the real stuff. That was the call of production designer Sarah Greenwood, who was responsible for the look of the scenes set at the paper as well as those on the streets where Ayers lived. No offense, she said, but the two worlds were not dissimilar.

"Looking at the way everyone personalizes their desks, the way everyone lives in his own space, it's a lot like what the homeless do with their shopping carts. It's what Nathaniel does," she said.

Oh, terrific.

"Mental illness is a socially defined reality. It's not conforming. Where is that line of acceptable and unacceptable? Obviously, the L.A. Times is on the acceptable side of the line," she said.

Obviously.

A newsroom is a collection of slouchy, wisecracking individualists who dress for comfort. Reporters suck up information to produce newspaper stories and, in the course of doing so, also collect memorabilia for the tableaux that adorn their desks. You don't even want to think about what's underneath.

Of course, being cranky reporters, we happily focused on what the designers got wrong. They managed to reveal their own "liberal media bias" by hanging posters from environmental groups and Amnesty International -- causes that are too loaded for the real reporters, who avoid public political expression.

Rather than tidying the newsroom clutter, the set dressers added to it, bringing in more paper, more books, more junk. "It just slays me that they looked at our newsroom and decided it didn't look crappy enough to be an authentic newsroom," said copy editor John Kissell.

Reporters use their stacks of kitsch, in part, to build walls around themselves so that they can hold semiprivate conversations as they report the news. The set dressers exposed them to bright lights and put up multicolored Christmas bulbs to add color and depth, working to capture the feel of an entire newsroom in a camera's-eye view of fewer than 10 desks.

Reality and film overlapped time and again. The actors and extras mixed it up with Times reporters and editors working at their desks. This led to frequent confusion. "Are you real? You're real, right?" the filmmakers asked as they tried to distinguish reporters from extras.

We could tell, of course, since no real reporter wears a three-piece suit or carries a briefcase. But they weren't always sure. Design chief Michael Whitley was at his desk when an assistant director swung by to say, "You know, you really need to look busier."

"Hey, I work here, and I am busy," Whitley said over his collection of lava lamps.

Orson Welles apparently got it right when he said a writer needs a pen, a painter needs a brush, but "a filmmaker needs an army." With so many actors and extras milling about in the wake of many staff reductions at the paper, one editor grumbled, "We haven't seen this many people in the newsroom since 1978."

One of those layoffs is captured in the movie, when a security guard comes in to "escort" an actor-reporter out of the building. The real reporters, having been through many similar scenes, craned their necks and asked, "Who's getting canned now?" That one was just for the cameras, but days after they pulled down the lights another real staff reduction was announced.

Extras casting coordinator Maryellen Aviano was responsible for selecting the reporter-actors who populated the background of the film. She went into the newsroom expecting to find a lot of men in cardigans with chewed No. 2 pencils behind their ears but found a broader selection of humanity. "It's everybody, every age range and personality," Aviano said. She went through piles of head shots. "You say, 'Maybe not this girl with 30 piercings, but maybe it's the next one who looks a bit unusual and could cover the club scene," she said.

I wondered whether they earned more playing us than we do being us. Aviano put that to rest, however. Union members might make the same as an entry-level reporter in a good year, but the rest work for minimum wage.

Handing over the reins

THE discomfort of seeing ourselves through Hollywood's eyes was probably worst for Lopez, who has more at stake than the rest of us. As a writer, he can control the contents of the column and book and manage the treatment of Ayers sensitively. With the movie (slated for a 2009 release), he has no control over the portrayal of either the musician, or himself. Robert Downey Jr. plays Lopez, Catherine Keener his editor and Jamie Foxx is Nathaniel.

Downey has played a journalist at least twice before, as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery in "Zodiac" and tabloid reporter Wayne Gale in "Natural Born Killers." I asked Foster, the producer, how these guys learn how to behave like reporters and he looked at me with sympathy. "It's an interpretation, it's not exact," he said.

Lopez looked a little squirmy during the filming. He said he had had lots of calls from documentary and feature filmmakers to do the Ayers story, but he picked Foster and his fellow producer Russ Krasnoff because they were the only ones who bothered to go out and meet the violinist -- as a journalist would do. "The other ones said, 'Let's have lunch' and then they'd get back to the office," Lopez said. "With these guys, I trusted their sensibility."

Plus, they agreed that the story couldn't have a Hollywood ending. "I didn't want a movie that ended with him conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic," Lopez said.

That's the journalist talking. We may not know how to look at ourselves, but we know how to look at others.

marjorie.miller@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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