'Inherent Vice' goes for Los Angeles as state of mind rather than destination

'Inherent Vice' seeks to capture the spirit, rather than the physicality, of Los Angeles

Ask any member of Paul Thomas Anderson's design team about scouting locations for "Inherent Vice" and you'll get a story almost as meandering as the film's plot.

Theirs was a journey that spanned several months and meant sorting through hundreds of locations, from San Pedro to Palmdale, from a forgotten Manhattan Beach shack to a hole-in-the-wall Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights. It jumped from a vacant shopping mall in Baldwin Hills to an eccentric canyon hideaway in Agoura Hills to Ambassador College in Pasadena.

And yet the finicky Anderson was still changing his mind up to the end of the shoot. He was trying to telegraph an ephemeral Los Angeles that is more of a mood or a state of mind than an actual destination: a sort of ambient melancholia, a druggy, Chandler-esque, wistful evanescence. Physically, it's set in an era that has all but disappeared from the cityscape.

"We didn't have one-third of our locations when we started shooting," said location manager Larry Ring, good-naturedly, having worked with Anderson since 1997's "Boogie Nights." "That lends a bit of stress. You're scouting, and then you're shooting. Then a location you think is going to work, Paul says it's not going to work."

"Inherent Vice," based on the Thomas Pynchon novel, is set in Los Angeles in 1970, the summer of the Manson Family trial, just when the hippie movement began to curdle, as more sinister, Nixonian forces creeped in. That was also the summer Anderson himself was born to actor-parents in Studio City, where he still lives, a perfect microcosm of a region that's always remaking itself, always tearing away at the past to reach the next best thing.

No doubt this personal affinity amplified his already-discerning eye for location. And then, Anderson has set nearly all his films in Los Angeles, a place he has depicted in all its vivacious charm and dark banality.

Vacant streets, anonymous warehouses and sterile supermarkets are juxtaposed against the vast, cloudless California sky in "Punch Drunk Love." So much drama in "Boogie Nights" seems to take place around a kidney-shaped swimming pool in the San Fernando Valley, hidden from its neighbors by a hedge of white oleander. In "Magnolia," a gorgeous rooftop view of the verdant Hollywood Hills turns dark as a suicidal man jumps off.

His willingness to shoot here makes him a kind of maverick as studios have all but abandoned the city for more affordable locations out of state. Getting it right this time meant two mid-production re-shoots, relocating and rebuilding sets. But that's how Anderson likes to work. He doesn't even story board his films, after all. And Ring, like the rest of Anderson's longtime crew, took all the maddening indecision and perfectionism in stride.

The story follows a hippie gumshoe, Larry "Doc" Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, on his farcical quest across Los Angeles to rescue his ex-girlfriend's current boyfriend from a mysterious cartel. Anderson secured rights to the 2009 book while it was still in galleys and started scouting locations before he even finished his faithful adaptation.

In the end, despite all the effort to land the right vibe at the right locations, Anderson filmed much of the movie in tight close-ups, rendering only fleeting glimpses of landscape and background. He threads mood through these scenes subtly using the bits and pieces of the physical space to cumulative effect.

"Most of the backgrounds of things were fairly muted in a way, so things did kind of recede," production designer David Crank said. "There's so much going on in the story you really don't need to add to it visually."

Some of the film's locations were receding in real life, too. Ambassador College has begun to slowly disappear to make way for condominiums. Two of the campus' best known buildings — formerly fine arts and science halls, constructed in 1966 and known for their honeycomb exteriors — were torn down not long after shooting. The structure that doubled as the office of Martin Short's cocaine-crazed dentist remains, but its days are numbered.

Unspoiled by hipsters

Months before shooting began, Crank, Ring, producer JoAnne Sellar and art director Ruth De Jong scoured the city for mid-century interiors unspoiled by hipsters. They found more than a few unintentional time capsules, often occupied by the original, now-elderly owners with rooms of pristine wood paneling and white carpeting, curtains of ocher and mustard, even a period hi-fi stereo that still worked.

They gave Anderson far more choices than he needed because they knew he liked to curate his way into the reality of the film, culling away much of the interior detail, losing props and furniture until the mood was right.

He wanted '70s banality and faded '60s excess — but not in an obvious way. To hear them tell it, for Anderson, filmmaking moves like jazz.

"We find the film as we go," said art director De Jong. "It's a beautiful way to work. … We'll scout for weeks, and we'll put all this imagery on the board in the art department. Then we'll scrap it all and start all over again. Which is the beauty of just going there and digging deep and not just settling."

For a scene in Doc's office, Ring thought he'd hit a home run, securing an old accountant's office off Slauson Avenue, rich with period furniture and untouched for two generations. They'd visited the place a hundred times. But after the scene was shot, Crank recalls, Anderson felt it "looked like it was trying too hard."

So, later in the production, they built another version on a soundstage. This time, it was completely bare, a white-walled room with blinding fluorescent lighting and a gynecological exam chair. "We often joke, 'Leave it to Paul to find a white wall and stick an actor in front of it,'" De Jong said.

After an exhaustive search, including at least 40 homes, a Loma Vista Drive house in Beverly Hills was chosen to portray the lavish manse of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Ring had to convince the owners to lend their home for the shoot. The house was chosen, in large part, for its spacious, period-perfect living room. But as set decorator Amy Wells pointed out, Anderson opted to shoot from an angle that completely ignored it.

"It was such a great house, and you saw none of it" in the film," Wells said. "He ended up putting the camera in the bedroom, looking the other way."

A showdown between Doc and his comic nemesis, LAPD Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), was set at the fictional Channel View Estates construction site. It was shot first at the Santa Barbara Plaza, an empty outdoor mall on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Crenshaw.

But after a complex permitting process was complete, a set was built and the scene was shot, Anderson felt there was "too much information around it," Crank said. A hillside of houses overwhelmed the scene. A parking lot with contemporary cars was crowding the shot.

They moved the set — which consisted of two construction trailers, one dressed up as massage parlor Chick Planet — to a planned subdivision in Palmdale with paved roads and cul-de-sacs and little else, a casualty of the real estate bust. "We liked the dustiness," Crank said. "And looking out to nothing."

As set decorator Wells pointed out, Anderson's seemingly haphazard process of culling away all the design elements he's requested is like a musician's warm-up.

"He brings a lot of stuff from home," Wells said. "We'll be doing a house — Doc's house — and all of a sudden [he'll say], 'I want you guys to get such and such from my garage and this from out of the house that we're editing in.'"

There, they found a ceramic parrot to hang in Doc's window and a shoeshine chair and some Hawaiian stuff, none of which is particularly obvious in the film. Still, Wells said, "he wants some of his own stuff in there. And he wants to be able to take away. I think it just makes him own the setting."

For all his spontaneity, Anderson is beloved for his fearlessness. Location manager Ring led the director to a Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights "the size of a walk-in closet," knowing that a camera probably wouldn't fit through the front door. Anderson went for it and shot one of the film's most striking scenes there.

"He likes the idea that the crew stands there and says, 'Paul we can't shoot this,'" Ring said. "That's when he knows he wants to shoot it."

Los Angeles, despite its showy veneer, demands that kind of hyper focus. It's a city that withholds its authentic self from all but the most tenacious seekers.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times