Can’t Crash Car Into Lagoon : Movie Plan Gets Bad Review in Del Mar

Times Staff Writer

It’s enough to make civic leaders in many a small city quiver with glee--the chance to play host to a movie company and big-time Hollywood stars for two days of on-location filming.

Nonetheless, the request by Alive Films to shoot a segment of a World War II-era picture called “Destiny” in Del Mar is earning decidedly lousy reviews around town.

It’s not that residents of this posh seaside city aren’t into cinema, or don’t count “Destiny” stars Timothy Hutton and William Hurt among their favorite actors. The trouble, officials say, is what the moviemakers want to film: a car careening off a bridge and into the pristine San Dieguito Lagoon.

“It’s not like they want to shoot a quiet scene in a restaurant or on the beach,” said Councilman Scott Barnett, a member of the council’s subcommittee on San Dieguito Lagoon. “They actually want to send a car crashing off a bridge and into a very sensitive resource. I’m not a biologist, but I imagine that might have some impact.”


Councilman John Gillies, another lagoon subcommittee member, agreed: “It would be disruptive, both to the lagoon and to the residents nearby. I don’t see why we should encourage this sort of thing in Del Mar.”

Gillies did, however, suggest that the proposal might be worth considering if Alive Films would be willing to pay a “set fee” for the right to stage the stunt. He noted that the Del Mar Fairgrounds often plays host to film makers, charging $10,000 a day, and said a similar fee collected over two days “might be placed in a lagoon enhancement fund” and used for improvements at the wetland.

But when Gillies proposed the idea at the council meeting Tuesday night, it got a chilly reception. Councilwoman Brooke Eisenberg compared the trade-off to “raping a woman and then paying to have her hair done.”

After a brief debate, the council voted 4 to 1 to deny the film makers a public hearing on their proposal. Barnett cast the lone vote in favor of the company’s request, arguing that the company officials, who were not present Tuesday night, at least should be granted the opportunity to speak their piece.

In addition to city approval, the moviemakers would probably have needed agreement from the state Department of Fish and Game and permits from the California Coastal Commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to film.

Representatives of the Los Angeles-based film company first contacted Del Mar City Manager Kay Jimno in July, requesting permission to spend two evenings in late October filming the crash.

In a letter to Jimno, they noted that the Grand Avenue Bridge, a 60-year-old span that crosses the lagoon just off Jimmy Durante Boulevard south of the fairgrounds, is a perfect “period bridge” and the only structure deemed suitable for use in the romance picture after a six-month search of San Diego County.

The proposed scene calls for four “rain towers” to simulate a stormy night and involves a stunt man smashing through the bridge railing and into the lagoon’s briny waters. The existing railing would be dismantled and temporarily replaced with a “breakaway stunt railing” for the scene.


The stunt car--a 1941 Cadillac--would have no engine, and therefore no gas or oil could seep into the lagoon, Alive Films told the city. Finally, company officials pledged to “work with the community to mitigate” any intrusions caused by lighting or noise on the set, which would be in operation from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Oct. 27 and 28.

But Jimno and council members apparently believe those safeguards would not adequately protect the lagoon--and area residents--from harassment related to the movie shoot.

“It’s just not worth it,” Mayor Lew Hopkins said. “Del Mar doesn’t need the prestige of the movies. We’ve already got plenty of prestige.”

Barnett agreed and noted that when another film, whose title no one could seem to recall, was shot in the city about 18 months ago it spurred cries of protest from those living near the set. Complaints about traffic, noise and other nuisances, along with the film maker’s apparent disregard for certain rules established by the city, flooded City Hall and made it “a bad experience all around,” Barnett said.


Indeed, that controversy led to passage of an ordinance requiring that movie moguls obtain city permits before setting up their cameras in Del Mar.

But the environmental questions that topped the list of council members’ concerns. Among their worries was whether the number of people on the set--a crew of 60 plus the ever-present gawkers--as well as the noise and lights would traumatize birds that feed in the area.

Laurie Marcus of the state Coastal Conservancy, which coordinated a $3-million restoration project at the lagoon in 1983, expressed similar fears.

“My first question would be: Are they going to pull the car out of there?” Marcus said. “I’d also be worried about equipment and people trampling marsh vegetation and how badly the car would tear up the lagoon bottom on impact. Basically, from a wildlife point of view, I wouldn’t say a car crash into a lagoon was advisable.”


Marcus added that, while October is not nesting season for the endangered California least tern, other species of migratory waterfowl and shore birds do frequent the wetland during the fall and might be stressed or frightened off by the filming.

But the film makers and their local ally, the San Diego Chamber of Commerce Motion Picture Bureau, insist that the filming would have no adverse impact on the wetland or its wildlife.

“I share the concerns of the Del Mar City Council and the citizens about protecting the environment,” said Wally Schlotter, director and vice president of the Motion Picture Bureau. “But we’re not applying to build a condominium project on the lagoon. We’re asking to film there for two days.”

Schlotter said that, in his 15 years of experience in the motion picture industry, “nearly every location was left in as good or better condition than when we started.