‘Twilight Zone’ Site : Indian Dunes Remains a Star In All Its Guises

Times Staff Writer

It has doubled as Africa in “The Color Purple”; Afghanistan, Colorado and Burma in the television series “MacGyver”; a Brazilian rain forest in “The Wizard” and as Central America and Vietnam.

Indian Dunes, a 600-acre ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley, was also the site of a helicopter crash in 1982 that took the lives of Vic Morrow and two child actors during the filming of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” Director John Landis and four associates are on trial for manslaughter in the case.

But despite feelings of sorrow that linger about the accident, the area continues as one of Hollywood’s most popular spots for movie and television location work.


“I don’t think there’s a person in the industry that doesn’t think about the accident when they go there,” said location manager Peter Tobyansen, 29. “I know when I go there I feel sad.”

Nevertheless, Tobyansen said, “Everyone goes there for the same reasons: It’s easy to work there and it’s adaptable to just about any script. If you have one scene in Arizona, the next in a jungle and another in the onion fields, you can do it there.”

“It provides us with a look that we can achieve in L.A.'s own backyard without having to go out of state,” said Lisa White, location manager for “MacGyver.” “We have shot so much out there that we don’t know where else to go. It provides a lot of variety. The terrain out there is amazing.”

In addition to the geographic diversity of rolling green hills, dry, flat desert land, jungle-like riverbeds and densely wooded forest land, the area features such sets as a village of thatched huts, a prison and a military barracks.

“A big advantage at Indian Dunes is the standing sets,” said Tobyansen, who as location manager for “The Fall Guy,” said he used locations there for almost every other show. “To build these sets nowadays is astronomical . . . if you have a script that calls for a jungle or tropical prison, Indian Dunes is the first place you’d go.”

Up to $600,0O0 Annual Revenue

The land is owned by the largest real estate developer in the Santa Clarita Valley, the Newhall Land & Farming Co. According to Newhall Land location coordinator Lou Rios, the company’s gross income for location site rental ranges from $300,000 to $600,000 yearly.

Although the two most popular filming sites are a location on the Santa Clarita River where the fatal helicopter crash occurred and the thatched hut village, Rios said, the ranch is constantly adding sets.

The latest additions are a 1,200-square-foot ranch house and a 4 1/2-mile-long railroad line and train with passenger- and freight-car setups--"the only movie train in Hollywood,” Rios said.

But those additions have not been enough to offset a decline in television production at Indian Dunes.

As action-adventure television series have fallen victim to low ratings, their places have been taken by situation comedies, nighttime soap operas and urban dramas, Rios said. The exotic locations at Indian Dunes are not as much in demand as are conveniently located studios or the gritty reality of inner cities.

“If you’re doing a ‘Hill Street Blues,’ you’re not going to go to Indian Dunes, you’ll go to downtown L.A.,” Tobyansen said.

“It seems the public has gotten tired of action-adventure car crashes and shoot ‘em-ups, and it’s reflected in our rentals. But I think we’ll see some of it back,” Rios said. “It’s all cyclical and highly unpredictable. I’ve learned you cannot gauge what happens one year and expect the same thing to happen the next year.”

And, although fewer television programs are requesting to shoot at Indian Dunes, more producers of movies and commercials are using the property, just about offseting a loss in revenue, Rios said.

In recent months, a variety of production companies have shot at the ranch. Companies filming commercials have come from such distant countries as Brazil, Japan, France and Germany. And some rock videos for groups like Van Halen and the Fixx have been made there recently.

Meets Union Requirement

One of the major advantages of Indian Dunes is that it lies within the union-required 30-mile radius of Hollywood. When working within that zone, union cast and crew members are expected to get to and from work at their own expense. Outside that zone, production companies must pay transportation and accommodation costs.

Rental of the facilities at Indian Dunes is considered reasonable by most location scouts’ standards, Tobyansen said. Rates range from $800 to $1,900 a day, depending on the set used, number of personnel involved and time needed, Rios said.

It might cost producers $800 just to use portions of the twisting, mountainous roads for a car chase scene and closer to $1,900 to use the airstrip set or the Mexican village, which are more often used and subject to greater “wear and tear,” Rios said.

Because the rigors of filming can be rough on sets and terrain, Rios said, adequate maintenance of the area is essential.

Sets Become Unpopular

However, not all sets are worth maintaining. Some fall out of favor, according to Rios. A labor camp set, which originated from an old chain-gang movie, used to be so popular that he had to turn people down on bookings there, Rios said. In the past six months, however, no one has requested the location.

“We need sets that are more generic. Some sets are so specific that you don’t get much continued use out of them,” Rios said. “When they start to deteriorate, they may not be worth maintaining.”

Rios said he assesses a set’s rental record before deciding if a particular location should be maintained or demolished. And discounts are given to production companies who build semi-permanent sets that can be used in future shoots, he said.

According to Rios, the future looks bright for Indian Dunes, as a growing number of enclosed sound stages are being built in the Santa Clarita Valley with the potential of drawing more production to the area.

And production personnel say there is a growing consciousness--precipitated by the “Twilight Zone” helicopter crash--of the need to maintain safe film sets.

“It has affected us all in regards to safety,” Tobyansen said. “We’re all double-thinking now.”