Laguna Mostly Missing in 'Laguna Heat' Movie

Times Staff Writer

The movie version of "Laguna Heat," T. Jefferson Parker's mystery novel about Laguna Beach, makes its cable-television debut Sunday night. But don't expect to see much of Laguna Beach on the screen.

There are glimpses of the Hotel Laguna, Main Beach and City Hall, and an opening-credit sequence shows the detective-hero (played by Harry Hamlin) cruising his Mustang convertible down Laguna Canyon Road.

But most of the key scenes were shot elsewhere--mostly Los Angeles and Oxnard.

Parker himself wishes more of the film had been shot in Laguna, where the 33-year-old former journalist has lived since 1980. But he has learned to take all this "movie-making business" philosophically.

"I'm sure the reasons (for not shooting on the actual locations) were logistical and budgetary because the L.A. areas are closer and easier to set up," Parker said in a recent interview.

In any case, he added, he is pleased with the film, which he saw for the first time last week. The teleplay, by Pete Hamill, D.M. Eyre and David Burton Morris, is "pretty faithful to my book, and the acting is really strong," he said. "The hero was a great deal more abstract in my book. He's much more macho and solemn in the film. But Hamlin has captured the (character's) vulnerabilities, the sense that this guy is carrying a lot of emotional burdens."

"Laguna Heat" was Parker's first novel, and more than 400,000 paperback copies have been sold since it was published two years ago. Parker, who was paid a "six-figure sum" for the rights to the book, said he always felt confident that his story wouldn't be "butchered" by the movie makers.

"You hear or read about that happening to other writers, I know," he said. "But I knew Jay Weston (the film's executive producer) was real keen about the novel. I always got the feeling he was buying the whole story, not just the title and a few highlights."

Weston, whose credits as a producer include the films "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Heartbreak Ridge," said he thinks Parker's novel "has that real fine character texture. It's in much the same mode as a 'Chinatown.' For milieu, it's also got that great American Riviera setting."

The Weston/HBO version sticks fairly close to the original: Police detective Tom Shephard, having rejoined the Laguna Beach force, is suddenly faced with two horrendous murders. He hunts down the killer in shady motels and bars and among the resort community's elite set.

Meanwhile, the case, with its labyrinthine layers, draws Shephard closer to the core of his own emotional mysteries. As the HBO ads like to tout it: "In the heat of the night, one man must face the mystery of his past."

Parker's only "major quibble," he said, was over the shoot-out between the detective and the killer. In the book, it follows a long, almost mystical chase to a lonely hotel room in Mexico. But in the film, the showdown takes place in a glittering, raucous, milling Laguna Beach dance club.

But Parker is philosophical about that, too. The switch of locales, he said, "had much to do with the quicker pace, the kind of tighter construction that a two-hour film calls for."

"I've been able to keep a certain distance from the movie because I'm really not directly involved. It's their (movie team's) film, not mine," he added. "But I have to admit it's a certain thrill to see scenes from your book up there on the screen."

Actually, the thrill was more firsthand than that. Parker acted as a script consultant during the six-week filming last spring and found himself on the set quite a bit. "There's something about being on a movie set, a kind of magic," said the admitted "film buff."

"And to meet real idols, like Jason Robards (who plays the hero's cryptic father) is one of the grandest opportunities." Others in the cast include Rip Torn as a country club wheeler-dealer and Catherine Hicks as the hero's skinny-dipping lover. Other veterans involved in the production were director Simon Langton ("The Whistle Blower"), producer Bill Badalato ("Weeds") and cinematographer Fred Murphy ("Hoosiers").

Now that the movie's all wrapped up, Parker's attention is back on his second novel. "Little Saigon" is about another crime odyssey set in Orange County, this one involving the region's Indochinese refugee enclaves. Centered on the disappearance of a Vietnamese woman, the story follows the search for her by her husband, a crippled Vietnam veteran, and his brother.

Parker has just shipped a finished draft to his New York publisher, St. Martin's Press. He hopes to see the novel on the streets next summer.

After that, another movie?

"Of course, we'll be tracking the progress of Jeff's newest project," said producer Weston. "Obviously, we would be interested. It's clear that we like very much his kind of writing."

"Laguna Heat" will be shown on HBO Sunday at 9 p.m., and again at varying times Nov. 18, 21, 26 and 30.

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