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FILM : Valley Takes a Hit : John Herzfeld’s new movie about misfits and murder, set in the ‘big, vast grid,’ brings the area dubious distinction.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Got some good news and some bad news. The good: A new movie may lift the San Fernando Valley out of cinematic obscurity. The bad: The picture ain’t always pretty.

It’s a warm and hazy morning--is there any other kind in the summer?--as the crew of “2 days in the Valley” prepares to blow up a Buick. If it weren’t for the stubborn “low clouds,” the Hollywood Hills view from the old Errol Flynn ranch off Mulholland Drive would be spectacular. But writer-director John Herzfeld doesn’t want spectacular scenery; some of the cameras actually have lens filters to make the smog look worse . Dissed again.

True to its title, the story takes place entirely in the San Fernando Valley over 48 hours. The action begins with a bizarre murder and eventually entangles 10 eccentric characters.

“The movie is about a lot of people who either never achieved their goals, or screwed up their lives, or dropped the football the first time it was thrown to them,” Herzfeld says. “What a lot of characters share in common is this unrealized potential.”

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Danny Aiello, for example, plays a hit man who missed his first target and has been unemployed ever since. Jeff Daniels plays a vice cop who can’t get promoted. Teri Hatcher plays a skier who has come in fourth at three Olympic Games.

The 11th character, Herzfeld says, is the Valley. It symbolizes the rut each character is stuck in, unable to make it “over the hill.” “This Valley is in every city,” Herzfeld says. “Basically, this is where the grass isn’t greener. . . . Whether you’re in Los Angeles or Cleveland or Miami or Idaho, there’s always an ‘other side.’ And that’s where all the characters live.”

Disrupting these unfulfilled lives, however, are Lee (James Spader) and Helga (Charlize Theron).

In the scene they are filming, Lee has shot Dosmo (Aiello) and planted a bomb in the trunk of his car. The day before filming, the special-effects team explained all the precautions taken around the explosion. That’s when 19-year-old Theron, who is acting in her first film, realized they had only one chance to get it right. “I actually asked them yesterday: ‘So how many cars do we have? How many explosions?’ I didn’t know,” she says.

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It’s only one shot, but there are six cameras aimed at the scene, including one a mile away on the top of the Texaco building in Universal City. Herzfeld is also filming from the back seat of the getaway car. Spader is supposed to speed backward as the camera films the fireball through the windshield.

After special-effects coordinator Larry Fioritto rigs the car, the cast and crew run through several rehearsals. Spader turns around to look through the rear window and drives backward. In place of the explosion, Fioritto throws his arms up, waves them and yells, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

“I don’t know about you,” jokes a goateed Aiello, “but that explosion devastated me.”

Aiello worked with Herzfeld on two TV projects, “Daddy” and “The Preppy Murder,” and the two had a good rapport. There is a strong sense of camaraderie on this shoot as well, Aiello says. “And when you have that, it usually means you’re working on something special.”

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The story resonates with Herzfeld’s frustrating experiences. He had been trying to get a romantic thriller produced, but after 18 months was left with 35 drafts of the script. Depressed, he was driving past the Los Angeles National Cemetery last September and stopped to take a walk. “The cemetery is full of people who died before their time and with unrealized potential,” he says. He came upon a tombstone marked with the name Dosmo. And then one marked Teddy, and another Alvin. All of them became characters.

Three-and-a-half weeks later he had a script. He gave the script to actors last fall and took it to Rysher Entertainment with Spader, Jeff Daniels and Eric Stoltz already cast. They began rehearsals in mid-May and will shoot until the beginning of August. The $11-million film is slated for release in February.

Co-producer Jeff S. Wald says they never considered shooting anywhere other than the San Fernando Valley. They got some help from the one-stop-shopping permit office operated jointly by the city and county. Still, the producers had to send out about 2,000 letters to residents, and negotiate with some homeowners to use the Hollywood Hills site.

The assistant director hollers a five-minute warning. Firefighters hose down the surrounding slopes to prevent brush fires. Camera operators pull up blankets to protect themselves from flying glass. Everyone puts in earplugs. Two months of planning, two days in preparation, two hours of rehearsals for this scene--now everything is ready.

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Spader, waiting to get in the car for the shot, recalls his safety lesson for Aiello and crew members sitting behind a plexiglass shield. “All the rest of you should be in a ‘safe zone,’ like down the street and around the corner,” he says. Spader and Theron, however, will be 100 yards closer.

Spader and Theron are only 25 feet away--but safe--when explosives ignite 25 gallons of gasoline. The Buick goes up in three sternum-rattling blasts--the trunk, the windows and then the roof.

While a Fire Department truck with a 4,000-gallon tank reduces the blaze to a puddle, Herzfeld plays back the shots on video monitors. The crew’s family members, who gathered to watch, ooh and ah.

The plot twists in “2 days” might not be commonplace, but the locations should look familiar. At Victory Boulevard and Vineland Avenue in North Hollywood, the crew filmed at Leon’s Steak House and a 7-Eleven. Residents might recognize other locales, but the film won’t be making landmarks out of any of them. “That’s the thing about the Valley,” said location manager Scott Logan, “there are no landmarks. Just a big, vast grid.”

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Despite his cinematic metaphor of the Valley as home to wanna-bes and also-rans, Herzfeld insists that he likes the Valley, even lives here. “It’s clean, it’s safe. I’ve lived on the same block for these nine years, and we’ve never had any break-ins,” he says. “I think it’s a nice place to live.”


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