John Herzfeld is in the backseat of an airport limo that is winding its way up Laurel Canyon Boulevard. It’s been more than a dozen years, but he still remembers one of the first things he read about the San Fernando Valley.
There was a story in the newspaper, he recalls, an interview with some celebrity’s wife. The woman joked that her Mercedes had an automatic U-turn device, so that every time she drove up Beverly Glen, it would turn around when she got to Mulholland Drive. She just couldn’t go down into the Valley.
Herzfeld’s car also turns when it reaches Mulholland, but onto the scenic hillside drive that defines the Valley’s southern border. The car stops at an overlook above Universal City, one of the many sites Herzfeld paced while writing “2 Days in the Valley.” From here, in the bright afternoon sun, the writer-director can see almost every location used in the film, which opens Friday.
“I know it’s not as hip here, but it’s safer, it’s cleaner--except for the smog,” says Herzfeld, a 12-year resident of Studio City. “I love walking around in my backyard. That’s how I write, walking around talking into a tape recorder.” He uses this manner for a very simple reason, he reveals later: “Like a moron, I never learned to type.”
Instead of sitting in an office, Herzfeld walks through neighborhoods and parks feeding scene descriptions and dialogue into his cassette recorder. He got an occasional odd look working this way, and his methods once were questioned by a police officer.
But when Rysher Entertainment bankrolled the film for $11 million, he didn’t have to spend much time scouting locations. He knew exactly where to find the house where Jeff Daniels’ character would live. It was by the par-three golf course in Studio City, the house where shanked golf balls routinely land on the front lawn.
Just in from the airport, Herzfeld himself looks on the brink of collapse. His naturally deep-set eyes are a little more sunken from the exhaustion of travel. He’s been in 12 cities in the last 13 days, plugging the film, taking it to the Toronto International Film Festival. In each city he answers the same question: What is it about the Valley?
In previous films, the Valley has been depicted as a prototypical suburb, in films from “Valley Girl” to “Karate Kid.”
Herzfeld’s Valley is a darker place, a setting for black comedy without being the butt of jokes. “It’s lonelier in some ways out here,” he says. “You don’t run into as many people. . . . I like that quieter, loner side of the Valley.”
What’s also striking about the film is the lack of Valley-speak. Not a single “totally” or “fur-shur” uttered.
Here, 10 characters find themselves inexorably tangled in a plot set in motion by coldblooded hit man Lee (James Spader) and his less-skilled partner, Dosmo (Danny Aiello). The Valley is a metaphor, a holding place for those who need another chance: the Olympic skier who’s never won a medal (Teri Hatcher), the has-been writer-director (Paul Mazursky), the cop who’s never become a homicide detective (Eric Stoltz) and the gallery assistant (Glenne Headly) constantly berated by her boss.
Each of the characters has a touch of Herzfeld in them, but the writer-director bears a particular resemblance. In the movie, he winds up wandering Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, exactly where Herzfeld found himself about two years ago.
Herzfeld had made several acclaimed television films--including “The Ryan White Story” and “The Preppie Murder,” and an “After School Special” called “Stoned,” which won him a directing Emmy. Friends, like Aiello, were telling him to move into movies. “John, you’ve proven yourself wonderful on TV, but you’ve got a crutch here,” Aiello remembers telling him. “Break out. Do a feature.”
But it wasn’t so easy. He wrote a romantic thriller and spent 18 months trying to get it produced, to no avail. Depressed, he stopped in the cemetery for a walk and wound up at a grave marker with the name Dosmo. The name intrigued him and became the central character in “2 Days in the Valley,” a part written for Aiello.
“I got the Fed Ex at my door, I read it and called him back two hours later,” Aiello says. “It was so quirky, so strange, I thought, ‘This has got to be a winner.’ ”
While cruising Ventura Boulevard en route to the golf-ball house, Herzfeld is talking about growing up in Newark, N.J., where his father ran a building maintenance business. The family made frequent trips into New York for theater, ballet and opera, and early on Herzfeld was taken with movies, he says. He would see up to eight movies in a weekend. As a teenager, he would skip school and take a train into New York where, surrounded by drunks, he could see three second-run movies for 99 cents.
He studied drama at Memphis State University and then at the University of Miami and began his career as an actor. His tough-guy looks got him guest roles on “Starsky and Hutch,” “Baretta” and “Kojak.” In 1980, he sold a script, “Voices,” which was made with Amy Irving, and moved to Los Angeles. He bought a house in Studio City about three years later and still lives there, now with his wife and 2-year-old son.
Early reviews on “2 Days in the Valley” have made some strange comparisons, from Steve Martin’s “L.A. Stories” to Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” There are two hit men, and a few of the city’s quirks are revealed, but otherwise the connections baffle Herzfeld. He was inspired by the 1973 Italian film “Bread and Chocolate.” And on the set, he listened to the score from the 1960 epic “Spartacus.” Dosmo, the failed hit man, and Spartacus, the rebellious slave, both need the same thing, says Herzfeld: redemption.
At the Studio City Recreation Center, Herzfeld strolls across the grass. This is the same park where, in the film, an old co-worker reminds the suicidal screenwriter of all his flops. The contrast with the actual director is evident. Far from down and out, Herzfeld is on his way to the premiere of his first directing feature.
The afternoon is cooling off into evening and Herzfeld realizes he needs to get home to change clothes before the premiere screening in Westwood. He’ll have one day at home, then it’s back on the road.
Once things calm down, he’s going to tackle another screenplay, this one about forgiveness. And it will be set someplace even more maligned than the Valley: New Jersey.