L.A. Backdrops Come in Focus at Toronto Fest

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

When Bruce Wagner set out to direct "I'm Losing You," the movie version of his provocative 1997 novel about life and loss in Hollywood, he wanted to portray the Los Angeles he knows. So he steered clear of the iconic L.A.--the Capitol Records building, the Hollywood sign, the Beverly Hills Hotel--and focused instead on the ironic.

The film opens with Frank Langella, a successful television producer, standing beside his swimming pool, under a palm tree, getting the news that he's dying of cancer. The sun shines down as Langella, stunned, asks his doctor, "Do you know how much money I made last year? Eight million dollars."

Sitting cross-legged on a plump couch at the Four Seasons Hotel here, Wagner explained that to him, that scene embodies Los Angeles' "cold warmth."

"The illusion that Los Angeles creates is that all is well--that marriages are intact, that money is coming in," said Wagner, 44, who grew up in Beverly Hills. "The lack of seasons, per se, means life and death happen under the sun. It's always bright, whether you are in the waiting room at the cancer ward or at the ballpark. L.A. is a constant day-shoot."

Wagner was one of half a dozen filmmakers featured at last week's Toronto International Film Festival who sought to capture anew the essence of one of the most photographed cities in the world. Considering the plethora of classic L.A.-themed movies--from Roman Polanski's "Chinatown" and Curtis Hanson's "L.A. Confidential" to Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon," Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie Point," Michael Mann's "Heat" and Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" and "The Player"--these directors deserve points, at the very least, for bravery.

What was gratifying for festival participants, however, who packed nearly every screening here to capacity, was that as well as courage, several of the directors showed flashes of originality. For every familiar shot of an Angelyne billboard, there were images of a city not commonly seen on screen: cloudless, sometimes frightening place where everything seems possible--at least until you run out of road.

"In many ways, L.A. is at the cutting edge of where the country is headed," said Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, whose film "Home Fries" (starring Drew Barrymore) was at the festival and who is executive-producing the new CBS series "L.A. Doctors." "In [the TV series'] title sequence, we try to show L.A. looking terrific--sexy, sleek, the billboards, the beaches--countered with a high shot of [O.J. Simpson's] white Bronco and a Malibu house cascading down a hill. You're reminded that this is a city of absurdities."

Among the latest entries in the genre of Los Angeles cinema are two junkie movies. Director David Veloz's "Permanent Midnight," which has already been released theatrically by Artisan Entertainment, features Ben Stiller as a heroin-addicted television writer. "Broken Vessels," meanwhile, follows two L.A. ambulance drivers who try to remedy their boredom and problems with authority by dipping deeper and deeper into drugs. By festival's end, it had not found a distributor, though many said it was a remarkable film for a first-time director, Scott Ziehl.

There are two new romantic comedies. "L.A. Without a Map," by Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki, is about a Scottish undertaker who on a whim follows an American girl to L.A. "Hair Shirt," featuring actress Neve Campbell and directed by a 24-year-old first-timer named Dean Paras, is a portrait of the twentysomething wannabe culture that surrounds the entertainment industry. As yet, neither has U.S. distribution.

Finally, there is "Desert Blue," director Morgan J. Freeman's follow-up to his acclaimed debut feature "Hurricane Streets." Set in a tiny town outside L.A. that has been quarantined because of a toxic spill, the film--which was acquired by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. last week--features Kate Hudson as a teenage TV star who is desperate to get back to L.A.

Piers Handling, the festival's director, said he was struck by the diversity of these films, which share a setting but little else.

"L.A. is a mythological city for all kinds of reasons. For Europeans, it's the capital of movies. For those who've read Chandler, it is noir," he said, reflecting on the city's cinematic versatility. "The two trends of the festival this year were dark-and-disturbing--substance abuse, dysfunctional families--and warm and relationship-oriented. Los Angeles is used as a pretty effective backdrop for both."

Kaurismaki, the Finnish director, agreed. Of all the films, his relies most heavily on portraying the city's famous icons, both architectural and human. There are references to Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise and shots of the Argyle Hotel and the Hollywood restaurant Yamashiro. But he also tried to show the city's seedy side.

"Hollywood is a magical place, not just for Americans, but for Finnish people, for English people. It's the dream city," he said. "But I wanted to show the street life, the homeless, as well. It's a challenge to not go into the L.A. cliches. But a lot of the cliches are true."

In "Broken Vessels," Ziehl, a 32-year-old native of La Can~ada, portrayed the low-rent districts of Los Angeles, home to methamphetamine addicts and street-corner drug lords. The film's main characters score heroin on the 6th Street Bridge near downtown and help break up a brawl in MacArthur Park. Ziehl recruited real Los Angeles police officers and paramedics as extras.

"It's not a very positive picture--white trash, crazy guys, violent Latinos at a wedding. But you're going to see a lot as an L.A. paramedic," Ziehl said. "L.A. is so fascinating, the way you drive around and for a second, you can think you're in another city. I wouldn't even think about shooting somewhere else."

Paras, a Toronto native, said that Los Angeles provided the perfect "surreal atmosphere" for "Hair Shirt," which follows a young scam artist/aspiring filmmaker who comes to the city because, in Paras' words, "he thinks it's a place he can get ahead and get women."

Paras shot his film in the apartments of friends and in locales, like the hip Hollywood pizza bar Jones, that he frequents himself.

In "I'm Losing You," Wagner depicted a city of cantilevered houses filled with fine art, where Mercedes-Benzes gleam in the driveway, housekeepers vacuum in the hallway and parents argue over which herbal remedy to use on a child's cold--echinacea or goldenseal?

"Usually for a film of our budget [about $5 million] you use these grotesque houses that they rent you in Malibu that are supposed to represent people that finally have money. They're like pimp houses--glaring white, with ocean. That's almost what we wound up with," he said.

Instead, Margo Leavin, the gallery owner, made her house avail able--an elegant space that Wagner said looked perfect for Langella's character. He also shot in the home of costume designer Theodora van Runkle and at the Hollywood restaurant Les Deux Cafes.

Wagner said that despite his book's reputation for skewering the industry, he was determined to film a version of "I'm Losing You" that was broader than that.

"When I was making the movie, some people who had read the book asked me, 'Is the agent who vomited on his personal assistant still in it?' That's what people in Hollywood tend to remember," he said. "But I don't think anyone's that interested outside of Hollywood. So, my film isn't that frisson that the in-crowd gets when they sit down and watch their own get roasted. It's a meditation on death and redemption. And it's funny. It's not 'There's Something About Mary,' but there's a lot of humor in it."

The film will be released next year by Lion's Gate Films.

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