Life Between Hollywood and Pine

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Weary of the hustle of Hollywood and urban life, television actor Conor O'Farrell moved his wife and three young children from Los Angeles to the mountain village of Idyllwild eight years ago.

Here in this town of 2,000, where sheer granite cliffs and towering sugar pines replace the city skyline, O'Farrell has joined an enclave of entertainment industry professionals--actors, film editors, musicians and others--who have left the city but not the industry. Instead of sacrificing his fast-paced profession for a rustic existence, O'Farrell shuttles between the worlds of Hollywood and pine.

Most days, O'Farrell putters around the house, coaches soccer, directs local plays and volunteers at his children's school. Once or twice a week, he drives to Los Angeles to audition for roles or to act in episodes of television shows such as "The X-Files," "ER," "Ally McBeal" or "NYPD Blue."

"I just think it's a great thing to be out of L.A. and out of that scene," O'Farrell said. "And I get to live like a king for about a third the cost of L.A."

Some entertainment observers see the exodus from Los Angeles increasing.

"I definitely think it is a trend, because people want that lifestyle, they want the land," said O'Farrell's agent, Ro Diamond of SDB Partners in Century City, who represents several out-of-town actors, including one in Berkeley and another in North Carolina. "I think they just prefer country living."

The choice to keep one foot in Tinseltown and the other in the great outdoors has long been a privilege of marquee stars such as Robert Redford, with his Sundance film institute in Utah, or Demi Moore, who set up housekeeping in Hailey, Idaho. Now, technological advances have opened that option to working performers and white-collar entertainment professionals as well.

These professionals rely on electronic communication in lieu of the power meetings and social networking that traditionally have fueled Hollywood careers. Thanks to fax machines, the Internet and desktop recording and editing equipment, these entertainment industry emigres can live on horse ranches or in alpine cabins while scanning audition scripts or producing albums, soundtracks and documentaries at home.

"People are no longer stapled to their chairs in the office," said Stephen Unger, an executive recruiter for entertainment and media with Los Angeles-based search firm Heidrick & Struggles. "They have been liberated by the various technological devices at our disposal. The result of this is that people have been freed to live and work wherever they want for large segments of their professional time."

For O'Farrell, a native Angeleno, disenchantment with urban ills led him to relocate. Contrasting the safety concerns of modern L.A. parents with those during his own carefree childhood in Echo Park and West Covina, he resolved to raise his kids amid the innocent freedom of a quiet community.

"Between air quality and crime and housing prices and the school system, it was just a much better quality of life up here," he said.

O'Farrell remains poised to run to the city for auditions on a moment's notice and estimates he has missed only a couple of calls in eight years. But he minimizes the commute by getting scripts by fax or e-mail instead of driving to his agent's office or the studio to pick them up. And whenever possible, he sends audition tapes to avoid pre-reading parts in person.

He keeps the travel time in perspective by noting that a well-timed commute from Idyllwild--about two hours on a good day--isn't much worse than a rush-hour drive between, say, Woodland Hills and the Westside.

"Whenever the drive starts to get to me, I just think that the drive enables me to live up here," he said.

Like O'Farrell, guitarist Chuck Alvarez had burned out on city life when he moved to Idyllwild from San Pedro five years ago. Holed up in his urban home composing music or traveling on tour, he began to feel that he was working simply to earn the chance to work.

"The thought that kept coming to my mind was, what is the quality of life worth if I can't open my door and see trees instead of cars?" he said. "What's all this work worth if I'm still bumping into traffic and smog and too many people?"

In his new mountain home, he assembled a digital recording studio that allows him to record virtually an entire album from start to finish, adding the remaining touches in just a few sessions at professional studios in Los Angeles.

He writes, arranges and records much of his own bluesy rock in his home studio, produces music for other performers and scores television and movie soundtracks there.

"Ten, 15 years ago, that wouldn't have been possible," he said. "You would have needed the facilities that are available in L.A."

Nonetheless, he acknowledges that he still sometimes treks to the city for special recording sessions.

"If I wanted to record a piece of music with a 60-piece orchestra, there isn't a studio in Idyllwild that could accommodate that," he said. "So that's part of what drags me down the hill."

Producer Edits Film From Mountain Home

Digital advances have been the saving grace of Idyllwild-based documentary producer Baird Bryant as well. A cameraman and cinematographer for 43 years, Bryant made his name on edgy films such as "Easy Rider," "Cool World" and the Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter."

After leaving Los Angeles 10 years ago, he continued to work on projects with filmmaker Richard Cohen, such as "Heart of Tibet," a portrait of the Dalai Lama. He also has produced his own documentaries, traveling abroad to shoot Mayan pyramids in Mexico and voodoo disciples in New Orleans, then compiling the footage on desktop editing equipment in his Idyllwild home.

With a $4,000 Sony digital video camera and some specialized editing software, Bryant said, he can produce work that would have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of film equipment and tens and thousands of dollars more in film lab time.

Idyllwild artists and their colleagues throughout Southern California also depend deeply on Internet access to pursue projects from remote locations.

Santa Barbara screenwriter John Kamps, who wrote the features "The Borrowers" and "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," is collaborating on a script with a New York colleague, e-mailing blocks of the screenplay back and forth daily.

Former recording engineer Joey Latimer called on his music background with Studio City-based Fidelity Studios to launch an Internet radio station from his Idyllwild home.

With tendrils throughout Southern California and beyond, Radio Free World illustrates the expanding geography of the entertainment business. The station runs through a server in San Diego County. Latimer airs programs ranging from live jazz performances in Idyllwild to interviews with comedians such as Weird Al Yankovic and Tommy Chong done by a deejay in Tustin. Now he's considering running a music Webcast from Nigeria.

Artie Ripp, owner of Fidelity Studios and a board member for Radio Free World, sees more entertainment professionals heading in Latimer's direction.

"The artists' community doesn't have to centralize itself in New York City or Los Angeles," he said. Artists "can go to places like Idyllwild or New Mexico, and say, 'We love this place; we love the mountains, the air.' And [they can] live their life there and be able to communicate with the world via Internet."

Others are skeptical, though, insisting that instant access is irreplaceable currency in the fast-paced entertainment world.

"Despite all of the cyber-advances, this remains quintessentially a relationship-driven industry," said Mark Fleischer, a former MGM executive vice president and now managing partner of entertainment law firm Squadron Ellenoff in Century City. "That means being available on fairly short notice for face-to-face meetings and social events. After all, it's a lot harder for longtime friends or former colleagues to deflect you if you can suddenly show up in their lobbies."

Many working professionals are uneasy about leaving the city, said Brent Armitage, associate producer of the 1997 movie "Grosse Pointe Blank." Some even conceal out-of-town moves by placing phone lines in friends' homes in Los Angeles, then forwarding the numbers to their new residences to create the appearance of L.A. area codes, Armitage said.

However, Armitage has also started StudioNotes, an online script development service catering to aspiring screenwriters from Australia to Idaho.

And some who have distanced themselves from the city center concede there are trade-offs.

"It's difficult to do, because people start thinking of you as way off out in the mountains, so they're not going to call you up to do something tomorrow," Bryant said. "Other people I've worked with have gone on to shoot 'Survivor,' and that's the kind of thing where you have to be in Hollywood and be in the swim of the mainstream to have it happen."

Many others discount the value of schmoozing, though. Instead, they rely on their own past credentials and their agents to secure work, and say they avoided the club and cocktail party circuit even when they lived in Los Angeles.

"To be honest, I've been doing this for 30 years, and I've never seen anyone get a job at a party," SDB Partners' Diamond said.

There are even subtle benefits to the distance, some claim. Ojai actor Dwier Brown, who has appeared in movies including "Field of Dreams" and television shows such as "ER" and "The Practice," said living outside the city diffuses the desperation of the Los Angeles rat race, lending him confidence that helps him land jobs.

"When you go in like you've got a life and you're busy and you don't care if you get the job, that seems to be the most effective energy for getting a job," he said.

O'Farrell is so pleased with his rural accommodations that he's begun preaching the lifestyle to fellow actors.

"I always feel sorry for actors that get stuck on a plane next to me," he said, "because I always end up bending their ear, saying, 'Ah, you've got to get out of L.A. It's a hellhole. Move up to someplace that's beautiful.' "

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