Bright lights, outer 'burbs

Times Staff Writer

The covert Special Forces team huddled in the Tactical Operations Center has just spotted a submarine off the coast of North Korea when Col. Tom Ryan barks a command.

Suddenly, he's fending off a surprise attack -- of the giggles.

This drama isn't playing out in some top-secret military bunker, but on a soundstage in one of Southern California's quintessential bedroom communities, Santa Clarita. Ryan is actor Robert Patrick and, this time with a straight face, he completes a clean take for a coming episode of the CBS drama "The Unit."

In the shadow of the Magic Mountain theme park in north Los Angeles County, Hollywood's version of magic is being created at a blistering pace. Thanks to lower costs, heavy demand for TV programs and a film-friendly environment, the 170,000-resident community of youth soccer, shopping centers and family dining is developing into an unlikely production hub.

"It used to be, 'I'm shooting in Santa Clarita' and people are like, 'Where's that?,' " says David Knoller, executive producer of the HBO series "Big Love," which uses the area in part because it resembles landscapes in Utah. "Now, it's like, 'Yeah, yeah.' You can't turn a corner without seeing some other [filming] location sign pinned to a lamp post."

Next door to "The Unit" set at Santa Clarita Studios, a mansion that looks like it was uprooted from the Deep South is being built for a new Minnie Driver comedy, "The Riches." On another soundstage, casting sessions are screening actors for the coming Fox road-race series "Drive."

Local shopping centers, the community college, City Hall and bowling alley Santa Clarita Lanes often serve as makeshift sets. Shows regularly shot in Santa Clarita include HBO's "John from Cincinnati," Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101" and CBS hit "NCIS." Showtime's "Weeds," Fox's "24" and NBC's "Heroes" frequently use the area. And although its locations are seen mostly on TV, Santa Clarita recently hosted such feature films as the Golden Globe-nominated drama "Bobby" and a not-yet-released comedy, "King of California," starring Michael Douglas.

The activity in Santa Clarita reflects a boon in original programming at broadcast networks and cable channels, as well as a decline in the dollar's value, which has made shooting more expensive in dollar terms. As Hollywood studio lots fill up and pressure mounts to keep costs down, producers are increasingly venturing to outlying parts of Southern California.

Santa Clarita's advantages over other communities region include an infrastructure of soundstages and an abundance of movie ranches. It also has post-production facilities and a film office that aggressively markets the area's advantages.

On-location film shoots in Santa Clarita, which includes the communities of Saugus, Newhall and Valencia, are up 30% in the last five months compared with a year earlier and are heading for a record. That measurement doesn't take into consideration the work on soundstages, which isn't officially tracked because it doesn't require permits.

Santa Clarita created the film office in 2002 to help attract film productions, lure entertainment companies to the area and to issue permits, a task that previously had been handled by FilmL.A. Inc., a nonprofit group that handles film permits for much of L.A. County.

The Santa Clarita office, with a staff of three people and a marketing budget of $65,000, searches for locations and promotes the city as "film friendly" via trade shows and advertisements in industry magazines, hoping to get the attention of location scouts.

"We try to view ourselves as being on the same team as the film productions," said Jason Crawford, the city's film administrator.

A key reason for the surge in production is cost. Renting stage space in Santa Clarita is at least 30% less than at a major studio lot. Parking and hotel rates also are considerably cheaper, as are film permits. Santa Clarita charges $378 for a film permit (for two weeks of filming), compared with $450 for L.A.

Santa Clarita's varied geography, which includes desert area, pine forests, meadows and mountains, was ideal for the "The Unit," produced by 20th Century Fox Television. "The Unit" occupies four soundstages at Santa Clarita Studios, but also shoots extensively at nearby "movie ranches" that stand in for locations as varied as Afghanistan and Paraguay.

"In our show we have to portray a different part of the world every week, and being in L.A. would have probably made it difficult for us to do a lot of the exteriors that we need to do," executive producer Shawn Ryan said. "You've got a lot of space to breathe and do your thing."

Santa Clarita Studios, which added two soundstages in 2004, has been a cornerstone of the area's film business. Built in 1989, the facility has been the home of such TV shows as "Melrose Place" and "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." Today, it also houses post-production facilities and rents lighting and truck equipment, making it a kind of one-stop shop for filming.

"This is the busiest the studio has ever been," said company president Mike DeLorenzo, noting that all 10 soundstages were full.

About 30 of the 120 crew members from "The Unit" already lived in the area and consequently save commuting time on Interstate 5. Regina Taylor, who plays Molly Blane, rents an apartment near Santa Clarita Studios and is considering buying a home or condo close by.

"I plan on putting up stakes here," Taylor said. "I like the community. The people are laid-back and friendly."

In all, filming contributed about $10 million to the city and local businesses from July through November, said Crawford, who based the estimate on how much money film productions spent at local restaurants, hotels, equipment rental companies and other vendors such as Newhall Hardware.

"Filming has been hugely successful for the city," Crawford said.

Film companies account for about 25% of Newhall Hardware's revenue, manager Diane Vradenburg said. "When film crews come, we sure love to have them," she said.

Her only complaint: When crew members take up parking spaces in front of her store in downtown Newhall.

Vradenburg did brisk business selling hinges, nuts and bolts, antique frying pans and old-fashioned saws to the producers of HBO's acclaimed Western "Deadwood," which recently wrapped shooting at the nearby Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio.

Melody is the best known among more than 10 movie ranches in the Santa Clarita Valley, with deep ties to Hollywood. Once owned by singing cowboy Gene Autry, Melody served as a setting for such Western TV classics as "The Lone Ranger," "Wyatt Earp," "Gunsmoke" and "The Cisco Kid."

Renaud and Andre Veluzat, who are brothers and longtime Newhall residents, purchased the ranch from Autry in 1990 and restored its Western town, which had been badly damaged in a fire in 1962. The set was a major selling point for the producers of "Deadwood," which is set in a lawless South Dakota town.

Producers remodeled the set to give it a grittier look and shot the entire third season there. The 22-acre ranch, which includes three soundstages as well as screening and editing rooms, was big enough to accommodate an entire production team.

"In the end, I don't think we could have done this anywhere else," said Gregg Fienberg, the show's executive producer. He's planning to shoot two "Deadwood" movies to conclude the series, and is now shooting "John from Cincinnati" on the ranch.

To keep pace, the Veluzat brothers added a 23,800-square-foot soundstage at Melody this year. They also own a 225-acre ranch in Santa Clarita, which features a Spanish town and military barracks getting heavy use from "The Unit" and other shows.

"The business is booming," Renaud Veluzat said.

As often happens in popular shooting locations, residents sometimes tire of all the activity. Several residents of Stevenson Ranch, a subdivision just outside the city limits, complained last spring that crews from "Weeds" were cluttering the streets and creating excessive traffic.

FilmL.A., which handles permits for Stevenson Ranch, urged the producers to limit the number of trucks and the amount of equipment they were using in that area, said Mike Bobenko, senior vice president of operations for the group.

Still, producers say complaints are relatively uncommon and praise locals for being cooperative.

"We very rarely find a curmudgeon out there, and that's not necessarily the case in Los Angeles," said Mark Horowitz, co-executive producer of "NCIS."

He noted that homeowners in one neighborhood recently agreed, for a fee, to let the crew decorate their houses and shoot late into the night for a Halloween scene.

"They had a block party," Horowitz said.

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