Over several days last week, actors Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin donned fedoras and 1940s-era LAPD badges to re-shoot scenes for the Warner Bros. crime drama “Gangster Squad” in Los Angeles’ historic Chinatown.
During nighttime shoots, filmmakers staged car chases and a gunfight on Gin Ling Way with blazing machine guns, and set off a truck explosion.
“It’s been many years since we’ve had a full-scale feature film of this scope in Chinatown,” said George Yu, executive director of the Los Angeles Chinatown Business Council.
Like other neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Chinatown has seen a drop in film activity, especially since the heyday of the late 1990s when big Hollywood movies such as Jackie Chan’s “Rush Hour” and “Lethal Weapon 4” were routinely filmed in the community.
Still, Chinatown remains one of the most popular film locations in Los Angeles because of its distinctive Chinese American architecture, back alleys and private streets that make it convenient for filming. The community’s efforts to work with location scouts and accommodate film crews also has kept projects coming.
“It’s one of my favorite places to scout,’’ said veteran location scout Lori Balton, who has worked on such films as “Dark Knight Rises,” “Inception” and the upcoming “Argo.” “It is so wonderfully evocative of a different era ... and best of all, the residents actually like the filming experience.”
“Gangster Squad” is the latest in a long line of movies, commercials and TV shows, including “NCIS: Los Angeles,” “The Closer” and “Criminal Minds,” that have used the 28-square-block area as a dramatic setting. A dozen projects filmed in Chinatown this year alone, according to FilmL.A. Inc., which handles film permits for the city and county.
Chinatown’s longstanding relationship with Hollywood began soon after the community opened in 1938. (The original Chinatown at Alameda and Los Angeles streets was demolished to make way for Union Station.) Residents were often used as extras in early Hollywood films, in which Chinatown often stood in for the actual China.
One of the earliest films was Katharine Hepburn’s “Dragon Seed,” about a young Chinese woman who leads villagers in an uprising against Japanese invaders. In all, some 40 movies have shot in Chinatown since the late 1980s. But the landmark 1974 film “Chinatown,” the Roman Polanski movie starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, filmed relatively few scenes in Chinatown itself.
“It’s one of the few places in Los Angeles that is fairly intact from the old days,’’ said Jody Hummer, a location manager who acts as film liaison for the Chinatown Central Plaza and the West Plaza and Chung King Road. “There are a lot of exteriors and interiors that can be changed easily and it’s a historic treasure.”
Hummer, who first worked in Chinatown on the 2003 Disney remake of “Freaky Friday” and assisted filmmakers on the “Gangster Squad” re-shoots, has set up a program to build stronger ties between location managers and local merchants. When the Chung King Road Association drew up plans for new street lights, for example, Hummer sought the advice of production designers on how best to design lights to make them appealing to filmmakers.
FilmL.A. works closely with the L.A. Chinatown Business Council to ensure that property owners understand the filmmaking process and are properly notified and fairly compensated by film productions shooting in Chinatown.
Yu’s group helped producers of “Gangster Squad” coordinate locations for re-shoots for the film, which tells the story of the Los Angeles Police Department's fight to keep the mob out of L.A.
In the wake of the deadly July 20 theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., Warner Bros. yanked its trailer for “Gangster Squad” and scrapped a scene in the movie in which mobsters shoot up moviegoers at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The new scenes were filmed in Chinatown last week from Tuesday through Thursday.
Warner Bros. representatives declined to comment. But Yu said the filming included scenes at a number of well known establishments, including Via Cafe in the Central Plaza, Foo-Chow on North Hill Street and Grand Star Jazz Club on North Broadway.
Merchants welcomed the filming, Yu said. In addition to receiving a fee for allowing crews to film on their property, some businesses also sold costumes and other props used in the movie. Still others benefit from the exposure, Yu said, recalling seeing a group of Chinese visitors taking pictures outside of Foo-Chow in 2009.
“They wanted to see where ‘Rush Hour’ was filmed,” he said.