Go behind the scenes in Hollywood


Go behind the scenes in Hollywood

Few places have been filmed as much as Hollywood but, as Christian Sylt found out, it isn't quite what it seems

By Christian Sylt

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Published: Fri 1 Sep 2017, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 1 Sep 2017, 2:00 AM

Trips don't get off to more of a blockbuster start than this. The sky is a perfect blue, it's 30 degrees, I'm zipping past giant billboards advertising the latest movies and then the cab driver reveals that the free-way we are driving on is where the 1994 hit Speed was filmed. And this is just the journey from the airport.

I've arrived in Los Angeles and am heading to Hollywood with visions of what I'll find there. It's usually easy to keep an open mind when travelling somewhere new - but not Hollywood. We have all seen classic black-and-white movies showing off the glory days of Tinseltown with palm tree-lined streets, sweeping arches and cream-coloured mansions. Prepare to have some illusions shattered.

Hollywood is perhaps most famous for the huge white letters which bear its name and stand in the hills above it. Although Hollywood is actually a neighbourhood in Los Angeles, it is also the name of the boulevard at its heart. Even the street names are steeped in history. Just south of Hollywood is Sunset Boulevard, title of the 1950 film noir, and running parallel to that is Melrose Avenue, which inspired the Nineties' soap opera Melrose Place, the sister show to Beverly Hills 90210. First appearances are impressive.

I'm staying at the Loews Hollywood, a huge white hotel at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland Avenue. It has an art deco feel complete with huge white letters on the roof spelling out its name in the same style as the Hollywood sign. Many of the rooms have sweeping views of it and the hills it sits on.
The hotel is connected to the Hollywood & Highland shopping and entertainment complex, which opened in 2001, and includes the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak Theatre), home to the Oscars' ceremony. There's a rooftop pool and towering over it is a giant arch with stone elephants standing on it. It looks like it was ripped from the heydays of Hollywood and that's because it was inspired by the 1916 epic Intolerance, which featured horse-drawn chariots racing along battlements on an elaborate set built on the corner of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.
Outside the confines of the hotel and entertainment complex things are somewhat different. Lining the pavement along Hollywood Boulevard is the Walk of Fame - golden stars which honour the most famous names in film. Tourists flock from all over the world to see them, but it's an underwhelming experience. The pavement is packed with street vendors, artists and performers dressed as anything from cowboys to transforming robots. I even saw one performer with a live python around his neck brushing into people walking down the pavement.

The crowds make it hard to see the stars on the ground and there is often so little space that people are forced to walk down the road. Making matters worse, tourists have a tendency to stop suddenly and photograph the stars of their favourite celebrities. It is actually not a surprise as there are no panels or flyers showing where the stars are located, so you have to walk continuously in the hope of finding your hero.

There seems to be little logic to the locations as the stars of silent movie partners Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were not next to each other whilst the one for Big Bird, the cuddly character from Sesame Street, was alongside late 'Superman' actor Christopher Reeve.

Strangely, despite their appeal, the stars are in terrible condition with many of them covered in graffiti and others set into cracked paving stones.
The buildings lining Hollywood boulevard are an eclectic mix. There's a wealth of tacky gift stores and sideshows, which would seem better-suited to a seaside arcade. Next to them are derelict offices, acting schools and glimpses into Hollywood's glory days.

There's The Hillview, an art deco residential block with colourful canopies above each room window. It was built in 1917 by Paramount Pictures' founder Jesse Lasky to give actors somewhere to live as they were considered unreliable tenants.
Further down the boulevard you can find Hollywood's first nightclub, which opened in 1922 and was a haunt of Bing Crosby and Charlie Chaplin. Red panels along the boulevard give insights into these historic landmarks and the most colourful is the Chinese Theatre, that has been home to premieres of blockbusters from Mary Poppins to Star Wars and Spider-Man.

The plaza in front of the building is dotted with hand prints of Hollywood's most famous names and as there is more space there it's often easier to get photos of them than the stars along the pavement next door.

The front of the Chinese Theatre resembles a pagoda with terracotta warrior statues guarding the doorway. Inside, however, it has the appearance of an old-fashioned cinema thanks to deep red carpets, a gilded arch around the screen and dark wooden beams lining the walls and ceiling. It houses one of the world's biggest IMAX screens showing the latest releases and the best way to follow up a visit is a trip to the studio that made the movie. The biggest ones are all based in the area and most have behind-the-scenes tours.

To get the closest contact with the sets of Hollywood blockbusters, the Paramount tour is the one to take. Before it even begins, you get to stroll through the ornate iron gates set into the historic arch with the Paramount logo atop. It's a priceless photo opportunity and the first of many.

Whilst the Universal and Warner tours put guests in trams travelling on a fixed path at a distance from the film sets, at Paramount you sit on a small golf cart driven by a guide who stops if you see something interesting. You can sit on the same bench that Tom Hanks famously told his life story in the 1994 Oscar-winner Forrest Gump and peek inside the beach house where Tom Cruise courted Kelly McGillis in Top Gun.
The guides have a tablet which plays videos of scenes from famous movies and they then point to the set right in front of you. Guides are also mines of information about film-making and reveal that in early movies like Singin' in the Rain, the directors used milk instead of water as a substitute for rain so that it showed up on camera. Cowboy movies had a different way of making a splash as there were often identical sets with two doors in different sizes. To make the cowboys look more imposing, they would be filmed in front of the small one whereas the love interest would use the big door to seem more petite.

Walking around the sets gives you the feeling that you're stepping on hallowed turf. Behind the façade of Paramount's New York Street Set is scaffolding, which is half-wood and half-steel as it caught fire in 1983 making worldwide news. The inferno would have been far worse if firemen hadn't been tipped off sooner by actor William Shatner who was filming Star Trek 3 there at the time. My guide explained that he had a habit of gate-crashing the sets of other films to take their food and found the fire because he thought it was a barbecue.

Filming is largely done inside hangar-like buildings known as soundstages, because they contain sets on stages and are soundproofed. You get to walk around some of them but only when no one is on set and you still have to resist the temptation to take photos as that is a strict no-no here. They look like organised chaos with tangles of cables hanging from the ceiling to power the array of spotlights that are trained on the sets. Different backgrounds are propped up against walls and schedules are pinned behind them for the crew.

The tour culminates in a close-up look at props from top movies. You can open the door of the truck used to play Optimus Prime in the Transformers movies, and there's a Star Trek teleporter you can stand in for another inevitable photo opp.
Warner pulls off this part better than the rest as the props, costumes and models are used to highlight the different stages in the movie-making process - which is outlined on panels and in videos. It is even interactive as some of the videos have dials which allow you to see key scenes from movies with different layers of special effects. It completes the picture as it shows you how the sets you have walked on, and the props you have seen, are combined with special effects to make the movie that hits the silver screen.

After all that walking in the Hollywood heat, you will have worked up an appetite and the hot spot at night is called 25 Degrees in Roosevelt Hotel. It's not the place to be seen but the place to listen as on one visit I was sitting next to two movie executives discussing their upcoming project with Steven Spielberg. It's another reminder that the Hollywood of your dreams is here after all, and that's the perfect curtain call to the day.

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