Dressing the town for international looks

HOLLYWOOD — In the film and TV locations business, contrary to the tenets of astrophysics, there actually is a center of the universe. And it’s at the corner of La Cienega and Beverly boulevards. Where the Beverly Center meets the Beverly Connection is the dead center of Hollywood’s so-called Studio Zone.

Stand at that busy intersection with your morning latte and draw an imaginary line in any 30-mile direction and, odds are, you’ll be pointing in the direction of just about any look or locale your imagination (and script) requires. Desert, mountains, high-plains grassland, small-town New England, the Andes, midtown Budapest or downtown New York, it’s pretty much all there.

OK, so there’s no Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Uffizi Gallery, but there’s enough stuff to work with to make any TV viewer believe they’re in Paris, London or Florence, Italy, even if they’re just eight miles from Art’s Deli in Studio City.

“With the level of skills of production designers and construction crews available these days you can get pretty well any look you want in Los Angeles County,” says Billy Smith, location scout-manager for the new WB show “Men, Women and Dogs.”

The Studio Zone is the 2,826-square-mile area surrounding the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega in which producers don’t have to pay for overnight stays or per diems, no matter how late the working day goes.

The big challenge for location scouts, at least in L.A., is finding areas of town and buildings that haven’t been overexposed. If you go to 4th and Main streets, cruise by the Bradbury Building or take a ride through the Third Street tunnel downtown, for example, you’ll be looking at exteriors and interiors that have appeared in countless TV shows, films and commercials. For Smith (at least on his latest assignment), that’s not such a problem.

“Men, Women and Dogs” focuses on the lives of five young professionals who live and work in Venice. And while the beach’s boardwalk may be a familiar sight for international TV viewers, the tightly-packed six square miles of Venice to the east of the Pacific Ocean is a bungalow beach town that has hardly changed its look since it became a summering place for L.A.’s earliest urbanites in the first half of the 20th century.

Two days of each episode of “Men, Women and Dogs” are shot on a soundstage (one in front of an audience), two days on location.

“I’m often surprised by what I find in the neighborhood,” Smith continues. “I’ll see a driveway and go down it and there’ll be a cluster of little beach homes built in the 1920s.

“Of all the beach communities in Southern California, Venice has an aesthetic that’s very specific,” says Smith. “It’s like a beach version of Greenwich Village.”

In just one episode of ABC’s new spy skein “Alias,” the story took the show’s heroine, Sydney, from a German industrial plant to a Los Angeles apartment to a London gallery and on to a mental hospital in Bucharest.

Round the world

And all in 54 pages. With just eight shooting days (each usually no shorter than 12 hours long, according to crew members) international locales have to be found quickly and efficiently.

“We do a lot of driving,” says the show’s location scout-manager Mike Haro, who shares his “Alias” responsibilities with Becky Brake. “We’re under the gun a lot of the time.”

In a recent episode, an interior at the Angeles Abbey Memorial Park cemetery in Compton was dressed and lit to create an outdoor bazaar for Marrakech, Morocco. The cemetery is known for its Middle Eastern look and also recently served that purpose in an episode of “JAG.”

“It’s pretty impossible to find locations in L.A. County that haven’t been used,” says Haro.

Case in point: the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart convent in Los Feliz, whose exteriors have been deemed to be a dead-ringer for Tuscany (and also used by the “Alias” team). The locale is so in demand that the city of Los Angeles has limited shooting there to 40 days per year so the sisters and their neighbors can live without a fleet of grip trucks always parked down the street.

The workload on Fox’s great hope of the 2001 season, “24,” is probably more intense than on “Alias.” Because each episode is one hour of a continuous day, “24” producers decided to shoot the first season in 12 two-week chunks. That means the stars of the show can easily be shooting 16 days back to back. As the show runs in real time, one location can work for two episodes.

“It’s a juggernaut when we’re shooting,” says John Johnston, who splits scouting and managing with colleague Tony Salome.

The show’s interiors are shot in a warehouse space in Canoga Park, deep in the San Fernando Valley. To cut costs a number of hour-longs and TV movies have been shooting in nonsound-proofed facilities around the county for the past few years: “The Pretender,” “Diagnosis Murder” and the HBO film “Pentagon Wars,” among others, were all shot off the lot.

Johnston says the challenge is to find exteriors that have the generic appearance of the Valley with enough specifics to make the show’s look distinctive.

“It’s very satisfying to look at a city you’ve lived in for 13 years and come at it from a completely different angle.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more