'Larry Crowne' and 'A Better Life' embrace Recession roots

Tom Hanks’ “Larry Crowne” and Chris Weitz’s “A Better Life” couldn’t be more different, yet each mines the bleak cityscapes of Los Angeles as backdrops for tales firmly set during the Great Recession.

Hanks’ dark romantic comedy takes place among the strip malls, cul de sacs and nondescript institutional buildings of the San Fernando Valley. The drab locations complement the story of a divorced middle-aged everyman, downsized out of his job and foreclosed out of his home.

Weitz’s earnest Latino father-son drama was shot in the rough, impoverished neighborhoods of South Central and East L.A., where kids often join gangs and many people live in fear of arrest and deportation.

On “Crowne,” which Hanks directed and stars in opposite Julia Roberts, production designer Victor Kempster and art director Carlos Menendez were tasked with turning the ordinary into the evocative. They worked with location manager John Panzarella to find the ideal spots.

“It was like caffeinating the commonplace,” said Menendez. “Parts of the Valley are among the ugliest things on the planet. You capture them because that’s where the film takes place, but at the same time you’re trying to make them graphic and spot-on… It’s a challenge.”

To find the right locations for “Life,” which features relatively unknown actors, helmer Weitz, location manager Fermin Davalos and production designer Melissa Stewart scouted for weeks. “We went out of our way to avoid obvious, cliche places,” said Stewart. “We knocked on doors every time we saw something that seemed perfect for the characters.”

The biggest challenge for both art departments was getting the right look on a tight budget (“Crowne” cost $30 million to produce, “Life” $10 million).

“The art budget was very modest relative to the (high-profile) actors involved,” said Menendez. “There can be a lot of anxiety in that situation because you don’t want your work to be unworthy of the people standing in front of it.”

The producers of “Life” had to stretch their budget to support a 35mm shoot in 69 locations, most of them in tough neighborhoods where films hadn’t shot before. They worked with gang intervention program Homeboy Industries to facilitate local relationships and help with casting calls, said Weitz.

In both films, locations strongly support the story. In “Crowne,” for example, the Walmart-esque store that lays Hanks off and the diner where he finds a job as a cook reflect the physical confines of an uneasy middle class.

In “Life,” an undocumented gardener played by Mexican actor Demian Bichir (“Weeds”) travels by truck every day from the barrios of East L.A. to the mansions of the city’s Westside.

“We chose locations to make that journey visceral so viewers would understand he’s going from one culture to another, from one economy to another,” said Stewart. “I made an oath to myself and to Chris to always go for the most honest depiction of life in the poor neighborhoods, to get rid of design preconceptions. The images came naturally to us.”

Bookings & Signings

Claire Best & Assoc. booked supervising prosthetic makeup artist Katy Fray and movement choreographer Terry Notary on Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”; vfx supervisor Tom Wood on Tarsem’s “Snow White”; 1st AD Chris Carreras on Adam Shankman’s “Rock of Ages”; and costume designer Ngila Dickson on Andrew Adamson’s “Mr. Pip.”

Eastern Talent booked costume designer Shawn-Holly Cookson and production designer Tom Lisowski on Rob Reiner’s “Summer at Dog Dave’s”; and 1st AD Drew Ann Rosenberg on Brian Dannelly’s “Struck by Lightning.”

Montana Artists booked 1st AD’s Richard Patrick on Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer’s “Imogene” and William Clark on Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”; co-Producer Tommy Burns on NBC’s “Harry’s Law”; line producer Bob Williams on Fox’s “Alcatraz”; and UPM Cathy Mickel Gibson on Fox’s “The Finder.”

Sandra Marsh & Assoc. booked production designers Sophie Becher on Paul Andew Williams’ “Song for Marion,” James Merifield on Jerusha Hess’ “Austenland” and Carol Spier on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim;” and editor Mick Audsley on Steven Frears’ “Lay the Favorite.”

Sheldon Prosnit booked music supervisor Lynn Fainchtein and editor Joe Klotz on Lee Daniels’ “Paperboy”; d.p.’s Guillermo Navarro on “Pacific Rim,” Eric Gautier on Olivier Assayas’ “Something in the Air,” Nicolas Karakatsanis on Erik Von Looy’s “Loft” and Michael McDonough on “Lay the Favorite”; Production designers Anne Seibel on Woody Allen’s “Bop Decameron” and Inbal Weinberg on Derek Cianfrance’s “Beyond the Pines”; and costume designers Erin Benach on “Pines” and Varya Avdyushko on Timur Bekmambetov’s “Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.”

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