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‘Soloist’ plays with L.A. setting

Location scouts hit Skid Row

“The dance between the day and night reality of life on L.A.’s downtown streets is like an intricate ballet,” said Kokayi Ampah, location manager for “The Soloist.”

While scouting downtown locations to mirror Los Angeles’ Skid Row, Ampah noted that as shop owners pull down their metal security doors, L.A.’s homeless begin to replace the shopping public of the day with a different kind of commerce.

Ampah was working on “Get Smart” when he got the call from DreamWorks asking if he’d scout locations with director Joe Wright, who at that point had not yet decided whether to take on “The Soloist.” Their first outing took them along the outskirts of Skid Row, and Wright listened to classical music while observing the sights to get a sense of what the film’s central character, the mentally ill Nathaniel Ayers, heard in his head.

The second day called for going to Skid Row proper. But Ampah wanted the British director to have a broader sense of the African-American experience, so he took him first to upscale Baldwin Hills, Leimert Park and Ladera Heights.

Wright was overwhelmed by the number of people — and rats — and the amount of hopelessness and trash on Skid Row. Discussing the various scenes before them, Ampah, who has been sober for 20 years, said, “Every time I come here, I truly say, ‘But for the grace of God, there go I.’ ”

L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote the book on which “The Soloist” is based, met with the duo on their third day of location scouting. A few days later, Ampah received a call from Wright, who’d taken on the project and wanted to work with him as well.

Wright wanted to use real homeless people, and that required not only meetings with L.A. City Council personnel but also reps from Skid Row agencies such as the Midnight Mission, Union Rescue Mission and other groups that help the homeless. Ampah’s team had to remain neutral in the face of each program’s approach (religion, 12-step, etc.) to gain each agency’s cooperation. In addition, sensitivity was required for choosing the participants’ film roles to avoid precipitating any downward spirals.

The transporting and repositioning of those homeless groups for filming presented another cause for concern. San Julian Street in downtown houses the Los Angeles Men’s Project (LAMP), a nonprofit agency that helps those homeless, such as “The Soloist’s” central character, who suffer from mental illness. The human traffic outside its doors was far from conducive for filming, so several blocks away, Anderson Street became San Julian’s double for the film.

“You are taking them back?” asked a worried warehouse owner viewing the influx of homeless personnel.

Ampah’s crew needed five weeks to totally trash the area for effect. Add three weeks of filming and more than a month to strike the area back to its norm.

Additional locations included the Biltmore Hotel, the signage on the historic Rosslyn Hotel and a Silver Lake house for Steve Lopez’s character with a downtown view. Efforts also included using a Long Beach high school as a double for New York’s Juilliard School and, more difficult, securing lower Grand Avenue under the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Walt Disney Concert Hall as a double for the Second Street tunnel where Lopez found Ayers playing his cello and violin.

Ampah, having recently used the location on “Get Smart,” found the Disney Hall folks very cooperative. FilmL.A. was also instrumental, because most Grand Avenue shoots were skedded at night so as not to interfere with hectic loading dock schedules. “The Soloist” needed days — five of them.

“It was truly an eye-opening experience for me on many levels,” Ampah reflected. “I will never look at homeless people and those who work to bring about better conditions the same.”

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