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To Film in High-Risk Areas, Hollywood Studios Hire Gang Members as Crew

There are no yellow production signs leading me to the location of director David Ayer’s new film “The Tax Collector.” Driving into the heart of gang territory in a part of South Central L.A., I feel a surge of adrenaline and know only to expect the unexpected. Upon parking, I text my contact, Michael Haro. He’s the industry’s go-to supervising location manager when productions want to shoot in the city’s most at-risk areas, and this neighborhood definitely qualifies, with more than 200 violent crimes reported in the first six months of 2018.

Haro works alongside Cle “Bone” Sloan, an actor who’s also credited on productions as a technical adviser with expertise in such matters as gang wardrobe and locations. The pair met on Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 release “Training Day” when the director described the type of cul-de-sac he wanted to find. Sloan knew just the place but warned the crew “it might be a little too real for this production.”

The street was in Baldwin Village, an area notorious for gang violence and often referred to as “the Jungle.” However, Fuqua and “Training Day” screenwriter Ayer both loved it. Sloan remembers: “Everybody said it couldn’t be done. LAPD said, ‘You guys are crazy; they’re going to run you out of there.’ But I was from there.”

Sloan acted as a go-between with the gang in the neighborhood, easing the way for the production to come in and shoot for approximately 40 nights.

Though the production was secure inside its perimeter, outside it things were dicier. Sloan recalls how the vehicle driven by Denzel Washington’s Alonzo character was stolen when a driver left it outside the secure area with the keys inside. Though that’s typical protocol for the transportation department, it took only a moment for the car to disappear. But Sloan doesn’t blame gang members. “It’s usually [other] citizens being unruly,” he says.

Haro and Sloan say they’ve learned a lot over the years while building relationships in L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods. Developing these lines of communication is an art that has garnered them a reputation across the city for bringing opportunity, respect and money to low-income areas. “We don’t occupy the neighborhood,” says Sloan.  “We’re guests, and they graciously let us film [there].”

They talk of making the neighborhood part of the production. “We empower the community,” says Sloan. “We empower the gang members to be part of a process that a lot of them have never participated in before. You give them an opportunity, and they’ll go hard for you.”

The process begins when a production decides on a specific location. Haro and Sloan reach out to a community leader, who is hired as neighborhood liaison. That person is tasked with helping to select the people who will ultimately be hired as background cast. Haro and Sloan have a motto: “Let the streets play themselves.”

The process benefits productions in another way as well: “You don’t want to bring someone in who’s not friendly with the local gang,” says Haro. But, equally important is that “we want to be able to give jobs to the people of the neighborhood and show them another way of life — show local kids the magic of moviemaking.”

Arriving at the second location of the day for “The Tax Collector,” everyone is chatting away as they set up for the next scene. People from the neighborhood stand alongside the crew. One preteen turns to me, saying she wants to become a doctor or go into film, so she is happy to see the process.

Sloan brings one resident over for an introduction. A former influential member of the Pueblo Bishop Bloods, he enjoys having the production in the area since it provides an opportunity for people to experience filmmaking. “It’s always a good thing to see somebody rise from what’s considered [normal] around this area,” he says.

The crew anticipates a midnight wrap and makes a final move to the street where I had parked. Residents sit on picnic blankets under the floodlights to watch the scenes being shot, and children play on the grass nearby. Directors’ chairs and snacks are arranged in front of a monitor so a group of young boys can watch the progress as everyone works.

Chris Long, CEO and co-founder with Ayer of production company Cedar Park Entertainment, credits Ayer’s work on “Training Day” and “End of Watch” as being instrumental to the success of this latest project. “He’s been able to do two very authentic movies that represent [people] in a way that they really appreciate and respect,” says Long.  “Whether it’s the police department or the gangs, they all look to him as someone who brings their vision of what they are to life.”

The process wouldn’t work without Haro and Sloan’s expertise. At lunchtime, no one tries to explain to the extras lining up for catering that there’s a more scaled-down meal for background actors. Balancing the needs of community members with those of the production is key for Haro and Sloan, who speak with gang members throughout the process to make sure everything is copacetic; they understand things at the location don’t run on autopilot.

Any production striving for a similar level of safety and cooperation must be willing to make the same community commitment. Haro went to Colombia
for “Narcs” and says the process was the same: The location manager must first find a key person and build a relationship. “If a production doesn’t want to [do that], then they shouldn’t shoot there,” he maintains.

Indeed, risk is part of the job. Sloan, who was struck by a truck driven by Suge Knight in a 2015 incident that stemmed from an on-set argument, recalls an incident during the filming of “Straight Outta Compton” that involved some neighborhood teens who were outside the film’s perimeter. Suddenly, Sloan says, “we heard gunshots — the whole crew heard them. Real life is just on the edges.”

Local 600 stills set photographer Justin Lubin (“Get Out”) has worked on films all over the world, and describes the location dynamic on “The Tax Collector” as festive at times. “It’s been very interesting,” he says. “The people are great. They love being on set. It’s like a block party.” Long compares the environment to “a family barbecue.” Adds Local 399 driver Eric Chaney, “Everyone is supportive.”

All these descriptions are apt — and ones I would have chalked up to good PR spin if I hadn’t been on location myself.

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