California is the undisputed movie-making centre of the world. Although India may produce more films and China has bigger studios, the industry based in this sprawling US state has an unmatched influence that reaches across the globe. In this article, first published as a longer feature in Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, Christa Larwood uncovers the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
The unstoppable rise of Hollywood
So why did it all happen here? California wasn’t a leading contender around the turn of the 20th century – that honour belonged to Chicago and New York, where America’s first commercial films were made. Yet the west coast’s sunny weather was a big draw at a time when even indoor scenes were filmed in the open air to save on lighting costs. It was also blessedly far from the reach of east coast patent holders such as Thomas Edison, who would defend his camera technology with legal challenges and, if the mood took him, with hired goons wielding baseball bats.
The other reason for California’s movie supremacy becomes clear on the journey south from San Francisco. The modern freeways and suburban sprawl give way to high grasslands in the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve and dense redwood forests north of Santa Cruz. The Pacific Coast highway stretches out ahead, tracing rocky headlands and gentle sandy bays. At Big Sur, it climbs up the rough volcanic ranges, carving around cliffs with sheer drops to the thrashing ocean below, and leads on to the silver-grey foreshores of San Simeon, where elephant seals parp and loll, wriggling to inch themselves up the sand as the frothing tide approaches.
Tejon Ranch, a huge conserved property of around 240,000 acres stretching from the fertile farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley over the ridge of the Sierra Nevada to the edge of the Mojave Desert, is an area of rare biodiversity. This geographical crossroads is a perfect microcosm of California’s natural landscapes, so it’s perhaps not surprising that Hollywood is a regular visitor here. One part of the ranch has been specifically designed for directors looking to ‘cheat’ Africa, with a huge single oak tree clipped into the shape of an acacia.
It’s not always an effective ruse: today, the wildflowers are out in force, with spills of purple lupine and bright orange California poppies spreading across the plains, rather ruining the illusion. In the summer, however, the tree’s careful topiary against a backdrop of bleached grass gives an unmistakeable African look – especially when elephants and zebras are brought in, as happened when scenes from the latest Transformers movie were shot here in 2010.
Cowboy stomping grounds
From this traditional ranching land, the road follows the Sierra Nevada mountains northeast through the baking Mojave Desert to a place where no ranching actually takes place, yet the most famous cowboys of them all have come here to strut their stuff. The Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Clint Eastwood have all slung guns, rescued little ladies and ridden off into the sunset in the Alabama hills. These odd, weather-rounded granite formations, huddled between the tiny town of Lone Pine and the snow-dusted peak of Mount Whitney, have played host to more than 400 films and television shows – mostly westerns. So ubiquitous was this setting for cowboy movies in the ’40s and ’50s, that this tiny area has become the definitive wild west landscape, representing New Mexico, Arizona and the untamed reaches of California itself.
Starstruck at the Hollywood sign
On a flat-topped hill overlooking the sprawling city of Los Angeles, around 120 miles south of the Alabama Hills, the grass has been worn bare by thousands of eager feet. A constant stream of visitors tramp up to this point and make pouting, starlet poses for the camera, lining themselves up with a set of rather plain and higgledy letters that rise behind them on the slopes of Mount Lee – the world-famous Hollywood sign. These 14m-high letters were originally erected as ‘Hollywoodland’, an advertisement for a housing development, with no connection to the movie business at all. However, partly due to the restoration efforts of, oddly enough, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner – the sign has come to be a central part of this town’s showbiz mythology.
The mere names of the streets are enough to conjure glamorous celluloid images: Rodeo Drive, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive. Then there are the slick restaurants jammed with lunching execs in designer shades, sprawling studios with serious-looking security guards, and gangs of paparazzi lying in wait outside hotels and boutiques. On Hollywood Boulevard, visitors kneel down to squash their hands into the cement imprints left by stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age – and the cast of the Harry Potter movies – while the floor of the nearby shopping hub, the Hollywood & Highland Center, is paved with starry-eyed success stories. The message is clear: you too can be a star.