Hollywood Education: Our Favorite Movies Shot in the L.A. River
02.10.14 by Ryan
For those that live in Los Angeles know that the L.A. River is sort of a misnomer. While it was once the city's water source, the L.A. River is mostly a dry, concrete channel that snakes its way through most of the county towards the ocean (though it is possible to kayak through parts of it). Of course, if you're new in town like Michael "The Angry Ginger" Kittrell and the rest of his family, you may try to go fishing in the L.A. River like Michael and his Uncle "Big" John did in a recent episode of REELZ's Hollywood Hillbillies. Little did they know that the river is more commonly known as a location for movie shoots.
Hundreds of movies have used the L.A. River as a location, so we decided to narrow that down a bit and reveal some of our favorite movie classics that have fished around the L.A. River for, er, good locations.
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Not surprising that a movie centered around water would shoot in the L.A. River. Detective J.J. "Jake" Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired to investigate an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power only to find out he was set up and that a much larger conspiracy is in place. When Gittes learns that a the engineer was found drowned river, however, he contests that the water level is too low. Gittes is told the body was found under the "Hollenbeck Bridge," which doesn't actually exist. Instead, director Roman Polanski shot next to the 7th Street and Olympic Boulevard bridges.
Grease may not be the first car race scene shot in the L.A. River (1976's The Gumball Rally may hold that distinction instead), but it is one of the more memorable. Without Danny's (John Travolta) racing win over Leo (Dennis C. Stewart), would Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) ever have come to terms with her feelings for him?
Ironically, a movie featuring a dystopian future wherein Manhattan becomes a giant prison didn't actually shoot in New York, with St. Louis filling in for the city scenes and the L.A. River's Sepulveda Dam filling in for a police station located on Liberty Island. Sepulveda Dam was used for several sci-fi movies, including 1997's Gattaca and The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai, which used the location for its ending title sequence.
One of the more memorable chase scenes ever shot in the L.A. River of course comes from Terminator 2, with John Connors (Edward Furlong) and the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) being chased by the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). Often voted one of the best chase scenes of all time, the section where the T-1000 crashes the truck into the channel is located at the intersection of Plummer St. and Hayvenhurst Ave.
As a nod to the 1969 movie of the same name, The Italian Job created another car chase scene involving Mini-Coopers, only this time, instead of the streets of Turin, the cars drove through subway tunnels that led to the L.A. River, ending up right near the Sepulveda Dam. Bit of trivia, the actors did a hefty amount of actual driving for the movie.
"They're a really great car to drive," Mark Wahlberg told Motor Trend in 2003, "but you don't want to be in the passenger seat when the stunt driver is showing you how to do the tricks...especially after a big breakfast."
Leave it to an European director Nicolas Winding Refn to make one of the most stunning portraits of Los Angeles to hit the big screen. Refn reportedly found his locations by driving around with star Ryan Gosling, who suggested Refn shoot in the L.A. River.
"I was trying to figure out what kind of places [Driver] would take Irene and Benicio, and Ryan told me that the L.A. River was an interesting arena," Refn told Movieline in 2011. "So we went there, and then he told me about the oasis of green. I found one, and it was perfect."
The result is a dreamlike sequence shot from Reseda Boulevard to the Sepulveda Catch Basin in Encino near Balboa Park, at the spot where the L.A. River actually becomes a river. If only Michael and Uncle John knew!