You’ve seen it many movies but probably not given it much thought. It’s been a Hollywood location manager’s dream spot for many a decade and the backdrop to so many much loved films – and it’s called the Los Angeles River…
You might recall the dried up concrete river bed from Point Break, at the crucial moment where the leader of the Ex-Presidents makes eye contact with a knee damaged Keanu Reeves – if not, you will definitely remember it from 1978’s Grease.
The LA River is a stretch of river that runs for 51 miles. It starts in the Simi Hills and runs from the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles right down to Long Beach. It has become the number one location for movie car chases and illegal street races for as long as I can remember. Offering less traffic, less people (and so less headaches for health and safety) and the option of a myriad of unobstructed camera angles and that perfect open California light.
For Grease, the LA River was renamed Thunder Road and this is the place Danny Zuko races Leo, the leader of The Scorpions, in the last-minute restored 1948 Ford Deluxe called Greased Lightning.
Leo’s car, Hell’s Chariot, was the more striking looking beast I think, with a black paint job and red and orange hot rod flames on each side. The custom built convertible was a heavily modified 1949 Mercury Series 9CM which was put up for sale at $600,000 in 2015 – it was also signed by Olivia Newton John.
More recently you may’ve seen the same stretch of river road in 2011’s Drive starring Ryan Gosling. It appears in the scene where Gosling decides to take a detour to one of his favourite spots in LA, the Los Angeles River. In fact, it was Gosling’s idea to use the location: “Nic [Nicolas Winding Refn – director] wanted something different and romantic for Driver and Irene to do. I’d heard that you can actually drive up the LA River…” The scene includes the unusual oasis that the crew discovered when exploring the potential location – an area that appeared to have sprung up out of nowhere in among the man-made concrete.
The main car that Gosling uses in Drive is a 1973 Chevrolet Chevelle with a Malibu trim; not the most iconic or powerful car that Chevy ever produced, but one that was known to have great handling – and it sounded good.
Leaving the real world behind, the third in the Christopher Nolan Batman series The Dark Knight Rises, decided to use the riverbed for the infamous 3-pronged car chase scene where Batman, while chasing the badness that is Bane, is also being chased by the police.
The actual (non-functioning) Batpod motorcycle which was ridden by Christian Bale’s Batman was also up for sale recently, when in 2016 The Prop Store put the motorcycle up for auction with an estimated price of $80,000 – $110,000. Once the sale had completed though, the final sale price was actually a whopping $406,184. Not bad for a Honda 750cc powered bike.
Of course, the list is endless and will continue to grow. But it would be amiss of me not to mention the masterpiece that is Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson. Made in 1974 and set in 1938, the movie revelled in the use of some fine Los Angeles locations, with the LA River being one of them.
Limited in the choice of car by the period setting on one hand, and blessed with the beautiful cars available on the other, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown feasts our eyes on some of the finest looking automobiles of the day, including a 1936 Ford V8 Deluxe, and the stunning ghost-white 1938 Packard Twelve Convertible Victoria.
The beautiful cinematography and automobiles hide what must have been a bittersweet return to LA for Polanski, who had not revisited the place since the infamous Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate in 1968.
As a footnote, you might easily be forgiven for thinking the Los Angeles River is a dead and dry river, but this is not the case. Since 1929, when records of the river began being recorded, there has not been a single month when the river has run completely dry, although the flow is often reduced to a trickle in summer, which makes using to for filming so attractive.