Summer 2020

Down and Out in L.A.

Directors of neo-noir series find their expression in the City of Angels, where darkness is submerged in sunlight

By Robert Koehler

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir Penny Dreadful
Daniel Zovatto plays the fictional Tiago Vega, the first Mexican-American detective in the LAPD, who confronts systemic racism in the department while trying to solve a string of brutal murders in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. (Photo: Warrick Page/Showtime)

Perhaps because the city of Los Angeles lies at its front door, Hollywood has always wrestled with the place where its industry works and lives. It is both "City of Angels"—a place of dreams and aspirations—and, in cultural historian Mike Davis' term, "City of Quartz"—a city that fosters corruption, oppression, racism and crime to mythic extremities.

The city's unique combination of alluring glamour, expanding development, a famously brutal LAPD, and marginalized minorities and working class made it the natural home for what French critics Nino Frank, Étienne Chaumeton and Raymond Borde first termed "film noir."

But then, around 1960, something happened. Call it "neo-noir."

Ever since Jean-Luc Godard rejuggled all of the noir tropes in his revolutionary Breathless, noir hasn't been the same, constantly reinvented for succeeding generations. Wave after wave of new noir storytelling plugged more into directors' visions informed by the classic noir they had watched. Now, 60 years later in the longform streaming format, the latest wave of neo-noir has crashed onto our cultural shores with a whoosh. Firmly situated in Los Angeles, such current shows as Goliath, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, Bosch and the recent miniseries I Am the Night provide a wide perspective on how noir storytelling is continually renewed.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir Penny Dreadful

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir I Am The Night Patty Jenkins

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir I Am The Night
(Top) Penny Dreadful director Paco Cabezas interacts with his lead player in the ’30s-era series; (Middle) director Patty Jenkins reviews a scene with Chris Pine, who plays a disgraced crime reporter seeking redemption in I Am the Night, which uses L.A.’s notorious Black Dahlia murder as the unsolved mystery at its center; (Bottom) Pine with co-star India Eisley, who plays a young woman in search of her birth mother. (Photos: (Top) Justin Lubin/Showtime; (Middle & Bottom) Turner Entertainment)

Etching Memorable Performances

These shows place noir's essential character—the gumshoe, ground down by character flaws and the looming threats of crime and corruption—in a fascinating range of styles and attitudes. They're not even necessarily cops and detectives, such as Goliath's Billy McBride (Billy Bob Thornton), an alcoholic defense lawyer who battles a raft of personal and professional dysfunctions while trying to take down nefarious white-collar criminals. Possibly even more emotionally damaged than Billy is I Am the Night's twisted hero, Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), a once-hot Los Angeles crime news reporter suffering from PTSD and haunted by horrible experiences in the Korean War.

Legendary LAPD detective Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver), notorious for using extra-legal tactics to close cases, is also dogged by war memories—in Harry's case, Iraq and Afghanistan—and the burdens of his ex-wife's murder and the difficult cold cases he's compelled to solve. Facing even worse problems as an LAPD detective 90 years before Bosch, Tiago Vega (Daniel Zovatto) in Penny Dreadful: City of Angels feels the pressure as the first Mexican-American detective in the city's police force just as his fellow Chicanos (including his brothers) are rising up against ruthless Anglo political interests—and a shape-shifting demonic figure named Magda (Natalie Dormer, in multiple roles) is making all kinds of dastardly mischief.

Penny Dreadful director Paco Cabezas, who helmed the first two episodes, sees Tiago's dilemma as an ideal way to dramatize the underexplored history of Chicano Los Angeles. The Spain-based Cabezas notes that he has been hired for projects where the Latino elements "felt fake. In this case, (show creator) John Logan did a lot of research and made it feel real." Still, Cabezas and actor Adriana Barraza (playing Tiago's mother) saw themselves "as the Latino gatekeepers, making sure that everything from the Latino and Pachuco world" was authentic.

This involved subtle directorial detailing, such as Tiago's ultra-neatness as a sign of his overcompensating for being a minority in a white-dominated LAPD. "He's trying so hard to keep his little world in control while everything around him falls apart," notes Cabezas, so the director pointed out Tiago's neatnik style, his suits and hair to Zovatto. "He's OCD about his clothes."

Cabezas approached the show's key pairing of Zovatto and Nathan Lane as his detective partner Lewis Michener as "a father-son relationship, and I saw from the beginning that Daniel and Nathan were developing that same relationship. Daniel adores Nathan, listening to his many theater stories, and they bonded early. I was able to use this" for the mentor-mentee dynamic.

In Goliath, director and executive producer Lawrence Trilling says that Thornton's character has evolved over the show's three seasons, starting as a broken alcoholic, estranged from his daughter and professionally disgraced, until by Season 3 he's a man who's "loved and lost, becoming less bitter, more humbled and awakened to feeling. He's always going to be an alcoholic and unreliable father, but what redeems him is his integrity and unflinching honesty about himself and the world." Like a classic noir hero, Billy can overcome many, if not all, of his inner demons. "When he's pursuing justice," says Trilling, "he burns and gleams when he's chasing the bullies and lifting up the little guy."

Trilling relishes the lineup of seasoned veterans he's been able to direct on Goliath, such as Bruce Dern, guest starring in the fourth season, which was forced to halt production at the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Bruce told me," Trilling says, "'You create an arena and allow us to perform.' These are gladiators. Once they're in the arena, I give them a wide berth and let them attack. With actors this good—Billy Bob Thornton, William Hurt, Nina Arianda, Dennis Quaid, Amy Brenneman, J.K. Simmons, Graham Greene, Griffin Dunne, Illeana Douglas—I mostly create an atmosphere so that when they walk on the set, they already understand what we're trying to accomplish. They see that I've set up boundaries for them with staging, camera choices, lighting that create an implicit, immersive reality. Of course, I'll give them my thoughts and guidance, but I also know when to stay out of the way."

As Patty Jenkins describes it, the psychological dimensions of noir drama, whether it's the emotional obstacles faced by the hero or the mounting pressures confronting a doomed antagonist, provide actors and directors a rich field to play in. Not long before production on I Am the Night, Jenkins had directed Pine as Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, and found that they both had to do a full 180-degree turn from a comic book universe "down the rabbit hole of a PTSD-riddled character. What was super-hard about a character like that was you needed to arrive at something so complex that it appears to be the exact opposite of what it really is, [which is] to be truthful" about a man who's being dishonest to himself.

For director Ernest Dickerson, who has been entrusted with the finale episodes for most of the seasons of Bosch, "a big part of our job is to make things comfortable for the actors. We had to get in a key scene in which Bosch's partner, J. Edgar (Jamie Hector), accuses him of vigilantism in the killing of three bad guys. J. Edgar's horrified that Bosch would go that far, and we start to sense what extremes, even outside the law, Bosch will push things. I had a problem how to block things that worked for Titus, so I had him lean against a door jam in J. Edgar's home, which gave Bosch some really interesting, even ambiguous, body language."

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir Goliath Lawrence Trilling

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir Bosch Ernest Dickerson

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Neo Noir Goliath
(Top) Lawrence Trilling directs Billy Bob Thornton as alcoholic defense lawyer Billy McBride in Goliath; (Middle) director Ernest Dickerson navigates the action in the streets of Los Angeles, where Bosch takes place; (Bottom) Titus Welliver, at the landmark downtown funicular Angels Flight, plays the title LAPD detective in Bosch. (Photos: (Top) Amazon Studios; (Middle) Lacey Terrell/Amazon; (Bottom) Aaron Epstein)

Underscoring Noir's Insinuating Atmosphere with Locations

Like key Los Angeles neo-noir films—Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Quentin Tarantino's 1990s double-punch of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—these shows either look back to the city's history or frame the action in the present.

Dickerson cites Chinatown as "a key reference, even though it's set in the city 90 years before Harry is working the streets. It's one of my favorite movies. Like some of Harry's cases, the storyline is very complicated." And like some of novelist Michael Connelly's Bosch novels that form the series' basis, the title refers to both Los Angeles as a place and what Dickerson calls "a state of mind, that what you think you know may not be the full truth. It's like the title of one of Mike's novels, Two Kinds of Truth."

Trilling also identifies Chinatown's impact in a way that defines what separates neo-noir from classic noir: "The original noirs were quite psychological and could create a really paranoid feeling in the viewer," Trilling explains. "But Chinatown captures something that's at the heart of Goliath, the power of huge, corrupt forces over the lives of regular people.

Polanski's elegant refashioning of Los Angeles' dark underbelly also proved a strong influence for Cabezas, since the new Penny Dreadful season is set during the same 1930s period as Chinatown. While creator John Logan used freeway development instead of water and power as a key lever of the storyline, the movie had a different kind of impact on Cabezas.

"When you watch Chinatown or L.A. Confidential," he says, "just paying attention only to locations, both films are very contained within a few exteriors and generally done with static shots to not show too much to the left or right. That's because of what we found during location scouting. I couldn't believe how few buildings from the 1920s-30s period were in good condition and not surrounded by a 7-Eleven and strip malls and the like. I wanted to move the camera as much as possible and recreate the places as they were with full movements and definitely not static shots."

For I Am the Night, Jenkins solved this problem, in part, by coming upon the striking photography of William Eggleston, a master of images charged with dramatic stillness that makes him the contemporary inheritor of Edward Hopper—the artist most directly associated with the noir tradition—and his 20th-century paintings depicting frozen moments of quiet drama. Jenkins visualized the tale of a young woman's search for her birth mother—and her inadvertent discovery of the possible killer of the Black Dahlia, Los Angeles's most notorious unsolved crime—in terms of still shots: "In our research for visual reference points, we landed on Eggleston's photography. They're not static, and that's what appealed to me. There's a lot of dynamic feeling in the stillness, and the sharp colors led me to decide on a palette of bright, primary colors—a Technicolor look. You think of noir as only black and white. But noir can also be in color."

When neo-noir goes back in time, as in Penny Dreadful or I Am the Night, new digital technology can help fill in the gaps that the actual Los Angeles—infamous for demolishing its past—can't provide.

For a scene early in the Penny Dreadful pilot of a pro-Nazi demonstration set in Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, Cabezas had to come up with an entirely re-created place. "Now, it's all concrete and metal after many renovations," he says. "It used to be a very big green park with a central fountain." He and his location manager found angles in other parks that closely matched period photos of the square, adding set dressing with period-correct park benches and VFX digital work.

In conceiving the six episodes of I Am the Night and directing the first two, Jenkins was able to find several extraordinary Los Angeles sites that served the story in expressive ways and yet are fairly unfamiliar to the viewer. Perhaps the most dramatic (and crucial) of these is the Sowden House located in the Los Feliz neighborhood adjacent to Griffith Park and built by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, Lloyd Wright. Staged by Jenkins for maximum sinister effect, the home's Mayan-cum-Gothic style matches the dark intentions of its owner and the series' bizarre antagonist.

Neo-noir tends to raise the stakes for the director keen on finding the right locations, according to Dickerson. "The city is always a character in Bosch," he notes. "The locations where we shoot tend to be really classic Los Angeles places with a noirish feel. For the Season 4 finale, I staged the action set piece in a fantastic old abandoned subway tunnel full of deep shadows." Angels Flight, downtown's famed funicular railcar, was captured by Dickerson's camera not only for the unique angularities of the train (preserved to this day with period perfection) but for the steep, dirt ground around it allowing for striking cantered angles.

"Noir is about character and place," Dickerson says, "so it's critical to ask myself, 'What is the best location to tell us who this character is?'" It might be a lavish house, or a rundown apartment—we see these both in the latest season, sometimes in adjacent scenes. Where a character lives can tell you so much about them without any words. And then I have to figure out how I can make the places work visually in the most expressive way.

A generalization about film noir is that it's an urban genre, when in fact, some of the greatest noirs, such as Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past and Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night, are mainly set in the countryside. This aided Trilling to reconceive of Goliath for its third season, remaining partly in Los Angeles, but also in California's Central Valley. "We've been inspired by Mike Davis' take on noir in his book City of Quartz, the idea of powerful corporate and capitalist interests to be battled by the little guy, our hero Billy. He's David to their Goliath, and the Goliath in the third season are these powerful farming and water interests."

As director of the full season, Trilling wanted to find locations that "gave us the magnitude of the landscape but also had a foreboding quality. The idea that the land itself was being exploited was a fascinating subject, combined with the image of the little man in the giant landscape, all of it very evocative of film noir but also contemporary and relevant." He and his team found the right place in the small farming town of Arvin, located just north of where the Grapevine drops from the Tehachapi Mountains into the massive bowl of the Central Valley.

"We didn't want to get too far from Los Angeles, since the budget didn't allow for it," adds Trilling, "but we also were able to afford putting up the cast and crew for an extended location shoot. It was like we had feature conditions, but not making a feature."

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