The road to Hollywood, California
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.
‘What makes California the premier place to shoot is the variety of landscapes,’ says location scout Sean O’Brien. He lives in Los Angeles, but travels across the country and the world seeking the perfect settings for films, television and advertisements. Settled comfortably in the leather-look booth of a roadside diner, he orders a cup of coffee and explains the secrets of his craft.
‘You can be shooting a scene at the beach here in the morning, in the mountains doing a snow shot that same afternoon, then you can head down to the desert, all in one day. It’s that fast. Salt flats, sand dunes, cities, suburban zones, industrial areas, farms – whatever you need. Nowhere else has diverse topography like this.’
In the early days, when filming abroad was often too expensive to contemplate, movie studios in California were able to tell stories set around the world using landscapes found conveniently on their doorsteps. In 1929, Paramount Pictures produced a map promoting these natural features as ‘the world in one state’, and some of the biggest films in history feature California as a scenic stand-in. The Ten Commandments saw a grey-bearded and bewigged Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea of Egypt to the south of Big Sur, near Santa Barbara. Shirley Temple’s Heidi skipped over the ‘Swiss Alps’ in the San Bernadino Forest to the west of Lost Angeles, and the trenches of northern France were recreated in Orange County for All Quiet on the Western Front. Even US locations did not escape substitution: the production of Gone With The Wind didn’t set foot in Georgia, where Scarlett O’Hara’s beloved Tara was supposedly located.
‘It still happens today, most definitely,’ Sean says, running a finger across Paramount’s 1929 map. ‘If you can’t film internationally, I think you can cheat anywhere in California: Afghanistan, the South of France, Tuscany. Even the snowy Siberian tundra, out on the salt flats. It’s all white!’ He laughs, flashing a grin. ‘This is Hollywood – you can make it happen.’
At dawn the next day, around 150 miles inland, Bruce Ryan pulls on his black Stetson hat and heads out into a dew-soaked morning. Around him, soft green hills stretch to the horizon, descending into cool glades crowded with broad-trunked, 400-year-old oak trees. With skills practised over the course of almost four decades here, he manoeuvres his horse to round up a group of recalcitrant, russet-coloured calves, heading off their meanderings with an authoritative click of his tongue. Above him, the moon persists in the sky despite the growing sunlight, making a silhouette of a golden eagle as it bobs up and down, riding warm currents in the air.
Bruce’s round-up takes place in a tiny corner of 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. It’s an area of rare biodiversity that has scientists swarming, with a number of endangered species and landscapes ranging from this rolling oak savannah to alpine forests, cactus groves and desert grasslands.