Earl Hays Press: Where Hollywood gets fake money and newspapers

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Do some of these faces seem familiar?

Many of the small details - newspapers, licence plates, cereal boxes - of Oscar-nominated films are made in one place. Writer James Bartlett takes a rare tour of a Hollywood factory of fake.

Semi-retired owner Ralph Hernandez, Sr, starts the tour of Earl Hays Press, an unassuming building near the Burbank airport, by showing me some souvenirs in his office.

There's a copy of Time magazine with astronaut Jack Nicholson on the cover from the movie Terms of Endearment, copies of fake romance books written by Kathleen Turner's character in Romancing the Stone, and the planetary wall chart that ET brought to life to show where his "home" was.

They're all cleverly-made fakes. Earl Hays Press has supplied filmmakers and television producers for more than 100 years with the "insert" printing that builds a sense of realism in a scene: cereal boxes, adverts, menus, magazines, arrest warrants, and endless other printed matter.

Perhaps Earl Hays's most notable product is their period newspapers, crucial if you're shooting a movie set in France in 1967, or 1889 Ohio, or a television show based in 1978.

As we move into the workshop, crowded with filing cabinets and shelves, I find myself doing a double-take - there are fake driving licenses, credit cards and countless bundles of dollar bills.

Budget, copyright or legal restrictions mean many real things cannot be used, and everything from money to everyday household products needs a new design or logo - a potential headache for production companies.

Hernandez points to the rows of hundreds of licence plates hanging from the upstairs banisters. They're from every US state as well as countries around the world. More can be found on shelves and in containers, spilling out almost everywhere you look.

He says they're updating the plates before the summer shooting rush starts. He laughs as he remembers when a number of cars, all with Earl Hays fake plates, once parked on Hollywood Boulevard during a shoot.

"A cop came along and thought he'd hit the jackpot. He issued a ticket to every one. "

Hernandez, 83, had his first interview at the firm some 53 years ago, and he's never really left. Now the company is a third-generation family business - with Hernandez's son and grandchildren running daily operations as part of a larger team.

Earl Hays the man is long gone, but he started the business as a regular commercial printer based in a small shop in Hollywood. An avid traveller, Hays would sketch the licence plates of vehicles in every country he visited.

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Earl Hays Press is one of the oldest businesses in the industry

It was the genesis of an idea that Hays pursued when he returned to America. Eventually he got asked to do so much work for movies that he decided to specialise.

The process is straightforward: a prop or art department reads through a script, noting every time something might be needed. Then these clients can buy off the shelf at Earl Hays or have the company design and print something new.

"But then of course there are rewrites, and sets can even be built but never used," Hernandez says.

After we pass a wall of 19th Century wanted posters, playbills and notices (an example of their available period fonts and designs), we arrive at Earl Hays' upstairs showroom.

Here there are shelves of faux soda cans, "Morley" cigarettes (invented for The X-Files), and countless more colourful foodstuff samples on display. The aisles and drawers are labelled by item and hold dizzying varieties of everything printed.

Leafing through the newspapers, some of them with just a "wraparound" front and back page, others with interior pages (usually the same ones repeated), Hernandez recalls the extensive work the firm did for The Godfather, when newspaper front pages were needed for a montage.

"For just a couple of thousand bucks, years of time were covered, and the audience knew what had happened and where they were by the time we saw Michael [Al Pacino] in Sicily."

Earl Hays is not only a print and design house, it's an unofficial archive and museum. That's what Hernandez says still gives them an advantage. They have a few competitors, but Earl Hays is the oldest and best-known.

"Every kid and a computer can be our enemy," he says, but their designs lack telling details.

"We have a real printing press. Directors and producers always want accuracy in their movies,"

"Their biggest critics aren't movie fans: it's other directors and producers. It's all about ego!" he laughs,

Many design and graphics companies can theoretically do what the company does, but would struggle with sourcing realistic material quickly. Earl Hays likely already has it on hand.

Moving into the kitchen, Hernandez shows me a wall covered with US presidential, FBI, Homeland Security, police and other agency seals and signs.

"Years ago we used to make fake IDs for the police to use in drug busts - money too," he explains, saying it built up goodwill and good reputation among law enforcement, "which is how we can get these sometimes."

Despite being a goldmine of showbiz stories, Hernandez explains that he doesn't do many interviews because Earl Hays sells and produces items like this, which, if they fell into the wrong hands, could be used for something very real.

Sometimes, the men in black will even turn up announced.

Once, a director wanted real-looking money for a lengthy poker game in the Steve McQueen movie The Cincinnati Kid.

"The Secret Service signed off on the plates we made," Hernandez says. "But then the money started turning up all over the world even though they had identical serial numbers and were "signed" by our artist, not the US Treasurer."

The Secret Service insisted the remaining cash, plates, and all the copies were burned in the yard outside - while they supervised, Ralph's grandson Keith adds.

"They even took the ashes away."

Earl Hays is also home to a number of huge, rarely-used printing presses.

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One of Earl Hays' giant paper cutters

But 60% of the press' jobs still require work from scratch, and may require period fonts, woodcuts, solid plates, cutting dyes and heavy presses. So while Hernandez's sons say they need the space, he's loath to let them go.

That doesn't mean Hernandez doesn't see change coming to Hollywood - and Earl Hays.

"I can see a day when we close the doors," he says. "And they'll miss us when we're gone."