When they leave for the weekend this Friday afternoon in autumn, employees at 1600 Pacific Highway are reassured, as they depart through the west exit, that they work in the “San Diego County Administration Center, ” by the sign above the large double doors that has been there since 1936. When some of them return on Saturday afternoon, however, they are more than a little confused to find the building has suddenly become the "United States Courthouse,” according to the new sign now affixed above the west entrance.
Dozens of people are milling around in organized confusion outside the wrought-iron doors directly beneath the new sign, which still, however, dates the building from 1936 and somberly proclaims the county motto, “The Noblest Motive is the Public Good.”
Usually on a Saturday afternoon this place is deserted; only the seagulls and a few off-duty marines wander around enjoying the lush green lawns and well-tended gardens of the county building. Now, though, giant reflecting screens line the walkway, huge arc lights are focused on the building’s west entrance, miles of electrical wires are strung across the lawns and pathways, and it’s a small miracle if even the skilled technicians can sort out which is what.
Uniformed but friendly officers of the San Diego Police Department keep the curious onlookers out of range of the cameras, while small groups of people in twos and threes wait patiently for the action to begin. Hollywood has come to San Diego this weekend for the shooting of a new movie. Borderline.
Inside, between the marble columns and beneath the high ceiling of the county administration center’s main lobby. Third District Supervisor Roger Hedgecock is the only county official in evidence. For a change, though, he is not the center of attention (although with all the ink he's getting for his one-minute, walk-on role in Borderline one might be forgiven for thinking he’s the star of the show). He leans nonchalantly against the counter of the spruced-up information booth in the lobby, watching and waiting for his moment of glory. Nearby, looking a little lost and more than a little bored, is the unmistakable figure of Charles Bronson, the tough guy of so many movies. Dressed in a cowboy hat and nondescript plaid shirt and pants, Bronson somehow seems older, leaner, and altogether much less menacing than he appears in his movies; perhaps it is just the boredom, or his role in Borderline (in it he is playing a good guy, a U.S. Border Patrol officer trying to break up a ring of alien smugglers).
The only scene being filmed this fall afternoon in the county administration center comes just after one of the climaxes in the film (shot on a sound stage in Hollywood). Two illegal-alien smugglers (played by Michael Lerner and Bert Remsen) have just been on trial for their part in the killing of a border patrolman and a young Mexican child. Lemer is acquitted, and the scene begins as he is escorted from the courtroom by a phalanx of attorneys. (In the minds of the movie’s directors, at least, the courtroom is located somewhere on the second floor of the county building.)
After hours of seemingly endless preparations, director Jerry Friedman shouts, “In your places, everyone.” The sound of his voice reverberates inside and outside the building, echoing out of the two-way radios each of about twelve crew members has strapped to his belt. The cameras begin to roll; the clapboard is slammed shut. ‘‘Scene 112, Take 4,” it says, the white chalk scrawled almost illegibly.
Standing on top of the first flight of stairs leading up from the main lobby of the building, almost hidden from view, the stars of the show arc poised, calm. Some of them are wearing overcoats, indoors, even though the temperature outside is almost eighty degrees, and under the arc lights it is closer to 100. In the lobby, the extras hurriedly make last-minute adjustments to their everyday costumes. “Action!” booms Friedman’s voice out of a dozen walkie-talkies.
As if someone has hit the right button, these thirty puppets suddenly come to life. The stars begin walking at a fast pace down the fifteen steps into the lobby. At the bottom they are mobbed by the onrushing extras, supposedly news reporters, many of them toting Nikons (without film), notebooks, and television cameras. (The to only on-duty reporters in the group are a crew from Channel 8 News, which has ^ received the producer’s permission to film live shots for their local newscast; a three-part series including the Borderline shots was scheduled to air this week.) It is a fairly typical scene that could take place outside almost any courtroom in the country. re-created for the cameras. The accused is acquitted, and no newsman wants to miss anything as the freed man leaves the courtroom, though seldom is anything of any significance said on the courthouse steps.
Behind the main group of about thirty people now advancing through the double doors onto the walkway comes Roger Hedgecock, dressed in an immaculate brown suit, smiling broadly and carrying a brown leather briefcase — the epitome of a successful big-time lawyer who has just won a major case. Bringing up the rear, but still within range of the cameras, is Bronson, a scowl on his face, naturally, since his quarry has just been acquitted. They all pass through the doorway (no one even stumbling this time), the cameras outside capturing every nuance of their movements.
In the sunlight, more extras crowd around, pressing up close for a glimpse of the action. The sound equipment — a large microphone suspended from an overhead boom and draped in shrouds of cheesecloth, looking like a boxer’s bandaged head — follows the crowd down the walkway, staying discreetly out of range of the cameras. Approaching the fountain spewing water into the air where the path meets Harbor Drive, the group comes in range of the high overhead camera, poised about thirty feet above the ground on an elaborate crane that pans gently across the scene. They reach the sidewalk. A shiny black limousine is waiting, its engine running. A couple of people are pushed inside, and the car pulls smoothly away. “Take!” shouts Friedman. Everyone, on the set and off, relaxes and begins chattering.
The rehearsals for this one scene began just after noon that Saturday. By 3:00 p.m. not one inch of film had been exposed. “We’ve done five rehearsals already — and in two of them I tripped coming down the stairs,” says Hedgecock during one of the frequent periods of inactivity before the takes begin. Propped up by the information booth counter (not one of his regular hangouts in the county building, he insists), Hedgecock is relaxed and in an affable mood. “I hope you’re not quoting me,” he says, ambiguously, almost as if he doesn’t want to be taken seriously. “I've been through this building a million times, and now, coming down those stairs, I trip and crash into the wall, twice!” The microphones used during the takes are so sensitive Hedgecock will have to watch his step when the cameras are rolling. His briefcase made a deafening thud as it slammed into the wall.
For Hedgecock, though, who is credited with arranging the on-location shooting of Borderline here in the county administration center, appearing in a movie is not a new experience. “I was an extra in The Candidate back in 1970,” he recalls, somewhat proudly and with a little nostalgia. “But then I was a starving law student doing it for the money.” Now he claims that the twenty-five dollars he is going to receive for his one-minute, nonspeaking role in Borderline is going straight to his favorite (unnamed) charity. Of course he doesn’t have to worry too much about money now, as he did in his student days, because of his $30,000-plus salary as a member of the county board of supervisors. Returning to decorum, he adds, for the record, “By the way, this role is perfect for me. It portrays my legal career as one of continuing, uninterrupted victories.”
Although Hedgecock’s role in Borderline may or may not be a victory of some kind for him, for Wally Schlotter and the Motion Picture Bureau of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce it was more than a minor victory. Only three years ago, when Schlotter joined the bureau as its assistant director, San Diego had been featured in almost no major motion pictures, the major exceptions being films like Francis Joins the Navy, in which Donald O’Connor played the leading role opposite Francis the Talking Mule, and Some Like It Hot (the black-and-white version), shot here in the late 1950s with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon. The most recent production of any note was the television series Harry-O, shot here in 1974 and 1975, and it was such a disaster for producers that no other major production companies ventured here to shoot on location between 1974 and 1979.
The disaster for Harry-O was caused by the absence then of a San Diego branch of the Screen Extras Guild, and the union regulations forced the producers to ship all the extras appearing in Harry-O down from and back to Los Angeles, pay them union wages (currently $65.50 a day), and pay for accommodations in San Diego. (The extras in Borderline — a non-union production — were paid twenty-five dollars a day, plus any expenses they incurred.) As a result, while Harry-O had left more than $100,000 in San Diego after filming was completed in February, 1975, the production was way over its budget and encountered unexpected delays because of the extras problem and a lack of a coordinating body through which the producers could work with local officials.
Now, however, things have changed. In 1976 Mayor Pete Wilson and chamber of commerce executive director Lee Grissom decided what the city needed was an official organization, a body whose sole purpose would be to attract movie producers to San Diego. According to Schlotter, it was Wilson and Grissom who, almost single-handedly, persuaded the city council and chamber directors to establish and fund the Motion Picture Bureau, bom as a full division of the chamber in 1976. The first director, Tony Brown, was hired in October, and the program was all set to get off the ground.
But possibly because of its lackluster performance in its first two years, the Motion Picture Bureau ran into funding problems. Originally eighty percent of the budget was allocated by the city from the Transient Occupancy Tax (the sales tax levied on all hotel and motel rooms in the city), and the remaining twenty percent was contributed by the San Diego Unified Port District. But in mid-1977, the port district suddenly cut off its funding, and a year later, in the budget slashing fervor which followed Proposition 13, the city council reduced the MPB budget to $56,000. While some of the funding has now been restored, even the $80,000 budgeted for the current year is relatively stingy when compared with the range of $150,000 to $300,000 given most other bureaus in large cities around the country. Adding to the problems of the San Diego MPB was the sudden resignation (in January, 1979) of director Nancy Ferebee, the second of three directors who have occupied the three-year-old position.
Although reluctant to discuss her quitting, Ferebee, who now works for the Sperry Univac Corporation as a researcher, says a news report in the San Diego Union published a few days after she quit wrongly gave the impression that there had been internal strife at the MPB. “I was really steamed up about this,” she said. “There was a misinterpretation. There was no internal strife. What I was referring to was the conflict between the bureau and some people involved with the motion picture industry here. The industry people were afraid we were stepping on their toes, that we were taking something away from them because we were doing it for free. But we weren’t, really.” Ferebee says she left the MPB because “it was turning into more of a sales job than I was interested in. When it comes to sales and banging on doors and beating a drum, I really shy away from that. The job was leading in a direction I didn’t want to go.” This is borne out by another insider at the MPB. who said, “She just realized she was not right for the job. She didn’t know what to do with it and she knew it. ’’ When she left the MPB, Ferebee was quoted as saying, “They wanted to make San Diego into some kind of movieland, and 1 wasn’t the rah-rah cheerleader type of person to do it. So we didn’t have a movie shooting every week in San Diego — but who wants that anyway?” One person who does want a movie a week is Wally Schlotter. Working previously as executive assistant to the producer of Police Story in Los Angeles, where he made his extensive industry contacts, Schlotter joined the MPB in 1976 as its assistant director. An energetic organizer, Schlotter took over Ferebee’s job in January. 1979.
During all of 1979 four major features and several lesser ones were filmed on location in San Diego, quite a remarkable increase from previous years. Last year began with the four-month-long shooting of the expensive, star-studded Scavenger Hunt, whose producers must surely have liked their locations considering they spent so much time here. (Ironically, on the very day that Charles Bronson and Roger Hedgecock were acting out scenes from Borderline at the county building, the MPB’s invited guests were treated to a sneak preview of Scavenger Hunt at the College Theater.) Unfortunately, Scavenger Hunt was received by the critics with something less than rave reviews; although San Diego seems to be attracting more productions than ever, it is still waiting for a quality motion picture or blockbuster to be filmed here.
Also filmed on location here in 1979 was Loving Couples, a Time-Life Films production starring Shirley MacLaine and James Coburn. Then there was In God We Trust with comedian Marty Feldman. And Borderline in December. Quite an impressive list when compared to all the productions filmed — or not filmed — here previously. Meanwhile a growing number of television commercials were being shot in San Diego during 1979, mainly through the unassisted efforts of local production companies like A&G (a subsidiary of Vidtronics, which boasts clients such as the Ford Motor Company, Bank of America, Pepsi-Cola, and Texaco), Western Video, and Tuesday Productions. But the MPB plays only a minor role, if any, in the location shooting of these companies. However, the bureau did assist in the production of the Dean Martin Christmas Special, filmed at Sea World last fall, and in the Perry Como Easter Special, also shot here in 1979.
Draped across the hood of his Chevrolet in the parking lot of the county administration center while Borderline is being shot on the other side of the building, Wally Schlotter waxes almost poetic about the “many advantages for the city" to have movies filmed here. Schlotter, 29, grew up in San Diego and graduated from both Grossmont College and San Diego State University (where he earned a science degree in telecommunications and film). “The filming of Scavenger Hunt left more than one million dollars here,” he says, relishing his victory. “These film companies come down from Los Angeles for only a little time, but they leave a lot of money behind. They pay for hotel rooms, restaurants, bars (there's quite a bit of socializing after the day’s shooting), and local services. They hire local technicians, even cameramen, and extras. They more than pay their own way, and all they ask for is a little cooperation."
The crew from Borderline stayed at the Nite Lite Inn in Point Loma for the week it was in town, while the Scavenger Hunt cast spent almost four months at the Capri-by-the-Sea Hotel (now condominiums) in Pacific Beach. According to Schlotter, the Scavenger Hunt crew ate several times at T.D. Hays and Krishna Mulvaneys, both near the Capri, since they didn’t bring their cars to town. "Michael Schultz, the director.of Scavenger Hunt, was a health food nut,” Schlotter says, “so he ate mostly at the Prophet and the Gatekeeper." One night Schlotter treated several Scavenger Hunt crew members to dinner at Giulio’s in Pacific Beach; for dessert, he recalls, the group went to Mr. A’s, where they spent more than $300 (since the studio was picking up the tab). “We drank all the Dom Perignon they had in the place,” Schlotter says.
As boosters of San Diego see it, one of the major benefits of having movies filmed here is all the free publicity the city gets from being featured as the backdrop to a major movie. Not all producers identify the location for the audience, but Scavenger Hunt is one movie that has San Diego all over it. When the hunters went to the San Diego Zoo, the camera held a close-up of the sign at the zoo’s main entrance for several seconds, and San Diego Police Department cars (“Your safety is our business”) were shown several times in the movie, as was the police department headquarters on Market Street. For San Diegans, location shots in Balboa Park, Mission Beach, and downtown were easily recognizable. "Scavenger Hunt made San Diego look like a really fun place," says Schlotter. "It shows Cloris Leachman, Tony Randall, James Coco, Roddy McDowall and all the others having a really great time here. It also has shots of the Chargers at San Diego Stadium, and one of the kids in it is wearing a Padres cap throughout the movie.”
Apart from the free publicity, though, the real payoff for San Diego is in the dollars and jobs brought to town by the production companies. According to the MPB figures, in 1978 feature films shot locally brought more than $1 million to the city, while television productions made here resulted in a net influx of about $250,000. In 1978 more than 1400 people were employed in local cinematic productions, a tremendous increase over the 204 jobs created by production companies here in 1974, when only about $50,000 was spent in San Diego by movie production companies. In the year July, 1978 to June, 1979, Schlotter says, about $1.7 million was spent in San Diego by movie companies shooting here on location. But the city is still in the cinematic minor leagues, especially when compared to a favorite location such as San Francisco, where it is estimated about $14 million was spent by production companies in 1978.
One of the reasons San Diego is becoming more popular with producers, says Schlotter, is a growing negative reaction to such traditional locations as Hollywood and San Francisco. Both these locations are becoming increasingly difficult to shoot in because of growing resentment by local populations, which in turn has meant increasing red tape for producers. In San Francisco, which also suffers from being the second-most over-filmed city in history (it’s right behind Hollywood), permits are now required from the city before shooting can begin. “They’re putting all sorts of restrictions on filming up there,” Schlotter says, “and it’s so over-filmed producers are naturally looking for new, fresh locations with none of the San Francisco hassles.” Here, the only “permission” required is from the MPB itself, and this is not really official permission, just cooperation. When “official” permission is required from the city (for instance, to close certain streets) or other groups, the MPB obtains the necessary approval for the producers; with the bureau's blessing, movie companies are now virtually assured of obtaining whatever official cooperation they need. The MPB does, however, check to ensure that the production company carries adequate insurance, and also that the city is named co-insured. Once the producer has the all-clear from the MPB, he can roil out his equipment, block off the streets, and begin shooting. Seldom has a request been refused, not even when the George C. Scott movie Hardcore was filmed here last year, even though it didn't exactly “sell” San Diego the way the chamber and city council might have hoped. (To add insult to injury, the production company made it known it had decided to film in San Diego’s porno district because it had a “more Fiftyish” look than the one in Los Angeles.)
One of San Diego’s major attractions to movie producers is the vast number of scenic locations available here. More than one producer has reportedly wanted to film aboard the Star of India as it cruised around San Diego Bay, but balked when they heard the insurance premium would be $5000 a day. Then there are the magnificent beaches, seldom used in feature films before. And there was the one producer turned down by the MPB because his script called for blowing up the Coronado Bay Bridge.
Perhaps even more important than the scenic locations, though, is the cooperation producers get from San Diegans. “Everyone here has been super-great,” said Jim Nelson, producer of Borderline, who achieved no small acclaim for his production work in The China Syndrome, that epic nuclear disaster movie with Jane Fonda which premiered just as Three-Mile Island appeared on the point of a meltdown. “We have been able to get some terrific scenes that have never been in a movie before.” Nelson was particularly impressed with the U.S. Border Patrol, whose chief patrol agent, Don Coleman, obligingly closed three lanes of the San Ysidro border crossing so the film crew could spend a day shooting there. (Apparently this was the first time any portion of the international border, usually so congested, has been closed merely for a movie crew.) “And of course, it wouldn’t have been possible without the Motion Picture Bureau,” said Nelson. “If it hadn’t of been for Wally, I could have been at home in Colorado this weekend skiing....” Schlotter, bashful and more than a little modest, answers that most of the arrangements for the shooting of Borderline were made with the assistance of Roger Hedgecock’s office, in particular administrative aide Dan Kelly. “He was really important in coordinating the use of this [county] building,” Schlotter said. Kelly arranged not only for the building to be open, but also for the high-voltage power required by the equipment. He also arranged for the security of the building (which was off-limits to most of the public during the shooting), and he had county maintenance crews turn on the water in the fountain on Harbor Drive — which has been dry for more than a year.
Schlotter says one of the main reasons producers get so much cooperation in San Diego is the MPB’s relationship with the chamber of commerce. If it was merely a department of the city, he says, local businessmen might be much more reluctant to be inconvenienced by movie makers, but when they are approached by an organization which is part of their chamber of commerce, they are much more malleable. “Few other bureaus are run as divisions of their chambers,” he says. “The key to our success is that the business community supports us.”
Schlotter is convinced that San Diego is finally coming into its own as a location town. Already he can cite a fairly impressive list of plans for more shoots in 1980. The Girl, Gold Watch and Everything, based on the novel of the same name by John MacDonald, will be filmed here at the end of January for Operation Prime Time Television. Another producer has approached the MPB about making a feature focusing on the Forties era, and wants to use the old Santa Fe Railroad Depot and the San Diego Hotel on Broadway for his location shots. But the increasing amount of movie business doesn’t mean all Schlotter’s problems are solved. Perhaps the main thing standing in the way of San Diego becoming a major location shooting center is its lack of an adequate and available sound stage for indoor shooting. While both Western Video and Roger Tilton Films have small sound stages, neither is really large enough for a full-scale feature movie; in addition, neither company would be too happy to allow one crew to take over its facilities for up to three months at a time. However, there are plans by A&G to build a sound stage here in San Diego. A&G was considering such a project as early as last May. and entered serious bidding for a piece of city-owned land off Rosecrans Street, near the I-5 and I-8 interchange. Despite the assistance A&G received from the MPB. however, it failed to secure the property, and the plans for the sound stage were shelved. But, according to industry sources. A&G is still looking for a site.
“A sound stage will be our number one priority in 1980.” Schlotter says. “There are a number of people around who want to build one, and we will be looking for ways to help them ” Rut he wouldn't comment on A&G‘s plans. What it would mean if a sound stage is built here is that major productions could be shot — both indoors and out — totally in San Diego. Already there are studios available lor sound recording and other post-production work, but because of the lack of a sound stage, most production companies which do shoot on location here return to Los Angeles for their indoor shots and post-production work.
Meanwhile, back at the county administration center — alias the United States Courthouse — the shooting is over for the day. Charles Bronson has disappeared into his limousine (hired from a local company), and Roger Hedgecock has gone home to his Pacific Beach residence, twenty-five dollars in hand. The crew is busily picking up the wires, packing the light fixtures and taking down sundry props. The sign over the west entrance is brought down. Gradually the main lobby of the building again comes to resemble the somber stone edifice where the business of county government is done. Monday through Friday. 8:00 a.m. to5:00 p.m. But there is a lingering air of excitement as the cast of extras slowly drifts away: will this place ever be the same after it is shown to millions all over the world on the shiny silver screen?