In L’Échange, the bustling City of Los Angeles serves as the backdrop of the Collins story as it plays out from Walter’s disappearance to Christine’s fight against the system. From the initial images of a happy family in a modest suburban home and the bustling phone operators’ bank where Christine whizzes the workday away on roller skates to staging hundreds of demonstrators marching on City Hall after they’re made aware of Christine’s treatment, L’Échange would crisscross Southern California.
An extensive amount of research was necessary to duplicate specific locations and images of the late 1920s and early ’30s. Initial location scouts revealed that older buildings had been torn down, streets replaced by super highways and complete neighborhoods razed—including the one where the Collins family lived (east of Chinatown in contemporary L.A.). That area is now unrecognizable if one compares photos from today with those taken 80 years ago.
The filmmakers looked to production designer James Murakami and location manager PATRICK MIGNANO to visualize the period in modern day Los Angeles. Murakami previously worked with Eastwood and DP Stern on Letters from Iwo Jima, so he was familiar with the director’s aesthetic and the cinematographer’s style.
It was a challenging task, but Murakami and his team were able to discover untapped suburban locales in San Dimas, San Bernadino and Pasadena, among other sites to stand in for ’20s-era L.A. The art department—complementing the location shoots in the above locales, Los Angeles City Hall and sets that were built on the Universal Studios backlot—supplemented key scenes. Naturally, visual effects supervisor Michael Owens would be called in to add effects enhancements and re-create backdrops such as the city skyline and the red streetcars that then populated the region.
Perhaps the biggest twist of kismet came with the discovery of a neighborhood in the Olde Town district of suburban San Dimas, located approximately 35 miles east of Los Angeles. A tree-lined block of homes provided a remarkably close facsimile of what Murakami needed for the interior and exterior of the 1920s Collins home, as well as the surrounding neighborhood.
“We were very fortunate to find the location in San Dimas,” remembers Murakami. “Very little had changed in that section of town, and after seeing some of the footage we shot…it was just beautiful. Overall, we kept it as simple as possible. The colors are subdued to make it comfortable. Our set decorating department fully fleshed out every set and location with a great attention to detail.”
In Los Angeles, the streetcar service, with the iconic red streetcars that crisscrossed from the City of Pasadena to the beaches of Santa Monica, was an aspect of the region’s rich history vital for inclusion in the story. Helpfully, the film’s red streetcar was equipped with an engine, so it could be driven on the streets of Pasadena and Los Angeles during the shoot.
Recalls Eastwood of Los Angeles’ changing landscape over the years, “I have the advantage because I’m senior to Rob and the others,” he laughs. “So, I remember a lot of those things growing up. When I first came to L.A. in the ’50s, it was quite a bit different. Even then, the red streetcars were everywhere. They were very popular at the time.”
Filming just outside the city limits of Lancaster, situated 75 miles north of Los Angeles, the production used a small farm to substitute for Northcott’s haunting chicken ranch. To inform their design, Murakami and team traveled to the original farm where the killings took place. “It was eerie to be there,” recalls the production designer, but it was necessary for the crew to understand the topography and layout. Using news photos from the period, they re-created the entire farm.
Current construction on Los Angeles City Hall was completed in 1928, but small details had to be considered when returning to the site for filming. The building on Spring Street today, surrounded by new architecture and parking lots, has shown its weathering over the decades. Once again, Owens’ effects team would step in to paint the world of 80 years ago.
Curiously, the past and present meshed as cast and crew filmed on the steps of City Hall. Actors Colm Feore and REED BIRNEY (as Chief Davis and Mayor Cryer) were filming a scene just feet away from the building’s dedication inscription—which identifies the honorable George E. Cryer as the city’s mayor. It was a surreal moment for actors cognizant of the historical figures they were portraying.