When a movie-obsessed family goes to Los Angeles, studio tours and their art of fakery are the real stars.
The stretch golf cart pulls alongside the parking lot, which is sunken a few feet though otherwise seemingly normal, with lines forming space after space, row after row.
But this is Hollywood; nothing is as it seems.
A giant screen running along the parking lot is painted to look like a blue sky with wispy clouds, because the real, deep blue California sky behind it looks fake on camera.
This, the tour guide tells us, is Paramount’s beach or pond or ocean. They fill the parking lot with nearly a million gallons of water, and presto, instant ocean, fake sky and all. This, he says, is where Moses parted the Red Sea in “The Ten Commandments.” They built a trough, filmed the water filling up on both sides until it gushed over the barriers, then reversed the film.
I stare at the concrete. The Red Sea, I think, is a parking lot.
Paramount Pictures was our third studio tour in four days, following visits to Warner Bros. Studios and Universal Studios Hollywood. I thought I would have had enough, and I certainly thought the kids, though movie-lovers, would have had their fill. How many studios could 12- and 10-year-old boys take?
A lot, apparently. Given the time, they would have visited even more.
Some people go to Southern California for Disneyland or for the beaches. For my family, it was about Hollywood. Oscars. Movies. Magic.
Jordan, 12, wants to be an Oscar-winning director. Ryan, 10, wants to be an actor in a movie by anyone but Jordan. I knew that studio tours would be a big draw when I bought our plane tickets to Los Angeles on a whim months earlier. Once I started researching, though, I was disappointed to learn that favorites such as DreamWorks don’t do public tours. Others have age limits that would prohibit Ryan’s entry. Sony, home of the yellow brick road and “Men in Black,” has a minimum age of 12, for instance.
Universal, part of the amusement park, didn’t have any rules. I decided on that and Warner Bros., the studio of Harry Potter and the kids’ favorite TV show, “The Big Bang Theory.” Both have costly upgrades to longer, more exclusive tours. But given those prices ($349 a person at Universal, $250 at Warner Bros.) and no guarantees that preteen boys would enjoy any of this, I stuck to the basic tour, already longer than two hours at Warner Bros.
When I brought up visiting another, my husband was decisive: “Two should be enough.”
We landed in Los Angeles on a Wednesday night. Thursday we went to Universal Studios Hollywood, where we walked past the theme park features, including the Simpsons Ride and the Shrek 4-D movie, to the Studio Tour.
Rolling at Universal
A videotape of Jimmy Fallon greeted the hundred or so people crammed into several open-air trams. A friendly tour guide, miked up in the first car, pointed out forgettable details as the cars wound down a hill onto the Universal back lot.
We drove by some soundstages, but there was no stopping, no getting out to look inside. The tram pulled into a tunnel, actually a soundstage, where we were told to put on our 3-D glasses. Then, we were inside a movie, surrounded by dinosaurs attacking each other and our tram. King Kong and a T. rex went at it; the tram, in the middle, felt like it was pushed over the side of a ravine.
When we stopped inside another tunnel — Stage 50, a split-level soundstage built to look like a subway station — lights started flickering and a rumbling slowly built. Earthquake! A truck carrying liquid gas crashed through the ceiling and slid toward the tram, catching fire. More of the ceiling began to crumble as a subway zoomed in, derailing next to us. Water gushed down the steps toward the platform. People screamed.
The tram continued past sets for “Dr. Seuss The Grinch Stole Christmas” (a giant Whoville), “War of the Worlds” (the innards of a Boeing 747 on its side), “Jaws” (an animatronic shark in a lake). In Little Mexico it started to rain, hard, and a flash flood sent a wall of water down a hill toward the tram.
We cruised down Wisteria Lane, the idyllic California street from “Desperate Housewives.” It was surprisingly condensed: Tiny yards fronted fake-looking facades of homes.
When we pulled by the Psycho House and the Bates Motel, featured in Hitchcock’s 1960s classic, “Psycho,” the tram paused as an actor portraying Norman Bates staggered out of a motel room, carrying a body that he put in his car trunk. The tram slowly descended the hill as Bates teetered toward us, looking mighty creepy.
The tram ride was fun, if never quite frightening, but perhaps the better insider view of Hollywood was the theme park’s live stage show on special effects. The show explained “green screens” — used when actors perform in front of a neon screen, the backgrounds added later by computers. This is how much of Oscar-nominee “Gravity” was filmed. To demonstrate, audience recruits were put in front of a green screen and told to fearfully look up at the end of a neon green pole. Instantly, they were in a lush tropical forest fighting dinosaurs, and that pole was a T. rex roaring down at them.
Not surprisingly, Universal was more about big rides than a working studio.
A close-up of Warner Bros.
The next morning we hit Warner Bros. Studios. It was fairly quiet, the guide noted, with television shows still on Christmas hiatus, though the movie “Jupiter Ascending” was shooting on the back lot. (The tour guide never steered the stretch golf cart too close and we were warned against taking any pictures.)
But there was an excitement, too, he said, given the studio’s long list of Oscar nominations — announced the day before — led by “Gravity,” with 10.
The first stop was a building filled with memorable cars: Clint Eastwood’s Ford from “Gran Torino,” the Batmobile from “The Dark Knight,” the Weasleys’ flying car from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” the Mystery Machine van from “Scooby Doo.” In the same building, a continually running video showed the Harry Potter kids acting in front of a green screen, followed by the same clip from the movie which showed them deep in a forest. Warner Bros.’ own green screen is set up for souvenir photos; Hogwarts Express is added before you get back to the gift shop.
The studio is home to a massive props department, filling 200,000 square feet. In our walk-through, we saw fake arms, a replica of the piano from “Casablanca” (the real one is in the museum at the end of the tour), living room sets and an entire room of chandeliers. We pushed ourselves against a wall as a glass table was wheeled by on its way to the “Modern Family” set. The props building is also home to the “Friends” coffee shop set, where we lounged and pretended to order lattés.
Next we hit the stage where “Pretty Little Liars” is shot. None of us had watched the ABC Family show, but seeing the inside of a working studio was fascinating. We got up close to the generic breezeway, fake bricks and all, that serves for many of the outside shots, fake lockers, restroom doors that swing open to an empty wall. Faucets don’t work.
The back lot has a street scene for everyone: New York, Europe, the Midwest. We saw a courthouse and a gazebo, a little grassy park, a subway entrance. It all looked vaguely familiar. The back lot was also home to our only real celebrity sighting of the trip. Kevin Costner — or so my husband says — walked away from us, talking on his phone. I saw only his back.
Our guide also took us to Stage 1, now home of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” the toughest ticket in Hollywood. Even that, with its shiny wood stage, seemed flawed up close.
The same soundstage is where “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Cool Hand Luke” were filmed. More recently it was home to “E.R.” Yet within the walls, lined with mattress-like soundproofing material, there is no sense of that history. The only reminder is a plaque outside the door of each soundstage that lists its film and television productions.
For my husband, that was enough. “Casablanca,” he mouthed in disbelief outside Stage 7.
On the way back to our condo rental, we stopped at the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards. The theater is squeezed into a shopping mall on busy Hollywood Boulevard that has a Gap store, food court and bowling alley.
“I don’t remember the red carpet taking place outside a mall,” I commented to the guide. Everything, he explained, is cloaked. Store signs are covered for the Oscars telecast.
The half-hour tour included a backstage look at the green rooms and our own trip onto the stage. Tickets, the guide told us, are such a hot commodity that many members of the Academy don’t get one, and everyone must have their tickets on Oscar night. During one of the guide’s first years working at the theater, he was taking tickets and Francis Ford Coppola, recipient that year of the Irving G. Thalberg Award, told him that he didn’t have his tickets. The guide started to panic. This was Coppola; who was he to turn him away on his big night? “Just kidding, they’re right here” Coppola told him, reaching into his pocket.
At that point, I thought we were done with our Hollywood tours but Jordy, in particular, wanted another one.
Paramount, it would turn out, was my favorite studio: a little more intimate, with more stories. We could walk around the back lot and touch and see just how fake all the street scenes were. Alleys framed by plastic brick buildings (cheap and better for fight scenes, the guide pointed out). Fire hydrants that would never work. Signs taped to “utility” poles that have been made to look aged and faded.
Our guide, Justin, on the last tour of his Paramount career (he wanted to focus on his acting), carried an iPad and showed us scenes from the spots where we stood. One building, part of the New York streetscape where “Glee” is now doing a lot of filming, was a cafe in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and he showed the clip.
The pizzeria outside had a door that opened to about a foot of space and a mural of the inside of a New York pizza shop, pizzas already made, kept warm along the glass counter. From a distance it looked so real.
Even the credit card stickers on the windows outside the shops aren’t right, though at first glance they look real (copyright issues). Upon closer inspection, the shop takes Vista, American Excress and Bank Master.
We visited the dark soundstages of “Dr. Phil” and “Instant Mom,” another TV show we’d never seen. The comedy is filmed before a live audience, and it would have been nice to be in the audience. But when I heard the time commitment — even a half-hour sitcom can take four-plus hours, given all the rewrites and reshoots — I was glad we didn’t.
Still, it would have been fun to see magic happening before us. That was really the drawback to all the tours: We visited empty soundstages of lesser-known shows. Ironically, in Hollywood, you have to use your imagination.
Karen Lundegaard • 612-673-4151