A Big Screen Drive Thru My L.A.

Harry Pallenberg is a documentary filmmaker. He has made two feature docs, and currently produces for the popular PBS series CALIFORNIA'S GOLD with Huell Howser. For the next month, he'll be guest blogging about his work and the Los Angeles he loves, as well as serializing his 1996 doc SHOTGUN FREEWAY: Drives Thru Lost L.A.. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and 2 children.

I've been working at KCET for Huell Howser for over 13 years, producing over 800 shows for various series. But, like Los Angeles, my career has taken me down many roads, turns and unexpected byways. I thought I'd share some interconnected stories about both - living in L.A. and making a doc about the place - with you over the next month.

I was born in NYC but have been full-time Angelino since '77. I got my start in the film biz as a P.A. on the 1988 Paul Morrissey film: Spike of Bensonhurst. I sealed the deal on the gig when I assured the producers I could drive a 15 passenger van - which I promptly used to cave-in someone's car door the first night of shooting in NYC! I drove away crying and ended up parking for the night about 30 blocks from my apartment. The next morning I brushed off my bruised ego and went to pick up the star of the film. When he got in he said "Harry?!? Harry Pallenberg, is that you?" It was Sasha Mitchell - we had gone to school together (4th - 6th grade) back in Laurel Canyon. P.A. & Star re-united!

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This launched the first leg of my career in the biz, a stretch that included working on sci-fi and horror films, as well as working for the Playboy Channel on a lusty (but not pornographic!) soap opera. (Among other things, I got to take young, tall Playboy models to LAX to get them through customs to the location in Mexico; people always wondered who the short guy with the gaggle of bombshells was.) After a few years of this I was totally burnt out, not to mention depressed when I got to see the cigar and scotch budget for the suits on one of the few big-ish films I'd worked on. I thought to myself: I could make a whole movie for that much! I even had a topic already in mind, something about the history - or purported lack thereof - in our city of angels. Luckily, a high school friend named Morgan Neville (who continues to make docs here in Los Angeles) was looking to make basically the same film. Luckier still, another high school friend named Scott King (who helped fund a bunch of other films, and now blogs about his massive ticket-stub collection here), was in the mood to finance such a film to the tune of your average cigar and scotch budget: $50,000. Thanks Scott!

And so SHOTGUN FREEWAY: Drives Thru Lost L.A. was born. It's a feature length film-collage of old chamber of commerce films, accompanied by the views and insights of 14 noted Angelino's, including David Hockney, Buck Henry, Joan Didion and James Ellroy. We did pretty much everything ourselves and it took Morgan and I three years to finish it. The living-room of our apartment was covered in tapes and archival films that we'd begged, borrowed, and (depending on the statute of limitations) stolen. In classic DIY fashion, we did whatever we needed to do to get it done. At one point we were editing SHOTGUN FREEWAY from 10PM to morning on the Northern Exposures series Avid system, which was fun until I re-calibrated the monitors one night. For another long stretch we found ourselves hand cleaning 100's of hours of old films that the LAPD Historical Society had discovered in a back jail cell, this in exchange for permission to use their materials in our own doc. (More on the Historical Society later.)

Morgan and I had been driven to make the film in response to the endless harping we'd hear from our New York and San Francisco friends about the lack of history in L.A.. We wanted to prove them wrong, and that desire turned into a 3-year quest that taught us amazing, amazing things about the region. Below you can watch the intro chapter to the film. Next post we'll tackle chapter 2: THE AUTO.

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