- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Allen Coulter, the director of the semi-biographical murder mystery titled “Hollywoodland,” which opens tomorrow, needed to evoke the movie colony circa 1951-59. Asked recently how much Los Angeles itself can be relied upon to preserve or simulate vintage landscapes and cityscapes from half a century ago, Mr. Coulter replies, “Maybe this will answer your question: We shot six weeks in Toronto and two in L.A.”

Toronto has been doubling as numerous American cities for years. Evidently, preservation combines with economy to trump the domestic prototypes. “L.A. doesn’t have a very good track record about preserving its past,” Mr. Coulter observes, noting that he found several places in Toronto that suited his purposes even though they weren’t necessarily buildings from the 1950s.

“You’re also looking for structures that have survived from earlier decades and reflect a certain kind of Western or Spanish architecture,” he says. “We found a wonderful mansion, once the property of a General Motors executive, that could double for the home of a principal historical character, Eddie Mannix, the general manager of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Our Ciro’s is a beautiful old art deco interior in Toronto. That?s also true of the interior of the restaurant we call Dominic’s, which many people should recognize as Musso and Frank?s on Hollywood Boulevard.”

Mr. Coulter and his production designer, Leslie McDonald, found it easier to draw on the San Fernando Valley for period locations than the current neighborhoods of Hollywood or Beverly Hills.

Mr. Coulter attempts to interweave fact and fiction in “Hollywoodland,” which recalls the dire circumstances in which actor George Reeves was found dead of a gunshot wound in June of 1959. The site was the bedroom of his home in Benedict Canyon. A favorite of little kids when cast as Superman in a low-budget television series of the 1950s, Mr. Reeves was never reconciled to that professional identity. Not relentlessly ominous, the movie discovers some comic elements in the split between the actor’s aspirations and his flukey, mass-audience popularity.

Mr. Reeves probably took his own life. Alternate foul-play theories have lingered, and the movie endeavors to account for not only the suicide explanation but also a pair of murder hypotheses. The double-track scenario shifts between flashback episodes that concentrate on Mr. Reeves, played by Ben Affleck, and present-tense sleuthing by a brash, completely fictionalized private eye called Louis Simo, played by Adrien Brody.

Mr. Coulter seizes the opportunity to credit an additional screenwriter, Howard Korder, who was denied screen credit by the Writers Guild. In fact, the director showers compliments on the original screenwriter, Paul Bernbaum, as well as the uncredited collaborator. By Mr. Coulter’s reckoning, one provided “an exquisite script” from the outset, and the other “did extraordinary work” while expanding the material. Evidently, it was Mr. Korder’s task to concentrate on the Simo narrative, which strayed from the known facts more frequently than the Reeves chronicle.

Allen Coulter hails from College Station, Tex., and graduated in theater from the University of Texas at Austin, which became and remains his favorite place back home. He claims to have been a bit too young to have shared the Superman craze on early American TV. “I was aware of it,” he recalls, “but never really caught up in it.”

He spent an extended apprenticeship in New York filmmaking circles before managing to secure directing jobs in commercials, music videos and serial television. His first major series were the Chris Carter science-fiction thrillers “Millennium” and “The X-Files.” At the end of the 1990s he became part of David Chase’s production team on “The Sopranos.” Mr. Coulter directed four episodes in the first season and added producing responsibilities in the second.

As a director, he has about a dozen “Sopranos” episodes to his credit over five seasons. Several of these received Emmy nominations and made the finals of the annual Directors Guild awards. He also moonlighted with “Sex in the City” during this period and received a couple of Emmy and DGA nominations for his work on that series

The filmmaker’s commitments to “Hollywoodland,” his first theatrical feature, precluded participation in the most recent “Sopranos” season. Not to mention the concluding seven chapters, which will soon go into production. He insists that he has never heard a word from David Chase about a prospective “Sopranos” feature.

Coincidentally, “Hollywoodland” opens domestically one week ahead of Brian De Palma’s film version of “The Black Dahlia,” a James Ellroy best-seller that also recalls a vintage Hollywood homicide.

“I guess it?s reassuring that the publicity people act unconcerned about having a rival Hollywood mystery film out there,” Mr. Coulter remarks. “I was a little surprised they took it so calmly.”

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