From 'Deathstar' to Screen Star
The Caltrans headquarters' film credits include The Island, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, a car commercial and episodes of "Alias." Photo by Gary Leonard.

This time last year, some were likening the Caltrans District 7 headquarters at First and Main streets to a "deathstar." Critics were having a field day tossing barbs at the imposing 13-story metallic edifice that occupied an entire block in Downtown.

Now fully occupied, and even occasionally praised (architect Thom Mayne won the prestigious Pritzker Prize), the building is still attracting attention, only this time from a different crowd: movie location scouts.

Since it opened last fall, the striking $190 million glass and steel building has scored cameos ranging from a fast-paced car commercial to upcoming projects including a music video by R&B singer Usher and the Jim Carrey vehicle Fun With Dick and Jane, said Deborah Harris, a spokeswoman for Caltrans. The building also scored credits in Mr. & Mrs. Smith and episodes of "Alias."

Most recently, the Caltrans headquarters popped up in Michael Bay's explosion-riddled The Island, released July 22. In one brief scene, human clones Lincoln Six Echo and Jordan Two Delta (Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, respectively) take respite in Caltrans' neon-lit plaza (between jumping off buildings, steering flying motorcycles and dodging flipping LAPD squad cars).

Since the movie takes place partially in the Downtown Los Angeles of 2050, the new Caltrans building was ideal, in terms of both the film's look and its geography, said Andrew Ullman, The Island's location manager.

"It fit into the immediate futuristic world," said Ullman, who also worked on The Sixth Sense, Jerry Maguire and The Cat in the Hat. Filming took place last November, shortly after the headquarters opened. "It has an obvious inherent architectural beauty," Ullman added.

Director Bay used other Downtown sites in the film, including the Eastern Columbia Building and Union Station. (Although downtown Detroit stood in for Downtown Los Angeles in a few scenes.)

Even though the cameo takes up only a few moments of the film, for state officials, the big-budget screen time helps bring recognition to California. "The Island was a great project because we were able to get on the state property," said Michael Kelly, deputy director of the California Film Commission, a state-run agency that manages movie productions on state properties. "It was kind of promoting this great property."

Kelly said that the state does not charge a location or permit fee, although producers must pay for security. The state also requires that a representative from Caltrans be on set, which costs producers $70 per hour, Kelly said.

Of course, Downtown is a favorite filming spot for Hollywood productions, as anyone who has ever spent time in the community can attest. Indeed, areas such as the Second Street tunnel seem to have a film crew in place every weekend. A study released in May by the Entertainment Industry Development Corporation, which handles production permits, found that Downtown was used in at least half of the 131 recent television pilots filmed in the area.

Contact Chris Coates at

page 1, 9/12/2005

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