One thing that's always bothered my about movies is how many are set in either New York or Los Angeles. There are 311 million people in the U.S., but only 9 million live in NYC, and 3.8 million in Los Angeles (of course, those numbers rise if you include the "metro areas" surrounding the cities, to 18 million and 13 million respectively). Even using the larger numbers, those two cities only count for 10% of the U.S. population. Yet the current top ten currently contains The Dark Knight Rises (set in "Gotham" but filmed largely in New York City), Ted, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Savages, all set in or near NYC/LA. Add in The Avengers and Men in Black 3, which use Manhattan skyscrapers as their backdrop, and it seems like any picture not set in a fantasy world chooses those two cities.
The same holds for indie pictures, like last week's new release Ruby Sparks, set in L.A. Today's news brings updates on two more L.A.-set projects, The Canyons and Van Nuys. Both seem strongly rooted in place, including the cultural texture of the area. But aren't these areas movies use again and again? Although these projects probably get green-lit because they seem more instantly relatable to the studio execs and producers involved, those connections don't always hold up in the final product. I think there's a reason last year's Oscar nominees included Hawaii-set The Descendants, Alabama-set The Help, and Oakland-set Moneyball, for example. All those L.A. and N.Y.C.-set pictures can feel like the same old, and to those living outside those metro areas, the projects can come off as insular and snobbish.
That being said, both of these L.A.-set projects have a few things in their favor. Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote that great tale of L.A. rich kid ennui Less Than Zero, penned The Canyons, an indie noir about people trying to make it in Hollywood that sounds like it will have sharp satirical teeth. The cast includes the oh-so-dependable Lindsay Lohan and adult film star James Deen, and Variety tells us today that unknown Lauren Schacher has been cast as a shallow socialite. The dark side of fame is a familiar story, but if anyone can inject some originality into this picture, it's Ellis. Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, will direct.
Bill Murray is considering starring in Van Nuys, which made the Black List of best unproduced screenplays. He would play an anti-role model who a 12-year-old befriends in the wake of his parents' divorce. And by "anti," the filmmakers mean a retiree and war veteran who also has a fondness for gambling, drinking, and prostitutes. Relative newbie Ted Melfi will direct from his script. Murray's casting is not final, as other actors like Jack Nicholson have reportedly taken a look at the role.
Maybe The Canyons has to be set in L.A., but Van Nuys seems like it would be just as good a fit in Small Town, U.S.A. Maybe more of the city's screenwriters need to start taking sabbaticals to some of the less-filmed areas of the country, because there are plenty of stories there to be told.