“Love Letter to New York” movies are a genre unto themselves. But films about L.A. generally focus on Hollywood, and the protagonist’s relationship to it: namely making it, faking it, or not making it and crawling back to the small town they came from (to write about it).
In his debut feature, Nobody Walks in L.A., Jesse Shapiro shows the city through the eyes of Miles (Adam Shapiro) and Becca (Kim Shaw), two freshly-minted thirty-somethings, just getting by, tussling with grown-up responsibilities and the disappearing bubble of youthful dreams. As the title suggests, it’s not a car movie. There are no freeway shoot-outs or talking traffic signs (L.A. Story), no mad dash down the Pacific Coast Highway to escape a life in plastics (The Graduate), nobody lives in a mansion above Mulholland Drive (Entourage) or languishes by the pool at Chateau Marmont (Somewhere).
“In fact, there’s not one shot of the Hollywood Sign,” confirms Shapiro, when he joins Cinema Thread at a very low-key cafe on Wilshire Boulevard.
Instead, Shapiro follows his characters around L.A. by bus, train, (a beautiful midnight) bicycle ride, and while strolling idly through his favorite city locations. They grab a snack at the downtown Grand Central Market, crash a party in a modest bungalow with a twinkle-light strewn backyard and talk politics, religion, work, families, stress and, yes—love.
Shapiro studied history and political science at Berkeley, but didn’t attend film school. “I was raised on old school musicals, by my dad, like West Side Story, John Hughes movies, The Godfather, Spartacus and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I’m not a cinephile, I can’t reel off arcane data about movies—I like a wide range of them.”
He got his start in entertainment as a stand-up comedian, ended up as the talent booker at Hollywood Improv and then, when fellow comedian Owen Benjamin got a deal with Sony Pictures TV’s CrackleStudio, collaborated with him. They made over 60 comedic shorts together before Shapiro moved on to make his own short films which have been featured at many festivals, including SXSW.
“That’s how I got my film school education, even though I was executing someone else’s vision—at Crackle—I taught myself to shoot, edit, score, be responsible for the crew—but I knew I wanted to do my own stuff. So I started writing Nobody Walks in L.A. in 2008 as an exercise in reverse engineering—what’s the story I could tell on a very limited budget?”
While heading down the 10 freeway, listening to local radio station KCRW, a glorious blood orange sunset glinting off the skyscrapers of downtown, Shapiro had one of those “Oh, man, I love L.A.” moments.
“That’s when it struck me—I’d never seen a movie that celebrates my experience of this town.”
“The phrase Nobody Walks in L.A. popped into my head and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a movie that takes place over a single day, where two people just walk around L.A.?’—and that’s where it started.”
Which brings us to the two lead characters. Yes, it’s a guy and a girl. But it’s not a guy-and-a-girl movie. In fact, in a nice riposte to When Harry Met Sally (which is subtly referenced in Shapiro’s movie), we’re so not in 1989 double-standards anymore. The dynamic between Miles and Becca is, well, equal—which isn’t to say there’s zero chemistry (there’s lots), or even sexual tension (ditto), but it’s an examination of a new generation, one that is defining its own rules about relationships, of all hues and flavors.
“That’s deliberate,” agrees Shapiro. “Back then Judd Apatow movies were on the scene with the whole concept of bromance and I thought ‘Yeah—but I have a lot of people in my life who happen to be female, and we’re not dating or anything, but I consider them best friends,’ and then: ‘That would be an interesting dynamic to explore’. In the movie their friendship is the foundation of their relationship—everything else comes after that. I’d never seen that before. So that’s my movie.”
Casting the two leads was serendipitous. Adam Shapiro (The Mindy Project, Sense8, Grey’s Anatomy) had been attached from the outset. But Kim Shaw (The Good Wife, White Collar, Law & Order) joined just a week before production started, as someone had to drop out. But it works—both sparked off each other immediately—both are watchable and engaging.
Shot on a RED Epic, the small crew roamed L.A., following the storyline, sometimes going ahead of the characters, other times letting them explore the location, slowly, while talking.
“Collecting locations, for me, was easy, because I’m from here. When I started writing I went out on a few adventures, for research, for inspiration. Purposely I wanted to show this other side of the city. The midnight bike ride—that’s a real thing here—in fact there are competing factions who roam the city after dark with neon lights strung up in their spokes. Also there’s history in L.A. and just because people don’t know it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. For example, the scene on Wilshire Boulevard, where Miles talks about Bobby Kennedy, the Ambassador Hotel and the fact it’s now the site of a very expensive high school, I wanted to talk about that. ”
City planning decisions aside, the tirade against organized religion (and its taste in modern architecture) on the site of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels probably won’t get Shapiro a Papal viewing at the Vatican. Yet that contention is needed in a movie like this about what’s happening to young people and how they want to grow up—and grow old. It hangs in the air and is returned to, and answered, very poignantly. Against the setting sun over Echo Park Lake, Miles and Becca realize the day is drawing to a close and quotidian existence is about to intrude once more. It’s a lovely scene.
In a way Shapiro has made a modern movie about the flâneur, a 17th century philosophical figure, much beloved by poetic Parisians (to this day, in fact), someone who explores the city on foot, musing on the mores of the time. By letting his characters walk, and talk, stop and sit on park benches, lean against a wall watching a transient make mischief or millennials flirt wantonly on back porches, Nobody Walks in L.A. shows us a side of L.A. that nobody has really seen—until now.