Monday, March 21, 2011

Battle lines being drawn by By Jeff Roedel

By Jeff Roedel Tuesday, March 1, 2011
Picture Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

In the wee small hours of Feb. 25, 1942, dozens of air-raid sirens cried out over Los Angeles County. It had to be the Japanese. Officials ordered a complete blackout of the city as the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade pumped more than 1,400 rounds of heavy anti-aircraft artillery shells at what were thought to be enemy aircraft. Several hours later, after the shooting stopped, the Secretary of the Navy declared the incident a false alarm.

Anyone who’s visited the World War II Museum in New Orleans knows well that our post-Pearl Harbor nerves were fried. The overnight assault made front-page news the following morning, but even at the initial rush, commentators suggested a cover-up was underway. Now, a few modern UFO hunters believe that what the Coast Guard encountered that night actually was some type of alien spacecraft. Known as the Great Los Angeles Air Raid or the Battle of Los Angeles, this bizarre WWII footnote is the folkloric inspiration for Columbia Pictures’ contemporary science fiction war movie Battle: Los Angeles, in theaters March 11.

There are no false alarms in Battle: Los Angeles, and this time, the threat is shockingly real and absolutely foreign. Though the film is set on the West Coast, Baton Rouge doubled for parts of the California capital for budgeting purposes when several sequences large and small were lensed here more than a year ago. A stretch of Florida Boulevard was closed for three days, and so was the Bet-R Store near the Perkins Road overpass. Our airport substituted for a California military base, and Spanish Town played host to an alien ground assault. Our iconic state capitol even got a fleeting glance in the first trailer.

Amy Mitchell Smith, head of the Baton Rouge Film Commission, says Battle: Los Angeles already has made an impact on the city’s film industry—long before its release.

“When it comes to enormous studio productions, the pool of decision-makers who green light these shows is very small,” Smith says. “Producers and studio execs behind Battle: Los Angeles were very pleased with the success and ease of filming in Baton Rouge. They became advocates for filming here to other studio execs and top-level producers.”

The extraterrestrial invasion film stands a good chance of becoming the biggest box office draw Baton Rouge has ever played a major part in—until The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn arrives this fall. And the cast loved it here. Aaron Eckhart of The Dark Knight and Thank You for Smoking fame ran the University Lakes. Tough girl Michelle Rodriguez, known from Lost and The Fast and the Furious, shook her boots and spun records at Spanish Moon.

After a few weeks, hearing explosions or seeing plumes of smoke and flashes of light outside their offices and their homes became normal to some Baton Rougeans. Others earned small roles in the thriller and got a taste of Hollywood magic in the making.

Baton Rougean Matt Maurel earned an extra’s role as a Marine in the film.
Matt Maurel, 28, got a “high-and-tight” haircut and Marine gear to play a soldier commanded by Eckhart’s gritty captain for attack scenes filmed at the airport.

“We were put in a real Osprey [helicopter] and told to run out and look up to the left as if there was an alien ship or huge explosion in the sky,” recalls Maurel, who works for the state. “We had to sprint 100 yards in full gear and do that about 15 times.”

Eckhart, a photographer in his spare time, took several minutes to compose shots of Maurel’s unit prior to the scene rolling. Later Maurel met the star during a break. Maurel almost earned a speaking role, but he was passed over because the vest he was given did not match those given to soldiers of his rank, and the film’s Marine liaison noticed.

“Wardrobe didn’t have time to get a new one over to me, so they chose someone else,” Maurel says. “I’m not looking to make a career out of it, but it was a fun experience, and I’d do it again. I’ll probably just be a blur of camouflage in the background somewhere.”

Battle: Los Angeles arrives in theaters March 11.

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