San Pedro Takes Starring Role in Sunken City Film

  • 12/23/2013
  • Reporters Desk

By Andrea Serna, Arts and Culture Writer

Making its rounds in the Harbor Area is the independent film “Sunken City.”

Locally, they screened the film at the Chowder Barge, a location site for the film, and at the San Pedro Brewing Co. They are hoping that these small screenings will build support in town for their project.

So far, they have entered the film at the Oregon film festival and won awards for Best Actor, Best Editing and Best Cinematography.

San Pedro is often used as a stand in for others towns in major films — usually films depicting gritty urban backdrops. Filming is a common occurrence in San Pedro, whose streets are used on a regular basis as stand-ins for locations across the country.

Residents are accustomed to seeing their town portrayed as inner-city sections of towns such as San Francisco and New York. The film Sunken City presents a rare moment when the spotlight shines to make San Pedro a main character and star of the film.

  Two friends Hamilton Von Watts and Ryan Mclaughlin met and discovered that they were each drawn to San Pedro’s natural and urban landscapes.

Producer and lead actor in the movie, Von Watts, is connected to the town through family and birth. He takes pride in his grandfather, Sam Davis, who worked at Bethlehem Steel on Terminal Island. Although his parents moved away when he was an infant, he returned often to the town to visit three generations of grandparents and extended family who remained there.

The legend of the Sunken City continued to intrigue the former inhabitant. In 1929, a sizeable section of land in the southern tip of San Pedro began to slip into the sea. Due to quick action, all but two of the houses on the seaward side of the street were moved before toppling into the sea. The eastern section of Point Fermin Park was lost and the area still is unstable.

  “He started showing me these little short film clips he was doing in and around the Point Fermin area — clips of the tides and what not,” Von Watts said. “ I asked him, ‘What are you doing in San Pedro? My whole family is from there!’”

McLaughlin could not explain why he was so drawn to the location. He had initially come to San Pedro to film a music video and had stumbled upon Sunken City. Eventually the friends began exploring their mutual interest in the area. The visuals drew them in.

“It [San Pedro] had a noir vibe,”  McLaughlin said. “It was romantic.  And, as we got deeper into the community, we were welcomed. It became clear that the story was more than a story about a pot smoking detective. Our main character’s connection with the town of San Pedro was as important as any connection with other characters in the film.”

Professional connections helped them in the creation of their first full-length narrative film. Screenwriter Todd Samovitz was brought in to create the story of Nick Terry, a furloughed pot smoking detective. Terry is pulled back into the police force when the body of a young woman is discovered lying in the ruins of Sunken City.

Casting directors, Patrick Baca and Shana Landsberg, were instrumental in choosing a talented group of professional actors for the film. She seemed to intuitively know who was best suited for each part. In the spirit of labor equality, which is the history of this town, each individual on the set earned exactly $100 a day. Technicians and actors all received the same pay.

Producer and director McLaughlin made an effort to maintain accuracy in the film although some creative license was exercised. The film, a detective murder mystery, substitutes a fictional San Pedro Police Department for the Los Angeles Police Department that patrols our streets. Also, locations in Wilmington, like the legendary Chowder Barge were moved to San Pedro through the magic of film.

Cinematographer Andrew Sachs brought his skills towards capturing the mix of urban grit and natural beauty for the film. Vast sumptuous shots of the shimmering Port of Los Angeles, with miles of shipping cranes spanned by the Vincent Thomas suspension bridge provide beauty and authenticity.

McLaughlin was drawn to reggae music to create the vibe he was seeking for the film. He ran into an old school pal who is the drummer for the Los Angeles reggae band, The Lions. The friend offered to send a few tracks to see if it worked to blend location and characters in the film.

“There is a nice juxtaposition of imagery with the reggae feel,” McLaughlin said. “As the story progresses it becomes darker it starts to blend nicely with the visuals and the overall arch of Nick Terry as a character.”

The result is Sunken City features an original reggae soundtrack by Next Level Productions. Lead by Blake Colie of the popular Los Angeles reggae band The Lions, Next Level was critical in providing an authentic Jamaican sound for the film. Drawing from the talents of vocal artist like Black Shakespeare and Nuby Dan, the sound is modern with a strong influence from the golden era of reggae.

Echo Bridge Entertainment has picked up the film for distribution domestically and internationally. The team is working on marketing for the project.



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