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Tales from the Trenches

'Sunset Junction,' What's Your Function?

by PETER JONES

February 2002

 

I was ready for something different. Over the course of six years, I had written, directed and produced documentaries about Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin, Samuel Goldwyn and Ozzie and Harriet. I had also supervised my staff's production of more than 40 profiles, including John Steinbeck, Bobby Darin, River Phoenix, James Baldwin, Gloria Swanson, Bob Newhart, Jack London and Roman Polanski, to name a few. In an era when bit players in bad sitcoms get their own "documentaries," we've been lucky to do well-known subjects who actually have led meaningful lives.

Nevertheless, I was ready for a break from hotel room interviews, mediating between warring family members, being sued by disgruntled ex-husbands of legends, and paying ever-escalating rates for film clips, archive photos and music cues. I was ready for something I felt passionate enough about to produce with my own money before securing an outlet or distributor. I thought I'd found it in a verite-style film about the varied urban cultures that exist along the 21-mile-long stretch of Sunset Boulevard. I would interweave stories of plastic surgeons, hookers, taco stand owners, transcendental medtitators and lesbian members of the state assembly. I narrowed my focus, changing the subject of my film overnight, after having met someone recommended to me.

Last summer, my crew and I filmed the world of Sunset Junction, a safe haven for troubled youth created by Michael McKinley, a Beverly Hills hairdresser-turned community activist who for two decades has financed his dream by employing kids to stage Los Angeles' largest street fair, a celebration of the diversity and tolerance he teaches. Michael is opinionated, funny and charismatic - a documentarian's dream-come-true. Our younger subjects came from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Our attempt to earn their trust - children whose short lives had already been filled with abuse and abandonment - was a process we wanted to capture on film. Revelation of character and personal history would provide the documentary's narrative thrust. Our climax would be the 21st Annual Sunset Junction Street Fair, where we'd observe how McKinley and his charges handled their official duties and emotions during a two-day marathon attended by 250,000 people representing more than 50 nationalities, and including hard-core gay leather "daddies," officers of the LAPD, gang members, entertainment industry yuppies, Hasidic seniors, surfer dudes and Sunset Boulevard prostitutes.

During the three months of filming that led up to the main event, not a day went by when one of us didn't obsess about our coverage of the fair. The documentary's success would be judged by how we handled this one gargantuan assignment. After much debate, we decided upon four crews that would each work 12-hour shifts both days. We had thought of everything and, indeed, although grueling, the two-day shoot was a logistical and creative success. The setting proved visually stunning and our subjects, pre-occupied with their responsibilities, gave us gloriously candid self-portraits-in-motion.

What proved infinitely more challenging was our daily quest to capture those telling details of human behavior. Take Gisselle and her tattoo machine.

As part of the youth program, 18 year-old Gisselle had been earning community service hours working at Tsunami, a Silverlake coffeehouse operated by Sunset Junction. Her goal in life was to become a tattoo artist. She had already mastered many complicated designs on paper, which we all had on film. "But how do you prepare for injecting ink into human flesh?" I asked. "I'll practice on a pig's foot or an orange or a piece of meat," said Gisselle. "But it's my boyfriend's best friend's machine so I don't know when I'll get the chance." By now, we could taste the pay-off shot for one of our film's main characters. "Call us when you find out," I said nonchalantly, never betraving our excitement over a scene we'd already edited into the film playing in our heads.

Henceforth, anytime we were shooting the rest of Gisselle's life, one of us would pop the pig foot question. Her answers, while priceless, didn't get us any closer to the money shot.

Finally, none of us will forget the afternoon when she greeted us with, "Dudes! Dudes! Check this out. I'm serious. Saturday night I'm like at home watching TV with Adam (the boyfriend) and like Albert (the boyfriend's friend) calls and it's really late but he said we could come over and like do it. I had a pig foot in a plastic bag in the freezer so I took it, you know? It was so cool. I make a little funky-ass design and it wasn't ghetto, it was so cool, you know? I was gonna call you guys, but it was already two in the morning, you know?"

I'm not saying whether we finally got the shot. I can say that when I look back on all the anxiety-provoking challenges presented by Sunset Junction, the climactic fair sequence with its cast of thousands does not come to mind first. Not even second, third or fourth.

It's the pig foot, dude. I'm serious. You know?