A Location with Character: Shooting Echo Park

California native and photographer Amanda Marsalis, whose work has graced publications such as Vogue, GQ, and The Guardian, turns her talents to her first feature, Echo Park. The film, which had its world premiere at last week’s LA Film Festival, tells the story of two strangers settling into the up-and-coming Angeleno neighborhood. Marsalis explains how she set about achieving her goal: establishing a location so present, it feels like a character.

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Amanda Marsalis, director of Echo Park

To make Echo Park, I pulled a lot from my experience as a photographer. Echo Park is my first feature film, but I’ve shot in Los Angeles in so many different locations for so many different jobs as a photographer. I love all of Los Angeles, but there’s a reason that I choose to make Echo Park my home. There’s a quality to the light here, and a character to the neighborhood that you really can’t find anywhere else. These are things that I wanted to capture in film.

Happily, I did not have to go far from home to start making the film. We always shot on location in Echo Park. It is a place I know very well, and deep sense of place was critical to the film if it was going to be named Echo Park. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, with more than five of those years in Echo Park. I’m not sure I would have been able to achieve the same effect, the same presence of space and the same vibe, if it were not a place I already knew so intimately.

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One of the film’s producers and principal actors, Tony Okungbowa, is also an Echo Park resident, and was really helpful in obtaining the tone of the film. The impetus for the story came from Tony. He secured locations within Echo Park and we even shot at his home. He’s embedded in the neighborhood and put a lot of himself into the film.

The film’s director of photography, Jason McCormick, is extremely talented. He had a vision that blended really well with my own. We have a similar eye, and we treat light in a similar way. It was easy to collaborate because we were so sympathetic to each other’s styles – it was like telepathy! We watched tons of films together before filming started, talking about what we liked, what worked, and so on. 

From my background in photography and Jason’s extensive filmmaking experience, we were able to start to conjure how the film would work visually. Jason worked for years with Harris Savidies on multiple films including Somewhere, Restless, The Bling Ring and Zodiac. He had learned a great deal from Harris, and was extremely literate with all types of cameras and old lenses.

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I had that same literacy and enthusiasm for still photography. This was my whole entrance into the film: If I knew how it would look, then I could address other elements of the film. 

Shooting on location in the local coffee shop, or the local record store, will of course provide a sense of genuine place. We were lucky that these local businesses let us shoot in their space.

However, there’s so much more to the neighborhood of Echo Park than commercial locations. We wanted to capture how the light comes in over the hills in the evening. We wanted to illustrate how the streets wind and twist and rise up and down. We wanted to show the plant life and the lush parks and the palm trees. Yet all these things get lost and lose their context if you don’t get the people right. Echo Park is an extremely diverse neighborhood, and representing this diversity is something that evolved very organically from the script.

It’s also a friendly neighborhood – a place in a big city where you are likely to run into your neighbor and make friends quickly. This sense of welcome develops in the film from the characters, but it also comes from depicting the warmth and beauty inherent to the scenery of Echo Park. We wanted it to look inviting.

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This is a story that would be difficult to tell in another neighborhood in LA. Echo Park is pedestrian-friendly, beautiful, eclectic and engaging. Without these elements of the neighborhood, the story just wouldn’t work as well. The location feeds the story, and the story feeds the location. It’s very symbiotic. In the end, it was great to make a film in my own neighborhood. If nothing else, it was comforting to know that even though shooting involved lots of very long days, I was still able to sleep in my own bed. MM

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