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Cinema in the city: San Francisco as a backdrop for classic films

Steven Kovacs is a movie man. A Harvard PhD, he co-produced the Oscar-nominated short doc Arthur and Lillie in 1975. He also produced, wrote, and directed a number of other features and is now a professor of cinema studies at San Francisco State. KALW’s Ben Trefny went on a drive with Kovacs to talk about film history as set in San Francisco.

TREFNY: Let’s go back to Arthur and Lillie for a moment. Tell me about that movie that you went to the Academy Awards for.

KOVACS: We made a film about Arthur Mayer, a grand old man of the movies who had done everything – publicity, importing movies with two very talented grad students who have become great filmmakers since then, John Ellis and Chris Samuelson. And, it’s a little bit of a vignette of Hollywood in the old days.

TREFNY: So speaking of Hollywood, we are heading down Taylor Street towards the bay waterfront and what happened here in the movie Bullitt?

KOVACS: Actually, when you look down Taylor Street…

TREFNY: It’s steep.

KOVACS: It’s steep. It’s very steep. And, it’s at the steepest part that we are at and that’s exactly where Steve McQueen was.

TREFNY: So, as we mentioned Steven Kovacks was Oscar-nominated for Arthur and Lillie. Did you actually go to the Academy Awards ceremony?

KOVACS: We certainly did. This was a year when Jack Nicholson won an Oscar for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and it was a good party. It was fun to be honored.

TREFNY: So many of us watch the Oscars, but not many of us have a chance to go to the ceremony like you did. Could you tell me a little something about what your experience was like there at the awards?

KOVACS: I think the funniest and most telling moment was when we drove up in the best car we could find, and we opened the door and we stepped out, and there were literally thousands of people and hundreds of photographers looking at us and we were in the center of attention and they looked at us for one second and they realized we were nobodies, so then their attention passed.

TREFNY: So what happens in Bullitt throughout this car chase scene? Why is it so recognized as being so good?

KOVACS: I think it’s one of the first really intricate car chase scenes that goes through San Francisco. And they managed to put together some of the best hills of San Francisco. I think that’s what it is. Actually, if you see the movie, it’s a fairly ordinary movie and then comes the car chase scene. And that’s what everybody talks about: Squealing tires, people being thrown left and right, and Steve McQueen being in charge. That’s what gives it a thrill.

TREFNY: This is pretty much a perfect city to have car chase scenes that work so well in movies. There’s a movie that I like called Foul Play from about 1980 with Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn, which has a great car chase scene. Actually, they’re in the back of a taxicab. Another movie, What’s Up Doc?

KOVACS: What’s Up Doc? as well, yeah. Peter Bogdanovich shot that film back in the late 60s and again, features the terrific hills of San Francisco.

TREFNY: So we’re heading down one of those hills of San Francisco right now and I’m talking with Steven Kovacs, who is a professor at San Francisco State University in the Cinema studies dept. We are approaching the Golden Gate Bridge from the Marina district. It’s a landmark that’s been in a number of movies also as San Francisco’s great icon. It bore the brunt of a cosmic storm in Star Trek IV, it saw a cross-species battle in the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it provided the backdrop to a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Vertigo, which was filmed throughout San Francisco.

STEVEN KOVACS: So Vertigo was shot almost entirely in San Francisco, also down in Carmel, and what we have here is Alfred Hitchcock’s fascination with San Francisco. A number of places are shown in the film, including the cemetery in Mission Dolores and Nob Hill, and he also came back here for The Birds. In fact, The Birds opens up with Tippi Hedren walking across Union Square and going into a pet shop where Alfred Hitchcock is walking out of, his signature appearance on screen with two little dogs.

TREFNY: He was in every movie he filmed wasn’t he?

KOVACS: Yes, he was. So you’ll always look for him, his fans always look for him somewhere, and he was in the, I believe, the second shot of The Birds.

TREFNY: And I guess Alfred Hitchcock was actually a man about town to some extent. I mean, he had a home, you told me earlier, he had a home in Santa Cruz.

KOVACS: That’s right, very close to Santa Cruz he had a home. He was fond of Northern California. He shot another film, at least one other film, in Northern California, Shadow of a Doubt in Santa Rosa. I think partly he was trying to escape from Los Angeles and he really wanted to get the local flavor of these places.

TREFNY: Let’s talk a little bit about some of the early history of filming in San Francisco. Tell me about the movie San Francisco itself that was from 1936, from Clark Gable, and Jeanette MacDonald. 

KOVACS: That’s the signature of a movie about San Francisco. Almost all of that was shot at an MGM studio lot, but some of the background footage, of course, was shot in San Francisco. There was some wonderful miniatures about the actual earthquake but what we really think of in terms of old movies is The Maltese Falcon where Speed and Miles Archer are operating the detective agency and, about two minutes into the film, Miles Archer gets killed on the corner of Bush and Stockton and then we go on a few years later into a movie called Dark Passage.

TREFNY: Another Humphrey Bogart film.

KOVACS: Another Humphrey Bogart film, the third one he made with Lauren Becall, which starts off with San Quentin – where he’s escaping from and very soon after, Lauren Becall crosses Golden Gate Bridge with Humphrey Bogart in the trunk and drives to her apartment on Mason Street. Later on, we see Humphrey Bogart climbing up the stairs of Filbert Street on Telegraph Hill and, at the very, very end, all we have to do is turn around, Ben, and look at this little outcropping where Humphrey Bogart had a fight with a guy who was going to kill him.

TREFNY: And so we’re here, just so you can picture it, we’re here underneath the Golden Gate Bridge on the southern side right at Fort Point, the old military installation and we’re looking at a little rocky outcropping.

KOVACS: And there’s an altercation. He reaches, he takes the gun from the other guy’s hand, and he punches him out and he falls and kills him. And so it’s almost at the end of the movie, so the movie begins with the Golden Gate Bridge and almost ends with Golden Gate Bridge.

TREFNY: We are actually on Lombard Street just east of Hyde, heading down the curviest road in the Bay Area – and maybe the world. This would be a pretty good place to have a car chase scene here huh Steven.

KOVACS: I don’t think there has been a car chase scene here. I don’t know why but you just can’t go that fast.

TREFNY: But still, it is a pretty good iconic street to represent how steep these hills in San Francisco are. Just listening back there about Jayme’s story on independent movie theaters, I remember the Coronet Steven. It’s a huge theater and it’s where Star Wars debuted.

KOVACS: That is right, I was actually there when Star Wars debuted. Ha! You can guess my age. I remember seeing the Mutiny on the Bounty there, not the black and white version, but the one with Marlon Brando. Actually, I grew up next to the Surf Theater, so I got a really good film education. I just thought everybody saw these old movies. The Surf was a unique theater on 46th and Irving, which operated for 15 years or so.

TREFNY: As we wind our way down Lombard Street, I want to talk with you about one of the classic eras of movie history, Steven, and that is the 1970s. There was a special significance here in the Bay Area – we were just talking about the Coronet theater – George Lucas’s Star Wars really starting the whole Lucas franchise. Tell me a little more about that era.

KOVACS: The 1970s was a very important era for movies because it is when the people who grew up in the 1960s began to make films. They were influenced by the cultural changes and by the importance of the director as the head of the film. So Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich were that generation and two of these people, Lucas and Coppola, moved up to San Francisco and brought their friends with them. Carroll Ballard, the director of the Black Stallion. Walter Murch, who is maybe the most important editor for picture and sound in the history of cinema. So they made San Francisco a film location. And, at the same time, we saw Saul Zaentz begin to make important films and interesting films as a producer. Amadeus, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and others. So from the 1970s on, San Francisco became a site for films but also a place where important film directors were working.

TREFNY: So, as we continue down Lombard into North Beach, where Coppola has a lot of ties, tell me a little about Walter Murch. Since we are a sound program, this is a good opportunity to explore some of the work that he did. What are some of the movies that he is most famous for?

KOVACS: Murch started out working with Coppola on some of his most important films: Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and others. He is the one who pioneered sound design. Before people were just putting good sound effects to films and he realized how much he could do with sound. His films have won Oscars and he is the only person to have won as a picture editor and a sound editor. There are fantastic examples of all of his work.

TREFNY: We've taken a pit stop on our journey around the city here at the corner of Columbus, Kearny and Pacific. I'm here with Steven Kovacs, a film historian from San Francisco State University. Walter Murch really launched a big sound design industry here in San Francisco. Tell me about it Steven.

KOVACS: It's something that very few people except the insiders know. And it's that San Francisco became in the 1970s, partly because of Walter Murch, really the most important sound center in the world for motion pictures. In fact, a number of Hollywood films come up here to finish their sound work here. People like Gary Summers, Gary Rydstrom, I have worked with, have received a number of Academy Awards for Titanic, for Jurassic Park, and a number of others. Both at Lucasfilm sound stages and also Fantasy Films sound stages in Berkeley, these people are working – and they are absolute masters of sound.

TREFNY: So we are here at this corner where Walter Murch's good friend and colleague, Francis Ford Coppola has a significant building, a beautiful triangular shaped building. It is a green color, and there is a cafe at the bottom called Cafe Zoetrope.

KOVACS: Coppola bought this after the success of The Godfather. And he is one filmmaker who has really lived and promoted San Francisco. He has a little apartment, I believe, still in this area. He bought this building. He has offices there. He has editing rooms, where I've done some editing. He opened Cafe Zoetrope down below. He is part of the North Beach scene and part of San Francisco. And he shot, at least what is to me, one of his great films, The Conversation, in San Francisco, starting off in Union Square.

TREFNY: So we are here on Columbus Street, under the shadow of the Transamerica Pyramid. Let's go ahead, Steven, and walk up Columbus Street here. We're going towards City Lights booksellers. This is really a strong arts district. And there are a lot of artists who come here, and we're going towards a hotspot for artists – especially around the time of the Academy Awards. Tell me about Tosca.

KOVACS: The owner of Tosca is a lady named Janette Etheridge, who has always been, I guess, a matron, not patron, of the arts in San Francisco. And Tosca is a beautiful old bar, which has become a center for artists and particularly filmmakers. So from the 70s on, a director like Coppola, Philip Kaufman, producers like Saul Zaentz, George Lucas would stop by here. And it is still a center. So practically when any filmmaker comes from anywhere in the world, they will stop by at Tosca's. Wim Wenders who made the film Hammett spent some time here. Werner Herzog. So it really is a center. People from the San Francisco Film Society come here. It is right opposite City Lights Bookstore. It is really a wonderful place. I believe it has been in a number of films, featured in a number of these films.

TREFNY: So this isn't just a who's-who of Bay Area filmmaking. This is really a who's-who in the history of film overall. And a lot of it's right here in Coppola country in North Beach, San Francisco. Steven, let's move up to the now, and talk about the state of cinema in the Bay Area today. What are your impressions?

KOVACS: San Francisco has been a very important film center for a long time with an independent filmmakers from 1950s and on. I have mentioned sound specialists and directors and writers and actors. And those talented people continue to work here. There are fewer films coming out from Los Angeles because the production companies are really looking to save money. In order to do that, they will come to San Francisco if the movie is set in this city and shoot a few exteriors and the rest of it they will shoot somewhere else. Very often, let's say, in Vancouver, which is comparable in terms of topography and even on sound stages in Los Angeles. So, in some sense we have lost big business in San Francisco. However, among filmmakers we still have a great number of talented people and new filmmakers coming up, from the get-go, in their own program in the cinema department.

TREFNY: Where do you like to find new and good films from Bay Area filmmakers?

KOVACS: You have to be on the look out. And I think this has to do also with the way that movies have changed. A lot more people can make movies now because the technology is available, because you don't have to rent a 35mm camera. You can purchase a digital camera or borrow a camera from anybody. So there is a lot more production, which means that it's harder to pick what there is. There is plenty of product. Always little quality, but it's difficult to find what the quality films are.

TREFNY: Since you've been involved in films since the 1970s, you've gone through many kind of different eras in the industry. What are your impressions of where it's at right now?

KOVACS: As I say, more people can make films and there are certainly even more avenues because you make a film and you can put it on Youtube and there is a way to show it. It is maybe more difficult to make your money back on the film. So you really have to keep your budget extremely low. And it's very difficult to have a break out of any kind of a film. At Sundance Film Festival, for example, there are about 2000 films submitted every year. And only a hundred are picked. Out of those, maybe 25 are distributed. Literally, thousands of films are being made that nobody will end up seeing. It's ironic. On the one hand, it has become much more democratic on production. On the other hand, there are fewer films that actually make it, smaller percentage that make it.

TREFNY: As a final note, Steven, we have been talking about the history of film, here in the Bay Area. And I would like to hear from you, somebody who has been involved with film for many, many years, what is your favorite on-screen moment in Bay Area movie history?

KOVACS: Of course, this is a very personal judgment and there is no right or wrong but, to me, the opening sequence of The Conversation stands out. That was shot by Coppola in Union Square starring Gene Hackman, who is a sound recordist, and who is trying to find out what two people are saying to each other and, of course, that uncovers a murder. And it is very sophisticated conceptually and very sophisticated in terms of sound technology. And it also shows off San Francisco at it's very best – the heart of San Francisco, Union Square.

This interview originally aired on February 23, 2012.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.