Commentary: First-time helmer perfectly suited to stir up 'Sleep' with the best of L.A.


There are many paths to becoming a director or producer, but few have meandered the way Jeremy Alter's has on the way to his helming debut "The Perfect Sleep."

Alter is best known for his award-winning work as a locations manager, with credits that range from David Lynch's "Lost Highway" and "Liar Liar" to "Anchorman" and Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming "Bruno." He won a California On Location Award for his work on Alexander Payne's "Sideways."

But what he's always wanted to do was direct. And produce.

"I kept working in locations but always had a eye on directing and producing," he says.

At long last, his first directing job is a film noir with a pinch of Dostoevsky, a movie that features, unsurprisingly, some of the best locations in Los Angeles, including ones that an indie of its size has no business procuring.

Among the highlights is the Bradbury Building, a landmark edifice featured in such classics as the original "D.O.A." and "Blade Runner."

Alter hadn't shot there in all his years as a location manager, but for his debut he used all his connections and shot for the moon. That led to the locations influencing the script.

"The script didn't call for the Bradbury, but once I convinced the people to let us shoot there, then we sort of changed the script to work with the building," he says. "(Locations) worked hand in hand with the development of the story."

The building became the home of the protagonist, a tormented assassin, and its true-life, infamous history became integrated into the backstory.

Among other locations, Alter and production designer Clayton Hartley snagged the now demolished, cavernous pressroom of downtown's Herald Examiner; Pasadena's former Moorish Colonial- and Spanish-style hotel Castle Green; the Park Plaza Hotel in Mid-Wilshire; the wind generators near Palm Springs; the former home of the Camarillo State Mental Hospital, now California State University, Channel Islands; the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart convent in Los Feliz; and Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.

"My goal was to take locations that people may recognize and feature them in a way they haven't been," Alter says.

Part of that philosophy extended to the way the movie was filmed: wide shots that give one a good look at the surroundings while allowing for pools of light to gather. It is something Alter says was inspired by a Japanese noir film, 1967's "Branded to Kill."

Alter, who interned at New Line in the early 1990s and worked PA jobs before becoming a locations manager, believes locations work -- a job underappreciated and misunderstood by many -- prepared him for his current roles.

Scouting requires director-like skills as it asks one to think about how a locale will look on film, how practical it is, and how the crew and cameras will shoot and light.

Locations managing, in Alter's eyes, is micro-producing: on a set, negotiating deals with the home owner, securing permits, hiring police and security, and making sure the production gets what it wants -- all in the most cost-effective manner possible.

"The two facets, the managing and scouting, complement producing and directing," he says.

"Sleep" opened in last week in Los Angeles and unspools Friday in New York before a slow, multicity rollout in April. In the meantime, Alter is keeping his focus on directing, recently helming videos for Chris Cornell and New Found Glory as well as a stylized interview with U2. (He also was a co-producer on Lynch's "Inland Empire.")

"Locations work does come my way, and I do have to think of the wife and three kids," he says. "But hopefully, I will be producing and directing. And I will always be nice to my locations manager."