Going Back to the Hollywood Sign, This Time as an Interviewee

June 29, 2012 § 5 Comments

The Back of the Sign From Atop Mt. Lee, 6/19/12/All Photos Hope Anderson Productions

As I clutched the mountaineering rope, dislodging stones while clambering for footholds on the rocky face of Mt. Lee, it occurred to me that this was a really bad idea. It was my second descent to the Hollywood Sign, but my assumption that experience would make things easier was being turned on its head. In fact, the climb was turning out to be much harder than I remembered, and by not leaning back out of fear I was making things worse. True, my previous trip was 5 1/2 years ago, making me that much older. But I go to the gym! I lift weights! I do Pilates! Unfortunately, those activities are neither rappelling nor rock climbing, which is what you have to do to get to the Hollywood Sign and back from the fire road above it. Did I mention it’s really, really steep? And that before hitting the rope, I had to make my way, mountain goat-style, for about 100 yards along a narrow grassy ledge from the gate to the rope hitch? And that I’m somewhat acrophobic?

Before I go any further, let me state that I was making the trip legally. Those who attempt to climb (either up or down) to the Hollywood Sign illegally will be arrested. Police helicopters come to remove trespassers, who then are prosecuted. As for the idea of “sneaking up,” the Sign is equipped with cameras and motion sensors that make it impossible to be there undetected. So please don’t try.

Going to the Sign was never a goal of mine, let alone the obsession it seems to be for some people. But when I started work on my documentary Under the Hollywood Sign in the fall of 2006, I knew it would be important and visually worthwhile. After learning that journalists, photographers, filmmakers and others with a legitimate project can gain access through the Hollywood Sign Trust, I inquired and got a yes. That was how, on a brilliant late October day, I made my first trip to the Sign, where I interviewed Chris Baumgart, Chairman of the Trust. We were only allowed an hour, barely time to set up and do the interview, and because of this I have almost no B-roll from that day. What I remembered most about the experience was the breathtaking view, which encompassed not only Beachwood Canyon and Lake Hollywood but the entire Los Angeles Basin, and beyond it, the blue Pacific.

Coralie Garandeau and Olivier Mirguet of Arte TV

Afterwards, I spent the next 2 1/2 years on the documentary, after which I started this blog and other projects. My experience at the Hollywood Sign faded like a dream, and I never thought I would go back. But a couple of weeks ago, when I agreed to be interviewed about the Hollywood Sign (for the program Personne Ne Bouge) by Coralie Garandeau, a reporter for France’s TV Arte, I asked if she would like to film there. She was enthusiastic, so again I asked and was granted permission. Last Tuesday afternoon, Coralie, cameraman Olivier Mirguet and I were met by Diana Wright, a publicist for the Trust, who took us up the fire road to the back of the Sign. In the years since my first shoot, I occasionally walked my dog up to the Sign along that road, a steep switchback that requires the better part of half an hour to ascend on foot. By car it takes about 5 minutes, during which we passed more walkers than I’ve ever seen along the road at one time–about 30, all of them baffled by our decidedly civilian appearance on a road normally restricted to police and ranger vehicles. At the top I parked and changed into hiking shoes. We followed Diana through the security gate, which she locked behind us. She set the rope and I went down first. The distance was about 40 feet but seemed to take forever.

Once off the rope, I found the terrain rockier and narrower than I remembered. I don’t think it was my imagination that it had changed–5 winters of rain and erosion had left their mark. Picking my way along the steep approach to the letter H, I kept catching my shoes on the rough grass and slipping on the ping-pong ball-sized rocks under my feet. After a bit more climbing I was there, admiring the view from a narrow ledge and feeling the onset of vertigo. (Though not a fan of heights, I didn’t have this reaction last time; it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized dizziness was a side-effect of the antibiotic I was taking.) In a few minutes, Coralie and Olivier arrived, and then Diana. We began the interview, which content-wise went well enough. But the wind, glare and vertigo made me feel (and, I’m afraid, look) tense and fearful.

Up Close and Personal: The Letters and, to the right, Mt. Hollywood

I had expected to be in and out in the space of an hour, but–unlike the 2006 publicist, who stayed above and periodically phoned to hurry us along–Diana didn’t rush us. She waited calmly, taking in the view while sitting meditatively at the edge of the cliff, as I maintained my terror-struck stance by the letters. (Because she goes there as much as once a week, she rappels like a pro.) From time to time people watching the Sign from below would spot us and begin to climb up, a phenomenon I remembered from 2006. A police helicopter quickly came to warn them away, interrupting the interview and providing some interesting B-roll.

Finally it was over. As I clawed my way up Mt. Lee, I swore this would be my last trip to the Sign. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached the fence, dusty and sore but miraculously uninjured. Because I was the first one up, however, I was locked in. Still dizzy, I white-knuckled the fence. To avoid looking down, I struck up a conversation with a lone hiker on the opposite side. “How did you get over there?” he asked. I explained about the TV interview and he said, “They make you work for it, huh?” Truer words were never spoken.

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