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Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007 | Back in the early spring of 2006 when Kem Nunn first called me to let me know that there was a good chance that David Milch and HBO might film a new series about Imperial Beach, I was pretty excited. At the time Kem was a writer on “Deadwood,” a brilliant deconstruction of the west and the evolution of American civic culture.
What was not to like about a possible HBO show about IB by Nunn and Milch. Kem is the author of the riveting “Tijuana Straits,” and other novels about life on the edge in California. Milch is the creative genius behind “Deadwood,” and arguably one of the most fascinating and loquacious personalities in Hollywood.
A month of so after my conversation with Kem, I found myself acting as the tour guide for David and Kem and a rental van full of production staff who would turn out to the be the eventual producers, directors and writers for John from Cincinnati. We toured Imperial Beach and the Tijuana River Valley.
Back then the show sounded cool — a dysfunctional Imperial Beach surfing family, an alien, a weird motel, and lots of strange characters against the backdrop of the “polluted U.S.-Mexico border.” Just like IB.
Milch and company filmed the pilot last September and the residents of IB got comfortable with Austin Nichols, Luke Perry, Ed O’Neill, Brian Van Holt and the rest of the cast wandering the beachfront and the alleys of IB’s infamous north side over the next ten months. I identified the El Camino Hotel as the perfect place for the Snug Harbor Motel, as the centerpiece location for the show. El Camino was and still is a run-down hovel filled with ex-offenders just off IB’s Palm Avenue that was once home to the famed Vienna Lounge and still retained an assortment of plastic life-sized forest animals around its decrepit swimming pool.
Overall, JFC was a boon for Imperial Beach. The production team set a gold standard for how film crews should treat a community (although some locals hated everything about the show). Milch and his crew hired locals as production staff and extras (including my two sons and dad), worked with local businesses and gave grants to local non-profits (including Wildcoast — the organization I run).
Milch treated his own team and local residents with an amazing amount of respect and interest. He is a warm, generous, funny and amazingly talented person who established an atmosphere of risk and creativity that seems to be pretty rare in Hollywood.
One of the most interesting components of JFC was the way it used the web to further interest in the characters and setting. According to Jackson West at Newteevee.com
The Web played a role in the plot early on, such as with the fan site maintained by the character Dwayne (Matthew Maher) for the fictional family of surfing legends the Yosts. The young prodigy, Shaun Yost (played by Greyson Fletcher, real-life surf prodigy and son of surfing legend Christian Fletcher), is signed to a sponsorship deal by beachwear retailer Stinkweed on the strength of his lineage and amateur highlight reel. Levitating patriarch Mitch Yost (Bruce Greenwood) even lent his celebrity to real-life conservation charity WiLDCOAST.
I attended the premiere of JFC at Paramount Studios and found the first two episodes to be quirky, funny, interesting and off-the-wall. I hoped the rest of the series would go somewhere interesting. Unfortunately, as many of the production team complained to me while filming, the story wasn’t going anywhere they or the audience could understand. After the third episode, I found the story almost impossible to follow and wasn’t sure what was happening at all.
Milch, however, made it clear that the story really wasn’t the point,
“My understanding of the way the mechanism of storytelling works is …whether or not the audience is conscious of the process, apart from the audience awareness that there is a process, any story is constantly appending specific values to the meanings of words, and of the actions of characters. And the fact that story uses as its building blocks words or characters that the audience believes it has some prior recognition or understanding of, is really simply the beginning of the story, but not its end.”
Okay — I get it. I guess. After all “La Dolce Vita” is one of my absolute favorite films and there is no story there.
So I can deal with a lack of formal narrative structure. But after a while, it became hard to even understand most of the characters with some exceptions. Brian Van Holt was brilliant and true-to-life as Butchie. He nailed the mannerisms, the speech, and the (former) lifestyle of a junkie-surfer-hoodlum in the midst of redemption.
Ed O’Neill was funny as the ex-IB cop caught in confusion. Luke Perry proved that he is a good actor and was totally believable as a surf industry CEO. And Bruce Greenwood provided a quiet dignity to the role of Mitch Yost, the levitating former surf star turned Yost patriarch with a screaming spouse from hell (Rebecca DeMornay).
On the upside, the show made Imperial Beach look absolutely stunning. There just wasn’t enough surfing, border, beach time or Nummian noir present in the series to sustain the characters. What could have been a riveting look at the upside world of the U.S.-Mexico border (as indicated in the cool opening credits — in which many of the images from Tijuana were shot from the WiLDCOAST Suburban) turned into an inward look at less-than-clear meaning of something.
Overall the show was a gamble from the very beginning. Chris Albrecht, the HBO chief fired in May for assaulting his girlfriend had given the green light to Milch to film JFC. I met with Milch, Nunn and their production team just before Milch’s green-light lunch meeting with Albrecht at his office in Santa Monica —tense can’t come close to describing the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, Albrecht was replaced by execs at HBO who might not have had the same faith in show especially when the ratings just didn’t add up. About 1.6 million people watched JFC a week — which doesn’t compare to the 10 million or so who used to catch “The Sopranos.”
So now things are back to normal in IB. No more afternoon surf sessions with Van Holt (who is a very good surfer), Austin Nichols, Brock Little, and Steve Hawk. No more listening to the philosophy of Milch and the riveting stories of his larger-than-life business partner Bill Clark (who Milch is now doing a new show with about cops in NYC based on Clark’s life). Imperial Beach feels a little emptier without the JFC crew in town.
But if you want to still capture some JFC magic, head down the Imperial Beach Pier Plaza, step into the Cowabunga ice-cream shop and order a scoop of John from Cincinnati ice cream. Its smooth mint flavor sprinkled hint of mocha chips is a good way to cool down on a hot summer afternoon as you traipse past the Yost Boards surf shop and catch the sunset from the IB pier.
This piece was originally published in Café San Diego Aug. 22.