Writing Noir LA

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed on KCRW.

If Los Angeles has a native literary genre, it would have to be noir fiction. Think of all the hard-boiled, cynical detectives, private eyes and freelance mystery solvers we associate with LA.

Philip Marlowe, cruising Wilshire Boulevard riffing on the neon signs that enliven a desperate town.

Jack Nicholson as Chinatown's Jake Gittes, getting his nose sliced for poking around the wrong LA reservoir.

Michael Connelly's character Harry Bosch mocks his corruptible bosses at the LAPD perfectly, while tenderly looking out for prostitutes who remind him of his murdered mother.

A lot of Angelenos are writers at heart, of course. And it turns out that a lot of them have a good mystery story lurking inside.

I guess I knew that innately, but it came home when my colleague, screenwriter Eric Estrin, launched the LA Observed Script Project and invited readers to help write a noir movie set in Los Angeles.

Eric wrote the first couple of scenes of Right of Way, establishing the initial story line around Russell Napolitano, the mayor of LA.

Napolitano is pushing construction of a subway to the sea across the Westside. His reasons may or may not be altruistic. And he may -- or may not –- be corrupt.

It appears our mayor is something of a ladies man -– and here is where I should disclaim that any resemblance to the real mayor of Los Angeles, or to anybody else, is purely a fictional device.

The script opens, mysteriously, with Napolitano poking around the old Pacific Electric subway tunnel off 2nd Street near downtown.

The action switches to a party in Brentwood where Napolitano wows the swells with his subway vision.

This is where the readers took over. Eric's opening script now carries eight additional credits. One new writer and plot twist each week, selected from submissions by readers who seem to a want a dark story to unfold.

An associate of Mayor Napolitano turns up murdered in the men's room of a North Hollywood dive. The mayor goes home to Malibu with the new widow. She has a lovely daughter who looks to be part of the emerging story.

So too does a hand-scrawled map of the subway route. And the real estate machinations of players who see opportunity in all that taxpayer-funded work.

There's another murder, of course. And since this is LA, we've now got an ominous sounding cult (or religion) called The Order. They have their own plans for the route along Wilshire.

Again – it's fiction. No real people, animals or cults were killed or maimed in the writing of this script.

Right of Way is heading into the second act now with Mayor Napolitano being chased down La Brea. The rest is up to the readers – and that's what makes this project fun.

Pages have come in from Hollywood screenwriters, a producer, a former senior editor at Los Angeles magazine, a sixth grader and a lot of blog readers who just have a hankering to write.

They're not even all in LA. Maria Chironi lives in London but has submitted a few times, adding some nice touches to the story.

A few weeks after the LA Observed Script Project launched, the Los Angeles Times launched a reader participation effort of its own.

That one, called Birds of Paradise, is also a noir-ish story.

We're flattered by the imitation, but there are some differences. Where ours is a screenplay that may, someday, become a movie, the Times' story is couched as a novel.

Theirs has a short run, scheduled to end with next week's Festival of Books at UCLA. Our screenplay will keep going. Until, as Eric says, the story is done.

Because you know what they say. There are a million stories in the naked city, and this will be one of them.

For KCRW this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.