Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Man, the Oil and Beverly Hills

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Man, the Oil and Beverly Hills

Article excerpt

Max Whittier - a name not too many people will recognize - left an indelible mark on the pages of history. Hoping to find more oil during a California boom, he and his partners bought some land near Los Angeles. There wasn't any oil on it, but there was water. The Rodeo Land and Water Company was formed to develop the real estate potential of the area originally called El Rancho Rodeo de Los Aquas. Now, however, the most famous watering hole is the Polo Lounge and the only part of the Rodeo that remains is Rodeo Drive. Max Whittier gave the world Beverly Hills. Brett Hodges, Tom Van Otteren and Grace Valenti have chronicled Max's story in their documentary "The Life and Times of Max Whittier."

According to Van Otteren, Hodges came up with the idea. Hodges is the great grandson of Max Whittier and Max had always hoped that someone in the family would chronicle the history of how the family got started. Hodges turned out to be the one with an interest in history and an interest in documenting it on film.

In November of 1984, Hodges pitched Van Otteren on the idea of acting as the cinematographer on his film. "After discussing the project, it became evident that Brett needed an additional producer as well as a camera operator. He agreed," said producer/ cameraman Van Otteren. "Grace would edit the film. By January of 1985 we had come up with a budget that the family foundation would accept and we had our first check." The research for the film took about five months. Hodges and Van Otteren were not sure what kind of materials were available to them, so it was difficult to write a script. "The script was being developed at the same time we were looking for old photographs and shooting the live sequences we knew we would need," continued Van Otteren.

In the beginning, Hodges assumed that most of the historical material could be obtained from the family. Though he was able to track down some original home movies, the majority of the stills and other information came from public sources: The Los Angeles Public Library, the Beverly Hills Historical Society and various museums in Maine. This material was augmented by filmed interviews with Max's sole surviving son, Paul Whittier, oil historian Bill Rintoul, and Jim Green of the M.H. Whittier Corporation.

"For all three of the people that we interviewed we wrote out basically the same questions, except they were slightly more personal for Paul. We did two sessions with each person. We went in with a tape recorder first and did the entire interview. We did this with the hope of being able to save film. We went back after we listened to the tapes and asked the questions to which we got good responses. As it turned out we wound up using bits of each," said Van Otteren. Van Otteren shot most of the live action with his own 16mm Arri. Other equipment was rented as needed.

Max Whittier started out in life as a potato farmer in Maine. But, by his own admission, he had read a lot of Westerns and heard other stories about the west. So in 1891 with a train ticket and twenty-five dollars in his pocket he went to California to seek his fortune. He,.did a little roughneck work and in 19Ü1 oil was discovered right in the middle of Los Angeles. Eventually several thousand wells were dug in a twosquare-mile area. Whittier saw his opportunity and formed a drilling contracting business with a partner named O'Donnell.

Fortunately for Van Otteren and Hodges considerable information exists on the early days of the oil boom in Los Angeles. There was a limited amount of motion picture footage and many more still photographs. Stills played a very important role in the development of the documentary, but it was important to work them in a cinematic way so that the documentary looked like a film, not a slide show.

"We had a broad outline three months into the project. Based on that, Brett and I sat down and wrote out a very detailed outline. By then we had all the live footage that we were going to need and we had a lot of old photographs," recalled Van Otteren. …

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