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asked me to write and article for their vol 2 #12th issue.
i decide to write about my current film production...
THE DARK WATERS OF CECIL
THE DARK WATERS OF CECIL~ IN PRODUCTION~ RICK CASTRO
It’s been a long time since I made a film.
My last project was a documentary about the furry subculture, (people that adore & admire anthropological animals) called Plushies & Furries, (2001). Prior to that I co-directed and wrote the cult~ classic~ HUSTLER WHITE, (1996), with Bruce Labruce.
Then the lean years took place. I had an injury that set me back… way back. Once recovered my priorities shifted to areas other than film. I published a few photography books, and open the world’s first fetish art gallery called Antebellum.
So in a sense my life was full.
The news hit on February 19th, 2013. Once again life proved to be stranger than fiction . Guests at the Hotel Cecil in downtown Los Angeles were complaining about low water presser when taking a shower. The water was black and tasted funny. “It had a sweet, sickening flavor, said one of the guests, with a long putrid aftertaste. “
Maintenance workers were called to check on the rooftop water tower. Hotel Cecil was one of the few left that had their own water tower. Something common in 1924, the year “she” opened.
Climbing up a wooden ladder and unlatching the tower lid, a maintenance man made a startling discovery. The decomposing body of a young woman.
Her name was Elisa Lam. She had been missing for two weeks. Checking into the Hotel Cecil on January 26th. and never checking out.
There were so many unanswered questions. How could this happen? Why did it happen? Why did Elisa Lam come to LA in the first place? She didn’t know anybody here. Why did she decide to stay at the hotel Cecil? How did she get on the roof? The rooftop door was locked and had an alarm attached. How did she get into the water tower? There was no ladder, and lifting the lid would be way too heavy for one small girl. It took an entire crew to get Elisa Lam out of the water tower.
What or who drew her to the Hotel Cecil? Who or what drew her to the rooftop water tower? The unanswered question list was endless.
Guess who became obsessed with this story?....... Me!
I threw myself into this event and the Hotel Cecil’s notorious past.
Here’s what I found out….
Hotel Cecil opened in 1927 as competition for the two reigning queens in downtown Los Angles the Biltmore and Alexandria luxury hotels. Hotel Cecil would be a lower priced competitor catering to a business crowd. Since day one Cecil failed to garner a fan base. The era of grand hotels was coming to an end, and the great depression was kicking in. The behemoth 700 room Hotel Cecil remained for the most part, unoccupied. As the 2nd world war came to an end, Hotel Cecil struggled to stay afloat. Then a phenomenon took place that somehow set a precedent for the Cecil. Around January 1947, a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Short was seen spending time at the hotel Cecil bar. No one is sure if she ever actually stayed there, but she most definitely drank at the Cecil’s bar. On January 15th, 1947 Elizabeth Short’s body was found in what is now Leimert Park. She had been cut in half. She came to be known as “The Black Dahlia.”
The vortex had begun. During the 40s & 50s the Hotel Cecil fell into a state of disrepair. The rates had been lowered to attract business. The location became transient and the tone of the venue went dark.
From now on~ suicides and murder were de regular at Hotel Cecil. From 1954 thru 1964, three separate women jumped to their deaths at the Hotel Cecil.
On June 4th, 1964 a long term resident~ Goldie”Piegon” Osgood, was found bludgeoned to death in her room. She had been strangled, stabbed and raped. “Pigeon was given that nickname for her fondness of birds, every day she would feed the pigeon’s at nearby Pershing Square.
During the mid- eighties Richard Ramirez called the Hotel Cecil his home. In the early nineties Austrian serial killer jack Unterwerger checked in, only because read that his idol~ Richard Ramirez had lived here the decade before.
The discovery of Elisa lam’s body in the water tower high atop the roof, is the latest of a history of misfortune at the hotel Cecil.
Needless to say I was obsessed and decided this would be the topic of my next film.
For approx. one year I did my on & off research and preparation.
Inspired by the immediacy of the digital- DIY- (do-it-yourself) mantra of the 21st century. I decided to create this film with whatever medium was available. That became digital and cell phone footage. My budget was a great big- zero. Everything and everybody donated their time and efforts to complete this project. In fact my dear friend Kathleen Mcconn became my personal no budget “Irma, (instead of Irving) Thalberg. She financed the room, parking and our food budget.
The “Dark Waters of Cecil.” crew was very tiny. It was I as director, producer, location scout, casting director and costumer. Zae Gaines as my cinematographer, editor and sound engineer. That was the extent of my crew.
Zae Gaines has been part of Antebellum since he moved to Hollywood in 2011, from Alaska. Over the years, Zae has worked for Antebellum, we’ve created films together for Antebellum and I recently gave him his first solo exhibition.
We are both well versed in pirate productions. The definition of pirate is when you run in and shoot without anyone knowing you’re doing so. It is hit & run.
This production is “PIRATE VIDEO” at it’s finest.
Antebellum has many artists, models and esoterics. It was thru Antebellum’s collection of people that I chose my cast.
Auralynn When is Antebellum’s intern. She is also an artist model and Ikebana master. She is both bold and sensitive, so I knew she would be perfect to recreate the doomed heroine that was Elisa Lam.
Due to schedule conflict, I was forced to shoot Auralynn’s scene early- on February 6th, 2015.
We shot her scenes on the rooftop staircase and then the hotel cafeteria. Only because we got kicked out of the staircase. I was in a tizzy because Auralynn had cut her hair in a very short bob. Although it looked adorably fetching in real life, it was nowhere close to the style of Elisa lam. I would have to impose the cinematic suspension of disbelief.
I placed my own personal red sweatshirt on Auralynn. It was uncanny how much she looked like Elisa Lam on her last night on this realm. We made a beeline thru the lobby and enter the elevator. The same elevator posted on social media of Elisa lam looking distraught, befuddled and haunted.
This footage has become viral and is now legend and source for conspiracy theorists to analyze worldwide. In a sense that is what my project is a part of; my theory of what has happened at the hotel Cecil from 1927 till 2013. I present this film with a heap of irony, satire, and a post~ surrealistic eye.
As we filmed Auralynn as Elisa Lam~ pushing the buttons of the elevator, looking scared and distant, descending into darkness, it felt like I was witnessing what had occurred on Jan 19th, 2013.
I can’t find the words to express this feeling dear readers. What I can tell you is, it’s possibly the closes thing to moving thru dimensions, in real time. We had created a temporary autonomous zone.
So Auralynn aka Elisa Lam was spent and finished. As they say in the industry, “it’s in the can.” We walked her to her car on a lonesome dark street near skid row, in downtown Los Angeles, and said goodbye.
Since we were here I decided to also shoot the scene of Richard Ramirez.
This beautiful portrayal was achieved by Antebellum assistant~ Ricardo Carranza. Ricardo lives in Watts, so it was a hip-hop, skip and a jump for him to meet us at Hotel Cecil.
The performance of Richard Ramirez was a reprisal that I had Ricardo recreate for my most recent film- ANTEBELLUM2015.
Richard Ramirez was an American serial killer, rapist and burglar during 1984-85. Ramirez’s crimes terrorized Los Angeles, before he was finally captured and convicted of 13 murders. He lived on the Hotel Cecil's top floor in a $14-a-night room as he slaughtered his victims.
An avowed Satanist, Ramirez was sentenced to death in a gas chamber in 1989.
On receiving his sentence he showed no remorse, flashed his hand-made pentagram and stated: "Big deal. Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland."
Ricardo met us in the alleyway of the Hotel Cecil. I dressed him in a heavy metal ripped t-shirt and beige button down shirt. The idea was~ after his killing spree evening, Ricardo aka Richard would lurk down the back alley of the hotel Cecil, he would deposit is now soiled shirt in the dumpster and wily enter the back entrance of the hotel Cecil. The real Richard Ramirez would do this throughout his stay at the hotel Cecil. Ricardo has a sweetie disposition so this was a real stretch for him to achieve this sinister allure. Let’s just say he was not successful, and Ricardo’s portrayal was more that of a dainty Satanist.
Never the less we did get the shot in the can, and Ricardo did his best at being a menace to society. We were a wrap for that evening. I gave Ricardo his costume to hang onto and told him we would be shooting Ramirez’s drive by killing spree evening using my 67 mercury cougar as his car. This would be shot in the near future. Always the unprofessional, Ricardo decided to cut his hair, so we are now waiting for Ricardo aka Richard Ramirez’s death-rocker hair locks to grow back. Needless to say I am annoyed.
February 19th, 2015, was the two-year anniversary of the discovery of Elisa Lam’s decomposed body in the water tower, high atop on the roof of Hotel Cecil. On this date a very small crew and myself descended on the Hotel Cecil.
I had come by three days earlier to check out the rooms and book one that would be picture perfect. This means it would need to be on the 15th floor, facing Main Street, original walls, no fussy hipster renovations would work. I booked room #1537 on the 15th floor.
(Supposedly the room where Pauline Otton had a fight with her estranged husband~ “Dewey.” On October 12th, 1962, Pauline was so distraught she threw herself out the window. At that exact moment, pedestrian George Giannini was walking up Main St, in front of the Hotel Cecil, minding his own business and reading the newspaper. The falling body of Pauline Otton struck him. They were both killed instantly. )
So the first “curse” of Cecil started early. Even though I had booked room #1537, three days prior and paid in advance, they had given the room away! I was not happy. I was forced to book another room on the 9th floor. This would have to add to the continuation of the cinematic tradition ~ the suspension of disbelief.
February 19th~ 11am~
Our first “actress”~ Antebellum’s official photographer~ Natuta Bagrationi arrived right at her call time~ 12am. Natuta would portray “Pigeon” Osgood, the sweet Cecil resident that had a fondness for pigeons and birds in general. Everyday Pigeon would walk to Pershing Square and feed the birds. Many times she would bring her own left over bread crusts. Being from the country of Georgia, Natuta knew how to create the look of a babushka. She even brought her own bread crusts. What a pro she is. Zae Gaines captured some poignant footage of Natuta AKA “pigeon” feeding the birds with wide shots of Pershing Square. Our second scene was grimmer. The discovery of “Pigeon’s” stabbed, bludgeoned and raped body in her room at Hotel Cecil. Ever~the~trooper, Natuta brought her own theatrical blood.
Natuta also created a duo role as Julia Moore.
On February 11, 1962, Julia Moore climbed out of her eighth floor room window and landed in a second story interior light well. She left no note, just a bus ticket from St. Louis, 59 cents in change, and an Illinois bank book showing a balance of $1800.
Natuta’s portrayal and Zae Gaines’s cinematography created a very doomed romantic piece.
The second we finished this scene; we had Antebellum diva, Violet Talea in the room ready to take on her role as Pauline Otton.
On October 12th, 1962, Pauline was so distraught about the fight she had with her estranged husband~ “Dewy,” she threw herself out the window. At that exact moment, pedestrian George Giannini was walking up Main St, in front of the Hotel Cecil, minding his own business and reading the newspaper. The falling body of Pauline Otton struck him. They were both killed instantly.
A trained opera singer, Violet Talea was a perfect choice to play out this -skid row version of a Greek tragedy.
Violet Talea was spot on with the melodrama. She even can cry on demand, with a little help from Bausch & Lomb.
Talea also created a duo role, that of Helen Gurnee.
On October 22, 1954, Helen Gurnee, stepped from her seventh floor window and crashed to her death atop the hotel's marquee. She had registered as Margaret Brown a week before.
Our PIRATE video production was moving swiftly. We then ran downstairs to greet my friend, Chris Sloan who was excited to take on the part of George Giannini.
J. Christopher Sloan is the only one of our bohemian production that is a trained actor. He has been in numerous local theater and plans to follow~ “ The Great White Way.” It is a shame that is part is the smallest part in my film. What could I do? George Giannini had no lines.
On October 12th, 1962, George Giannini was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. As he walked passed the Hotel Cecil, Pauline Otton had just hurled herself out the 9th floor window. She landed smack on top of George Gianinni, and both were killed instantly. Since no one saw Pauline jump, police initially thought they had a double suicide on their hands--but on closer examination they realized what had happened.
We had to be very quick to get this shot. I took creative license and placed Chris aka George’s body face down, directly across the sidewalk engraving which read~ HOTEL CECIL. Still intact since 1927. The engraving is under the hotel awning so it would’ve been impossible for Pauline to have landed on George back in 1962. Unless the hotel didn’t have an awning at that time?
I then placed Talea AKA Pauline across George, sans her shoes. Zae Gaines shot this so quickly nobody even reacted to two bodies on the sidewalk. It seemed downtown Los Angeles is just as jaded as downtown, Hollywood.
We were done with that scene in seconds. Talea & Chris were a wrap.
I had a pillow, (from the hotel) which I placed a black dress over. This was my stand-in for Pauline’s falling body. I tossed it up and down a few times as Zae Gaines took some B role. It was fun. A little exercise in the middle of the day.
During my last pillow toss, up the street walks Antebellum fluorescent artist, John Hale. He would be portraying the role of Jack Unterwerger.
Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger stayed at the hotel in 1991 for five weeks.
He chose Hotel Cecil specifically because Richard Ramirez stayed there in the mid-eighties. During Jack’s time at Hotel Cecil, he murdered three prostitutes.
This occurred after he had been jailed and released in Austria for similar murders. He was released as an example for rehabilitation and was hired by an Austrian magazine to be a crime writer in Los Angeles.
Jack Unterwerger is believed to have been paying homage to his idol, Richard Ramirez, when he beat, sexually assaulted and strangled the women with their own braziers. Ironically Jack was accompanying the LAPD on their nightly beat as a journalist reporting on crime in Los Angeles.
John Hale took his role very seriously, perhaps too much so. As we filmed him in the lobby and streets of Los Angeles leering at women, John aka Jack seemed to have unsettling body chemistry. If I wasn’t so enthralled in my production, I would’ve alerted the authorities about the demeanor of John aka Jack.
Jack was a wrap and left stalking down the dark streets of Main St, Los Angeles.
Immediately Zae Gaines and I are in the Hotel Cecil bar with “The Black Dahlia.”
Elizabeth Short was said to have spent time at the Hotel Cecil bar during 1946- 47. On January 15th, 1947 Elizabeth Short’s body was found in what is now Leimert Park. She had been cut in half. She came to be known as “The Black Dahlia.”
One of the many original thinkers that pass thru the doors of Antebellum is Splink Raven. She is a writer/provocateur, and does a great rendition of the Black Dahlia. This is actually a reprisal of the role she played in my last film-
So Raven is at the bar looking resplendent in her finest Dahlia attire. Zae Gaines and I sit across from her in a booth. We have to place Dahlia just so, to crop out an unwanted treadmill that stands poking in the corner. Much to my dismay, the Hotel Cecil has been renovated since 1927.
Zae Gaines is handholding a digital camera and cell phone camera at the same time. His tripod is the lens cap. I am crouched low to the table. Reading Raven her lines, (since they have not been memorized). This, dear reader is PIRATE VIDEO at it’s finest.
Not surprisingly this scene takes the longest, but we get thru it and our PIRATE video at the Hotel Cecil is a wrap at 7pm. Zae Gaines runs out the door to return the rented lights. Unfortunately he forgets the lights and has to come back. Everybody says their goodbyes, and I stand alone in the haunted lobby of the Hotel Cecil. I am deep in thought wondering if anyone but I know this is the one year anniversary of the discovery of Elisa Lam’s body atop the roof of the Hotel Cecil. Floating silently in the dark drinking water for two whole weeks, with unsuspecting guests showering, brushing their teeth, and drinking~ THE DARK WATERS OF CECIL.
John aka Jack Unterwerger lurks back up thru the darkness of Main Street and greets me in the lobby. I have the room for one night, so together we paint the town red.
Rick Castro is a filmmaker, photographer, blogger and curator living in Los Angeles his entire life. “The Dark Waters Of Cecil” is his first film production since 2001.