Nov. 18--The HBO television drama "Looking" has been a topic of discussion well ahead of its January premiere, as a show filled with gay characters, sexual energy and mature storylines.
But the biggest shock for locals may have nothing to do with the subject matter. The show set in San Francisco was actually filmed within the city limits, and appears to be striving for a realistic portrayal.
Most television shows set in San Francisco have followed the "Full House" template: Feature a shot of a San Francisco landmark in the opening credits, and then quickly relocate Uncle Jesse and crew to a set in Los Angeles or Canada. Others, such as the 2009 drama "Trauma" and the long-running "Nash Bridges," spent quality time in the city, but often appeared to be filming the San Francisco stories through a Hollywood lens.
"Looking," which will air eight episodes beginning Jan. 19, just finished filming at more than 40 locations in a variety of neighborhoods. The show's creator Michael Lannan, a San Francisco resident from 1999 to 2003, said he wanted the city to be its own character in the series.
"I felt like I had never seen the city I lived in on camera, except for maybe rare occasions, so we wanted to show that," Lannan said. "Just the really cool way you can ramble around San Francisco, and walk from neighborhood to neighborhood. And also the realities of living here -- how hard it is to make the rent, and how you have to work, and you have to share apartments and scrimp for spaces."
Muni in 1st episode
An early look at the first "Looking" episode shows an acute awareness of location, on par with other HBO dramas such as "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." Lead character Patrick, played by Jonathan Groff, rides both a Muni bus and a train in the first episode. One of the main characters, Dom, played by Murray Bartlett, is a waiter at Zuni Cafe.
Co-executive producer Andrew Haigh said they pushed hard for "Looking" to be filmed in San Francisco, arguing that the series would suffer if they tried to fake it in another location.
"(San Francisco) feels very different from any other city in America. It's also very different from L.A.," said Haigh, who directed the pilot. "It looks different. The light is different. The weather is different. The shadows are different. ... It's really important that the show felt like it was embedded in the city."
Mini film boom in S.F.
"Looking" has been part of a recent mini-boom for San Francisco filming. "The Real World: San Francisco," which shot at the same time as "Looking," premieres in early 2014. Woody Allen's 2013 film "Blue Jasmine" filmed in San Francisco extensively. "MythBusters" just entered its 10th season set in the Bay Area.
And then there's the less heralded plow mule for the local filming industry -- the commercial. San Francisco Film Commission executive director Susannah Greason Robbins reports that seven automobile commercials were filmed in San Francisco in one recent 10-day period.
"I really think that show is going to give so much attention to San Francisco," she said. "Hopefully, with 'Looking' airing soon, that might ring some bells for people. 'We can shoot down there.' "
San Francisco offers generous rebates for productions that film in the city- up to $600,000 in city fees and payroll tax per production. The Film Commission is constantly looking for new ways to lure Hollywood business, recently pushing legislation that would qualify Web series for the incentives.
But San Francisco rents aren't getting cheaper, and the tax breaks in California don't come close to matching the 30 to 35 percent that New York offers. New Mexico and Canada are also famously friendly to filmmakers. Most shows that have been set in San Francisco -- including "Full House," "Charmed" and "Monk" -- were shot elsewhere, at most filming a handful of San Francisco scenes during short visits.
Real S.F. bathroom
Lannan shows his intimate knowledge of the city during a tour of the "Looking" set, which is a Russian nesting doll of San Francisco real estate. A local crew built a replica of a Lower Haight apartment deep inside a spacious warehouse on the edge of the Mission District. On the other side of the warehouse is a set representing a SoMa video game developer, where Groff's character works.
As Lannan walks through Patrick's grimy one-bedroom flat, he repeatedly apologizes for the size of the rooms, which were built beyond realistic rental market dimensions so cameras and crew could move around comfortably.
"This bathroom looks huge, but we shoot it in a way that it doesn't look so big," Lannan explains. "On the show, it will look like a real San Francisco bathroom."
There are finer "real San Francisco" details as well. Patrick has multiple handbills autographed by drag performer Peaches Christ on his living room wall. After a testy exchange with rude Zuni customers, Murray uses an expletive to describe the new wave of tech workers, explaining, "It's like 1999 again, and I hated them the first time around."
Lannan laughs when asked about the line. He was one of those tech workers, moving to San Francisco in 1999, hired as a writer for Cnet. After 3 1/2 years in the city, Lannan moved to Los Angeles and then New York, working for Alan Coulter, a prolific director for HBO series including "Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City."
Lannan says "Looking" was inspired by his time in San Francisco. He refined the project over the years, and made a short film. Lannan met with HBO executives, they ordered a pilot based on the characters in his film, and the project gained momentum from there.
Groff, a stage actor who gained fame on "Glee" and later on "Boss," said the crew for "Looking" was remarkably tight. He lived on Market Street close to the Castro district, and rode a bicycle to work every day. He said it wasn't unusual for actors and crew members to film at a bar or restaurant, then return in off hours to hang out.
During a telephone interview from New York, three days after leaving San Francisco, Groff said he was feeling withdrawal symptoms.
"I miss the view of (the Mission Dolores) chapel from my window. I miss the smell of jasmine -- as I would ride my bike down the street to work, I would smell the jasmine," Groff says. "I miss the people I worked with. I never felt so close to a group of people on a set."
If the show is well-received, Lannan, Haigh and the crew could be shooting in San Francisco again next year. Among the unique locations in the first season are the Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences, and the remains of Sutro Baths.
Lannan and Haigh say they'd love to shoot in the Tenderloin and North Beach in future episodes. They won't rule out touristy locales either. But they'll approach them like native San Franciscans.
"Nothing is out of bounds, I think, if the story is right for it," Haigh said. "If somebody's parents come to town, and they want to go on a cable car, we'll go on a cable car. It's not that we don't want to shoot those things. It just has to be story-based."
For a Q&A with series creators Michael Lannan and Andrew Haigh, go to the Big Event blog on SFGate.com, http://blog.sfgate.com/thebigevent.
Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @PeterHartlaub
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