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Filmed in the 510, by Julie Rath
Diablo, Magazine of the East Bay, (January 2005)

How to get Sean Penn to work for minimum wage: Film in Oakland

Two years ago, first-time director Niels Mueller offered Penn the lead in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on the life of Samuel Bycke, who attempted to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House.

Penn agree to make the film for scale salary-on one condition: Nixon had to be filmed in the Bay Area. A deal was struck and suddenly Ami Zins, film coordinator of Oakland’s Film Office, faced the task of finding locations in the East Bay that could look like the Baltimore area, circa 1974. “The scouting criteria was more what not to look for,” explains Zins. “No classic California architecture. No buildings newer than the mid-‘70s. Not too much brown shingle. And no palm trees!”

The nondescript locations Zins secured should allow viewers to focus on the actors as they reveal the dark side of the American Dream through the eyes of Bycke, an ordinary man who’s overlooked by society and desperate to be noticed. It’s uncomfortable to watch his life unravel, especially when it’s happening on familiar streets.

For example, in the film, Penn’s Bycke struggles to hold onto a sales job just off Broadway’s Auto Row; his estranged wife (Naomi Watts) tells Bycke she doesn’t want him coming around to their old house on Locksley Street; and he argues with his only friend (Don Cheadle) at an auto repair shop on 16th Street and Peralta.

What was a festive neighborhood event between takes-the famously intense Penn was good-natured on the set, signing autographs for excited children and gawking adults-became a harrowing, fascinating local experience on film. Look for The Assassination of Richard Nixon to hit theaters this month.

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