How a former La Honda resident made an film-noir indie movie in a town that “couldn’t be friendlier”

Filmmaker Jeff Hammer embraced the natural beauty of the Peninsula coast as the setting for his ambitious crime drama, Live or Die in La Honda.

Mountains. Redwoods. Murder.

This succinct and apt tagline for the newly released indie film “Live or Die in La Honda” says a lot: the first two are innate to the quiet hamlet of La Honda, population roughly 1,000, nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The third? That took the imagination of Hollywood screenwriter Jeff Hammer to shape into a gritty film-noir movie, now available for streaming online.

When Hammer moved from Los Angeles to the Peninsula about five years ago for his wife to pursue a three-year fellowship at Stanford, he knew he wanted to use his time away from the big-city searchlights to make a film.

The couple settled in the woods of La Honda, which Hammer says already held some romance for him before moving there. He’d read Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and knew it as the isolated forest town where Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters got up to their historic acid-tripping hijinks.

The screenwriter studied film noir scripts to get ideas for his movie, but it wasn’t until a local news story struck that he got inspiration for the plot.

In May 2014, the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office found about 1,000 pounds of marijuana (estimated to be worth more than $1 million at the time) in an abandoned SUV that had gotten stuck in the sand at Pescadero Beach.

From there, Hammer’s imagination took over and the story began to take shape: Blake Baker (Blake Shields, Sleeper Cell, Heroes) a former Marine and Iraq war veteran, would be the protagonist, an LA-based yogi trying to escape a traumatic past and his former lover, Victoria “Vic” Taylor (Lili Bordán, Westworld).

Vic, the femme fatale, would have served alongside Baker, and worked as a bartender at the La Honda institution, Apple Jack’s. Her brother would end up involved with a Mexican drug cartel and she would call on Baker for help.

The plot would thicken from there.

Making the film

True to the indie filmmaking process, Hammer says, he constantly had to ask himself: “What can I actually do with a limited scope and budget?”

In his foray into indie filmmaking, Hammer says that the fun part was the writing, directing and producing. Less fun? All the paperwork. He quickly learned that filmmaking requires lots of permits, contracts, negotiations with unions and “detail stuff like that.”

“I had never done that and directed at the same time,” he says. “I was wearing a bunch of hats.”

As a temporary La Honda local, he says, he was able to get permission from business owners to film at some of the sites before and after business hours.

“I knew I could get a lot of production value out of showing the natural beauty of La Honda,” he says.

San Gregorio State Beach (Production still from the film.)

Finding funding to make the movie a reality was one of the biggest hurdles, Hammer says. He used the crowdfunding website Indiegogo, through which some locals, and a lot of friends and family, contributed. Later, an investor came in, followed by two others.

“My wife and I ended up doing a bit ourselves to fill in the gaps,” he added.

The process also involved “a lot of calling in favors,” he says. Low-budget filmmaking relies on people working below their pay rate, and on weekends and nights, when people have time.

“It took a while to get it put together,” he says. “But slowly and surely, it came together.”

He also had to convince the actors and crew to make the schlep out to La Honda, “trying to get people to come on a little adventure,” he says, since La Honda doesn’t have any major hotels or lodging. Several locals also play supporting roles in the film, he says.

Pacific Coast sunset (Production still from the film.)

During filming — which took place over two weeks in July 2015 — the cast stayed in his home, a nearby house or in trailers. “It was like a summer camp experience,” he says.

And some things, he says, he had to let go. Stylistically, there were some situations when he simply didn’t have the right equipment to create the dramatic atmosphere and shadows he’d envisioned, Hammer says.

La Honda’s famous dive bar, Apple Jack’s. (Production still from the film.)

What to look for

True locals in particular might appreciate one scene that Hammer says accurately captures community sentiment. In the scene, Vic heckles a cyclist for coming into Apple Jack’s to use the restroom without buying anything, and berates him for scuffing up the floor in bike shoes.

“There is a joke that people in La Honda just hate the cyclists,” he says. People trying to get home often find themselves stuck behind pedalers “who kind of take over the road, and won’t really pay attention if cars are backing up … There is a running joke that (we’d) rather they didn’t come to town.”

Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero. (Production still from the film.)

The film draws heavily on a number of local landmarks scattered throughout the film: Apple Jack’s (which, Hammer notes on the film website, was built in the 1870s and is “central to the town, both physically and spiritually”), Duarte’s Tavern, the San Gregorio General Store, San Gregorio Beach and Reflection Lake, to name a few.

It was fun, Hammer says, to set a film noir crime drama— a movie rated R, containing “murder and mystery” — in an unassuming town that, in reality, “couldn’t be friendlier.”

Baker and Taylor at Reflection Lake. (Production still from the film.)

When the film was completed and ready for release, Hammer says he held a screening last summer in La Honda to benefit the local elementary school. The scene in which the cyclist was heckled earned a standing ovation from attendees.

The film has all the ingredients one might want in an R-rated movie, he claims: “some language, sex, nudity, violence and hopefully a story people find engaging. When it gets to the end, you understand it, but you don’t predict how it’s going to work.”

“I think it’s a good, effective movie,” he adds. “It’s paced pretty well, it goes pretty quickly, and it knows exactly what it is. If people are into this genre, I think it’ll work for them.”

Watch the movie

“Live or Die in La Honda” is available to stream through Freestyle Digital Media.

Hammer now lives again in Los Angeles, where he teaches screenwriting at the University of Southern California and does freelance work on short films.

Visit liveordieinlahonda.com for more information.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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