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'The Soloist' is a real man-on-the-street story

If Steve Lopez had written a blog about a homeless cellist living on the streets of Los Angeles, he would have had readers. And both of them would have said, "Yeah, this ought to be a movie."

Instead, the Los Angeles Times writer devoted column after column to the plight of the Juilliard-trained, schizophrenic Nathaniel Ayers in a medium that still serves, however dispiritedly, as America's public forum/village square. The result: " The Soloist," which opens Friday with Jamie Foxx as Ayers, Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and 500 derelict Angelenos playing themselves.

The fate of newspapers is as essential to "The Soloist" as Ayers or Lopez, and so is the relationship of the media to its consumers: Among the many choices the Internet has provided is the choice of ignoring the news. Newspapers, however, "are in your house, on your kitchen table, it's in your face," said Lopez, whose 2006 columns captivated a city. "And I think it's easier to imagine this guy's life when you're holding the paper in your hands. It's a story that you should get dirty reading. The ink should come off on your hands."

A newsprint quality

There's no movie equivalent of newsprint, but there is a tangibly grimy quality to "The Soloist." Director Joe Wright ("Pride and Prejudice," "Atonement") filmed largely in downtown Los Angeles and captured the utter chaos of that blighted piece of Paradise known as Skid Row.

"You get some people who say, 'Oh, it's not like that,'" Wright said, "but those are the people who've never been there." With apologies to all the professional actors in L.A., Wright added that his experience with the shelter denizens was great.

"They were without question the best group of extras and supporting actors I've ever worked with. They were on time, they were on their marks, they were engaged every second of the day. The only time anything got out of control was because of hysterical laughter. There was a lot of laughter. A lot of energy."

"The Soloist," originally set for release last fall, was pushed back to February, then April, indicating to some a lack of faith in the movie by its studio, and foreshadowing some inevitable umbrage among the cast.

"For those who were imagining this film was a path to greener pastures and a certain season," Downey said, referring not-so-obliquely to Oscar Time, "I would say the movie does what the movie wants to do. I think the movie's a bigger thing than one decision.

"Plus, given all I had on my plate," he said, referring to "Iron Man" and " Tropic Thunder," "I wouldn't have been able to work it with all the zeal of the highly professional whore that I am."

But it's understandable that a studio, or two (DreamWorks/Universal), would want to push "The Soloist" to another fiscal quarter: The story of one man living on the street, and another whose industry is falling apart, might be a little too close for comfort given our perilous economic times. As a professional observer of L.A., Lopez sees Ayers as a metaphor for the precariousness of modern life, reflected in the way the Los Angeles Times is divesting itself of its human beings (even as Lopez is trying to rescue one).

But the movie's version of Lopez doesn't quite see himself as the "soloist" of the title, which he is -- and which is something Wright saw all along: That we're all soloists, unless we connect with other people.

"Joe said he realized while we were in rehearsals," Downey said, "that the film wasn't as much about an unlikely friendship or mental illness as it was about having faith in each other."

Art meets life

The nervous-making, art-meets-life aspects of "The Soloist" weren't limited to the screen. "The first day on set," said Catherine Keener, who plays Lopez's ex-wife, "we had this circle meeting, where the actors were upfront and everybody else was all around, all the denizens, and Downey, of course, sat in the middle. When they got to him, he says, 'I'm Robert Downey, cell block number ... ' and they all just melted."

In addition to his newspaper columns being the source of the movie, and his paper being dismantled on-screen, Lopez had another connection to the production he probably would have rather forgotten: In 2002, he ran a series of blistering columns castigating media mogul David Geffen for illegally barring access to public beaches via his property in Malibu. Geffen, of course, is the G in DreamWorks SKG. "I kept thinking that Geffen must have been asleep through this whole thing," Lopez said.

Meanwhile, his time with Ayers on Skid Row continues to provide column fodder. "I met these prostitutes who were working out of porta-potties," he said. "One of them took me inside and showed me that she was living in the porta-potty. I recently got an e-mail from a cop who knew her -- 'She looks fantastic, she's getting married, she found the Lord and she wants to talk to you.' So I went down to see her in Compton. And she is a new woman -- although 'Pretty Woman' doesn't end up in a Beverly Hills hotel. She ends up in Compton."

At which point, Lopez excused himself. "I have to go write that column, about her pulling her life together."

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