The ‘Varsity Blues’ Screenwriter’s Cold-Blooded Crusade Against L.A.’s Homeless
Angelenos were curious who’d placed 66 boulders in a tunnel to ward off the homeless. Turns out it was the guy who wrote “Varsity Blues,” “Point Break” and… “Trump’s America.”
On the first Sunday of September, a work crew showed up alongside the Cattaraugus Tunnel, a highway underpass in Los Angeles, and stacked 66 large boulders along its walls. The rocks appeared in the tunnel, which connects the L.A. neighborhoods of Reynier Village and the Culver City Arts District, without notice or forewarning, leaving residents to discover them on their own. The next day, a local organizer snapped a picture of the scene, writing: “What the absolute fuck is this shit?”
The answer was “hostile architecture,” or urban design features ostensibly deployed to deter crime, but which often serve only to limit where unhoused people can sleep. Before the boulders arrived, the tunnel had been home to at least three homeless residents. The space allowed some privacy and—more importantly, during a weekend that reached the highest temperature in Los Angeles County history—shade. Now, there was no room to sit down by the wall, much less pitch a tent.
As news of the rocks spread on social media, activists searched for the responsible party. Organizers with Street Watch LA, a coalition of tenants’ rights groups, initially blamed the local neighborhood council on Twitter. They had seen “two middle-aged white men” from the council inspecting the underpass for “landscaping” a few weeks prior. But the neighborhood group quickly denied involvement, updating their website with a statement condemning the rocks. Los Angeles City Councilmember Herb Wesson echoed the sentiment, promising their swift removal. Of the mysterious installation, one official reportedly claimed: “Elves did it.”
The culprit, it turned out, wasn’t a council or woodland creature, but a Hollywood screenwriter named W. Peter Iliff. Before he spurred a week-long city scandal, Iliff was best known for writing Varsity Blues, a football movie where James Van Der Beek plays a Texas high school QB with a dozen names for his penis, and Point Break, the Keanu Reeves actioner about an undercover FBI agent (and Rose Bowl-winning quarterback) trying to catch a crew of bank-robbing surfers.
Since his mid-’90s success, homelessness seems to have been on Iliff’s mind. His most recent credit, a short called Trump’s America, follows an unhoused man named Frank, described as “a hopeless alcoholic who sleeps in an alley, yet carries himself with a wise-cracking charm as he waxes philosophical about the American Dream,” who gets convinced by a TV reporter to trick the police into beating him and catch them on camera. The plan goes wrong, offering—according to the short’s IMDb—“a provocative tale that examines the lawless Wild West of L.A.’s growing homeless epidemic.” The film pitches itself as presenting “many sides of the issue, where nobody is necessarily a villain.”
In late July, Iliff had started a GoFundMe titled the “Cattaraugus Tunnel Safety & Beautification Project,” soliciting donations for a vague cleaning project. On the since-deleted page, Iliff cited a sourceless anecdote from a father who claimed a “mentally ill individual” once attacked him and his children with an unspecified weapon. “This is just one of many violent incidents,” Iliff said. “Many of us are frightened to use Cattaraugus Tunnel because of the long history of assaults.”
An LAPD Public Information Officer could not confirm whether an assault occurred at the tunnel recently, or whether any assaults had taken place there in the past five years. “None that I’m aware of—that’s not on my radar,” the officer told The Daily Beast. “Sometimes the community throws that word ‘assault’ around... I have heard of no reports of aggravated assaults or battery in that tunnel.”
With the help of three fundraisers—two real estate agents and a corporate accountant—Iliff raised $3,600 from 29 donors, bought the boulders, and arranged for a crew to install them. The screenwriter claimed the LAPD and officials from two council districts had approved the plan in advance, but intentionally obscured their role. “It was always like, no paper trail, let’s see what we can get done,” Iliff said in one public meeting. (A spokesperson for LAPD said that an officer did speak with Iliff about the boulders beforehand, but told him to obtain a permit through the city).
Outcry was immediate. Olga Lexell, who serves on the neighborhood council’s land use and transportation committees, alerted her colleagues to the installation, and told Los Angeles Magazine that she “regularly spoke to the unhoused residents in the tunnel and never felt unsafe.” By Tuesday evening, when the council held their Public Safety Meeting, more than 70 people spoke during public comment. Almost all wanted the rocks removed.
“Those who oppose the boulders dox, defame, threaten, and try to destroy our careers,” Iliff wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “What we need is to come together and get the city to find real solutions for residents and our unhoused brothers. Because those who came to protest the boulders, and those who defend them, are ALL on the same team—the team of people who CARE. INDIFFERENCE is the enemy.”
Later that night, some dozen activists took it upon themselves to relocate the rocks with dollies, only to run into Iliff. “They were tagging ‘eat the rich’ and all this stuff,” Iliff recalled at a public meeting about the unsanctioned installation. “I walked over there, and I said, ‘Good for you, you’re going to change the world, you guys.’ By giving that approach, they then didn’t mug me and kill me.”
By Thursday, a lieutenant informed Iliff that if the rocks were not removed within 24 hours, he would be charged with felony dumping. At a meeting that night, Iliff described cleaning up the mess he orchestrated with nostalgia reminiscent of Jacob Wohl’s hipster coffee shop. “All of a sudden all these neighbors were here and sweeping the sidewalk,” Iliff said. “People were driving past in their cars and they were stopping, ‘Oh where’d the boulders go? They were so great!’”
In the wake of the conflict, Iliff seemed to hear some of the activists’ complaints, swapping out the depersonalized phrase “a homeless,” for the preferred “unhoused person.” But in a statement to The Daily Beast, he doubled down on the project, citing another anonymous incident. “On Saturday morning, a new ‘neighbor’ living in the tunnel assaulted a female resident who was walking through. The incident was terrifying enough that a passing motorist stopped to help and get the woman safely out of the tunnel. LAPD was called. They did nothing.”
The same week Iliff installed his boulders, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin released a report on the urgent need for supportive housing, predicting that COVID-19 could “compound” the homelessness crisis in Los Angeles without swift action. Homelessness has already been on the rise in Los Angeles, a city where between one and two unhoused people die on the streets every day. In January, the county’s annual homeless survey found 66,436 residents did not have a home, a 12 percent increase from last year—and that was before the pandemic.
“The City is not doing enough to help get Angelenos experiencing homelessness off the streets. Homelessness has increased exponentially, and the housing solutions currently provided haven't kept up with the demand,” Galperin told The Daily Beast. “But obstructing underpasses and putting others in harm’s way is not the way to help our most vulnerable neighbors.”