Winter of My House’s Discontent
In January, 2001, My Home of 24 Years Was Invaded by a Movie
by George Fifield
The Independent Film & Video Monthly, November, 2002
It was a family affair, a small project for my wife and her sister and her brother-in-law to do together so they could all stretch their talents. And, for the most part, it was a big mess in my life.
My wife, Lynne Adams, wrote a feature-length comedy called Made-Up and produced it with her sister, Brooke Adams, whose husband, Tony Shalhoub, directed. All three acted in it; I supplied the set. For three weeks they shot on two of the three floors of our house, all while I was both living and working in it.
When I bought my house, I was young and real estate prices were cheap. Though it is a stunning Tuscany Villa-style Victorian, it needed a lot of work. Over the years, I have fixed it up one room or porch at a time. The offices, where my staff and I organize the Boston Cyberarts Festival, are on the third floor. Many years ago a location scout asked if I was interested in renting my house to a movie crew. It sounded vaguely intriguing. He came over and took pictures, but nothing ever came of it.
But then Lynne arrived in my life. She told me about her “movie” on our very first date four years ago. The film stalled. We got married. And then suddenly, we were working together on it. The thought of her making her movie had always both terrified and excited me. I had little idea what I was in for.
Late December 2000
My fiftieth birthday. We threw a party, and it was more of a milestone than I had imagined. The next day the house starts to be transformed. Lynne has gone to great lengths to make this work for me. Even though she is swamped with preproduction details, she planned this party and left the house intact until it was over.
But the next day, paintings by her friends start arriving and furniture starts to be moved. Walls are being painted different colors. My art collection is moved up to our bedroom and new art is brought in. Rapidly the house is transforming itself from the home of a middle-aged art curator into the home of a fictional character. Lynne’s sister, Brooke, is playing Elizabeth James Tivey, a middle-aged mother whose husband has recently left her for a younger woman.
Originally, the film was supposed to be an average Hollywood production, at about $5 million or so with a well-known director on board, Phoebe Cates starring, and her husband, Kevin Kline, playing a small part. But that was before I knew Lynne.
The problem with that casting started a few days before we met, while Lynne was in Boston. Kevin backed out to make another movie. The entire package collapsed. A mutual friend had been telling Lynne about me for a couple of years, to no avail. Now in exasperation at this turn of events, Lynne said that she wanted out of Hollywood, would maybe move to Boston and, what the hell, she would go out with me. Thank you, Kevin.
We had one date and then Lynne went back to L.A. The movie’s prospects rose and fell. The e-mails flew daily. Three months later she flew back to Boston and moved into my Victorian house with me. A year after that we were married.
At this point we realized that Lynne should make this movie herself. As part of my interest in the technology behind art, we talked about the new power of video technology and how she could use a small DV video camera to make her movie. She began to weave these ideas into her script. Though one of her goals was to make the production less expensive by shooting on video rather than film—getting it down to about $250,000—she used this as a conceit for the plot. Now the story takes place in front of a class of aspiring filmmakers shooting their documentary in video.
Over the summer she talked with her sister and brother-in-law about all of them making it together—Brooke as the lead, Lynne as the main character’s sister, Kate, an aspiring videographer, Tony as Max, a restaurateur and wannabe actor who courts Elizabeth. Tony would make his directorial debut with the film; Lynne and Brooke would debut as producers.
Luckily, that fall Lynne met Mark Donadio, who became co-producer with them. (The production company is called Sister Films.) Mark brought to the production the professional production experience and skill that went a long way to making it a success. He also brought with him this great New England crew, most of who had worked with one another before.
The other main role is Elizabeth’s daughter, Sara, for whom there was no family member to cast. In the script, the relationship between the daughter and mother is a tumultuous one. The action starts when Sara wants to skip college and become a cosmetologist. Her mother thinks her obsession with beauty is obscene. Sara thinks her father left because Elizabeth let herself get frumpy. Aunt Kate brokers a deal whereby Elizabeth will allow Sara to give her a makeover in exchange for Sara visiting a therapist to talk about anorexia. Kate will tape the makeover for her video class and asks three classmates over to help.
First week of January 2001
As preproduction progresses, the number of people in the house increases each day. The costume designer shows up with beautiful clothes, staying late to dye this or that in our washing machine. Juliet Carter, art director, and Russ Fisher, property manager, go through all of our belongings and gently integrate them into this new world, promising to put them back exactly where they found them. When we don’t have the right things, they find them elsewhere. Juliet even brings chairs from her mother’s home for the kitchen set. I begin to learn new phrases, as signs suddenly appear declaring this or that room to be a “Hot Set”—a room that cannot be disturbed. But then Juliet tells me that the “Hot Set” sign doesn’t apply to me.
My own contribution is as cameraperson on my little DV camcorder, for the constant auditions of aspiring Saras. This role is proving most difficult to cast. Lynne is traveling all the time to the downtown Boston casting agency and meeting young actresses. Or, they come over to the house and I tape them. Then we send the tapes off to California, in turn watching the audition tapes Brooke and Tony were sending us from L.A.
Sunday January 7, 2001
Finally Brooke and Tony arrive in Boston. We’re supposed to start shooting in a week, but we still have no Sara. Tony has an excellent actress in mind, but we also have received a tape from 15-year-old Eva Amurri. Brooke has known Eva since she was born, and she ran into her some months before in New York with her mother, Susan Sarandon. She thought Eva would be perfect, but the teen has never had a major role in a movie before. When the search became such a hair-raiser, Lynne and Brooke sent her the script and Eva and her mother made a tape of her in several scenes. We were enthralled. She was fresh, funny, and completely spontaneous. She was Sara. And she was available.
Sunday, January 14, 2001
So Eva and Susan came up today. I cooked a lobster dinner for them, Brooke and Tony, and some of the crew. The Boston crew had worked on many films, but just seeing Susan Sarandon sitting in the living room reading a book wove a Hollywood magic around the film for me. It also makes me realize how Lynne’s luck has turned out. The production is small and independent, yes, and under a quarter million. But it is closer to that Hollywood production she planned from the start than the self-financed video art projects I deal with in my world of new media.
I go to bed late, as Lisa Lesniak, the wardrobe person, needs to stay and dye another blouse in our washing machine.
Monday, January 15, 2001
First day of shooting. At five thirty this morning I heard Lynne going down to let people in. I was just as excited and couldn’t go back to sleep, making me a zombie for the entire day.
When I get up, I find myself in a crowd scene. Forty people are wandering around my house, hanging out at craft services in the kitchen, stringing cable, or carrying lights. The set-up is complicated by the fact that many of the characters in the movie are holding cameras that supposedly are videotaping what you are watching. The director of photography, Gary Henoch, orchestrated this complex multiple camera shoot so that while one is always aware of the conceit, it becomes natural. Gary shot in PAL with a Sony DSR-500 camera. The actors held PAL Sony PD-150s.
I start to develop this sense of existing in a parallel universe—you know, where you can see the creatures in the same room but know that they exist in some other continuum, and this is the freaky part, they can see you.
Monday January 22, 2001
Shooting goes on. We go our separate ways, each universe existing separate but equal, except theirs has movie stars in it. And theirs seems more boring. Oh god, does movie making seem boring. I had never imagined the waiting. They don’t spend much time actually shooting. Most of the day involves setting up and blocking the shots, lighting, rehearsals and of course, eating, constant eating. My staff of two loves this perk. I’m falling off my diet.
Mind you, they are using every room in the house as a set except our bedroom (now a storage and bedroom), the guestroom (now the production office), and the third floor (now my sanctum sanctorum and office). The other rooms act as craft services, storage for all the lights and scrims and gels, the sound room, and hair and makeup. One day they shoot in the kitchen and everything has to be moved into the other rooms and the kitchen “dressed.” The next day everything moves again.
Friday, January 26, 2001
We’ve settled into a routine. Lynne’s alarm goes off at 5:30 and she gets up to let the first people in. I put my earplugs in and try to sleep until 7:30 or so when I leave my bedroom in my bathrobe and greet people along the way to the bathroom. When dressed, I wander down through the kitchen to get my yogurt and go up to my offices on the third floor to have coffee and read the paper with my dog.
“Wall busters” are special metal plates that use a turn screw and 2x4s to create a pole for movie lighting in an ordinary room. Their quaint name comes from the fact that if you expand outward into 150-year-old horsehair plaster walls enough to support the heavy lights used in film production, you create big cracks and holes. They are becoming the objective metaphor for the constant damage that is being done to the house.
Also, since the production, every door in the house seems to remain open at all times. In Boston in January we don’t leave doors outside open. But as the grips move in and out dragging cable and equipment, the shutting of doors is left up to me.
Karine Albano, the lighting designer, asks me how I feel with all these people in my house. I think for a moment and say that I feel like the queen ant—a large white sluggish creature surrounded by small fast moving ants constantly rearranging everything.
Moments like this repeat themselves every day now. Crewmembers stop me as I go downstairs to look sympathetically into my eyes and ask, “How’s it going?” I felt like a terminal patient. One guy comments on how well I’m holding up under the strain. I reply that one can handle anything as long as one knows it’s finite. He agrees but feels there must be a breaking point: After x number of days, you couldn’t take it anymore. He pauses and thinks about this and then he asks me, in a casual way, “Do you have any firearms in house?”
I sit in on the occasional shoot, mostly behind Tom Williams’ sound cart. As large as the house is, it is impossible to actually see much shooting as the lights and camera angles take up so much room, but Tom’s cart has a monitor and I watch from there. Today they are doing a scene on the back stairs between Brooke and Eva. Lynne’s character, Kate, and three young men from Kate’s video class, played by Lance Krall, Jim Issa, and Kalen Conover, are videotaping the makeover. This means that every scene is shot so that Gary, the DP, and his DSR-500 camera can get the point of view of the actor’s cameras. Very little footage from the their cameras is used.
In this scene, Eva’s Sara is trying out some false face-lifts she has made from band-aids on her mother. Before the final shot, Eva asks if she can try an idea. She pulls up on the false face-lifts until Brooke’s face is stretched like taffy. Then she looks at Brooke wide-eyed and says, “Cooool!” She is a natural. This is the shot that is used in the final edit.
I can see that Brooke, Tony, and Lynne are all doing a great job, though Lynne’s triple role as producer, actor, and writer are taking a toll on her. The only cloud is the drumbeat of time. Money is limited and each day costs us about $10,000. We must finish on schedule.
February 1, 2001
Only three more days!!! Every day I go to the mailbox and deliver to the production office a thick sheaf of 9×11 manila envelopes addressed to “Extras, Sister Films.” I learn that they each contain a headshot and resume. There are two location days, one at a restaurant and one at the museum where I work, where extras are needed. The production placed an ad on www.newenglandfilm.com and we are deluged. It seems sort of sad to me, all these people striving to be in the rear of a scene for which they will not get paid. But photos and resumes arrive daily.
Today things started late because of the late night run the evening before. I was alone in the house as I came downstairs to get the paper from the front porch. I saw an envelope in the mailbox and got it. It’s an unstamped, un-addressed note card, and inside are some Kodak prints of a young latina teenager vamping in front of a potted palm in a living room and a handwritten note on lined paper spelling out the school plays the teen was in. It ends with, “My goal is to become a professional actress. Thank you for the opportunity.” The address is in Lowell, an hour and a half away. This young woman and her ambition must have driven down in the middle of the night. I am amazed at the palpable desire to get a nonspeaking bit part on a small independent feature. Fame is a most remarkable drug.
Sunday, February 4, 2001
At last I am introduced to the concept of the “wrap party.” And thus, I am introduced to the concept of the wrap present. Out of nowhere, the line producer gives me a gift certificate to a restaurant. I am embarrassed that I have nothing for anyone. Later the d.p. asks if I will miss them. I reply, “I will miss you all individually, not collectively.”
After Boston there was some shooting in L.A. and then there was the long process of editing a movie in two cities. As I write this at the end of summer, the movie is now “locked,” that is, the edit is finished and Lynne is working on getting a distributor. She will apply to send Made-Up to various film festivals and she is talking to producer’s reps. I am on the credits with Bob Wiener as Executive Producer. The other credit I feel that I deserve is that of door closer.
We are all excited about the movie’s prospects. Of course, we are sure that it will be a hit. But the great thing for me, besides watching Lynne bloom into an expert film producer, is seeing how our house is really one of the important characters in the film. Twenty-four years of painting, scraping, and hiring contractors will pay off once more as this old Victorian brings the ‘Romantic’ into this romantic comedy.
Our house is back to normal, although certain of Mimi Feldman’s room color changes and decorations have stayed. Brooke keeps making jokes about Made-Up 2 and scheduling shooting in our house again. But Lynne’s future screenplay ideas do not include a Victorian home in Boston, at least I hope not, for I can tell you this: there is no reason to invite a film crew into your home except love.