Best house in a leading role
When location manager Timothy Hillman needed a house that would make a statement about the Barbara Walters-type mother Jane Fonda portrays in the upcoming film “Monster-in-Law,” he settled on a majestic 1927 Wallace Neff home in Pasadena as the character’s home. “We wanted to show that she oozed class,” Hillman says, “so we picked this gated estate with fountains in front and grand windows into the living room.”
It wasn’t the first time this house had appeared on screen: It was seen in “Frances,” the 1982 film biography of actress Frances Farmer, and the Disney film “The Pest,” and it played the homes of Elizabeth Taylor and diet doctor Robert Atkins in television movies.
Some actors become stars, and some L.A.-area houses -- this Wallace Neff is one -- have their own kind of star status, appearing in a number of films, television shows, commercials and print ads. As if it’s no sweat to get work. And, as with actors, the houses’ repeated movie roles have to do with both tangible and ineffable factors, such as whether the house has the right floor plan to handle balletic camera moves, is in a film-friendly neighborhood or is able to pass for a home somewhere else in America.
Let’s start with the tangibles. Carlotta and Buck Stahl live in Case Study House No. 22, a glass-walled miracle in the Hollywood Hills, designed by the noted architect Pierre Koenig in 1958 and memorialized by an evocative Julius Shulman photograph of two women sitting inside the house. Soon after the home was built, film companies were interested in its unique design and cliff-top fit.
“They made a movie here in 1962 called ‘Smog,’ ” says Carlotta Stahl. “But when they came up, it was a clear day, so they had to spray gunk on the windows to make it look like you were looking out at smog.” The 2,300-square-foot house has more recently appeared in “Nurse Betty,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” “Galaxy Quest” and “The Marrying Man.”
“It’s an architectural masterpiece perched at the top of the Sunset Strip, looking out at a blanket of lights,” explains location manager John Panzarella, who used the Stahl home for the home of soap opera doctor Greg Kinnear in “Nurse Betty.” “The house is completely made of glass, so you have the opportunity to film the interior from the exterior. You can set up a shot with the pool in the foreground, and through the glass wall you can see right into the house.”
He says that of all the midcentury modern homes in the L.A. area, this one makes the strongest visual statement. “You can shoot a McMansion anytime you want, and no one will remember it,” he says. “It just satisfies my creative juices to get great architecture into movies.”
So, like an exquisite starlet, the Stahl house possesses matchless and pleasing features. And it doesn’t matter that it can’t act.
Its cinematic opposite may be the Rosales house, seen in “True Romance,” “Bad Influence” and “Town & Country.” Richard Rosales bought the Greek Revival mansion in the historic West Adams district after a fire, and he now manages it. (Yes, houses have managers.) “Film companies like the house because it has nice details yet it looks rundown,” he says.
In fact, Rosales keeps the scene of the fire, the basement, unrestored, the better to attract music videos. “A lot of people with mansions have nice oak floors and don’t want to scratch or damage anything. We’re not worried about getting dusty or dirty,” he says. “When they want run-down mansions, we get all the business.”
“He’s easy to work with,” says Panzarella. “With some people, we deconstruct all their decorating and they freak out. He doesn’t.”
Another factor in the popularity of the Rosales house is its versatility. In “True Romance,” the first floor served as a drug den while the second floor stood in for Christian Slater’s would-be coke dealer’s apartment in another part of town. Film companies appreciate it when they can drive their trucks and equipment to one site and shoot more than one location.
“A great view isn’t enough for a house,” says Catherine Meyler, the owner of a location listing service that represents architectural gems such as the Stahl house. “I also need a good exterior, or a nice lawn, or an unusual selection of plants to give the producer more vistas to work with.”
Debbie Hoffman is a mother of three whose family lives in the house America knows as the home used in the ‘70s television series “Family.” Since then it has appeared in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Jurassic Park 3" and “Bringing Down the House.” It’s no coincidence that the Hoffmans bought this two-story, four-bedroom home, with its sloping roof, because it seemed the ideal place to raise children.
“It’s got everything you’d want for kids,” Hoffman says, “wide streets, nice sidewalks, a variety of beautiful trees, a well-maintained picket fence and a lot of property in relation to the size of the house.” All enticing elements for film companies looking to cast a traditional family house. “Our house represents the all-American family home,” she says. “And this is not a fantasy. What the movies make it out to be is what it is in real life. A safe neighborhood with kids coming over on bikes and baking cookies.”
Another crucial element: Nothing about this shingled South Pasadena house says “California.” The house has a clapboard exterior, no palm trees and a darkish feeling in the landscaping. And it’s on a street with similar houses, which is quite important. It could be anywhere, and in fact it passes for Samuel L. Jackson’s Baltimore home in the upcoming “XXX: State of the Union.” Producers hate to spend money transporting cast and crew to distant climes when there is such architectural diversity here in Los Angeles.
The Hoffmans knew about the home’s previous screen appearances when they bought it, but they say it wasn’t a factor in the purchase. “It had nothing to do with our buying it,” Debbie says. “We bought the house for the neighborhood and street and style of house.”
For an Anywhere U.S.A. look, location scout Mike Fantasia (“The Terminal,” “Seabiscuit” and “Girl, Interrupted”) seeks out center hall Colonials.
“They have a front door in the center, and on each side two windows with six or nine panes apiece,” he says. “Inside you find a central stairway with an ornate wooden handrail, the living room on the left, the family room on the right, and upstairs four or five big bed- rooms.”
“You definitely don’t want stucco, red tiles and swimming pools,” says Hillman. Whether a house makes it into the movies may also be dependent on the neighborhood’s vegetation. “I stay away from bougainvillea, and the bane of my existence is palm trees,” says location manager Ilt Jones.
Can a home ever be overexposed to the point of losing its box office punch? Location scouts insist that a clever director can shoot an often-used home from different angles in imaginative ways so the audience doesn’t recognize it.
“I don’t think there are homes that companies don’t want to film because they’ve been seen too much,” says Fantasia. “But there are homes that people don’t want to film because they are frequently filmed and therefore the neighbors become upset -- too many early morning wake-ups, too many nights listening to generators and loud crew members, too much traffic congestion.”
If a movie house needs to reflect a particular geographical setting, it also needs to say something about the character who lives there. For an episode of “The X Files” about a monster who eats his neighbors, Jones picked a conventional family home in a gated community in Westlake Village.
“We wanted to juxtapose vanilla suburban utopia as seen from the outside against what lurked within,” he says. “The gates implied security and safety, and the degree of uniformity in the color of the houses implied suburbia -- the perfect place for a crazy monster.”
But when monsters aren’t living among Sub-Zeros and white oak floors, Jones says, they hang out in sinister Victorians, preferably more vertical than wide. “I find those in the Adams historic district,” he says. “Visually, long and tall is creepier than broad and low.” Who knew?
And where do bad guys live? That’s easy: glass houses filled with uncomfortable geometric furniture. Think John Lautner’s chemosphere in “Charlie’s Angels,” Richard Neutra’s Lovell home in “L.A. Confidential” and James Mason’s ultramodern abode in “North by Northwest,” a stunner that in reality was a set designed to look like a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
“The movies portray modern houses as stark and cold,” says Meyler. “This is meant to reflect the villain’s personality -- an isolated and creepy guy who spends time looking out windows at other people.”
Cindy Olnick of the Los Angeles Conservancy believes the iconoclastic nature of modern design may seem to have certain commonalities with the criminal mind. “Modern architecture takes risks, deviates from the norm and literally hangs over the edge,” she says. “It implies a lack of restraint.”
But Carlotta Stahl, who lives in a glass house, has a simpler explanation. “In movies, a glass house and children don’t mix, and bad guys never have children,” she says. In the 42 years her house has appeared in films, it has never played home to a child, despite the fact that her three children grew up in hers.
As always, there are just some styles that seem suited to the business. Want a starworthy estate that will have a career in film? Location scout Lori Balton gives this advice: “I’d buy land in El Sereno or City Terrace and build a midcentury-style house,” she says. “I’d borrow from all of my favorite architects -- Wright, Neutra, Schindler, Soriano -- and have great sightlines and a lot of natural light. Care to invest?”
But remember, renting out to film companies is not for the faint of heart.
“It’s like Attila the Hun coming to visit,” says Jones (“Hellboy,” “Gattaca,” “The X Files”). “You’ve got more than a hundred people inside your house, all carrying equipment. Things will get dinged.” Which is why respectable film companies have to pay homeowners so handsomely. Show business isn’t for everyone, and it’s not for every house. Many are called; few are chosen. But some are chosen again and again.
Jamie Diamond is a Los Angeles writer. She can be reached at home@ latimes.com.