THE SPACES TO DREAM OF

Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a charming stone cottage on a snow-dappled hill, surrounded by mature trees and a low stone wall. Smoke billows from chimneys on either end of the house. Inside, the patina of centuries has settled onto rough-hewn timber beams and floors of large, uneven old bricks. Yet anyone scouring the English countryside for this cozy haven will search in vain. Rose Cottage, identified by a nameplate on its weathered wooden gate, was born in the imagination of Nancy Meyers, the director of the popular romantic comedies "What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give," which she also wrote.

Rose Cottage figures importantly in the plot of "The Holiday," her latest creation, in theaters now. Two women, one in London, one in L.A., swap homes for two weeks. Because they are in a Meyers movie, there's a good chance they'll discover romance. They'll surely find themselves in houses design junkies will lust after.

"The rooms in her films vibrate the chord of what we all want," says Dominique Browning, editor of House & Garden. "Nancy and her team are so in touch with what's going on in the design world, and she's able to translate the trends into real places for her characters that people relate to and yearn for."

Meyers' oeuvre is filled with beguiling environments that make the audience beg to stay awhile, the better to study the art on the walls, to linger at the kitchen table or snuggle under a cashmere throw on a voluptuous sofa. After the final fade-out, when the folks on-screen move on to the limbo where characters chill while a sequel is written, volunteers stand ready to move into Meyers' world. They'd love to settle into the Vermont farmhouse (where Diane Keaton found love) in "Baby Boom," Steve Martin and Keaton's bobo family homestead in "Father of the Bride," or the Hamptons beach retreat in "Something's Gotta Give," (where Keaton found love. Again).

In "The Holiday," Iris (Kate Winslet) arrives in Brentwood and runs from room to room of Amanda's 8,000-square-foot hacienda, a minimalist showplace warmed by a muted palette and natural materials. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) owns a successful movie-advertising business. The audience shares Iris' delight in her surroundings, and their acquaintance with Amanda enhances the home's beauty.

Coveting Amanda's crib is of a piece with envying her figure or desiring the sweet, gorgeous guy who falls for her in Act Two. It's never pleasant to discover a lover's betrayal. But in our appearance-obsessed consumer culture, it's easy to entertain the fantasy that life isn't too terrible for a woman like Amanda, who gets to kick her faithless fella to the curb of that exquisite house.

HOLLYWOOD has long been in the wish fulfillment business. "Screwball comedies were created as mass entertainments during the Depression," Meyers says. "People didn't want to see their own lives reflected on screen, so the foibles of the rich became fodder for humor. In the great '30s and '40s movies like 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'Woman of the Year,' the sets were extraordinary. When you're creating a world you want people to get lost in for two hours, you dial up reality."

Hyper-reality is not easily achieved, nor does it come cheap. The process begins with a 10-foot bulletin board Meyers covers with images from books, catalogs, magazines, old movies -- anything that fleshes out the visions that develop in her head as she writes. The inspiration board is a starting point for extensive research and location scouting. Production designer Jon Hutman collaborated with Meyers on "What Women Want" in 2000 and "Something's Gotta Give" three years later. He has a degree in architecture from Yale, 20 years' experience in film and television and a passion for detail that matches Meyers'. "Nancy's scripts are written very thoughtfully, and she's very specific in her likes and dislikes," he says. The director weighs in on every fabric swatch, wall color and lamp. "My mother was a decorator. My grandmother had an antique shop," she says. "It's part of my background to pay attention to minutiae, and the little things you worry about on a set do pay off."

Hutman found the prototype for Iris' cottage in Hertfordshire, tucked in a secluded glen on a large estate. "It wouldn't have been practical to film there," he says. "It made sense to build it on a beautiful hillside closer to London. We put in the road, the trees and the stone wall." Molds taken in England were used to fashion walls of fake stone made of plaster, inside and out; interiors were built on a soundstage.

Contrast between Iris and Amanda's homes was crucial. Initially, Meyers and Hutman wanted Amanda to live in a classic old Hollywood house, but they ultimately chose a Spanish Revival in San Marino that Wallace Neff built for himself in 1928. Hutman changed the front door, redid the driveway, removed a fountain, brought in new landscaping and resurfaced the pool's deck.

"How do you take a traditional Spanish Colonial house and update it, so it looks like a young woman's home?" Hutman asks. The rooms were created in the studio in eight weeks, using contemporary furnishings in the style of interior designer Christian Liaigre. Although a similar house would probably cost at least $4 million to construct, the interiors were made for about $1 million, without exterior walls, a roof, plumbing, heating and electricity. Most furniture was built to order, because 10 weeks of pre-production didn't provide enough time for ordering from showrooms.

"Nancy doesn't create a vague facsimile of a nice house," says interior designer James Radin, whose clients include Julia Louis Dreyfus. "You could take any of the sets in her movies and put it in a house in Brentwood and live in it. The artwork and accessories are just right, the upholstery. It's all legitimate, and it reads that way."

The houses of three other characters each needed to be in a distinctive style. Iris' brother, played by Jude Law, lives in an English country house originally built in the 16th century, then expanded. Interiors were shot in a home Hutman found in Los Feliz. Iris' L.A. crush (Jack Black) calls a Richard Neutra in Silver Lake home. And the residence of a widower Iris befriends (Eli Wallach) was actually Phyllis Diller's house in Brentwood. "Before I found it," Hutman says, "I scouted a widower's house that we thought might work. It was so sad. There was one pillow on the bed. Those are the hard things to get right, the heating pad on the chair, the books on the shelves. In a rich person's home, we use down for upholstery, and high thread count sheets. We try to cut corners where we can, but the details are important, even if you think no one would notice. It's a method-y thing."

Communicating a character's qualities is the goal. "The interiors at Amanda's house are missing something," Hutman says. "But so is she. She has everything, but she's empty. It's a house that a lot of people would love to have, yet it feels like no one lives there. That fits the story."

AND environments that help tell a story become charged with emotions that stay with the audience. "When someone like Diane Keaton is seen in a fabulous environment, it takes on an additional aura of desirability," says production designer Maher Ahmad.

While researching kitchen designs for "The Holiday" at a high-end showroom in London, Hutman introduced himself as Meyers' collaborator. He was told that at least once a week, someone walks into the showroom brandishing a "Something's Gotta Give" DVD, saying "I want the kitchen in this movie." One man went even further. "He rented a helicopter," Meyers says, "and flew over Long Island, looking for the beach house. He found the home where we'd shot, which wasn't for sale, and he knocked on the door and told the owners, 'I want to buy your house.' It was a name-your-price kind of thing."

The house hunter with more cash than brains had a thing or two to learn about movie magic. Only the exterior of the house was used in the film. The home's interior and backyard were designed by Hutman and built on a soundstage, including a pool that contained water only deep enough for a lap-swimming guppy. The sleek kitchen countertops that masqueraded as expensive soapstone on film, also part of an elaborate set, were really plywood skimmed with plaster, then painted.

"If you had photographed that kitchen and put it in House & Garden, people would have liked it, but it would not have caused a sensation," Hutman says. "The reason people still flip out over the 'Father of the Bride' house has to do with the difference between what a production designer and an architect or interior designer do. I design for a story."

mimi.avins@latimes.com

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Tips on the finer points

Faux stone might stand in for the real thing, but when designing the interiors of affluent movie characters, production designer Jon Hutman believes some details shouldn't be faked. "There is a quality you see in the homes of people with money," he says. "They can afford to buy good things, and good things last a long time and wear in a certain way." His advice on what not to skimp on and why:

Flowers: We spend a lot of money on fresh flowers. There's an art to what a good florist does.

Framing: Cheap framing is a big giveaway. If a reproduction of a Picasso isn't framed well, it won't look like a great painting.

Routed corners: When the molding on a window or cabinet door is done properly, the corner will be squared off. When woodwork is done the cheap, quick and easy way, corners are rounded, which looks terrible.

Draperies: How are they constructed, how heavy is the fabric, how is the pleat done? We use hand-stitched pleats and lined draperies. It affects how light shines through them and how they hang.

-- Mimi Avins

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