Earlier this spring, Annette Bening and Ed Harris strolled the galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, marveling in hushed tones over Monet's majestic images of Giverny and Rembrandt's sublime masterpiece "The Raising of Lazarus."
They were filming a key scene in director Arie Posin's drama "The Look of Love," which plumbs the mysteries of romantic attraction between a woman who has lost her husband and a male painter who's a dead ringer for her deceased spouse.
Yet the movie's most intriguing guest star — aside perhaps from Robin Williams, who plays a close friend of Bening's character — is LACMA itself. The county-owned museum appears several times in the film, triggering encounters between the main characters and serving as a focus for the movie's visual-minded motifs.
"Look of Love" has received the most extensive access ever granted to the museum's galleries for a movie shoot, and the filmmakers say the setting is a crucial part of their work's visual homage to Los Angeles.
"It's not the tourist L.A., it's the L.A. we all live in," said Posin, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Matthew McDuffie. "And so obviously, the L.A. County Museum is the place."
The "Look of Love" shoot is the latest sign of what appears to be a budding romance between LACMA and Hollywood. That relationship, like most, has had its ups and downs.
Hollywood, for its part, often has been less interested in LACMA's art holdings than in using the museum as a cool backdrop for blowing stuff up, in apocalyptic movies such as "Miracle Mile" and "Volcano." Then, a few years ago, a dust-up occurred after LACMA announced plans to cancel its 41-year-old film series, citing declining attendance and funding. The decision drew widespread criticism from cinephiles, including Martin Scorsese, who penned an open protest letter that was published in The Times.
In response, the museum reversed gears, expanding its movie offerings and partnering with Film Independent to launch a new series.
Lately, LACMA and Hollywood have been making eyes at each other. The museum's blockbuster show on director Tim Burton was one of the top-attended exhibitions in America last year. Recent prestige films such as Terrence Malick's"The Tree of Life" have held their L.A. premieres at the museum's Bing Theater. Last year, LACMA acquired Christian Marclay's cinematic-conceptual artwork "The Clock," a 24-hour-long compilation of thousands of film and TV clips, which screened to enthusiastic crowds.
And in October, LACMA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced partnership plans to open a movie museum within three years in the former May Co. building, which sits just west of the museum on Wilshire Boulevard and is owned by LACMA. The new space reportedly may include exhibitions on the history of movies and a theater for film screenings. A $200-million fund-raising effort for the project is underway.
Michael Govan, LACMA's director, said the "Look of Love" shoot is one more step to "get people to use the museum and have it shared as much as it can be on all levels."
For the "Look of Love" cast and crew, last month's four-day LACMA shoot offered a chance to commune with masterworks in a visually sumptuous, well-lighted setting that required little in the way of technical enhancement. The movie, which wrapped shooting May 12, is seeking a distributor.
At LACMA, the film's makers took pains to leave the faintest footprint possible. During one outdoor sequence in which Bening's character, Nikki, waits on a bench next to the new Resnick Pavilion, unknowing visitors walked within a few feet of the actress, who was partly hidden by a cluster of palm trees. Crew members joked that a small blue tented structure where visual technicians were monitoring the action might've been mistaken for some wild Christo-like art installation.
"There would be patrons who would come through completely oblivious to the fact that we were in the room, just looking at the paintings," said Bonnie Curtis, who's producing the movie with Julie Lynn. "It's very peaceful too. Everybody's coming on set and everybody's whispering, 'Action!'"
One main challenge of the piece "is that so much of the film is happening inside of Annette's character," Curtis said. "The goal was to write a piece that almost felt like theater, that people could really have an intimate experience with the film."
LACMA's serene, self-contained atmosphere helped create that head space, she added. "We've been thrilled to be here. It's sort of like we're on holy ground."
Lynn said to gain LACMA's permission for the shoot, "we went after them with every possible contact, loving letters, 'We'll be careful.'" It also helped that director Rodrigo Garcia, who worked with Lynn and Bening on his film"Mother and Child,"sent an email to his friend Govan.
"It seemed like they had a small budget, it was good people, and I talked to the staff and everybody seemed excited to accommodate them," Govan said.
Posin, whose credits include "The Chumbscrubber," a dark satire of suburbia, said he wanted his new movie to depict L.A. as romantic and alluring. In addition to LACMA, "Look of Love" includes scenes at a farmers market, a sushi restaurant, a Venice Beach residential area and an art gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station complex.
"I live here and I've fallen in love here, and I wanted to see that," Posin said.
Harris, who has the challenging assignment of playing two parts — the roles of Tom and Nikki's first husband, an architect named Garrett — said that in the past he had spent more time at art museums in New York than in L.A. He plans to visit LACMA more often.
"It's really a great museum," said Harris, a painter who directed and starred in a 2000 biopic of Abstract Expressionist master Jackson Pollock. "They really gave us the time and space to do it, and hopefully, we were not too obtrusive."
For Bening, working at LACMA was more like deepening an existing connection than making a new acquaintance. The actress said that she comes to the museum regularly with her children and that she had met Govan previously as a member of the academy committee involved in planning the movie museum. Jeannine Oppewall, art director for "Look of Love," is also a committee member.
Bening credited Govan and his staff with bringing a sense of user-friendliness and greater visibility to the museum in recent years.
"It doesn't feel stuffy or serious, it just feels kind of like a celebration," she said. "I love that new [Resnick] pavilion and the whole feeling there, all the new events they're doing."
Govan also led the filmmakers on a tour of the galleries.
"Having a private tour with Michael is pretty awesome," Bening said. "He's a visionary."
If all goes well, the producers said, they hope to hold the "Look of Love" premiere at the museum.
So will LACMA be hosting more feature films crews? Govan was circumspect.
"I don't know if we would do monster movies destroying the museum. We haven't had that request yet," he replied, laughing. "We've had the disaster movies, I guess. Now we've got love. Maybe there's a message there."