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Bright Lights and Local Living Rooms

By Nancy L. Ross
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 20, 1993

What's it like having Kevin Kline in your living room, sitting on your sofa?

"Very exciting. He's very handsome, not at all standoffish," said Andrea Stelter, 25, who shared a group house in Mount Pleasant where the movie "Dave," starring Kline, was filmed last fall.

The owners, housemates and friends jammed into the kitchen while the scene was being shot. They kibitzed as numerous retakes were made. When an assistant to the director asked them to leave because their presence was ruffling the actors, they peered through the rear windows. Stelter, a video producer, chatted up some members of the crew and got herself invited to their catered luncheon of crab and filet mignon at a nearby church.

During the midday break she actually got to meet the star. The script called for him to pick up the mail -- her mail -- from the box. "I told him I lived there. We talked for about 30 seconds. He apologized for any inconvenience," she recalled. (The crew had begun setting up at 6:30 a.m.) She asked him for his autograph, which he penned on a letter from her father. It reads: "To Andrea -- Thanks for the house. Kevin Kline."

As filmmakers increasingly venture outside Southern California, the demand for locations is growing. The California Film Commission reports that $2 billion worth of production has left the state annually since 1991.

Cities, including the nation's capital, vie for production crews because of the income -- not to mention the recognition -- they bring. Blockbusters with Washington scenes include "Hair," "Broadcast News," "The Silence of the Lambs" and "JFK." Since the Mayor's Office of Motion Pictures and Television Development, a division of the Office of Business and Economic Development, was established in 1979, 82 feature and television films have been shot in whole or in part here, according to director Crystal Palmer. Income to D.C. enterprises from the nine movies plus music videos, documentaries and commercials filmed here last year amounted to an estimated $40 million, she added.

Most of the cinematic interest lies in the monumental city of the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the Supreme Court. Whenever the scene shifts from official Washington to the make-believe residences of important government people, Hollywood seems to be of one collective mind: characters are invariably shown living in Georgetown or Capitol Hill row houses.

Reel life behind those picture postcard facades is another story.

"You wouldn't believe the number of requests I get to shoot in the Oval Office," said Kevin Brubaker, a Washington location scout and producer. The request is usually accompanied by a rationale to the effect that "we pay taxes too."

For the movie "Dave," about a fictional President Bill Mitchell and his look-alike, Dave Kovic, a painstakingly accurate replica of the White House interior was built on a Hollywood set. Indeed, most interiors are re-created elsewhere. To avoid federal red tape in getting permission to film, other locales are often used for public building interiors. And cost considerations, neighbors' objections and space limitations often make it easier to re-create private residence interiors on a Hollywood set.

However, producer-director Ivan Reitman, whose prior movie credits include "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Ghostbusters" and "Twins," did film two real-life houses in Washington for "Dave," which opened May 7. In the movie President Mitchell's chief of staff, Bob Alexander, played by Frank Langella, leads a pampered existence in his -- naturally -- Georgetown residence whereas the president's double, the middle class Dave Kovic, played by Kevin Kline, is shown in his Mount Pleasant digs.

The selection of the N Street location in Georgetown was made in the conventional way. The empty house, rented for many years, was for sale. More important, the living room and the library gave onto one another, a must to give the camera perspective for a party scene. Brubaker, who had peeked in the window, contacted listing agent Bill Cuddy of Pardoe Real Estate and rented the house for five days.

Bob's residence was intended to look upscale, a bit pretentious, explained set director Michael Taylor. "Everything was carefully placed -- prints, classical columns and sculpture, accessories -- to make him look like a collector." Nevertheless, the budget dictated inexpensive carpet and track lighting. The rented furniture -- including a black leather sofa with tubular chrome frame -- came from California, New York and Savage Mill, Md. "It was the complete opposite of the Chippendale style you'd expect" in that house, Cuddy observed.

The Mount Pleasant house was chosen by production designer J. Michael Riva due to the resemblance of the porches on that Kenyon Street block to Baltimore row houses. (Since the crew was in Washington anyway, it was less expensive to film here than to move north to another location for a single shot.) At the time it was being rented as a group house.

Current owner Terry Lynch, a church association administrator, and his wife, Rose Marie Audette, a law student, had put a contract on it. A Warner Bros. representative worked out a deal with the old and new owners and the tenants to use it as the modest place from which Dave Kovic, who runs a temporary employment service, is suddenly catapulted into the White House.

Taylor made a few changes in decor to turn it into a bachelor pad. From a Kensington antiques shop came '50s-style lamps and chairs. A bigger stereo was added. He rented the "Salvation Army" furniture of the young residents, including a piece familiarly known as Oscar the Couch. The fireplace's paint was changed from blue to black to match the woodwork.

In Lynch's opinion, the film shoot was fun. He got to watch as they shot the scene; he got to meet and photograph Kevin Kline. Because he and his wife had not yet moved in, they were not inconvenienced. He found the crew "very friendly and helpful." After less than a week of preparatory work and shooting, the movie company repainted the fireplace to his satisfaction, cleaned and waxed the floors and touched up the walls. Lynch said he was paid a total of $5,500 for the five days. As a memento of the occasion, he left the name Kovic on his mailbox.

Like a home itself, the experience of letting one's home go Hollywood is very personal.

Washington attorney Joseph C. Molina has graphic memories of renting his Capitol Hill Victorian house opposite Lincoln Park to Warner Bros. for the 1988 television series "A Man Called Hawk."

"I came home and found 20 tractor-trailers parked nearby. I had authorized filming for a 24-hour period. They {the crew} arrived at 1:30 p.m. and left at 10:30 a.m. It became a neighborhood event. All the neighbors were in my house between 2 and 3 a.m. There were 150 people there. My kids went up to the third floor to sleep. At dawn sunlight came into the house, so they sent people to black out the windows. I never went to bed that night.

"It was fascinating, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And they paid a huge amount of money. I have the tape which shows 10 minutes of the neighborhood and four minutes in my house. I may have second thoughts about doing it again, however, now that I've repainted the house and have antiques in it," he added.

The cinematic experience, as lived by Larry Schuster and his wife, Joan, of Pikesville, Md., was not exactly two thumbs up. The auto mechanic and travel agent, who have no children, will remember "That Night" in an entirely different way than will the audiences who see the forthcoming drama about a young girl growing up. (Due to open in late August, the movie was produced by Arnon Milchan, whose prior hits include "Pretty Woman," "JFK" and "The War of the Roses.") The Schusters had recently finished modernizing the 1942 Cape Cod-style brick house near Baltimore where they have lived for 4 1/2 years. They remodeled the kitchen with natural oak cabinets, repapered the dining room and repainted the living room.

In the fall of 1991 along came a team scouting for a location. Production designer Maher Ahmad recalled they were looking for a neighborhood of the '90s that would resemble a romanticized version of the Long Island suburbs of the late 1950s and early '60s. After a 14-state search, the team settled on Sudbrook Park in Pikesville. The post-World War II houses still had a '50s look; even the oak trees were of the right vintage. Moreover, Sudbrook residents -- who were eventually cast as extras -- agreed to a shoot lasting several months and enthusiastically joined in the hunt for 1950s cars and household goods.

The Schuster house was picked as the home of Sheryl, a teenager who has a love affair in her bedroom watched by 10-year-old Alice, who lives across the street. The Schusters' two dormer windows were too small for a neighbor to see through. A false front didn't work because it couldn't widen the opening, so Ahmad proposed reconstructing the front of the house. He made three designs.

"The husband was opposed at first, but by the end they saw this as a major improvement," said the production designer.

"I was going to do it down the road anyway," countered the homeowner, who conceded that the new dormers built by the movie producers were more proportionate to the facade than the original ones. "They did everything to code: double-insulated glass instead of 50-year-old type panes, a slate roof on the house and dormers. The job cost somewhere between $5,000 and $8,000; they paid for everything," Schuster acknowledged.

Ahmad, who had the front lawns of Sudbrook neighbors seeded and watered, asked Schuster to change his landscape. "We wanted to tear out the bushes, add a tree and put in a sidewalk and steps," said the production designer. "But he {Schuster} was in love with his lawn." In the end, the crew put in a temporary flagstone walk. "He later regretted he had not opted for a permanent change," Ahmad added. Schuster commented, "I still like the lawn the way it is."

Inside the house there were major changes. The new kitchen cabinets were hidden with a false wall covered with ceramic tile and wallpaper and a pantry door that didn't open. The dainty off-white floral wallpaper in the dining room was covered over with "just what we had gotten rid of," said Schuster -- huge pink roses on a green background. Paintings and pictures were added.

"We had a fight about the million holes they put in the wall. But they stripped off all the {new} wallpaper and put on a better, more expensive pattern we found. So we came out ahead on that," said Schuster.

They put dark gray wallpaper over antique white paint in the living room; another wall was painted dark gray "for the camera." Later the paper was removed. It took five coats of paint to return the gray painted wall to its former state. "It came out pretty well. But me and my wife are perfectionists. There are still some things to correct. I saw big areas of ceiling they missed," said Schuster.

The couple rented their dining room set, a secretary desk and porch furniture to the crew, which also brought in a "well-worn sofa, a purple easy chair and large electric fans." Schuster commented, "It was pretty tacky. Even my neighbor, who has lived here since 1942, exclaimed, 'They must have thought we were barbarians back then.' Afterward, the crew gave us the shrubbery, and offered to sell us any of their improvements. But we wanted everything put back as it was."

The couple moved out of their house for two months and lived with his mother nearby. Every day Larry Schuster returned home to feed his fish. "I was unhappy about being out of the house," he said. "They took total control. We were guests at our house. There was lots of emotional stress. The movers don't care what they break. We found some of our goods on the floor. A screen was ripped to run a power line through. There was missing door hardware, but we finally found it. It's definitely an experience. I'd never do it again."

Later, after recalling that he had received $10,000 for his trouble, he reconsidered, "I'm not sure whether I'd do it again. There would be a lot of changes, so people would be more careful."

As a rough rule of thumb, said location scout Brubaker, who has been in the business for six years, the going rate for filming in an upscale Washington home is $1,500 to $2,000 per day. Preparation and strike days (when the set is dismantled and prior conditions restored) are paid at half that rate. Exterior shots of houses command perhaps a few hundred dollars. "But everything is negotiable," he emphasized.

As the Schusters discovered, they were able to get a desirable addition to their house courtesy of the moviemakers. If a homeowner likes the custom draperies in which Hollywood envisages their premises, for example, they will be included as a bonus, the scout said. Repainting and repapering will be done free to the customer's specifications. If it is a long shoot, often the studio will pay for the homeowners to go to a hotel or even go on a cruise. In exchange the homeowner relinquishes any rights to the film or royalties. In addition the producer usually asks for the right to return within six months if a reshoot is required.

It can be a tough sell persuading Washingtonians to allow their houses to be used as movie locations, said Brubaker. "Even if they are interested, their attitude is often not to show it," he added.

In Southern California, by contrast, renting houses for movies has become a cottage industry. "People there build homes with film companies in mind," said Brubaker. They remodel their kitchens so they can be used for commercials.

Competition has driven up the rates. The daily cost of shooting the exterior of a house runs $1,000 to $1,500; for the interior, $1,500 to $3,500, according to Jean Ferguson, a consultant for Location Update magazine. Brian Brosnan of Hollywood Location Co. reports that an elderly widow who lives in the former Harold Lloyd estate makes $250,000 a year by renting her house out for 25 days at $10,000 per day.

And then there's Charlie Morton of Pasadena, whose job is renting out his parents' mansion to moviemakers. His daily rate for shooting is $5,500. Over 300 films, starting with "Duck Soup" by the Marx Brothers, have been made there, he said. "We have our own decor to which we go back after each shoot. We've had the place looking like everything from a haunted house to the White House. Let me send you a color brochure."

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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