Homes on screen: how scouts find the perfect film locations

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Brian Cox as Logan Roy in ‘Succession’ at his weekend retreat, the Summer Palace — in real life, a mansion built for the grandson of Henry Ford © Landmark Media/Alamy

Prestige TV megahit Succession is careening towards its conclusion after five years of satirising the lives and legacy of the Roy media empire family. The show’s glimpse into the world of the one per cent has ignited viewers’ curiosity around every choice made by the people who could buy anything — would a real-life Shiv really wear a Ted Baker dress, for example?

Its locations, though, have arguably become the most discussed detail of all. Collectively, they’re as much a character as any of the Roy scions. Take the Summer Palace, Logan’s weekend retreat — in real life, a 20,000 sq ft 1960 mansion built for the grandson of car magnate Henry Ford — which Succession’s set-decorating team reconfigured to reflect the taste of a man like Logan, whose first successes came in the late 1960s.

Whatever locations the production team selects, watchers eagerly identify them: Nan Pierce’s mansion, for example, was quickly clocked as a Belle Époque-era home in Montecito owned by Google’s former chief executive Eric Schmidt. Endless guides offer fans the lowdown for visiting the show’s various locales — the Tuscan tourism board couldn’t have managed a better bolster than having its countryside act as a backdrop to a Succession wedding.

It’s a sign of our obsession with the current rash of wealth-spotlighting shows and films — curiosity around the real-life locations is insatiable. And it’s up to location wranglers to identify and manage authentic sets for the production: they will liaise with creatives such as the director for a brief, then handle admin such as permits and logistics, while also smoothing any ruffled feathers during filming.

For the most impressive houses, daily fees can be up to $50,000 for filming, with scaled charges for set-up and break-down days, usually 50 per cent of that fee. It’s easy to see why a business or a suburban homeowner might welcome the extra income, an unexpected boost to the bottom line. When a shoot requires more highfalutin homes, though, how do location experts persuade owners to open their doors to productions like Succession?

Shooting a scene from ‘The Gilded Age’ in Newport, Rhode Island
Shooting a scene from ‘The Gilded Age’ at The Ledges, in Newport, Rhode Island

Damon Gordon, a location scout and manager who worked on Succession and Revolutionary Road among others, says one answer is boredom.

“It breaks up the monotony of life, an adventure for a week or so that’s a fun, living testament, a wonderful party conversation piece forever,” he says. “And there’s bragging rights, too.” If the potential for anecdotes isn’t enough, sometimes he offers a different sweetener, as when he worked on a popular turn-of-the-millennium TV show. He was out in Connecticut’s waterfront Gold Coast, inspecting high-end homes, when he met one couple who’d responded to the flyers he had hand delivered in the neighbourhood.

“Their daughter was home from college for the summer. She loves the show, they said, and she’s been doing summer stock theatre. We’d love to have her in there.” The deal was struck, and a small speaking part secured alongside the fee. “A six-figure amount doesn’t change their lives, but getting their child a new career — or maybe helping her to learn she hates it? That’s priceless,” says Gordon.

Don’t assume, though, that those with multimillion-dollar homes aren’t in financial need, he adds. One penthouse he secured in Manhattan — a process he called “a game of tag and an emotional rollercoaster” — was mired in a divorce; one half of the soon-to-be-ex couple was keen both to improve their bank balance and inconvenience their spouse.

Nick Carr, author of Scout Stories and a location scout who has worked in New York and LA, says many mansions in the Hollywood Hills are owned by cash-poor, asset-rich types who might have inherited the property or bought it before the boom in that area. “The place that’s a multimillion-dollar home from the outside but the furniture, everything else, it looks like my mom’s kitchen in Massachusetts? They’re definitely paying the mortgages with film shoots.”

British location scout Steve Mortimore
British location scout Steve Mortimore finds castles and stately homes for films: ‘Everyone wants to be the next Highclere or Alnwick’

Carr says the issue with any location is rarely centred around the homeowner; rather, it’s the director’s whims and ego that cause most headaches. “The truth is that every location worth filming has been used dozens if not hundreds of times, and no one cares, but the moment a homeowner says, ‘Omigosh, we’re so excited to see Martin Scorsese in our home, I hope you film here. We loved when 30 Rock did’, I think, ‘No, don’t say that.’ ”

Most directors, Carr adds, aren’t visualising a location from reality but, rather, something from another movie — one reason so many impoverished twenty-something characters in Manhattan live in far larger apartments on screen than they could afford in real life. The boundaries between fact and fiction are blurred further by maps such as the one that Carr consults: it depicts Southern California, but the real names are replaced by the settings that they resemble — the desert portion is labelled the Sahara, for example, and the mountains are the Alps.

He was working with another big-name director to scout a home, and driving in a location van with him around a neighbourhood. Periodically, as the director spotted a home of interest, a scout would be dispatched from the van to knock on the door and inquire if the homeowner was interested; at day’s end, the director was delighted to have discovered the perfect place. Or so he thought.

“He didn’t find that house. We went out the day before and pre-scouted about 25 homes, and knew that if we told him this was the house, he would never pick it. So we told the van driver to keep taking turns in front of the place; it took 10-12 passes until he lifted his head up and said ‘Hey, that looks great. Let’s stop here.’ ”

The other way to ensure that locations are secured smoothly is to use a broker. There are several operations, particularly in the industry’s hometown, that specialise in providing high-end homes that are pre-vetted for filming. They handle negotiations with a production company and take a cut, usually around 30 per cent, of any rental fees paid. Catherine Meyler runs one of them, Meyler & Co.

She’s an expat Briton who worked as a nanny in late-1980s Los Angeles; her employer was an architecture buff whose enthusiasm she quickly shared. She began traipsing around the city house-spotting as a hobby. Her knowledge of the town’s architectural infrastructure helped her stumble into a job finding locations, initially for fashion shoots, then for film.

Meyler’s roster of 2,000 or so properties includes mostly notable homes, such as those designed by Richard Neutra or Greene & Greene. A home by the latter in Pasadena had been painstakingly restored by its owners, and the producers of mini-series The Romanoffs were keen to use it.

“[The owners] found a huge, 2ft square chandelier during the restoration that had been custom-made for the house in a large hallway, and said it couldn’t be moved,” Meyler recalls. It was at risk of damage from the equipment so the location manager Chris Baugh suggested a solution: a chandelier babysitter, a crew member deployed to sit beneath it at all times. “The owner did agree to it,” Meyler says.

Kaufmann House
Kaufmann House, designed by Richard Neutra, one of several homes used in the film ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ © Tim Street-Porter

Chris Pine, one of the film’s stars
Chris Pine, one of the film’s stars © Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

Apart from rental fees, other financial upsides are a factor, too — such as the recognition factor in any resale. One home that Meyler wrangled for Don’t Worry Darling went on the market six months after filming. “Even though it was never discussed . . . in retrospect I think . . . part of the reason the owner let us do it was that he was letting go of the house — he’d restored it to perfection.”

More than just resale value, there are favourable tax terms that incentivise such rentals in the US. Anyone can rent out their home for up to a fortnight per year tax-free (hit 15 days or more and tax is due on the entire sum). “It’s 14 days of tax-free money, and a lot of wealthy owners look at that as maintenance money,” says Meyler.

In the UK, there’s no such loophole, as Steve Mortimore knows. Mortimore is a Briton who is also a Hollywood veteran, having worked on the likes of Wonder Woman 1984 and World War Z; much of his work has been in the UK. Cajoling the chatelaines of country piles here isn’t as hard as it once was, he says, thanks to the likes of Downton Abbey and Harry Potter. “Everyone wants to be the next Highclere or Alnwick,” he says.

Star power in Britain is of a different wattage: the occupants of one stately home only acceded to Mortimore’s request to shoot a commercial there several years ago when they discovered the talent involved. “The secretary had slammed the phone down on me, but when [the lady of the house] read my fax, she called me straight back. ‘Did you say Des Lynam?’ ” she asked, referring to the long-serving TV sports presenter. “ ‘I have a soft spot for him. Let me have a word with my husband.’ ”

Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin and Alexander Skarsgård in a scene from ‘Succession’:
Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin and Alexander Skarsgård in a scene from ‘Succession’: Villa La Cassinella on Lake Como was used to portray tech visionary Lukas Matsson’s private estate © Graeme Hunter

The issue with such properties, he says, can be persnicketiness over scripts — one stately home Mortimore declines to name allowed the upcoming Ridley Scott film Napoleon to shoot there, but restricted to certain rooms its raunchiest scenes. “Maybe it’s somewhere the Queen Mother was seated and they just can’t do it.”

Character can be an issue too: in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Mortimore was tasked with finding a house in London to act as an oligarch’s lair. Astonishingly, he found one that would require little to no alteration for use, a rarity for most private homes — what he calls a “very bling house” that was owned by a well-known businessman’s ex-wife. “We offered an awful lot of money, and she agreed only if no one knew that it was her house we’d used.”

The challenge of securing such locations from wealthy homeowners is diminishing, at least according to New York-based Lauri Pitkus. She’s worked as a location scout and manager on HBO TV shows such as The Undoing and The Gilded Age, as well as movies such as Ocean’s Eight and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Her greatest challenge came when working with Danish director Susanne Bier on The Undoing. The director had visited New York as a child, and recalled the spectacular penthouse in which her grandfather had lived. Find me that, or one like it, she instructed Pitkus, as a home for Donald Sutherland’s ultra-wealthy character.

Pitkus sent her scout traipsing up and down the sidewalk in front of the toniest apartment buildings on that stretch of Fifth Avenue; most of the doormen shooed him away. Instead, they sent formal requests on headed paper to the co-op presidents of each property. Pitkus was staggered when she received a prompt, positive response from Maureen Sherry, the board president of a building on the Upper East Side, who was amenable to filming in empty apartments.

One of them was owned by Sir Howard Stringer, former chair of Sony, but he was about to sell. “He was wonderful, and with his background was a big supporter of the arts, and they made a very fair deal with us,” says Pitkus.

Noma Dumezweni and Donald Sutherland in ‘The Undoing’ on the set
Noma Dumezweni and Donald Sutherland in ‘The Undoing’ on the set inspired by the penthouse of the director’s grandfather © David Giesbrecht/HBO

Even that private home, though, wasn’t quite a fit for Bier’s vision, so the production team created a soundstage replica. The hallways and elevator, for example, are ersatz since those communal elements are irksome to film; the salon, too, is a fiction, mostly because they wanted the ceilings to soar as high as possible — around 20ft, taller than even the fanciest New York homes.

There’s another reason the very wealthy are willing and able to offer up a multimillion-dollar home for a movie or two. “More and more people have more and more money, and so they have more and more homes — which they often don’t live in,” says Pitkus. “We talk about how Tribeca has become the land of safety deposit boxes, full of fabulous, decorated apartments that no one lives in.”

Well, until Pitkus and co are tasked with finding a home for the menacing patriarch of the next super-rich, super-dysfunctional family to grace our screens.

Find out about our latest stories first — follow @FTProperty on Twitter or @ft_houseandhome on Instagram

Source: Financial Times

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