It is 9 a.m. when I arrive at the Laurents family home in Pasadena, and already it is a flurry of activity. Showbiz types attached to cell phones scurry in all directions, a caravan of production company trucks line the street, port-o-potties rise up like giant blue yard ornaments on the front lawn. I knock on the door, and Terry Laurents welcomes me into her two-story Colonial Revival. Stepping inside, I notice that her home has already begun to metamorphose into a Hollywood movie set. Thin sheets of plastic cover the wooden floors, coils of cords snake through the house and camera equipment jams the hallway – all in preparation for the filming of "Spiderman III," scheduled to begin in a couple of days.
I had always assumed that filming at a residential location was a rather glamorous affair, as if you walk down the stairs and find Eddie Murphy laughing it up with your husband, or Cameron Diaz sipping tea in your breakfast nook. So naturally, one of the first questions I ask Laurents when we later sit down at a small café in Old Town is how it feels to have famous stars lounging around your living room.
"Well, actually, you’re not allowed any access to them," she said.
With a twinge of chagrin, I proceed to the next logical question. "So who would actually want their home turned upside down by the movie industry?"
"It takes a very special person," Laurents said. "You have to really want it. Otherwise, the compromises are too demanding."
A veteran in the business, Laurents candidly shares her expertise about residential filming. As an artist herself, she has a great respect for the creative process and knows what it requires to break into the business.
It is the age-old decision for all Hollywood actors, singers, writers – and yes, even houses. Agent or no agent? Representation by a location agency offers a plethora of advantages for homeowners interested in using their home in a film, TV or commercial shoot. For a certain percentage, an agency represents the homeowners like a real estate agency would: showing the home to prospective production companies and serving as a communicator between the scouts and directors who will ultimately decide whether or not the home is appropriate for their project.
Once a home is chosen, the agency will send out a site representative who stays at the home for the duration of the project and acts as a liaison between the production company and the homeowner. They help to negotiate prices (which vary greatly depending on the type of shoot), communicate special requests by homeowners, handle insurance and permits and set up cancellation fees. Laurents advises that with or without an agent a site rep is vital to ensure the rights of the homeowner are protected.
Once a production company arrives, life changes dramatically for the family involved in the project. For the Laurents family, every new shoot can be like moving day all over again. Prepping a house for a shoot often involves packing and storing the family’s belongings. As nightmarish as this sounds, production companies have mastered the art of moving. Boxes are carefully labeled, and rooms are photographed, so that each item is carefully returned to its proper place. Sometimes the house does sustain damages. However, Laurents has found that production companies take great care restoring the house to its original condition once the shoot is over.
Because a production company generally has access to the entire property, the homeowners may choose to stay in a hotel rather than compromise their privacy, especially during a feature shoot. During filming of "The Haunted Mansion," Laurents and her family were away from their home the longest they have ever been: two and a half weeks. For shorter projects, some homeowners prefer to help oversee the alterations made to the home. The modifications are generally minor, such as painting a room, moving out furniture or, as with one shoot at the Laurents home, taping hundreds of tiny flowers to a barren tree in the front yard. Sometimes, however, a change can be more invasive, like drilling holes in the ceiling to hang a camera or cutting down shrubbery in the front yard. It is up to the homeowner to decide what is permissible.
Laurents explains, "You want to be accommodating because you have made an agreement and you want the success of their shoot. You want them to be happy in your neighborhood and happy using your home, but you also have to protect yourself and your interests and make sure they stay within the boundaries they’ve promised."
But the homeowner is not the only one impacted by a residential film shoot. The temperament of a neighborhood is a reliable predictor of a homeowner’s success or failure in the film industry. And even though roaring generators and blinding set lights may not make you the most popular family on the block, filming in one’s neighborhood does have its benefits. Because cities charge a fee to production companies, each shoot earns revenue that the city can use for schools, parks or other public projects. In addition, production companies often make generous donations to neighborhood associations that accommodate them.
In Pasadena, production companies are required to get a percentage of signatures from residents living within 300 feet of the shoot. This ensures that the majority of the residents agree to the shoot, and helps the production company find neighbors willing to participate in the project. It is an exciting business, and Laurents finds that many of her neighbors enjoy being involved. Besides, there are always ways to win back popularity points. After a night shoot involving a clamorous snow machine for the film "In Her Shoes," Laurents did some damage control by inviting all of the neighborhood kids over to play in the snow.
Because film is an artistic endeavor, there is no certainty. The production company creates a schedule, but at any given moment it can, and will, change. Even after months of preparation, it is possible that a home can be put on hold or even dropped because of a rewrite in the script or other aesthetic changes. Flexibility is key not only to the success of the project but also to the sanity of the homeowner.
As we finish our coffee, Laurents gets a phone call from the location manager at her house. Change of plan: Furniture that was to be moved out tomorrow will be sitting on her front lawn when she gets home. Laurents laughs, "It’s a rollercoaster ride." She shakes her head and smiles, knowing that once she has braced herself through all the bumps and sharp turns, she’ll be ready to do it all over again.