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“Downsizing” Home Cameos

November 23, 2017 Leave a comment

The details that go into making a film go far beyond what you can ever imagine. They start in pre-production, multiply during the actual shoot and extend throughout the editing and post-production process. Nothing is too small to be unimportant. Alexander Payne is one of those filmmakers who insists, whenever possible, on finding and shooting in actual locations. Because five of his seven feature films have shot enirely or partly in his home state of Nebraska and often in his hometown of Omaha, he’s captured a variety of places here that we may recognize in his screenwork, including such landmarks as the Woodmen of the World tower, Johnny’s Cafe and the beloved Dundee neighborhood he grew up in. For his new film “Downsizing” he didn’t get to shoot as much in Omaha as he wanted but for three days he and his crew did commit to film a number of iconic spots, such as La Casa’s on Leavenworth and his alma mater Creighton Prep. He also shot the exteriors and interiors of some homes. Stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig were here for some of those scenes. This is my November-December 2017 Omaha Magazine story about the Omaha homes that have cameos in “Downsizing.'” It gives you some behind the scenes insights into how these homes came to be used.

And look for my January-February 2018 Omaha Mag piece on Alexander Payne coming home to stay following the long process it took to make “Downsizing.”

Downsizing Home Cameos

Meet the Local Residential Stars of Alexander Payne’s New Film

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in November-December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

 

When Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne prepares a film, he not only auditions actors but locations, too.

The writer-director insists on actual locations whenever possible. When he films in his hometown of Omaha, he’s extra keen to get it right. Just as local homes brought authenticity to his films Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt, Omaha homes earned supporting roles for Payne’s new film Downsizing during a mid-April 2016 shoot here.

Omaha figures prominently in the sci-fi dramedy (starring Matt Damon) that played major festivals in Venice, Italy; Telluride, Colorado; and Toronto, Canada. Its first half establishes Damon’s character, Paul, as an Omaha Everyman. The script called for him to reside in an inner-city duplex and, thus, location scout Jamie Vesay and counterparts in Toronto, where much of the film was made, scoured prospective sites.

Two matching 1920s-era, two-story brick duplexes on Douglas Street (in Payne’s childhood Dundee neighborhood) stood in for Paul’s home.

The story has Paul and wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) visit a suburban McMansion. Vesay scouted that, too.

Jamie Vesay

Two new large homes in Elkhorn’s Five Fountains neighborhood portrayed the for-sale property that Paul and Audrey visit.

Scenes were also shot outside La Casa Pizzaria, Creighton Prep (Payne’s alma mater), Jam’s in the Old Market and at Regency Court, and Omaha Steaks’ distribution center.

The story required a duplex with adjoining back decks to underscore the attachment Paul feels to his mother, who lives next door at one point. Payne loves physical comedy, and the director liked all the business of Paul entering-exiting various doors and navigating steps.

Events fast forward nine years to find Paul’s mother gone. He and Audrey now live in his mom’s old place, and he’s renting out his former unit. It’s a commentary on Paul’s limited horizons before his grand adventure.

Vesay says Payne also liked the Douglas properties for their small, steep front yards. A yard sale unfolds there that comically shows folks struggling with the tight quarters and severe pitch. Sealing the deal was the alley’s confluence of yards, fences, garages, light poles, wires, and its downtown view.

Carol Redwing lived at one of the two Douglas Street duplexes. The exterior of her residence was used for daytime and nighttime shots with Damon and Wiig. The unoccupied unit next door was leased by the production. The same arrangement was used at the other duplex on Douglas Street, where interiors were shot in a unit doubling for the on-screen duplex. More interiors were doubled in Toronto.

In suburban Five Points, Gretchen and Steven Twohig’s home became the McMansion exterior. The home of Ethan and Erin Evans became the interior. Vesay says the sea of cookie-cutter roofs visible from the development caught Payne’s eye.

The exterior of the Twohig home where filming occurred

Long before the production reached out to residents, their homes were scouted from the street. When first contacted, they were wary. Once assured that the Hollywood scout was not a prankster, Vesay, Payne, and department heads came for closer looks. The locals only knew their places were in the running before receiving final confirmation.

When word leaked about the Downsizing dwellings, reporters and curiosity-seekers appeared.

“It was kind of surreal,” says Redwing, who has since moved.

During the shoot, Vesay says producers broke protocol and allowed civilians on set. “People got remarkably close,” he says. Residents who lent their homes to the cause got up-close-and-personal experiences themselves. It was eye-opening.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces and people,” Redwing says. “It was really cool.”

Ethan Evans says he was struck “by how many behind-the-scenes people it takes—it’s quite the production. It was kind of a circus and crazy for a while.”

Hollywood came calling, but as Gretchen Twohig noted, “There’s nothing glamorous or fancy about any of it. It’s just people working really hard to get a project done. You realize all this hard work and all these tiny moments have to come together to make a movie.” She and her husband have school-age children but opted not to take them out of classes for the filming. The Evans’ young children watched. Redwing and her son saw everything.

Twohig echoed the other residents in saying everyone from Payne to the stars to the grips were “down-to-earth, calm, warm, professional, and gracious.”

The Evans’ garage became a staging spot. That’s where the couple hung out with Payne, Damon, and Wiig.

The high-ceilinged, spacious home’s entryway, dining room, and kitchen got the shoot’s full attention.

“Besides moving furniture around to make room for lights, screens, and cameras—and taking pictures down— they sort of kept everything the way we had the house decorated,” Evans says, “It only took a few takes.”

The Evans and Twohigs met one another as a result of Hollywood casting their homes. They’ve compared notes about their Downsizing experiences.

Twohig says after hours of setup at her place, as crew adjusted window blinds and for-sale signs, moved cars in and out of the driveway, and took the family basketball hoop down, put it back up, and took it down again, the actual shoot was over in a flash.

At Redwing’s old duplex, crew did landscaping and made building touch-ups but left her recycling bin, tools, and other homey elements intact. She’s confident her old abode made the final cut since it’s such an essential location as the hero’s home. However, the Evans and Twohigs know their places are more incidental and therefore expendable.

“We’d be disappointed, but we knew going in it could very easily be cut,” Twohig says. “But it would sure be fun if it was there.”

Redwing spoke for everyone regarding anticipation for Downsizing’s December release. “I’m very eager to see it.”

Meanwhile, one of the Douglas duplexes’ exterior has been painted. Last summer, its empty units were under renovation. A real estate listing read: “Come live where Matt Damon filmed the movieDownsizing!”

Having glimpsed behind the magic curtain, Ethan Evans says, “I sort of watch movies differently now.” Although he’s certain that he’ll forget the mechanics of cameras, mics, booms, and clappers when he finally sees Downsizing.

One of the duplexes on Douglas Street where filming occurred.

Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work atleoadambiga.com.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

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Plains Living on a Mountainous Scale

January 6, 2016 Leave a comment

Jana Wheatley has the Colorado-style home she’s always wanted right here in Omaha.  Read my short Omaha Home Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/omaha-home/) feature about what makes this residence Jana’s dream place.

 

 

Plains Living on a Mountainous Scale

January 3, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the January/February 2016 issue of Omaha Home Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/omaha-home/)

While driving towards Waterloo, Nebraska, Jana Wheatley came upon a sign reading “Live a more fluid life,” touting a coming residential lake community to be named West Shores. She longed to live in nature. Taking in the lake, the beach, and empty plots, she envisioned the Colorado lodge-style home she ended up building there.

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She and her now-ex bought the lakefront property in 2004. She served as general contractor for the build, subbing out jobs. Working with budgets and subs was old hat, as she owned a grounds management business with her then-husband.

She describes the resulting four-bedroom, four-bathroom, 6,000 square-foot house near the western limits of West Dodge Road as “comfy, rustic, chic,” adding, “We always kind of had an idea about what we wanted. I like simple. I don’t like foo-foo.”

Covenants prevented her from building with logs so she went with an exterior of cedar shingles and stone, and an interior with wide plank pine floors and ceilings, hickory cabinetry, granite counters, and variegated stone. The plaster walls are finished in a soft Texas leather. The rooms conform to her desire for “big, open, flowing spaces with natural light.” The living room, dining room, and kitchen open onto each other, and light from multiple windows brighten and soften the space.

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She likes the unfinished floors’ character in their flaws and scrapes.

“It’s worn but it shows it’s lived in, that people are having fun and it’s not a museum. I want people to enjoy themselves here.”

The living room has an unimpeded lake view through sliding glass doors that lead onto a south-facing deck running the full width of the house. Her bedroom opens onto the deck and its 180-degree view.

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“There’s nothing like watching the sunrise, and the sunset, and the geese flying over,” she says.

Her bathroom features a free-standing deep tub and a tall enclosed shower. The bathroom and kitchen plumbing fixtures are Industrial Age antique-inspired. The floors everywhere are warmed by an in-floor water heating system.

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Her love of nature is expressed in a mammoth antler horn chandelier fixed high above the living room. A slightly smaller antler art piece hangs from the ceiling above the staircase, connecting the main floor living area and the lower level rec area, where a miniature horn fixture crowns the billiards table.

The mantles above the two fireplaces continue the horn theme.

“It just says Colorado to me,” she says.

A hand-wrought iron chandelier sets off the kitchen island.

Her favorite space is a kitchen nook she calls “my little Indian corner” for its Native American wall art and traditional furniture designs.

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Southwestern-style pots and paintings add decorative flourishes.

The lower level offers more lake views.

“The house is like a frame to look outside and that’s what I end up doing—gazing outside.”

In the last 10 years she’s added a son and lost a husband but she still has her home.

“Can you tell it’s a labor of love? It’s a piece of me. It’s my dream. I’m having my Colorado right here.” OmahaHome

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Fairytale Wonder: A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

November 3, 2015 2 comments

When I posted about stories I have written that are in the pipeline for the remainder of 2015 a few slipped my mind, including this piece for Omaha Home Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/category/publications/omaha-home/) about a couple’s castle-like residence.

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Fairytale Wonder

A Regal Residence in Legacy Villas

Steve and Bari McCormick’s Euro-influenced home in the gated Legacy Villas development draws much attention for its enchanted kingdom appearance.

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The French country-style house stands apart from conventional residences for its distinctive features. Start with the decorative 30-foot-high turret. Add the projections, peaks, gables, eyebrow windows, stone-stucco-brick finish, carriage-style garage doors, and sweeping flow of the home on a raised and curved lot.

Castle-like embellishments include lions-head door-knockers.

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There’s a secluded courtyard in front and a wrap-around deck and landscaped patio with water feature in back.

Inside are arches, alcoves, recesses, high ceilings, massive solid wood beams, two large fireplaces, built-in bookcases, and a spiral staircase.

This Princess Bride look comes from the Storybook Collection of Missouri-based Ron Hill’s Euro World Designs. The couple worked closely with Hill in conceiving the home. Steve owned his own full-service realty company and developed many properties and spec homes. Bari’s always taken an active role with him to get things just right in their own homes. They both have a good eye and know enough to tell designers and builders how things should be done.

“We just know how we wanted it,” Bari says of their Legacy place. “It’s not an intimidating thing to either one of us. We like the process and we like to see it completed. It’s fun.”

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They fell in love with Hill’s work after touring homes he designed at the lake near Branson where they have their second home.

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Steve served as the project’s general contractor. He built the courtyard and water feature himself.

Ever since the home began taking shape in 2011 it’s provoked interest.

“It still does,” Bari says. “People come by this house weekly—stop, take pictures, come to the door and ask, ‘where did you get this?’ or ‘what color is that?’ We have a lot of people comment on it, I think, because it’s such a unique style.

“Now, did we ever think we would end up with this home? No. We’ve kind of been all over the place in terms of styles—we’ve had a two-story Tudor and a ranch—but every step moved us towards this.”

The McCormicks met at then-Kearney State College and lived in Kearney, Nebraska, almost all their married lives. He ran his business; she taught public school and later taught physical education at the college, along with running its intramural sports program.

After retiring they moved to Omaha to be close to their three adult sons and four granddaughters.

They’ve always done special things with their residences.

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“We did kind of trick them out,” Steve says. “But this is probably the craziest we’ve gone. I wanted to do the things that kind of went over the top, not to the point of being showy, but just neat features.”

A playground feature is the attached, double-high garage. It is Steve’s man cave, rec space, and trophy room. He’s added hydraulic lifts to facilitate storing his collection of classic Ford vehicles. He’s decorated the space with racing posters, motor oil signs, a vintage gas pump, a parking meter, and all things combustible engine-related.

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Just off the downstairs family room is a home movie theater that seats 10 in plush, fully reclinable chairs. A whimsical touch is a faux box office with a mannequin ticket-taker.

The family room includes a small bar backed by a distressed wall. Next to the bar is a tiny wine cellar fronted by an iron gate.

The McCormicks worked closely with subcontractors Dick Grace Construction, Timberlane Construction, and others to create certain touches.

Steve says visitors often “use the word ‘detail’ when they’re at our house—and that’s a compliment.”

The home’s two bedrooms are located on the lower level. The guest bedroom is outfitted with furniture and keepsakes the couple inherited from their respective families.

As large as the home appears on the outside, it’s 2,200 square feet, just 400 feet less than today’s average size.

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“I find it a very comforting home, a very warm home,” Bari says.

A color scheme of earth and jewel tones offers subtle contrasts to the dark woodwork, pale plaster walls, and hickory floor.

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Most of the interior wood is stained alder, including the kitchen cabinets and doors. The kitchen, formal dining room, and living room walls are done in Venetian plaster. The kitchen island, countertops, and backsplashes feature granite.

The beams transecting the vaulted living room ceiling naturally split, lending them even
more character.

“I like the fact that the beams come down and cozy it up,” Bari says. “They are massive, but that’s a lot of space so it needed some weight up there to kind of balance the room.”

Like Cary Grant and Myrna Loy in the old movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, the couple spent more than they originally planned, but who can put a price on storybook and heart?

Steve says, “My attitude is why not enjoy it?” Besides, Bari adds, “It’s our last roundup.”

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