Want your house to be filming location? Here are 10 cautionary tips for homeowners

Two Sets from KID COP (1996)
Two locations – one a private home, the other a local school converted over the weekend.

As a production designer, I’ve worked in many locations in and around Los Angeles, including Griffith Park, the old LA Times building downtown, “the mansion” in Piru, and various sound stages. I shot almost all of one movie at the magnificent old Ambassador Hotel, while it was still a filming location, before it was torn down and lost to history. However, not every shoot involved places specifically devoted to film making.

Many of the places where I shot were private homes or offices, where people set aside their daily life for a short period and allowed the invasion of a film crew. These have ranged from a lawyer’s office in a downtown building, a couple of different bars and nightclubs downtown and in the San Fernando Valley, an industrial laundry, and several family homes of different sizes ranging from small apartments within high density buildings to spacious, luxury homes in chi-chi neighborhoods. All these locations have in common the fact that the film crew is walking into somebody’s real life, and using to greater or lesser extent, the actual furnishings and appointments of the real place as part of the set for the film’s characters.

The best thing was those couple of occasions when the film crew moved into a location just prior to a big planned renovation. The homeowners were perfectly happy to have things moved around, even to have walls repainted because they were planning on making changes anyway. Far more nerve-racking were those times when we came in just after costly decorating work was done.

I remember another family whose house was dingy, but they had no resources to redecorate. They were completely delighted when my crew repaired some holes in the walls and repainted most of the downstairs on our dime.  People like getting something extra, and are sometimes sad when the additional set elements are taken away at the end. This also applies to the landscaping work. I remember the time a homeowner thought they were getting a garden, and was sorry to realize that most of the greenery was faux, and we took it with us when we left.

If you have never had a film crew in your neighborhood or home, you cannot possibly realize the scale of the intrusion. Film crews are like juggernauts. The only priority is getting the day’s work done. The scariest thing for the art Department is when a home is filled with things that are unique and costly, and therefore beautiful, so desirable for on camera. Nonetheless, in deference to both the limitations of my budgets and concern for the homeowners’ precious heirlooms, as often as possible I brought in my crew of set dressers to pack and remove the most expensive items, and replaced them with rented pieces from prop houses. However, in some homes there are items that either are too large and challenging to move, or too fragile to be moved, such as an antique mirror that could not be taken down from the wall.

The process of having your house be a filming location starts with the location manager. You may submit your property with a listing service, or you may be approached by a location scout because of some visual aspect of your home. Once you make a deal for the days and hours that the film crew will be there, it’s time to specify any restrictions – which rooms to avoid, what may or may not be moved, the agreed value of any items that are unusual, and any special care that needs to be taken. Once the crew arrives, it is important to maintain your presence in the home. I once shot in a home where the finish on the fancy custom floor tiles was sensitive to adhesive, so we had to use blue painter’s tape when we put down our layout board. On that occasion, we were supervised like a hawk by the home owner’s four-year-old son, who was even then a veteran of film shoots in his house.

Antique store interior
Aka The Fiancé – Antique store interior – the location was an empty store for lease, in a strip mall. The brick was existing.

Here are 10 tips to help make having a film crew in your home a relatively pleasant experience.

  1. Before deciding to be part of the film, consider your entire family. Sometimes children and pets get upset from having that many strangers in their home. Your pets should live elsewhere for the shoot, and be secured during the location scout. Perhaps your young children should visit grandma as well.
  2. Be aware of the scope of film. Make sure you see their filming permit. You want to ensure that they do intend to inform your neighbors of their presence, as is required. Part of the deal will be where the production trucks park, and where they place the generator. If they are going to be in the street, they will definitely need to put up signs in advance. Some neighborhoods with HOA’s have regulations about shooting times, a so-called “hard out”. Your neighbors will want to be warned about prospective parking challenges on the street. Remind the location manager about portable trash bins. The production should take its own trash away, rather than impose on your local trash collection and recycling services. However, if you collect cans, you can ask for them and put out recycling bins. I like Flings.
  3. Be aware that using your home for a film location means more than just the crew coming on shoot days. There will be visits while the director, designer and cinematographer determine whether your place will work. Once the location has been chosen, there will be at least one location scout, where the producer, director, production designer, first A.D., cinematographer, the sound mixer, possibly the gaffer and key grip, and probably a few people’s assistants as well, will all come to your home, tramp through it, and discuss the shortcomings of the location, what needs to be changed, “why did we choose this place”, and eventually work around to “we can make it work”. Don’t take their remarks personally. They are looking at the house in terms of logistics and the characters and story of the film, not as a reflection of your life. Then the Art Department will usually need access one or more days in advance to decorate, and often a day after as well, to clean up. Depending on the size of the shoot and the budget, a separate contractor might come to install layout board or RAM board to protect your floors. If not, this should be done by the Art Department.
  4. Know in advance what you are willing to allow in terms of major changes, such as painting. Usually such things are determined during the location scout. However, sometimes things change, and someone is inspired, and wants to change the color of the wall. Sometimes you will very happy with your new feature wall. Other times you will want it returned to how it was. Be assertive. Speak up firmly about things that may not be attempted, such as nails in a picture rail.
  5. Be very clear about off limits rooms, and make sure that they are written down clearly so that the location manager can easily explain and enforce the restrictions. These include things like not using the bathrooms. Be very specific. I recall one story, not a shoot I was involved in, where the crew were told they could not use the toilet upstairs, so some of them peed in the shower recess. This kind of egregious behavior is rare. Go so far as to put up caution tape, if the location manager has not done so. (It may be removed if it is in the shot, but should be replaced afterwards.) Production should bring honey wagons, so it is not like you are leaving people with no options. At the same time, make a written list of house rules, such as no smoking on the property, no sitting on furniture, or use booties over shoes. (The latter rule is useful in houses with old hardwood floors.) I recommend a no food or open drink cups inside the house rule. Water bottles are rarely a problem.
  6. Form a relationship with the art director or set decorator, and the on-set dresser and prop master once filming starts. Make sure they know they can ask you about items and objects in your house. If items in your house have an interesting history, often the set decorator would like to hear about it, kind of “professional interest”. Engaging them like this will only help you take care of these things. Remind them to protect your furniture, such as placing blankets over furniture not in use for the scene. Also get to know the first A.D., who has the greatest authority on the set in instructing crew members. Unfortunately, sometimes crew forget that they should not be sitting on furniture, especially while wearing tool belts.
  7. Remove things of high value and personal significance yourself. Not every Art Department is as assiduous as mine in caring for items from the house, and when the film requires it, even I have been known to disappoint a homeowner. Once I took down some drapes that we had all assured them would not be moved. I took them down and put them back up myself, with great care, but the homeowner was not happy. Remember priority one will always be getting the shot. In the rush and pressure of filming, the idea that everything is replaceable with enough money sometimes overwhelms other considerations. Every shoot has insurance and every budget has a contingency line item for loss and damage. But that won’t make you feel better if your grandmother’s tea set is smashed.
  8. Take photographs yourself of your home before, that clearly show the condition, including noting any existing damage. The set decorator’s team will do the same, if they are efficient.
  9. Have someone from your household on hand at all times, when the film crew is there. Be a visible presence. Sometimes crew members change, with day players. You may have to repeat information. Often the first A.D. will give a morning pep talk. Be present for that, so everybody knows who you are. Clear expectations are the best way to avoid problems later. At the same time, you will quickly find that watching filming go on is not nearly as fascinating as you thought it would be. I strongly recommend having something quiet to do in another room. Do ask if you may join the crew for lunch. (See point 6.)
  10. At the end of each day, do a walk-through with the location manager. Make sure that the refrigerator is turned on. Sometimes noisy appliances are turned off during the shoot. Make sure that equipment left in-situ, is in a secure locked position, on layout board or mats. Ensure windows that should be are closed. Do not, however, move any furniture or small items. Don’t straighten that crooked picture – it is probably that way on purpose because of the camera angle. At the end of the shoot, don’t sign off until everything is satisfactory.

Bonus tip: Lock up your liquor. If it is needed for a scene, the production will supply the bottles. It is not common, but every now and then you will meet an actor who thinks that any open liquor bottle is fair game for a swig. Trust me. I’ve seen this.