When Hollywood Moved In

New York Times
July 30, 2009

MANCHESTER-By-The-Sea, Mass.– The Hollywood producers who had converged on Diane and Gary Kaneb’s house on the north shore of Boston in snowy February were starting to panic. It was the beginning of April. They were three weeks from the start of filming for Sandra Bullock’s romantic comedy, “The Proposal.”

They needed leaves. Lots of leaves. Leaves all over the big trees on the Kanebs’ lawn, which sweeps down to the harbor. Where were the leaves, asked Nelson Coates, the production designer.

Mrs. Kaneb, who left her career as an investment banker to stay at home with her four children, explained New England winters: They’re really, really long. “I told them, ‘You’re not going to get full foliage until the end of April, beginning of May,’ ” she said as she gave a tour of what is now known in these parts as the Proposal House.

That was too late.

“Hollywood shipped in branches with fake leaves,” Mrs. Kaneb said.

She watched from the second-floor balcony off the master bedroom as some men spent several days attaching the fake leaves to the real trees with twisty ties.

That was just one of the lessons in moviemaking Mrs. Kaneb got when she and her husband turned their house over to Touchstone and Disney Studios for two months in the spring of 2008.

The Kanebs’ early-20th-century cedar shingle and natural stone house, with 9 bedrooms and 10 bathrooms, in Manchester, a 40-minute drive north of Boston, was transformed to look as if it was in Sitka, the small town on a remote Alaskan island where a corporate titan played by Ms. Bullock was going to fall in love with the character played by Ryan Reynolds, her office assistant, whose family owned the house.

Mr. Coates had discovered the house after sending a location scout to scour Boston’s rocky shore for the perfect place. The studio was taking advantage of the generous tax credit that the state of Massachusetts has used to draw moviemakers.

“My directions were to find something that had a rustic feel and preferably that had some stone involved,” Mr. Coates said. “The script said it should feel like something out of Alaskan Architectural Digest. I was laughing when I read that. What is Alaskan Architectural Digest?”

He told the scout that it should feel coastal, and most important, have a dock. “The family needed to look like they were isolated from town — like they needed a boat to get there,” Mr. Coates said.

As soon as he saw the house on a scouting trip by fishing boat, he knew it was the right place. “It was the way it was on a slope,” he said. “It looked grand. It looked like the people owned half the town, which they do in the movie. It had this really great presence to it.” And it had a wooden dock.

Mr. Coates took pictures of the house, then started using Photoshop. “I put in mountains from Sitka behind the house,” he said. “I drew in the leaves. I added totem poles and stone. I e-mailed the pictures to the executives at Disney. They’re going, ‘Oh, my God, we had no idea they had mountains like that in Massachusetts.’ ”

“It was hilarious,” Mr. Coates said. “Then I e-mailed them the pictures of what the house really looked like. I was showing how we could make it look like it was way out on an island. They said, ‘O.K., we want to try to get this house.’ ”

An effervescent young location scout made multiple visits to the Kanebs.

“She was so nice,” Mrs. Kaneb said. “But at first we thought, ‘No way.’ ” It was just too much upheaval. Mr. Coates had let them know that their airy, light-colored interior was all wrong for the rough-hewn Alaskan look he was after, so he would have to build his own interior set.

He was honest with the family about the disruption. “You try not to sugar-coat it,” he said. “It does seem like a bomb went off in your house.”

The Kanebs didn’t want to go to the trouble of moving out during the school year. They worried that the movie would distract their children — Julia, 18; Luke, 16; Daniel, 15; and Blair, 13 — from their classes. Wanting to be helpful, they directed the producers to other homeowners. But Mr. Coates remained fixated on the Kaneb house. “I told them: ‘You can be around. You’ll get to watch this being made. You’ll get to be a part of our team.’ ”

Julia Kaneb and her siblings wanted to be on that team. “I was the one who talked them into it,” she said of her parents. “I told them, ‘How can you pass up this opportunity?’ ”

Mrs. Kaneb said: “It was four against two. We did it for our kids.”

And while they did it for the experience, not the money, Mrs. Kaneb said, Disney did compensate them for their trouble. The Kanebs declined to discuss the amount, other than to say it was fair; industry sources say fees can range from $1,000 to $2,000 a day for preparation, to the actual filming, which can range from $1,500 to $3,500 a day.

The movie people began blocking out scenes for filming in mid-March and fell in love with the Kanebs’ antique barn. “They loved the space so much they changed the script,” putting the wedding scene there rather than on the lawn, Mrs. Kaneb said.

The producers did not love the large outdoor pool. “They hated the idea of a pool in Alaska,” Mrs. Kaneb said. “They covered it with a big wooden dance floor.”

She soon learned another lesson in moviemaking: “It takes a village.” Once filming started, in April, more than 100 people — the actors (Ms. Bullock, Mr. Reynolds, Mary Steenburgen, Betty White, Craig T. Nelson and others), publicists, makeup artists, sound techs, camera crew, lighting specialists, landscapers, stand-ins, a nurse for first aid, producers, set designers, drivers, runners — began arriving at the Kaneb house between 5:30 and 6 every morning.

“I still walked my dog every day, despite having to scoot through the 100-plus folks in our yard,” Mrs. Kaneb said.

Her dog, a Havanese named Mocha, became a favorite of Ms. White’s. Ms. White was a favorite of the Kaneb family.

“Oh, I loved Betty White,” Blair said. “She was holding Mocha between every scene. She would always talk to us. She’d say, ‘Oh, I like those earrings, Blair,’ ‘You look pretty today, Blair.’ ”

Except for Mr. Reynolds, who seemed to be preoccupied between takes with text-messaging Scarlett Johansson — they became engaged during the filming — the actors all went out of their way to reach out.

“Sandra Bullock explained to me how to memorize lines,” Blair said. “It’s a tiring job.”

The crew emptied the refrigerator in the main house, Mrs. Kaneb said, to make room for Ms. Bullock’s spartan stash — tofu and vegetables. For everyone else they set up catering tents, providing three meals and snacks.

“My sons were loving it,” Mrs. Kaneb said. “They couldn’t wait to get home from school and see what there was to eat.”

The producers took over only the first floor of the main house for filming, moving everything into storage except the family’s antique Steinway piano. They bubble-wrapped the Kanebs’ walls and constructed movie walls and, beneath the Kanebs’ ceiling, a separate beamed ceiling from which the cinematographer could attach lights.

As careful as the crew was, Mrs. Kaneb said, there was some damage, from broken light fixtures to a nick in the piano. The movie people either paid to repair every bit of damage or, when necessary, replaced things, Mrs. Kaneb said.

She seemed relaxed about her things. “If you loved your stuff, if you had a lot of antiques, it’s not something you’d want to do,” she said. The second and third floors of the house, where the Kanebs’ bedrooms are, were off limits for filming. So although the family slept in their guesthouse, they were able to keep their personal belongings in the house.

Every morning, Mr. Kaneb said, he would wake up in the guesthouse and walk across the lawn to the main house and work out on the Stairmaster downstairs. Then he would go upstairs to shower and put on his suit. He would walk downstairs, exchange greetings with the movie people and leave for work — he is the chief financial officer of Hood, a national dairy products company.

One day Mr. Kaneb came home, in his usual suit, and carrying a suitcase, to find Ted Danson hanging out on the set. The actor from the television show “Cheers” was visiting his wife, Ms. Steenburgen. The cameras were rolling.

“The producer waved me over to sit down,” Mr. Kaneb said. “Next to me was Ted Danson. At first he was really reserved. Finally, he said, ‘How long are you around for?’ I said to him, ‘I live here.’ ” “Then he was really friendly,” Mr. Kaneb said.

The reason for Mr. Danson’s initial reserve? Mr. Kaneb laughed and said, “Anyone who shows up on a set in a suit is someone from the studio.”

The actual filming lasted three weeks, which translated to about 20 minutes in the movie.

“I expected my kids to have a blast,” Mrs. Kaneb said. What she didn’t expect, she said, was that she would have so much fun, too.

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