By Gretchen McKay


Ben Avon family turns home over to film crew; Proves to be insane yet exhilarating

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Categories : Features
steve mellon/post-gazette

A movie production crew set up shop inside the Ben Avon home of PG reporter Gretchen McKay (center) for the filming of “Riddle,”

As someone who writes about homes, I’m usually the one knocking on front doors, trying to sweet-talk homeowners into letting me tell the world about the architectural delights beyond the threshold. Sometimes they say yes, and sometimes they say no. Having once had my house (and decorating) subjected to hundreds of inquiring eyes on a holiday house tour, I can’t say I blame homeowners who shun the limelight.

When Hollywood comes knocking, though, it takes an iron will to slam the door in its glamorous face. (The lights! The cameras! The action!) That explains how two movie directors and a crew of 40 ended up at our house last week to shoot scenes for “Riddle,” a psychological thriller being filmed here. Val Kilmer stars as a sheriff with a dark side.

Normally, my lawyer husband and I are pretty good at thinking things through. But we have our weaknesses, one of which just happens to be the way houses look in movies. Actors frequently disappoint, but we always can wallow in the set designs. I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve painted (and repainted) our walls to replicate a room we saw in, say, “Father of the Bride” or “What Lies Beneath.”

So when a location scout from Smithfield Street Productions, working out of McKees Rocks, appeared on our doorstep in Ben Avon a few weeks ago and asked if we would allow our house be used as a set, it wasn’t just good luck. It was destiny.

Friends and family cautioned us against it, offering up horrid tales of homes being torn apart during filming, crew running amok in the landscaping, and neighbors complaining to the police about noise, lights and parking. But we (me) had stars in our eyes. Even after we found out the star of “Batman Returns” wouldn’t be coming (he wasn’t part of our “location shoot”).

We didn’t really think about the consequences much beyond the fact that the day of the filming would take a long time (it stretched from 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next morning), would involve some equipment being loaded into our house (more than you can possibly imagine) and require a set dresser to spruce things up (actually a plus — maybe a real movie person would paint our house in real movie colors for free!).

It wasn’t until a long line of white trucks groaned onto our street, and the crew started unloading an endless collection of lights, booms, cables, dollies and camera equipment into the yard that the uh-ohs started fluttering like butterflies in my chest. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Though we had a general idea of when directors John Hartman and Nick Mross planned on filming, we didn’t nail down the date until 11 the night before. Luckily, we’d cleaned up over the weekend, so the only question was where the kids would do their homework and sleep (the girls next door, our son in the basement) and what to do with the dog (ship him off to Grandma’s).

Come to think of it, where would we sleep, if sleep was even possible? Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. Just too many darn people in the house, many of whom spent their time moving cumbersome pieces of equipment from place to place, knocking pictures off the wall or hushing us to keep quiet when the cameras were rolling.

As our son would post on Facebook at 10:37 p.m., some eight hours after the novelty of having a movie crew at our house wore off, “So being locked in the basement not allowed to make noise kind of sucks.” Crouched on the steps in the third floor or squeezed in a corner, trying my best to stay out of the way, I had to agree.

No time for painting

The day-long shoot started easy enough, with the team responsible for transforming our home into the “Teller” abode arriving on our stoop not long after the kids left for school. In big movies, there’s lots of time for decorators to come up with a design plan based on pictures taken by location staffers. In our case, production designer Lendie Lee got the official call the same time we did, late the night before.

“Sometimes it’s on a wing and a prayer,” she said, laughing, completely nonplussed. Sadly, there’d be no time for painting.

In 16-year-old Jack’s room, Ms. Lee and decorator Smith Harper Hutchings swapped Jimi Hendrix and Anti-Flag posters for baseball memorabilia and pictures of cars; across the hall in Catherine’s room, Justin Bieber pics and middle school knicknacks got the boot.

Transforming our living room into a “video village” where producers could watch live feed of the filming was a different story. Rugs had to be rolled away and furniture pushed in the corner to make room for the computers, TV monitors and a row of directors chairs for the Big Guns. (And yes, they really do have their names stitched on the back.) I must have looked anxious, because John the location guy pulled me aside with a sympathetic smile.

“You know, something’s probably going to get broken,” he warned, as a crew member rolled a giant camera dolly that weighed as much as our Subaru into our dining room. “You need to put away anything that’s valuable.” A short time later, men were carrying my dining room table to my garage-turned-home office.

Later on, when three lighting techs scrambled across our sagging porch roof with huge sunlamps to provide the illusion of sunlight pouring in my son’s bedroom window, we wondered what the limits were on our homeowner’s policy.

Adding to the stress was the fact I’d fractured my baby toe on my way to vote that morning and was hobbling around the set hunched over like a pirate. Unable to run up and down stairs, it was tough to keep track of the controlled chaos swirling around me.

Some advantages

On the plus side, in moving heavy furniture, we discovered things we hadn’t seen in years. Under the couch we found a remote control, a key to my parents’ house and several earrings. Behind our ridiculously heavy sideboard, we discovered kids’ artwork we’d forgotten existed. The crew also managed to pry open a kitchen window that had been painted shut years ago and had to clean the glass twice (twice!) before it stopped showing streaks.

Also, being the homeowner granted us special status with the crew, who were friendly, happy to answer questions and respectful of our belongings. Neighbors might have been stopped at the curb, but we had the run of the set and snack-filled craft truck. We even were allowed to hang out within the “village” during filming and got a personal introduction to the film’s young co-star, Ryan Malgarini of “Gary Unmarried” fame. He cheerfully posed for pictures and signed autographs for neighbor kids who lined up at our fence.

The only problem with filming is that it went on and on and on. Long after the last light went off in our neighbors’ houses, our home was ablaze with megawatts of artificial sunlight, packed with so many young, hip people it felt like the pit at a rock concert.

Then suddenly, at 1:30, word went out over the vast network of wireless headsets that shooting was wrapping up for the night (something about triple overtime) and the entire crowd sprang into action like the Cat in the Hat just before the parents come home, snapping off lights, unplugging wires, wheeling out carts and stuffing trash in garbage bags. Within an hour, every bit of equipment had been loaded into the trucks, all the furniture was back in place and it was as if it never happened.

The only reminder that Hollywood came calling, in fact, is a large patch of trampled grass in our front yard, a date with a professional house cleaner and a pair of sunglasses Mr. Malgarini, to my daughters’ delight, left on the sideboard. Oh, and $500 in our pocket.

Would we do it again? Probably not, out of deference to our neighbors, but we don’t regret it. God knows what will end up on the cutting room floor, but I can already see us in the theater, looking up at the screen and thinking: What a great house!