Behind the Lines with DR: The Cost of Location

A few nights back I was having dinner with some new friends when I was reminded of this story. I was describing a conversation I’d had with director Florent Siri during pre-production on Hostage. Most of the movie takes place in and around a very special mountaintop house I’d invented for the movie. Modern, architectural, and installed with some paranoid security apparatus, I wanted the house to feel as if it was its own character, with much of the interior action flowing from room to room. But with shooting scripts often being pared down to dialogue, movement, a few essential props and only sketches of description, details of the imaginary property remained between my ears.

“The production needs to know about thee house,” said the thick-accented Frenchman. “You need to speak wiz Larry.”

film locationsLarry Fulton was the film’s production designer. It was his primary job to build and oversee construction of the sets, most of which would be on studio soundstages.

“What about the house?” I asked.

“You need to describe eet to heem,” said Florent.

I paused, my fingers on the keyboard as I was in the middle of revising some dialogue for the casting department. Consulting with the art department was generally considered the director’s responsibility.

“I thought you knew what you wanted,” I said to him. “The way the house looked.”

“Much of thee story ees about going from room to room,” said the director. “I theenk maybe you should talk to heem. Tell heem whaz you see.”

This is when I recalled one of my favorite cinematic quotes. And forgive me but I’m paraphrasing. It was from an interview with director Adrian Lyne in which he was describing the difference between screenwriting and directing. He’d referenced his current film, the chill-filled classic Jacob’s Ladder.

“There’s a point in the script,” said Adrian Lyne, “when the writer (Bruce Joel Ruben) wrote, ‘and Jacob stared into the void.’ It’s a beautiful bit of writing. Full of wonder and possibility. But as a director I have to be practical and ask how big is this void? How many carpenters will it take to build the void and what color must I have the art department paint it?”

The next day I took the time to drive down to the production office and meet with Larry Fulton. It was a quick meeting in which I verbally walked him through how I pictured the house. The way the characters lived in it and how it embodied the owner’s paranoia. I recall using lots of hand gestures.

I visited the production office just two days later and happened to walk by the art department’s small office suite. There, on a buffet table, was a three-dimensional mockup of the house. It was nearly exactly as I’d described. As if I’d snapped my fingers and—poof—the house had rendered itself into existence. Of course, it hadn’t happened that way. Some very capable artists in the production’s employ had painstakingly done the hard work.

But still. There it was. My imagined Casa de Hostage. Like magic. If there’s a gland that produces a reinforcement hormone, I felt a jolt of that special juice surging into my bloodstream.

Some weeks later, as we raced toward our official start date, I received a call from Executive Producer and Unit Production Manager Howard “Hawk” Koch, Jr. The grizzle-haired motion picture veteran had a budget versus script issue that needed to be resolved.

“Hey Doug,” said Hawk. “You have quite a few scenes in here which take place in the kitchen.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And?”

“We can’t afford the kitchen,” said Hawk.

“What do you mean by that?”

“It’s gonna cost us ninety grand to build it.”

And how is that my problem? I wanted to ask.

“Any way we can move these scenes into other parts of the house?”

“Are you serious?”

“Of course I’m serious,” said Hawk in his trademark foghorn voice. “It’s ninety G’s out of an already skinny budget.”

“But it’s the kitchen,” I said. “And the kitchen is the heart of any home. I think we’d miss it.”

“You mean you would miss it?”

“Well, me and the audience. We’re spending a big portion of the story in this house. Don’t you think it would feel strange if we never even saw the kitchen?”

“House also has an indoor lap pool. How many houses have lap pools?”

“So you’re saying it’s either the kitchen or the lap pool?”

“No. The lap pool stays. Florent loves the lap pool.”

“My guess is that he also loves the kitchen. Maybe we should talk to him.”

“Already talked to him,” said Hawk. “And he said I need to work it out with you.”

“Okay, fine. So since when is it ninety grand to build a kitchen?” I segued. “I built mine for fifty with top-end hardware and appliances. Not only that—it’s a working kitchen with real plumbing and electricity and gas. We’re talking about a set, here. Nothing has to work but the lights.”

“Ultra-modern kitchen,” said Hawk. “Gotta buy ultra-modern appliances and have ‘em installed by union carpenters. And that ain’t cheap.”

“Okay,” I said. “But it’s not like we’re keeping the appliances. All that stuff can go back to the store when we’re done.”

“So the part of the script where the house burns down?” asked Hawk. “You want everything to burn but the kitchen?”

“It’s just one shot where the kitchen burns,” I recalled. “I can live without that. So yeah. We won’t burn down the kitchen.”

“Doug,” said Hawk, dropping an octave lower than Barry White on valium. “I need the ninety grand. Now help me out and tell me you can live without the kitchen.”

Could I live without my kitchen? How could he ask that? This was, after all, my house. It sprung from my fertile subcortex and, with the help of our able art crew, had quickly turned into a foam-core and plastic model.

That and I truly did believe an audience would miss the kitchen. And if not consciously, then somewhere in their subliminal bullshit bank.

“How’s this?” I offered Hawk. “If I can find a way to save you ninety grand by losing something else in the script, then I get to keep my kitchen, right?”

“Where are you gonna find me ninety thousand dollars?”

“That’s like what?” I asked. “A day in the schedule? One shooting day, right?”

“Shooting day’s about a hundred ten grand,” said Hawk.

“Okay. So if I find a way to cut a day out of the shooting schedule, we’re square. You get your ninety grand, I get my kitchen.”

“Fine then,” said Hawk, a challenge in his voice. “Find me a day.”

So that’s precisely what I did.

I pored over the script, flossing between the pages for a scene or two I could do without. Maybe with an artful nip and a some creative tuck-and-roll I could peel off a day’s worth of high-priced Hollywood manpower.

And hell if I didn’t find some gold I could do without. I even vetted the edits with my French director before presenting the ninety-thousand-dollar gift to Hawk, the production’s budget jefe.

“Well whaddayou know? Looks like you did it,” said Hawk. “Good job…”

Awesome.

“…Still sorry to say that you can’t have the kitchen.”

Wait. Did I just hear Hawk right? If I wasn’t mistaken, I’d just busted my hump to save the picture over ninety precious G’s in order to paddle my dying kitchen with two-hundred-thousand volts of this writer’s affection—only to have the UPM tell me it was D.O.A.? I was just forming a string of angry expletives when Hawk continued:

“Sorry kid,” said Hawk. “Since yesterday I’ve been hammered on three more budget snafus. I’m bleeding red ink if I don’t find more places to salvage dollars. Plus I talked to Florent and he doesn’t really care if we have the kitchen or not.”

Oh, but I cared. And I wanted to scream it. Not only that, I felt utterly sandbagged by the whole bloody process.

On the drive home, I recall telling the War Department something like “Score one for Hawk.”

Fast forward nearly a year. We’re finally locked on the picture after having tested it in front of recruited audiences, friends, associates, not to mention studio and distribution executives where we solicited helpful comments and critiques. The movie scored high in just about every box. And never, not once—not a single person—ever asked about the missing kitchen. Nobody seemed to notice at all

I’m reminded that in the heat of battle it’s funny and informative what we’ll fight for. What we imagine we can’t do without. How what seemed large and important turns out to be so disposable, small, even unnecessary.

I’ve seen the film a million times now. Every shot, cut, crimp, edit, on Blu-Ray, with and without commercials, even dubbed into Swahili. It pains me to admit it. But even I don’t miss the kitchen. Not a lick.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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