A location manager scouts the perfect house for a film. The only problem is the occupant. 4,973 words. Illustration by John Mann.
I’m on my way to Malibu on the 10 heading west to PCH when I round the curve of the McClure tunnel and bang, that view of the ocean and the sparkling coastline opens up and I say to myself, this is why I live in L.A. It’s for days like this.
I can groove on it too because I work outside. Not like those suits in Century City. "Hook yourself up with a production gig,” a buddy of mine told me when I first came out to the Coast. "They pay you way too much. And most of the time it’s just hang time. Everyone else is doing lunch or waiting for their money on a development deal.” He got that right. But what did he know? Directing his first big feature, he walks straight into the tail rotor of the chopper they’re using to shoot a stunt. Long day. Magic hour. Had the whole crew rushing to pick up a dusk shot. Typical director behavior. Their only reality is their own reality. He bought it good. I don’t need that kind of grief. I’m a team player. Don’t mind doing my small part, hanging it up at night and seeing what’s on the plate for tomorrow. I don’t worry about little gold statues or where they seat me at Spago. Or who returns my phone calls. Don’t need the headaches, the hassles. I’m in, I’m out. Onward and upward. Next.
Beach Boys on the radio, Don’t Worry Baby, as I make the hard left just before Zuma onto Westward Beach. Roads get all squirrely out here. My Wrangler’s GPS freezes, so I reboot. It can route you all the way to Ojai before it wakes up. I see a guardhouse up ahead in front of State Beach. Surfer dude waves me through. I pull in and turn around. He comes out of the shack and hits me up for twenty bucks parking.
I say, “Where’s Cliffview.”
“There’s no in and out," he says.
I slide my shades down my nose, give him my best glare over the rims.
“Do I look like I’m here for the waves?"
"County regs. You drove in. Read the sign."
A chippie up ahead starts to take an interest in our encounter. So I dig out the Jackson. It’s coming from petty cash anyway.
"Receipt,” I say.
“Some pricey real estate up there. Make a right at Birdview. Left on Bluewater. Right again on Dume. Carson’s old pad. Views are epic."
He’s eyeing the studio placard on my dash. "You with the film company?"
"Larkin,” I say. “Locations.”
"Because lately we see more of you guys. Like two or three a week. I take the overflow from what they can’t park up on top."
"Coming by with my crew next week.”
He hands me back the twenty. "Why didn’t you tell me you’re with the studio?”
So I return the receipt.
He winks. "Hold onto that. You can still get reimbursed, right?"
He’s way ahead of me. But then I say to myself, twenty. That’s lunch. I’ll have to do the paper work anyway. But why do you have to be in the business to get any kind of respect these days? If you’ve got the money they don’t want your money.
Sure enough, as I turn onto Dume, I see the long line of white trucks stretching all the way down the block. The honeywagons. The prop truck, wardrobe, grip and electrical. The motor homes. A platoon of white Teslas and black Porsches. Teamsters in their Yukons. The amped-up duelies and four-by’s. And bringing up the rear, the squad of rent-a-cops milling about, armed with coffee and doughnuts. The entire mobile support system for an invading army. And I think to myself, this isn’t good for business. It could double or triple my rates. Once one neighbor gets a taste, the rest come in like lemmings. Before I show up they barely talk to each other. Now the whole street gets organized. They all want a piece of the action. What ever happened to the cool factor? These days it’s all about being compensated for their trouble. Sure we’d like to help you. But sorry, my daughter is having her sweet-sixteen party that weekend. We couldn’t possibly rent our home. Well, unless you make it worth our while and pay for the inconvenience of moving us somewhere equivalent while you film. Of course, only the Peninsula or the Bel Air will do. Where did they come up with that term, inconvenience? I’ll tell you. From their lawyers. And more often than not, the owners are industry themselves. In that case it’s like politely asking if they’d mind me bringing in a portable nerve gas factory. How do you shoot in this town anymore?
I’m passing Deegan and his crew on the way up Cliffside. He waves. Then I roll by the set. What’s this, another CSI? Sad case, Deegan. He’s still working series. Two or three moves a day. In his world they can’t stop until they drop. Unless it’s hiatus. Then, while they cool their heels, it’s all about the wall of worry. Will they get picked up for the back nine? Or canceled? Me, I do features. Three or four a year, max. A whole different animal. Between assignments it’s either Maui or Cabo to chill. I can tell you this – doing TV is so much sausage. I’d rather hang it up than hack that again.
And then it looms up. Revealed in all its glory. The great-white, pomo, trophy crib. Views three-sixty all the way to Catalina and back. Slabs of green glass in every mixed up angle. Topiary out of early Star Trek. A real geometry experiment. I’m thinking drug-lord castle. Iranian Vice. The classic in your face showcase. Whoever built this monstrosity, I hope when he dies, he donates his ego to science.
I try the gate. It’s locked and the call box is dead. So I hop the fence, check out the reflecting pools, the waterfalls. They got koi in the pond. They got the requisite Benzes and Rovers, the Panamera, the stink-ugly Bimmer X6, chilling in the six-car garage. What’s that, a Maybach? And, yeah, a pimped-out Harley over by the Chinese Elm. Must be a real amusement park when it’s lit up at night. But funny thing, sweating it out here in the dry noonday sun, I’m getting a Forest Lawn vibe. Spooked by the silence. Dead calm. Just the hummingbirds buzzing the forsythia.
An ear-splitting shriek and I nearly code. It’s coming from the squawk box next to the front door. A voice, garbled and staccato, is frantically barking questions. Like an idiot I’m trying to communicate with it, stabbing any button that works to find the talk-back. I’m expecting to see the maid when the door crunches open revealing a slender Asian woman. She says, "Don’t bother fiddling with that. It’s on the flitz.”
But then I step back. I don’t just hear her. I see her, a vision in Holy Hippie crop top, skintight Lulu shorts, and espadrilles. Deep crimson lipstick and perfect, shining, jet-black hair. Bangs. Wedge cut. Full on thoroughbred. The complete package. Smoothed and sculpted profile. But relaxed. Asian chic meets California couture. A hint of a British inflection and her fractured dialect becomes instantly charming. I’m in love. Oh, boy. Heart-pounding, blue-balls, ready to be devirginized, teen-age boy terror. Is she Thai, Japanese, what?
"Larkin, from the production office,” I say, extending my business card. “Set this up last week?”
She hesitates a second before accepting it. “Not sure. Maybe change my mind.”
Don’t believe it. She could have called or texted. No worries. I’ve been through this a thousand times.
“I understand. But, seeing as I’m already here, why don’t I look around. Take down a few facts and figures for our database. Square footage. That kind of thing. So we can give you a quote over the phone if you reconsider.”
She introduces Oliver, her Filipino houseboy, slight of build and light of loafer, who’s decked out in a white jacket. He arrives on the back terrace with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed lemonade, a sidecar of Stoli Elit, and a tray of Brie and water crackers. She tells me her life story. Her name is Daisy. Her father’s innovation. Had a weakness for Henry James and all things Empire. Calls Beijing her home, or at least the compound that serves as the family homestead. They’re mainland PRC with connections that go all the way back to the Long March. Mao’s inner circle. Uncle Chou. Cousin Deng. Import/export specialists for the state agency that runs commodities. Along with a string of companies that stretch from Hong Couver to Buenos Aires. Translation – they’ve got a worldwide license to steal. The new robber barons of the Pacific Rim. Don’t talk to me about Tienanmen. That was just some frat party that got out of hand. The rest is fairly predictable. Swiss boarding school. Summers in Cannes and Monte Carlo. Winters in Beaver Creek. A pied-a-terre at the Sherry. A professional degree in culinary arts from the Cordon Bleu. Two years at the Paris American Academy where she studied interior design.
That’s what brings her to this particular corner of the planet. She has this retro fetish for early twentieth century modernism. What’s old is new, right? And Daisy likes to play. But only the very best will do. Something her folks in the Forbidden City just can’t wrap their heads around.
"Very nice stuff,” I say, running my hand casually over the sleek chaise lounge. "Brown and Jordan?"
She sucks in a short gasp of air and nods approvingly.
"Quality isn’t cheap, right? But this should last a lifetime."
Daisy says, "Would you like to see the totally Ecart furnished living room?"
Twist my arm. I can’t resist.
She slides open a pair of shoji-screens and we step forward into a black and white landscape of Corbusier chairs in leather and chrome. Set off by matching recliners in contorted Eames plywood.
"The floor coverings are Eileen Gray,” she says, gesturing to a cubist area rug. “And the sofa is John Michael Frank. From the Twenties. Original, not reproduction."
Just before we enter the kitchen she tells me to remove my shoes. "The floorboards are polished red oak. No engineered. Five coats lacquer,” she says. "Can’t bear to see them smudged.”
I feel idiotic holding up my Pumas by the tips of my fingers, but she’s already reaching forward to put them in a lambskin bag. The kitchen is finished in the same brilliant white as the living room, only the countertops are covered in stainless steel. As are the Wolf range, Gaggeneau ovens, Miele dishwasher, Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer, and LEM piston stools. Cold, clinical. A DNA lab with a Cuisinart.
"So, what do you cook? French? Italian?"
She shoots me a look like I’ve got to be kidding.
"We don’t prepare our own food here,” she says. "Only caterers use it. They’re such slobs. Most of the time we just take out."
Speaking of slobs, she shows me the master bedroom. Armani ties on the floor. Black label. A pair of men’s oversize Prada pajama bottoms bunched between the sheets of a Dux bed. The toilet in the master bathroom is unflushed.
"Anton,” she says. "What a pig."
She starts tidying and flushing.
She explains by way of telling me how they first met. A fellow divorcee in her Toluca condo complex set them up. She shows me a framed picture of them on holiday in Marbella. He’s got the same grip on Daisy as he does on a spearfish. He’s a too hip to be cool geezer with a gray goatee. Anton Boyko. A Hemingway wannabe by way of the Crimea. Wharton MBA. Twelve years on the bond desk at Morgan. Board member, Sherwood Country Club. The whole setup very white shoe. Now he runs managed futures for a fund of funds. A couple of his ex-pat cronies went all in during the bubble and built this palace on spec. Margin call took them out in a single day and like half this town they found themselves upside down on the only hard asset in their portfolio. Anton snags it in foreclosure. But he’s got no clue how to decorate. Never gave it a thought until the day he moved in. Just wanted a place to impress his pals who come over to watch the World Cup on his digital theater screen.
Enter Daisy where it gets complicated. Her home improvements turn into a full-blown design project. They shack up. That’s when the folks back home suffer a small reversal of fortune. Seems like mom and dad fell out of favor with the Central Committee. Now it’s no longer just a matter of aesthetics. Daisy and Anton are an item. Expense accounts at Fred Segal and Gucci. Dinners at Madeo. Quid pro quo. A girl’s got to survive doesn’t she?
Only I’m thinking to myself, Anton Boyko. The name rings a bell. I remember a headline in the Company Town section of the Times. A scandal, vaguely Madoffesque, about a hedge fund blowing up. And an SEC probe that lands him in federal court. Then I see the angles. I see them lining up in perfect symmetry.
A few days later I take the department heads over to the house for a survey. We step out of the minivan and right away Eggers, the director, is holding up his hands, framing a shot in the classical pose. Pretentious, but a good sign. For once he’s not complaining. Or dithering. And he’s not contending with the DP. In less than twenty minutes, they tell me to lock it up. Done. We’re off to see a water park in San Dimas.
Daisy and I meet the next day for coffee at Bar On 4. She’s got those shaped eyebrows. With that tilt of her head and that agro bob, I’m getting a Helmut Newton vibe.
I’m doing six shots ristretto in a short double cup with a scoop of breve foam. “I don’t understand people who can’t deal with caffeine,” I say with a nod toward her ice-blended decaf mochaccino. “It’s like going to the races and not betting.”
“The going rate is one month on the mortgage. My lawyer, he says you offer twelve thousand. But not to accept any less than twenty. Per day.”
“This attorney. Any chance he’s got an entertainment practice?”
She pretends to ignore the question. “He warned me. Said you’d try to Jew me down.”
“Nice. We’ll invite him over for Pesach with Mel. You’re practically neighbors. He’s just down the road on PCH.”
“If you shoot my furnishings anything less than seventeen is unacceptable,” she says. “Includes my design fee.”
I flash back to my top ten list of difficult deals. I’m on a shoot in Macon. My first feature. I’m 22, fresh out of NYU, over my head and desperate to score for the team. The director needs this ghetto flophouse. The mews. What looks like leftover slave quarters from the Civil War. So I ask around to see who owns it. Turns out to be this Greek slum lord who torched one of his other properties the night before. Only he got a little careless. Burned himself over eighty percent of his body. Unbelievably, he still wants me to come over and cut the deal. I catch up with him at the hospital just as he’s being wheeled into the OR. His skin looks like soggy oatmeal. I cup my hand over my mouth while I’m walking and talking, trying not to breathe over his wounds. I’m carrying the contract and a pen. He’s actually haggling with me on his way into surgery. But he signs.
“What makes you sure I need the furniture?”
Daisy narrows her eyes, gives me a look like she knew I was putting her on all along.
I say, “Relax. Of course I’ll rent your gear. My swing gang is jumping for joy. No sets to dress. It’s camera ready. Fifteen for the shoot day. Seven each for prep and wrap. Our lawyer can mark up a contract and an insurance binder by the end of the week.”
We take the escalator down to Neiman’s. We’re in lingerie and Daisy is riffling through a rack of silk camisoles.
“Why don’t you try one on,” I say. “They’re definitely you.”
“We have a deal?”
“I’ll fax it over tomorrow.”
She takes me by the hand into a fitting room. Slips off her cotton racer top in one smooth motion. She sees my eyes drink her in and doesn’t shy away. First she tries on the beige one, then the black, asking what I think of each style as she vogues for me. I’m getting all the right signals. But then it goes full stop. She pulls away. The whole thing is like a lap dance. Look but don’t touch. Still, I get the feeling she wouldn’t blink an eye if I started rubbing one out right in front of her.
“I think you like?” she says as she produces a pair of mini knife-edged shears and quickly, expertly, clips the tags off two items, stuffing them neatly into the false bottom of her shoulder bag.
A salesgirl comes over, knocks on the door, and peeks in.
“Can I help you with something?” she says, looking at Daisy and then glancing over at me like I’m some kind of perv.
Daisy smiles this haughty little smile that I haven’t seen her use before.
“No thanks,” she says. “Just blowsing.”
It works. So now I’ve closed on her house. And bonus, we’re partners in larceny. I can feel the buzz. We celebrate at the Chateau. I tell her the studio has a standing account. They’ll comp us a suite. She suggests we hit the Polo Lounge. We take the curve on Sunset when I feel her hand slide up the inside of my thigh. She flashes me a nasty smile. She hits up a hotel guy in guest relations. Tells him we’re in pictures. “Scouting,” she says and hands him the business card I gave her the other day. I’m used to putting up with a lot of crap. It’s an occupational hazard. Still, there’s a limit. But I don’t dare blow the location. I’ve got the whole team stoked.
Out front we’re in rock star parking. Daisy slides in super-close. The office calls. She eavesdrops while I confirm we’ve closed on her house.
Yeah, I’m so chill the next day I hand the whole thing off to my production assistant, a film school intern I found on the UCLA job board. “Daisy, this is Kirk. Kirk, this is Daisy. He’ll be taking care of the details from here. You need anything, just call Kirk.” Done. I’m out. Dolly back and fade to black.
The morning of the shoot, I’m checking some cover sets in Santa Clarita when Kirk rings me up on the mobile.
“Get down to your set,” he says.
“Mercury in retrograde.”
The line producer is pissed with his parking. One of the leads has trashed his motor home. They’ve called in for an emergency replacement. Meantime, he’s squatting in Daisy’s cabana out by the pool. And the gaffer can’t position his gennies close to the house because the driveway’s too tight for the rig. So it’s taking all day to lay a mile of cable from the street. Why didn’t he get a heads up, he wants to know.
Then Daisy gets on the horn. She insists I come over. Toot sweet.
I take Kanan Dume across the hill. It’s late morning. The Santa Ana’s are blowing. I’m speeding and there’s not a cop in sight. Sweeping the curves at seventy-five, I’m making unbelievable time. I’m cruising through the tunnels and down the long steep run to the coast. As I crest the ridge I feel the salty-sweet ocean air whip into my face. It would almost feel great if I didn’t have to work this pain in the ass show.
Dooley, the teamster captain, sees me coming up the driveway. The first tipoff, he’s all smiles. And he doesn’t force me to park in Outer Mongolia. The word of the day is apprehension.
“Knock it off, Dooley.”
He puts on a serious face. “She’s expecting you in the main pagoda.”
As I pull away I catch him in the mirror doing mock kung-fu kicks. His drivers are cracking up.
Out on the front terrace it hits me full on. Furniture stacked up like cordwood. Daisy’s precious designer rugs draped over railings in piles like tarps. Electricians and grips are spilling out of doorways in all directions, lugging 10K’s and flag stands. Craft Services has set up shop near the entryway. Bowls of munchies, a giant urn of coffee, two coolers. One for lemonade. Another for ice tea. A puddle of spillage leaks off the table, running onto the flagstones and into the fishponds. A few of the koi float belly up, mixed in with plastic cups and cigarette butts slowly dissolving in the water. I hear sharp bursts of a chainsaw blasting away from inside the house. Crude but effective, the key grip is working some last minute changes to the set.
I’m at the front door and right away Daisy’s up in my grill. At first I don’t even recognize her. For starters, her hair is pulled up in a bandanna. She’s wearing torn jeans and a faded Chanel sweatshirt. No makeup. And spectacles, thick round Oliver Peoples horn-rims that make her look like some kind of bug-eyed foreign exchange student. We both shout to be heard over the chainsaw.
“What kind of movie you making?” she says. “I thought you were first cabin outfit. On the up and up.”
Hands on hips. Eyes widening. Chest heaving. She’s staring at me like I’m from Alpha Centauri.
Wow. Even in the sweats, Daisy, you’ve got a way with words. Me so horny.
I crane my neck to look around, as if trying to scope out the specific source of her distress. “It’s the magic we call Cinema. Is it not?”
Tears are welling up. I’m kind of digging it.
Then she steels herself. “Some magic. You see inside.”
We go to the living room and right away I see broken glass. The shoji screens. A frosted pane is punched out.
She points to it, horrified. I ask around and the script girl tells me they lost the glass during a rehearsal in a somewhat heated fracas between Eggers and his leading man. “Creative differences over a line read,” she explains. “Hey, shoji happens, right?”
I tell Daisy, “I can take care of it after we wrap. I know a guy who’s an expert with glass. Antique shop on Larchmont. Use him all the time.”
Kirk swings by with some blue pages. “Read ‘em and weep,” he says. “You’re wanted upstairs.” I scan the last minute script changes. Total rewrite. The scene is now a night interior. Typical. I buy the director a mansion for fifteen grand a day, pay through the nose for all those ocean views and available light. What does he do? He takes my practical location and converts it into a soundstage. With some risers and a few hardwall flats we may as well be shooting on the lot in Burbank. Why do I even bother?
The picture windows and skylights have all been blacked out with sheets of duvetyne. A set of dolly tracks lies partially unassembled at the foot of the stairs. Daisy trails me as I lead the way up to the second floor over gang boxes and cable. The best boy has cut the AC to keep the set quiet for sound. So the air is heavy, stifling. The 2nd AD stops us outside the master bedroom. He shoots us a pained look. “Places,” he announces, to me, Daisy, everyone in the vicinity.
The mixer’s recording cart is packed with gear. He leans forward in his chair and adjusts his headphones. Tosses a butt and stubs it out with the heel of his boot.
I look down. Daisy’s precious hardwood floors have been decimated by the constant traffic of forty people sliding back and forth with heavy equipment. A blast of crosstalk bursts from the AD’s headset. “On a bell,” he shouts. “Quiet!”
“That can be buffed out,” I whisper to her. “Seen a lot worse.”
From behind the door we hear the 1st AD getting set for a take. “Picture Up. Rolling!”
The mixer mutters, “Speed.” Then the clack of the clapperboard, like a guillotine, pierces the silence. Eggers, weary and almost in afterthought, calls “Action.”
We’d posted a five million dollar bond. A few weeks later we get the insurance check. I’m meeting with my UPM when I crack open the envelope. A draft for ninety-eight thousand.
“That’s a nice round number,” I say.
I’m not exactly psyched for running all the way out to the beach in Friday traffic. Maybe I’ll take care of it Monday or give it to a courier. But he sends me anyway.
“It’s your mess,” he says. “Go clean it up before she changes her mind.”
Who am I to argue? I’m paid to do a job, so I do it.
I phone Daisy. But it goes straight to voicemail. So I text her saying I’m coming over with the money. When I arrive I’m surprised to see for-sale signs dotting the property. I check front and back. The landscaping is a little tired, otherwise the place seems pretty much back to normal. Even some new koi in the pond.
I glance up. Daisy is standing at the entryway. No sign of the houseboy. She’s wearing Ray Bans and a batik sarong. Her legs are spectacular. And when we step inside it’s like an empty shell. The bones of the house are still Architectural Digest. But not a stick of furniture in sight. A blank canvas. When I hand her the envelope she gives me the fish-eye.
“Fireman’s Fund,” I tell her. “Certified check.”
We go upstairs. She shows me the new master bedroom. All whitewashed oak and country shutters. New England chapel meets Hamptons beach house. A cream coverlet lays over an antique four-poster bed.
“Dove White on the wainscots. And the bed, early Shaker?”
She nods. Tells me Anton’s indictment came down. “So now we got short sale. Tied up in court, long-time.”
“The couches and chairs. Your designer rugs?”
“Auctioned off. Quick cash for the lawyers,” she says. “I’m staging it on spec. Know anyone in the market?”
I see the camisole she pinched at Neiman’s draped over the top of a ladder-back chair. Hot sun is pouring through the skylights. Daisy is still wearing her shades.
“It’s a seller’s market,” I say. “I meet all kinds of people.”
Mission accomplished. Say goodbye and walk away.
She reaches into a Nordstrom’s bag. Pulls out a new leather bustier. No tags. She holds it up for me, dangles it in the air.
I say, “Daisy’s been shopping again.”
She strips off the sarong. Now she’s down to her thong when she slides into the bustier.
Whoops. There goes the clean getaway.
“Just blowsing,” she says.
Music to my ears.
I get a choice view of that perfect rear end as she reaches down to strap on a pair of stiletto heels. Maybe it’s still worth a shot. It’s not everyday, world-class ass falls in your lap.
She tells me Anton is pretty much out of the picture.
I’m down with that.
Says she’s got a few ideas for a screenplay. And a money guy coming in from Shanghai. I could come in on the production side. We’ll all do a deal.
Major buzz kill. Awkward silence.
Didn’t see that coming.
Sure, Daisy. I’ll team up with you and every other deluded player in town. Toss my studio gig so I can hang out at Starbucks, another poser with a laptop. Party hop and do lunch at the Palm. Take endless meetings that go nowhere. Dream about scoring a position above-the-line. Wheels up in the G6, powering over to Aspen for Christmas.
I send myself a text – let’s call it a wrap.
Everyone’s working an angle. Sometimes it’s a little tell that gives them away. Sometimes you catch a break and they turn over all the cards. Thank you, Daisy, for reminding me never to mix it up with a non-pro.
She hears the tone go off when my text arrives. I check the phone. Tell her it’s the office and I have to get back.
Suddenly she’s a little girl.
“You come back tonight?” she says. “Clash with me?”
I climb in the truck and head out onto PCH. Traffic is backed up northbound all the way to Big Rock. Like a stream of steel sardines, they’re an endless line of uptight stress-puppies inching their way up the coast for the weekend. Me, on the other hand, I’m sailing along at fifty-five, headed south to Venice. The cool Pacific breeze in my face. I might even stop at the Reel Inn for a Corona. Like I say, I get my share of weirdness. Yeah, sometimes the places get trashed. But I can’t focus on that. It’s only stuff. That’s the real beauty of it. No headaches. No hassles. I’m in. I’m out. Onward and upward. Next.