Why Moviemakers Love Mid-Century Modern

Hollywood has its lens trained on mid-century modern homes these days -- including this Eichler, which starred in the Jennifer Aniston film 'Cake.'

Eichlers and other mid-century modern homes have been popping up in movies, TV shows and commercials, and music videos ever since the mid-century. But with the growing awareness of mid-century modern in recent years, the homes seem to be in even greater use.

Why are filmmakers so entranced with modern homes? It’s a question we delve into deeply in the new spring '16 issue of CA-Modern magazine in ‘House as Cinema Star.’

Here’s a hint of our answer: a properly cast mid-century modern home can add just as much, or almost as much, to the overall effect of the film as the human characters who move through it.

That certainly proved the case with the 2014 film ‘Cake,’ starring Jennifer Aniston and directed by Daniel Barnz. Barnz decided early on he wanted the Aniston character, who is suffering the aftereffects of a tragic accident, to live in a modern home whose characteristics include both warmth and modesty.

Balboa Highlands, a well-preserved Eichler neighborhood in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, offers views of the hills and has attracted many film shoots and print magazines. Photo by Dave Weinstein

He found the perfect house thanks to the work of  location manager Robert Foulkes. It is the home of Kris and Jackie Cunz in the Balboa Highlands subdivision, in the far northern reaches of Los Angeles.

The neighborhood’s well-preserved Eichlers are often used for shoots, mainly TV commercials and for print. They are not often used for feature films.

When the Cunz family moved in about a decade ago, the house was not ready for prime time. “The house hadn’t had a lot of changes, but it also had 40 years of deferred maintenance,” Kris says. “When we bought it, it wasn’t a film-ready house.”

They replaced exterior siding, removed tiles that had covered up the original aggregate paving, and put in new mahogany panels to replace those that had been painted.

Then they got stars in their eyes and thought – ‘Hollywood!’ So they had good photos shot of their house, and listed their house with companies that let location managers know they are available – for a price, of course.

“Several of our neighbors had done it,” Kris says. “We thought, why not?”

But it’s not easy getting that first break.

Over the years, about two dozen location companies called. Somewhat fewer sent out scouts to do a once over.

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Mother M-Tech's TV spot had a young couple polishing so sensuously in front of their Eichler home.

But with ‘Cake’ they got their break. “They came back two or three times,” Kris says of Foulkes and his crew, “then said we’re interested in using your house.”

“It was about three weeks between their first visit and when they decided they would use our house.”

Then it was time to apply a little Hollywood magic to the house. Jennifer Aniston, after all, doesn’t appear in a film wearing her street clothes or without makeup.

The designers created a fake wall in the master bedroom, replacing a wall that had a door opening to the bathroom, in order to place the leading lady’s bed there. That way they could get a great shot looking past the bed to the pool out back.

Another room had to be painted and a mural added.

“They used quite a bit of our furniture and a number of my paintings,” says Kris, who is an artist. “My friend asked if they had paid for this and I said no. He said, make sure they credit you for the paintings. It can be good for you.”

One of the more amazing mid-century neighborhoods anywhere was created in the film 'The Incredibles,' whose designers got their inspiration by visiting real Eichler tracts.

The paintings play a role in the film as well. Aniston’s character, suffering pain, hides her pain pills behind one of the canvasses.

The Cunz family had to vacate the house for two weeks, staying at a hotel. “It was a little disruptive because we have two children and two dogs.” But the fee made it worthwhile, $21,000 plus hotel expenses. “We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again, although not for as long a period.”

“They invited us to be there anytime,” Kris says of Barnz and his crew. But in fact, they did not watch the filming, though Jackie and the kids were there on the final day, when the crew was shooting stills.

“We didn’t really want to be in the way. The kids were in school, I was at work,” Kris says. “We kept our distance. We felt they were respectful of the house, and we tried to be respectful of what they were trying to do.”

Many homes of Balboa Highlands present a welcoming appearance -- including to Hollywood filmmakers. Photo by Dave Weinstein

The filmed premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and the Cunz family did not attend. But they caught it locally.

“We had seen some pages of the script and we thought, this isn’t going to be a good movie. But it was much better,” Kris says. “It was a vehicle for Jennifer Aniston to show a different side of her acting ability.”

“The house looked good.”

The film, a well made, at times disturbing drama that avoids sentimentality or easy answers, got mixed but generally good reviews. Aniston won much praise. So did the Eichler.

"Its clean lines, drawn by an architect and embellished by a period-design obsessive, make a vivid contrast with the scars jaggedly slashed across [the Aniston character's] face and body," the New York Times critic wrote.

For more on mid-century modern houses that get the star treatment, read ‘House as Cinema Star,' a sneak preview of the new spring '16 CA-Modern.

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