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Set Pieces: The Neutra house in Mike Mills' 'Beginners'

February 16, 2012 |  9:43 am

Christopher Plummer "Beginners"
After snagging a Golden Globe and a SAG award, Christopher Plummer seems like a good bet for the supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Hal, a 75-year-old retired museum director who comes out of the closet in director Mike Mills' autobiographical "Beginners." Plummer was ably abetted by Ewan MacGregor (who plays Hal's son, Oliver), Melanie Laurent (Oliver's girlfriend) and Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier, but Los Angeles architecture and design also play key roles in the Focus Features film, now available on Blu-ray, DVD and video on demand.

"Beginners" movie house Hal lives in the Lovell Health House, the 1927 modernist masterpiece in the International Style by architect Richard Neutra. (The kitchen is shown at right.)

Mills chose the house not only because it was appropriate for the character but because Neutra's design allowed the director to shoot with natural light. 

In an email, set decorator Coryander Friend answered our "Beginners" house questions for this edited Q&A: 

What difficulties did you encounter filming in a historic Modern home?

We had to remove all of the books on the homeowner's bookshelves and keep track of the exact order of the books and replace them with all of Mike Mills' art books. The biggest challenge, though, was really just to not cause any harm to the Neutra house and or its contents. Our entire crew was treading up and down on those cork floors in the entryway to the living room with camera equipment, while the original Neutra-designed furniture was roped off with caution tape in a corner. Just thinking about it still stresses me out!  

How did you come up with the decor, which feels so worldly yet very California?

In L.A., mid-century California furniture and design is a piece of history that has stayed with us, a common thread throughout L.A. home decor. The idea for the look was that Hal lived in a classic, clean, Modernist house with all of this warm, multi-culti furniture and art from around the world. The different chairs and rugs, the paperwork everywhere and all of the plants are indicative of the culmination of the life Hal lived.

How would you describe Hal's style?

Hal was a creative Los Angeles native who collected not only California pieces, but also Eastern and African design. He was inspired by travel, fine art and culture. He just kept adding, without any high concept of how his home was decorated. It was the story of his life, and he had good taste. 

Where did you get all the furnishings?

We were lucky enough to have access to a lot of Mike's family furniture -- a mix of turn-of-the-century European design, African and Japanese. Shane Valentino, our production designer, acquired a bunch of mint mid-century Modern furniture from a family friend. The bentwood rocker is Thonet, loaned to us by Todd Cole, our set photographer. We all pitched in. In fact, the couch Mr. Plummer sits on throughout the film is actually from my own collection. It was given to me by a production designer friend who used it in an Orkin commercial. I think he got it from the Salvation Army.

"Beginners" movie house

Christopher Plummer, left, and director Mike Mills.

What iconic design pieces did you use?

The chair is actually the classic Eames LCW design from 1945. The egg-shaped paper lamp (above, far right) is an Akari by Isamu Noguchi.

What about that amazing rug with the rainbow of colors and numbers?

The color chart rug was from Mike’s grandfather, who had a company that made Oriental rugs in San Francisco and Singapore. Those are the color swatches, in the form of a bunch of little runners, that Mike’s parents sewed together into a single carpet. It was a family favorite. 

"Beginners" movie house

The exterior of the Lovell Health House by Richard Neutra.


"Beginners" movie Oliver's houseWhere did you shoot the scenes of Oliver's home?

It's in Silver Lake, near the reservoir, not really a Spanish, probably built in the 1920s. The chairs (pictured at right) are Thonet and belonged to Mike Mills' parents. The table was the homeowner's, and the poster is a piece from the Polish Poster Art era of the 1950s-60s  by an artist named Andre de Krayewski. Mike loves graphic art, that being his original art form, and he was really into these pieces.

What were you and Mills trying to communicate about these characters in "Beginners" and what home means to them?

Hal and Oliver represent the California state of mind, separate from the reality show, Hollywood plastic stuff. They are Eastsiders who think maybe a bit too much, but also people like us who consider our surroundings a part of us, and therefore piece together our spaces from our experiences. Hal was reinventing himself at the end of his life and the decor was really his familiar patchwork, surrounding him while he explored completely new territories. That’s what home is for me: It’s beauty, it’s personal, but above all else, it’s protection.

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-- David A. Keeps

Photos: Focus Features


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