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Reality's drawing room

Grand staircases. Elegant grounds. The shows' formula calls for stately backdrops. So scouts roam L.A., looking for mansions to cast.

August 01, 2004|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

Watch reality shows for any length of time, and an unmistakable feature starts to recur. No, not public humiliation or base greed, but prime Los Angeles real estate.

Over and over, various unscripted trials and rejections are carried out with a background of gazebos, fireplaces, grand staircases, marble floors, soaring ceilings and stunning views. The mansions are all over Los Angeles County, from Encino to Brentwood to Silver Lake. The shows using them include such stalwarts as "American Idol" and "The Bachelor," newer hits like "Last Comic Standing" and "The Swan," and such harder-to-classify hits and misses as "For Love or Money," "Mr. Personality," "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," "Who Wants to Marry My Dad," "Average Joe" and "Mad Mad House," among many others. One new show this fall, Fox's "The Complex: Malibu," calls for yet another mansion.

Watch with the sound off, and they all start melding into one big reality show: "This Insanely Fancy House." With people getting voted off the kitchen island.

With every new show, a call goes out to location scouts and agencies to find the most incredible mansion yet. Agencies like Sunset Locations, which has handled at least 15 reality shows in the last year, are constantly in the field trying to find new places that will top the last. (In L.A. even homes have agents.) A manse-owner might receive a dozen calls from different sources regarding the same show. The rental prices range from $5,000 to $15,000 a day for shorter shoots, to $60,000 to $150,000 a month, not including the owner's relocation fee, for shows that stick around longer.

Yet even though everyone's trying to find the most unusual house out there, they all seem to be using the same shot list for their scenes: pulling up to the huge front door in a limo. Standing on the wrought-iron balcony pondering one's fate. Walking the immaculate grounds pondering one's fate some more. Playing pool in the game room. Primping in the dressing room. Everybody in the hot tub. And enough aerial shots of the whole spread to create a topographical map of L.A.

The houses are so ubiquitous that the reality shows themselves talk about it. At the opening of "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance," host Claudia DiFolco walked down a broad marble staircase and said, "This spectacular estate is the kind you might find in any ordinary reality show." DiFolco then set up the action: "But as you're about to find out, what will take place here at this mansion is anything but ordinary." Sure, that's what they all say.

In some cases, the house seems to help persuade the contestants to stay for the indignities heaped upon them. Randy, "Big Fat's" unwitting fiancee, looked truly overwhelmed as she wandered around her surroundings. "I've never really been in houses like this," she exclaimed. "This is a $10-million mansion -- everything is perfect." By the time she was told the real purpose of the show -- to trick her family into believing she's marrying an oaf -- she seemed seduced by the beauty of her surroundings.

The locations aren't just used so the audience can see how the other .001% lives. These over-the-top settings are actually quite practical. As Robert Mendel of Robert Mendel Locations says, there's a formula for the kinds of shots that the shows need, "because they're largely shows about people yakking." They require a lot of visual stimulation to keep people interested. "You have to have a really tall staircase, not because you want to watch some lady walking down the stairs but because you want to put a camera way up at the ceiling and have it sweep down, and have a dramatic, bird's-eye view on a wide angle lens that makes you feel like you're 50 feet in the air, when you're actually only 20 feet in the air," Mendel says. All that swooping and craning requires a certain type of house.

Don't bother the neighbors

The shows also need isolation from neighbors, so that the lighting and movement required of a 24-hour surveillance show won't disturb them. Six bedrooms are usually required to house the contestants. There has to be room to feed a crew of up to 100 people and to store tons of equipment. And producers often require a separate space -- a basement, pool house or garage -- to use as their command center.

Then there are the less practical reasons. According to J.D. Roth, an executive producer of NBC's "For Love or Money" -- which returned to the air June 7 -- these aren't reality shows, "they're dramas. To make it dramatic you have to have scale and production value and all these things to make these guys contemplate these huge moral dilemmas. And it starts with the house."

He chose a newly built castle-like estate atop Mulholland Drive to suit those aims. Roth says that when the lights are on at night, the house and grounds can be seen from planes as they land at LAX.

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