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Just putting on a good front

Like the characters on `Big Love,' the show's location keeps the inner chaos hidden from view.

April 23, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

SURFACES and facades are important in "Big Love," HBO's tale of a polygamous family tucked into a pristine Salt Lake City suburb. So settling on a location to represent the surreally perfect manicured neighborhood in which the action takes place was a particularly sensitive task.

"It was something of a major discussion between us and HBO between the pilot and the first episode," says co-creator Mark V. Olsen. "I thought it was too Southern California stucco. HBO thought it was too upscale. The street was in Santa Clarita and didn't have a Utah look. We spent a lot of time with our location manager scouting everything."

The location manager took photographs of practically every street in Sandy and West Jordan, Utah -- the towns in which the story is set -- to find its immaculate double near Santa Clarita, where the series shoots its interiors. "I think there was a conscious decision to give our show a spare look," says co-creator Will Scheffer.

Everyone began to panic when production on the first episode was about to begin and the location was in flux.

"After months of scouting, our location manager had picked out some streets that looked curious to him from a satellite photo of the town of Fillmore, which is in Ventura County," says Olsen. "It was this tiny little pocket that looked different from the surrounding areas."

From the photos, they could tell that the houses weren't stucco and were smaller than most homes in the area. "They were wooden facades rather than brick and stone," says Olsen. "It looked from the satellite photo like what we were going for."

The location manager checked out the streets and found exactly what the production needed -- sort of "Blue Velvet" meets "Edward Scissorhands."

"It is this tiny little enclave of about 16 or 17 houses on four streets with a series of cul-desacs against the mountains in the town of Fillmore," says Olsen.

"We didn't want it to be too tract-home-like, we wanted this very charming and very sparsely populated neighborhood," adds Scheffer.

Little had to be done to modify the street and the exteriors to make it Salt Lake City specific. "There was one palm tree in a house that we had to have removed," says Olsen. "There was an orange grove at the end of the street. We had to pluck the oranges from that."

The series shot in the neighborhood every two weeks. "We have a great relationship [with the residents]," says Scheffer. "We are very careful to maintain it."

The interiors of the family's homes and the communal backyard -- the family has a husband and three wives, each with a separate house -- all were created by production designer Dan Bishop ("Carnivale") on a sound stage in Santa Clarita.

"We did not do a faithful re- creation of the front facades," says Olsen.

"We built the homes to accommodate our cameras and our [camera] moves. The backyard did not exist [on the real street].

Olsen says the exteriors are perfectly groomed and the backyard is in disarray and has yet to be sodded because in the story, the family had moved in just three months earlier.

"They tore down the walls that separated the houses," says Scheffer. "It is very much in a state of limbo They have gotten to the point of tearing it apart and putting it back together. It is very much like their lives."

"The psychology works for us on so many levels," says Olsen. "It is the facade we present to the world, but our reality is a bit messier."

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