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The Spaces To Dream Of

Director Nancy Meyers' on-screen interiors resonate with moviegoers who long to take up residence in her characters' homes. That kitchen! (Painted plaster.) That cottage! (Fake stone.) That cozy escapism!

December 21, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a charming stone cottage on a snow-dappled hill, surrounded by mature trees and a low stone wall. Smoke billows from chimneys on either end of the house. Inside, the patina of centuries has settled onto rough-hewn timber beams and floors of large, uneven old bricks. Yet anyone scouring the English countryside for this cozy haven will search in vain. Rose Cottage, identified by a nameplate on its weathered wooden gate, was born in the imagination of Nancy Meyers, the director of the popular romantic comedies "What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give," which she also wrote.

Rose Cottage figures importantly in the plot of "The Holiday," her latest creation, in theaters now. Two women, one in London, one in L.A., swap homes for two weeks. Because they are in a Meyers movie, there's a good chance they'll discover romance. They'll surely find themselves in houses design junkies will lust after.

"The rooms in her films vibrate the chord of what we all want," says Dominique Browning, editor of House & Garden. "Nancy and her team are so in touch with what's going on in the design world, and she's able to translate the trends into real places for her characters that people relate to and yearn for."

Meyers' oeuvre is filled with beguiling environments that make the audience beg to stay awhile, the better to study the art on the walls, to linger at the kitchen table or snuggle under a cashmere throw on a voluptuous sofa. After the final fade-out, when the folks on-screen move on to the limbo where characters chill while a sequel is written, volunteers stand ready to move into Meyers' world. They'd love to settle into the Vermont farmhouse (where Diane Keaton found love) in "Baby Boom," Steve Martin and Keaton's bobo family homestead in "Father of the Bride," or the Hamptons beach retreat in "Something's Gotta Give," (where Keaton found love. Again).

In "The Holiday," Iris (Kate Winslet) arrives in Brentwood and runs from room to room of Amanda's 8,000-square-foot hacienda, a minimalist showplace warmed by a muted palette and natural materials. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) owns a successful movie-advertising business. The audience shares Iris' delight in her surroundings, and their acquaintance with Amanda enhances the home's beauty.

Coveting Amanda's crib is of a piece with envying her figure or desiring the sweet, gorgeous guy who falls for her in Act Two. It's never pleasant to discover a lover's betrayal. But in our appearance-obsessed consumer culture, it's easy to entertain the fantasy that life isn't too terrible for a woman like Amanda, who gets to kick her faithless fella to the curb of that exquisite house.

HOLLYWOOD has long been in the wish fulfillment business. "Screwball comedies were created as mass entertainments during the Depression," Meyers says. "People didn't want to see their own lives reflected on screen, so the foibles of the rich became fodder for humor. In the great '30s and '40s movies like 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'Woman of the Year,' the sets were extraordinary. When you're creating a world you want people to get lost in for two hours, you dial up reality."

Hyper-reality is not easily achieved, nor does it come cheap. The process begins with a 10-foot bulletin board Meyers covers with images from books, catalogs, magazines, old movies -- anything that fleshes out the visions that develop in her head as she writes. The inspiration board is a starting point for extensive research and location scouting. Production designer Jon Hutman collaborated with Meyers on "What Women Want" in 2000 and "Something's Gotta Give" three years later. He has a degree in architecture from Yale, 20 years' experience in film and television and a passion for detail that matches Meyers'. "Nancy's scripts are written very thoughtfully, and she's very specific in her likes and dislikes," he says. The director weighs in on every fabric swatch, wall color and lamp. "My mother was a decorator. My grandmother had an antique shop," she says. "It's part of my background to pay attention to minutiae, and the little things you worry about on a set do pay off."

Hutman found the prototype for Iris' cottage in Hertfordshire, tucked in a secluded glen on a large estate. "It wouldn't have been practical to film there," he says. "It made sense to build it on a beautiful hillside closer to London. We put in the road, the trees and the stone wall." Molds taken in England were used to fashion walls of fake stone made of plaster, inside and out; interiors were built on a soundstage.

Contrast between Iris and Amanda's homes was crucial. Initially, Meyers and Hutman wanted Amanda to live in a classic old Hollywood house, but they ultimately chose a Spanish Revival in San Marino that Wallace Neff built for himself in 1928. Hutman changed the front door, redid the driveway, removed a fountain, brought in new landscaping and resurfaced the pool's deck.

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