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SET PIECES

His living room, Take 2

For his new film, a director casts his warm family home in a dark role.

August 30, 2007|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

Most people crave homes that have character, but filmmaker John August wanted a house to be a character. Four years ago, the screenwriter of Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Big Fish" and Doug Liman's "Go" attended a Hancock Park open house and found not only a new residence, but also the inspiration and the principal setting for "The Nines," his feature-length directorial debut opening Friday.

"I immediately thought about shooting a film here," says August, 37, sitting in a shaft of afternoon sun that filters through a stained-glass window and onto the wrought-iron staircase of his 1924 Spanish Mediterranean manse.

"The house is a character in the movie, a guy who is brawny, forthright and friendly but not effusive. He'll offer you a drink but doesn't want you to stay past 11."

Few directors would surrender their personal living space to a crew of 40, let alone reveal it to the general public exactly as it is in real life, not one room disguised with props or other fakery. But it is August's unaltered interior design -- finishes, furnishings and all -- that lends intimacy and emotional veracity to the story. He wouldn't have it any other way, especially when scenes were conceived with particular rooms in mind.

"The script was written for that space, so if I lived somewhere else, the story would have changed," he says. "The middle section of the movie is autobiographical. It's supposed to be my house -- and everything feels real because it is."

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'The Nines," a provocative look at domestic life in Los Angeles' movie colony, is composed of three interlocking tales that explore what home means to different people. In the first part of the film, a troubled TV actor under house arrest feels imprisoned by the iron railings of a home that isn't his. The middle section, centered on a gay writer-director, conveys August's experience of being single in a place that's "far too big for one person to be living in alone." In the final tale, about a married video game designer, the house is clearly a home, a place of safety.

"The movie is like a Russian nesting doll," says actor Ryan Reynolds, who plays the three male leads. "There are references within references, which are often based upon real experiences John has had."

The film was made with a nod to the stripped-down, hyper-realistic Dogme 95 style pioneered by director Lars von Trier. Shooting in August's home, Reynolds says, added a level of authenticity.

"The rooms took on a life of their own," he says. "A space which is seemingly plush and welcoming can transform into an atmosphere that is elegantly haunting."

Though the setting serves as a totem for be-careful-what-you-wish-for prosperity, in real life the space that August shares with partner Mike (who also goes by the last name August), their 2-year-old daughter and pugs Jake and Louie feels understated and unpretentious.

"John's home is much like the man himself -- approachably warm, extremely well thought out and prepared for anything," Reynolds says, "including a sloppy actor who hijacked his bedroom and wandered aimlessly through his halls like some kind of farm animal."

Jen Bianco, a USC film-school buddy who met August in 1992, says the home is far from the unsettling, creepy, possibly haunted place that it seems in "The Nines."

"It is a very adult home, but there is nothing fancy and intimidating," she says. "John wanted a livable house that works for him and his family but feels organic to Hancock Park."

August grew up in Boulder, Colo., in what he describes as a classic one-story ranch built in the 1960s, thoroughly suburban with wood paneling and cottage cheese ceilings. Following the success of his first film, "Go," he bought a Dutch Colonial house in L.A.'s Windsor Square neighborhood and hired interior designer Tim Clarke to select paint colors and purchase antiques.

"I fell back on the tactic of ripping pages out of magazines to show what I wanted," August says. "To my credit, I think I was at least consistent."

His breakthrough came in the kitchen. A culinary enthusiast, August blended function and aesthetics in a gut-and-remodel led by the design team of John Martines and Scott Pryde, specialists in restoring historic houses in the Hancock Park area.

August was so pleased with the results that he had Martines and Pryde duplicate that kitchen right down to the drawer details and leaded-glass cabinetry in his new residence, which Martines describes as "hacienda meets villa."

The original servants' wing -- built "when Hancock Park was the Beverly Hills of its time," Martines says -- had been refashioned by a previous owner into a den, dining area and laundry room.

"John and Mike weren't looking to undo any of the changes, but the house had lost some of its architectural character," Martines says. "Some people go overboard when they fix up a house and paint everything white. We tried to bring back some of the drama of the house by darkening the original wood floors and beams."

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