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Behind the Scenes: Meet the Midcentury House That Stars in Elle Fanning’s New Movie

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Behind the Scenes: Meet the Midcentury House That Stars in Elle Fanning’s New Movie

May 1, 2017

Film director Gaby Dellal is a longtime Remodelista friend and fellow aesthete: We’ve featured her Free-Spirited London House Remodel and also dropped in on her sister, designer Lorraine Kirke (mother of Jemima and Lola), At Home in Greenwich Village. Recently Gaby called to tell us about one of the stars of her new movie, 3 Generations, which opens this Friday, May 5, in New York City and Los Angeles, and nationwide on Mother’s Day, May 14.

The film has an exceptional multigenerational cast: Elle Fanning plays a transgender teen, Ray, who lives with his mother (Naomi Watts), grandmother (Susan Sarandon), and grandmother’s partner (Linda Edmond). But what Gaby thought would pique our interest was the 1950 house designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright’s that plays a leading role. She was right. So a couple of weeks ago, we met up with Gaby, cinematographer David Johnson, and the owner of the house, for an inside look. Here’s a tour.

Photography by David Johnson for Remodelista.

Located in a wooded setting north of New York City, the house is the work of architect and landscape designer Kaneji Domoto, who apprenticed with Wright at Taliesin and put many of his teacher&#8
Above: Located in a wooded setting north of New York City, the house is the work of architect and landscape designer Kaneji Domoto, who apprenticed with Wright at Taliesin and put many of his teacher’s Usonian principles to work here, starting with the use of wood and stone to harmonize with the landscape and reduce the sense of separation between indoors and out.

Gaby auditioned dozens and dozens of settings before finding the movie’s two main locations: the characterful New York City townhouse occupied by Ray and clan, and Ray’s estranged father’s place in the country, which he shares with his new family. (Ray, who is underage, needs both parents’ signatures for hormone therapy.)

The city house was hard enough to find—Gaby selected a narrow, multistory East Village location with a spiral stair. Its counterpart was even trickier to pinpoint: After visiting a lot of Victorians and clapboard cottages that were “too bog standard and obvious,” Gaby started looking at more modern options for the father. That eventually led to a midcentury design whose owner while sitting on his rowing machine pointed her down the street to the winner. “The house has so much warmth and character, so much respect paid to every detail,” says Gaby. She immediately decided that the father in her film would have to be an architect.

The house is clad in cypress indoors and out, and detailed with stained glass in the pair of wings that extend out from the living room. Wide overhangs along the roofline protect the interior from too much sunlight.
Above: The house is clad in cypress indoors and out, and detailed with stained glass in the pair of wings that extend out from the living room. Wide overhangs along the roofline protect the interior from too much sunlight.

“Everywhere you look, something interesting jumps out,” says the artist who, with her husband, a doctor and photographer, has lived in the house since 1971. They bought it from her brother: His family needed more space, but hadn’t been able to sell the place for over a year. It went for $100,000.

Elle&#8
Above: Elle’s character, Ray, tracks down his errant dad and makes a pilgrimage to his orderly domain. “With its clean lines and enveloping nature, the house represents an alternative childhood that Ray missed out on,” says Gaby.
The artist owner points out that the house has evolved over the years: The original owner is the one who, with architect Kaneji Domoto, added the stained glass extensions. The windows originally included a third color that the artist herself simplified by swapping in clear panels.
Above: The artist owner points out that the house has evolved over the years: The original owner is the one who, with architect Kaneji Domoto, added the stained glass extensions. The windows originally included a third color that the artist herself simplified by swapping in clear panels.
With its wall of eastern-facing windows, the living room has a treehouse feel.
Above: With its wall of eastern-facing windows, the living room has a treehouse feel.

The flooring—here a combination of tile and carpeting and elsewhere concrete—is equipped with radiant heat, a favorite Frank Lloyd Wright detail applied throughout, so there are no radiators or heating elements to break up the sight lines.

Tate Donovan plays Ray&#8
Above: Tate Donovan plays Ray’s architect-builder father. “The film is about families coming together,” says Gaby. “It’s about us all putting aside our idiosyncrasies and resentments and rallying around. The person who is most together is Ray.”

Production designer Stephanie Carroll kept the house’s existing furnishings in place while deftly inserting signs of young family life, such as the red desk chair and trike. “Stephanie and I go for places with the right patina,” says Gaby, “but it’s rare that we need to do so little.”

The dramatic window wall is anchored by a lineup of brass-detailed wooden chests acquired by the artist when she walked by a New York City hotel that was going out of business.
Above: The dramatic window wall is anchored by a lineup of brass-detailed wooden chests acquired by the artist when she walked by a New York City hotel that was going out of business.

The artist got her modular sofa from a neighbor and reupholstered it in a geometric pattern before going with gray. “Patterned fabric conflicted with the setting—this is a house that dictates what’s right for it. Everything has to harmonize.”

Thanks to shade-free windows, the paneling is dappled with light and shadows. &#8
Above: Thanks to shade-free windows, the paneling is dappled with light and shadows. “Fortunately the aesthetic works for me,” says the artist. “If I lived someplace else, I’d be wanting to take down walls.”
A streamlined cypress-paneled kitchen overlooks the living room.
Above: A streamlined cypress-paneled kitchen overlooks the living room.

The compact space was last updated six years ago, when a SubZero fridge was added and the black-tinted concrete counters replaced butcher block. Some details to note: The stone chimney wall, the skylights (which feature in every room), and the row of overhead lighting inserted in the structural beam above the island.

The current owners carved their dining area out of what had been a garage—&#8
Above: The current owners carved their dining area out of what had been a garage—”one with a stone wall and skylights,” says the artist. She had the table built from cypress and traded a painting for the Vladimir Kagan chairs that were in a new neighbor’s house: “In fall, they match the maple leaves outside.”

Located off the front door, the setting is where Ray first confronts his father and family—a scene shot just as real snow started falling outside.

There&#8
Above: There’s also a small sitting room (with coat closet) off the entry.
The cypress paneling continues in the master bedroom, which has an en suite bath that overlooks the surrounding woods. 
Above: The cypress paneling continues in the master bedroom, which has an en suite bath that overlooks the surrounding woods. 

The photograph of a peach is by Edward Mapplethorpe, brother of Robert.

A hidden luxury, brass piano hinges on the doors create a sleek look.
Above: A hidden luxury, brass piano hinges on the doors create a sleek look.
The artist&#8
Above: The artist’s African art collection looks very much at home here. The wooden light switch cover is an original detail.
A side view of the house.
Above: A side view of the house.

A red oak, a spindly specimen in early photos of the house, now towers over the roof, providing shade in summer. The artist likes looking up at its branches through the skylight in her bedroom. Years ago, after a contractor and others warned that in a storm the tree could take down the house, she and her husband summoned Kaneji Domoto to revisit his creation. Domoto, who died in 2002, “came with a cane and was very pleased by what he saw. He told us, ‘You have to divide your friends. The real ones will say to keep the tree.'”

The house is nestled into a steep incline, and in lieu of a yard, slate steps lead down to a circular outdoor patio with bench seating around the perimeter. &#8
Above: The house is nestled into a steep incline, and in lieu of a yard, slate steps lead down to a circular outdoor patio with bench seating around the perimeter. “The concept,” says the artist, “was to build into the land rather than on top of it.”
Director Gaby Dellal with Elle Fanning, on location.
Above: Director Gaby Dellal with Elle Fanning, on location.

Here are three more intriguing movie sets and the stories behind them:

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