A Hollywood Ending in New Orleans

Paramount Spiffs up a House for Brad Pitt's Movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

 

Benjamin
The house in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," a film starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett that is nominated for five Golden Globe Awards.

Credit: Copyright 2008 Paramount Pictures Corporation

In the Garden District of New Orleans, tour guides go about their daily business up and down the leafy streets, pointing out one architectural marvel after another to visitors eager to gaze upon the city's antebellum landmarks—the Greek Revival where Jefferson Davis died, for example, and the Italianates where Anne Rice's vampires refused to. Tucked away on a verdant block near Lafayette Cemetery, the great heap at 2707 Coliseum Street never attracted that kind of attention. But with Paramount Pictures' recent release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, all that is about to change.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story of the same name tells the strange tale of a baby who enters the world as an old man—born "threescore and ten," with "dim, faded eyes," long gray whiskers, and a taste for cigars (the author spares us the astonishing obstetric particulars)—who then proceeds to age in reverse. Fitzgerald set the story in Baltimore. So did screenwriter Eric Roth, whose adaptation was green-lighted early in 2005, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett signed on to play the full-grown infant and his bewildered sweetheart.

During pre-production, however, Paramount changed the locale to New Orleans, for reasons aesthetic and financial. The filmmakers were eager to take advantage of the city's 19th-century (and older) locations, as well as the tax credits that Louisiana has put in place to lure film and television productions. (In the end, Paramount saved some $27 million.) Even after Hurricane Katrina tore through town, the studio never considered abandoning New Orleans.

On screen you will recognize familiar French Quarter spots—Jackson Square, with its tropical plantings and fleurs-de-lis pathways; the crumbling plaster walls of Napoleon House; the quiet lower reaches of Royal Street, aglow with flickering gas lamps. The movie also features other parts of town, from Mississippi River docks and train yards to the antiques shops and cafés of Carrollton Avenue. "Exteriors and interiors, it's all there, 360," says Bill Doyle, Paramount's Los Angeles-based location supervisor. "In New Orleans we didn't have to fill in so much to complete the look."

Finding the film's principal setting—the house where Benjamin's mortified father abandons his septuagenarian bundle and to which he returns throughout his time-warped life—took months. Serving as both orphanage and nursing home, the house, says Doyle, "is more than just a location; it's one of the characters in the story."

Doyle was certain he would find what he was looking for in the Garden District, given its architectural riches (sited on relatively high ground, like the French Quarter, the neighborhood managed to escape serious flood damage during Katrina). Working with his local counterpart, David Ross McCarty, whose hometown film credits go back to The Big Easy, Doyle drew a grid and began knocking on doors. Weeks of searching produced several candidates, but the ultimate decision fell to the movie's director, David Fincher.

As he demonstrated most recently in Zodiac, which nailed the look and feel of late 1960s San Francisco, Fincher is a stickler for the minutiae of atmosphere and period detail. And nothing he was shown in New Orleans had everything he was after. The studio was this close to building a set when Fincher, strolling the river side of St. Charles Avenue one day, spotted a pair of dormers high above a tangle of crape myrtle trees. Arched windows stared back at him like the eyes of a tired old man. The grand structure, rambling over an enormous, overgrown lot, was actually two houses in one: a Louisiana Cottage, c. 1840, raised onto a 1908 Colonial Revival. Ionic columns seemed to sag under the weight of the listing front porch, and the entire edifice looked in need of shoring up and a fresh coat of white paint. To Fincher, it was a beautiful and brooding and absolutely perfect: just the place to leave a bearded baby on the doorstep.

No one was home that day, but the location team tracked down the owner: Mary Nell Porter Nolan, 90, a soft-spoken southern matriarch and the winner of the 1940 Maid of Cotton pageant. As the winner of that pageant, she had been invited to make a Hollywood screen test—by Paramount Pictures. Though she declined all those years ago, she still retains a soft spot "for those very nice people at the studio." After much discussion and negotiation, the Nolan clan allowed the filmmakers to take over the house that has been in the family since the 1870s.

Soon the property swarmed with builders, craftsmen, artisans, and crew. The task was complicated and delicate: to strengthen the house so that it could withstand the demands of a major motion picture production without sacrificing the structure's architectural integrity. Walls were patched, electrical wiring was replaced, new plumbing was installed. Out back, carpenters and trompe l'oeil artists created a faux brick wall, two cisterns, and servants' quarters. A vast, second-story screened porch was added to the back of the house. Set dressings, procured from junk stores and antiques shops along Royal and Magazine streets, began arriving by the truckload. For all that, the task at hand had more to do with taking away than piling on. "It was about getting down to the bones of the house," says set decorator Victor Zolfo, "to the essence of old New Orleans."

In the film, the house deteriorates decade by decade, changes you detect even in the window treatments, which devolve from rich drapery and swags to frayed sheers, yellowing shades, and lopsided venetian blinds. "By peeling away those layers," says Zolfo, "you see and feel the passage of time."

That the city itself would loom as such a powerful, poignant presence in the movie, adding extra resonance to the tale, came as a surprise to the filmmakers. After all, the freaky miracle at the heart of both story and film is what New Orleans struggles still to achieve: to grow, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of his protagonist, into "the picture … of vitality … grow[ing] younger every year." 

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Comments

Submitted by jjegan3 at: January 29, 2009
Brad Pitt has taken on the cause of the rebuilding of New Orleans, including sponsoring a design competition for low cost single family housing to replace those in the 9th ward lost to Hurricane Katrina. Kudos to this man who finds a way to give back to the community where he works and which he loves.

Submitted by Cece at: January 14, 2009
Muse's writing breathes new life in our most treasured Southern city. Reading his fine piece makes it impossible not to want to savor personal memories and revisit soon and often.