Real Estate in the Movie Downsizing

Since changing lifestyles is the main theme of the movie Downsizing it is filled with real estate scenes. Colleagues who are Agents and Brokers will recognize many familiar scenarios. From first-time buyers with underwater aspirations to moving, mortgages, and meeting the associated occupations along the way. The word downsizing — is the science-fictional plot and a parallel nod to the wants and needs of an American home. House size is compared with dollar values in a (real) big world versus a very small one. If you haven’t seen Downsizing; here is your SPOILER ALERT!

I was the Location Scout + Manager for filming Downsizing in Omaha, Nebraska. For the past thirty years I have worked on movies, commercials, and all sorts of motion pictures. Commonalities in film locations and real estate are ubiquitous. Coincidentally, I was inspired to obtain a Real Estate license after working on this movie. As I transition from filmworker to Realtor®  I thought it would be fun to share stories from my experience.

Scouting for a movie begins similarly to initial chats with Buyers and Sellers. “Wants? Needs? Budget? Timeline?” The Director (the Buyer) for this project was Alexander Payne. He is hardly a “first-timer” so in theory there might be anxiety about meeting the client, but I had an advantage of previous work-history on the movie Nebraska. I was familiar with his style, interests, and mainly how he trusts the industry pros he hires for his collaborations.

Before any meeting, I read the script and create a list of locations. I do market research prior to any “showings” and before presenting any solid options. Like real estate, the internet changed location scouting. Yes, I do initial searching online and then contact real estate agents, property managers, builders, and homeowners while building a first pass list – still just for me. Although the internet is awesome, as in real estate, there is no replacement for good old-fashioned driving around, seeing places and meeting people—in real life.

I scout every location solo while checking off the creative looks and practical logistics before offering any location as an option to the Director. IF a location is a possibility, I then confirm its availability. Here’s another spoiler alert: there are location owners that have zero interest in letting a movie use their property. I am totally respectful of their choice. So beyond that first big question, the next ones are about calendar, work schedules, neighbors, HOAs, and if my offer will be remotely acceptable.*  If all good and the vibe is positive, I can proceed to show the Director what we call Selects. It is at this point, favored locations become Sellers.

There were four house locations scripted as being in Omaha; exteriors and interiors. Plus two modern upscale condos in a big city, at least one massive mansion in Leisureland, and a rustic village in Norway. Early on in pre-production, before any hints of doubling ** and film cities hadn’t yet been selected***, my scouting periscope watched for all possibilities in Nebraska – oh, except the Norwegian fjord.

The Omaha duplex involved a fair amount of action, included exterior shots – front and back, including an alley entrance, and interiors on three floors. I knew this would be the location-to-find challenge of the show. There’s always at least one per movie. I initially scouted about a hundred duplexes. I got it down to about twenty to present as Selects. We physically scouted about ten. “Hold on, Jamie. How do you choose a location?” I find and suggest options based on the script, the Director’s vision, my creativity, and the practicality and safety of the location. For this movie, when I looked at the duplex above (my location-scout photo) I chuckled at all of the windows. I also knew there was a yard sale scene and it might be funny to host it on this slight hill. Alexander agreed.

The scene from the movie. Note the sign; a Moving Sale because of downsizing.

The word McMansion was scripted. Characters Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) go to a showing there. Alexander prefers real locations and real people, so when he needed a Real Estate Agent for a scene, he cast real Omaha agent Linda Andersen from a local broker.

This is the McMansion exterior (establishing shot). Use of the sign was legally cleared by the studio. Cars are called picture vehicles. The car on the left is the Agent’s (in the movie). In real life, it was owned by another Omaha agent who I met while scouting a model home. That model home ended up not being a select but I snapped a photo of the vehicle – and Alexander cast it.

The McMansion interior was a different house. Here’s my scout photo, months prior to filming.

Below is the scene from the movie. There’s real Agent Linda Andersen.

Another  scout photo below.

This shot is in the trailer. Audrey loves it. Paul is hesitant. He says,

“…I just think we should take another look at that place in Benson.”

Paul and Audrey meet up with friends at another one of the houses set in Omaha (photo below). A high school classmate of Paul’s, who underwent the downsizing process, pitches him on the pros of being small. He convinces him to at least go visit and see what they have to offer in Leisureland, New Mexico. By the way, this house location was scouted in Omaha but because of production budget and schedule, these exterior and interior scenes were shot elsewhere.

Leisureland is a classic Hollywood fantasyland. This new tiny world was created by a mix of physical locations, proper placement of green screens, arduous filmmaking, and expensive digital effects. Practical locations become the foreground or background in what’s called a plate.Very early in scouting, the idea of shooting Leisureland in Nebraska was indeed discussed. We scouted Omaha area Linden Estates, West Shores, and Newport Landing. The latter looked good. It could have been large-scale filming in Omaha or at least gathering plates to place digital mansions on empty lots. However budget and schedule forced these scenes shot elsewhere too.

Watch this “new home build” sales pitch on equivalent value and upgrades – in Leisureland.

And a new home build presentation like no other.

Paul and Audrey return to Omaha from the Leisureland exploration trip – inspired, yet still on the fence. Their decision is made after listening to a phone message (also real people casting). That voice is real Mortgage Banker Tom Milo Goodman.

 

You’ll have to watch the movie to learn how the rest of the story plays out.

Collaborating with all of the location owners in Nebraska, including others not mentioned here (restaurants, manufacturing facility, shipping distribution center, etc.)  was awesome. I wish we could do it again and more often… Working with Alexander Payne and top-shelf Hollywood pros is always a great ride.  Downsizing was a fun one.

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Read more about the Omaha real estate in Downsizing via Omaha Homes Magazine.

* Location owners are paid a location fee in exchange for permission to shoot on their property. Insurance is issued by the production. From location agreements to W9 forms, check requests, and insurance certificates, there is plenty of paperwork to do on any movie at each filming location – and non-filming locations (used for parking, select departments shop space, storage…).  There are offers, counter-offers, negotiations, and occasionally “sorry, this property is no longer available.”

** Many scenes in movies and TV are “doubled” – meaning a location is shot elsewhere other than the scene’s scripted location. Some locations are doubled between exterior and interior. It happened at the duplex, McMansion, and other locations shot in Omaha. Downsizing is the first and only movie where Alexander Payne doubled his beloved Omaha outside Nebraska.

*** When a movie is scripted in multiple cities, production will choose one as a main hub or basecamp city. Film incentives (tax breaks) drive most decision-making. Even if a movie is set in one city or town or in a totally digital world – cities, states, and countries with best incentive packages win the production and the local economic benefits. Early in pre-production, I work extra hard and hope that ALL of the movie will be shot in my state. Yet my experience has taught me that most major movies are made in strong film-incentive states and countries. Nebraska has zero robust incentives. Downsizing was filmed partially in Los Angeles, Omaha, Norway and the majority in Toronto, Canada.

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Need real estate? Maybe you’re downsizing?  : )  I am Real Estate Agent based in the Omaha metro area and licensed in Nebraska. Along with my professional family at Nebraska Realty, I can consult with you about your potential transaction in the United States. If you are ready to list your home for sale or purchase a new or next one, need commercial space, are buying or selling a business, or have friends and family at those points in their lives — I’d be happy to help you and them. Reach out, connect, follow… Let’s realize your vision.

Jamie Vesay has worked on movies, advertising filmmaking, and commercial photography for over thirty years – as Producer, Production Manager, Special Effects Technician, and Location Scout / Manager.  He became a licensed Realtor® at Nebraska Realty in 2020.

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Health & Safety Lessons from a Pig Shoot

DISCLAIMER: This post is not about how we should shoot (anything) again within Covid-19 guidelines. I present the information below from point-of-reference health and safety experiences on past shoots at commercial hog barns – long before the pandemic. Many of these actions parallel current discussions about establishing new universal on-set guidelines.

I’ll never forget my first creative call with an Agency about an upcoming shoot—at a hog facility—and that moment near the end of their long list of guidelines, “…and the crew will need to shower in and shower out. The location will provide inside clothes, boots —and underwear. It’s all for the safety of the animals.” I silently paused, raised an eyebrow, and may or may not have muted the speakerphone, “Ok. Nobody on another hog (pig) shoot or their equipment less than two weeks prior to our shoot. Clean gear ahead of time. If any of the crew is sick they shouldn’t be on set. The PPE is for the pigs. And — underwear?”

You see, out here in farmland USA, us production people who collaborate with agricultural-related clients often find ourselves in wacky scenarios — while addressing health protocols and taking safety steps specific to the product, service, and / or location.

A commercial hog facility and the land around it are biosecure locations. Many basic shoot procedures and crew positions are eliminated by default. The biggest adjustment is pace of work. Imagine any set you’ve been on but moving methodically SLOW.

This type of shoot is different from the moment you arrive at location. You get to park but DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR VEHICLE until met by a Location Rep. They give you shoe protectors (plastic booties) BEFORE YOU STEP OUT and the instructions to cover your shoes are precise. After you have the covers, open your vehicle’s door BUT STILL DON’T STEP OUT unless the cover is over your shoe. DO NOT PUT THE COVERS ON INSIDE YOUR VEHICLE. The idea here is for no strange surface material to touch the biosecure surface. Only when shoe-covers are on should you move on to the property (still guided). This is one list of guidelines for one procedure. Keep in mind, we’re not even near the front door yet.

  • No pressure, but hogs are high-risk to catch infections. If one animal gets sick, they can infect the entire facility.
  • Hogs can get a virus from people and vice versa.
  • Hog shoots require more pre-production discussions and a different type of scheduling IF you want to attain any storyboard and shot list.
  • You’re at the mercy of the protocols and process.  Again, everything is slower than usual.
  • Gear doesn’t touch the ground on load-in but there is another phase of wiping it down before crossing into the pens.
  • The only way to walk inside is through the shower stall. Yes, it is a thing. Your clothes and shoes with those covers on stay behind in the entryway. You use their clothes (jumpsuit or Tyvek suit) – including socks and underwear.
  • On a shoot last year, we were permitted to keep our own underwear; which was welcomed. Yes, it is very strange. And by the way if there’s a mix of sexes on the crew; whole other discussions are required in pre-production.

Once inside the pens, us pros dab Vicks vapor rub under our nose. You know, like pre-autopsy you’ve seen in movies. Prior to your mind conjuring the stereotypical image of a pig pen, know they are way cleaner than you’d think. Before you get to to shoot anything in a hog facility, there’s a brief walk-through / mini tech-scout because – this is the first time seeing the space.

  • Hogs are the talent who happen to live at the location but you still have to “cast principals.”
  • If shooting humans – such as Livestock Producers (their proper title) or employees or veterinarians – they also come with the location but you’ll be seeing them for the first time too.
  • Livestock Producers and Farmers are great collaborators and some of the kindest, hard-working humans on the planet.
  • When meet-and-greets are complete, vanity checks (for pigs and people) done, final misc. prepped, the shoot begins…

After a few set-ups and shots are captured; the crew, client, and pigs get comfortable working with each other. This is a job and hey we’re professionals but like all properly pre-produced shoots, you can work hard and still have fun, learn new things, interact with curious animals, and smile at some of the things we get paid to do for a living.

When wrap is called, figure at least one hour to repeat your steps just to get back to the door. This process is SLOWED further to clean gear (pro tip: less of anything with cords = good). Beyond the shower stall, getting dressed, loading up gear, and driving away – there’s still a bit of work to do. You should shower again asap — and launder your clothes. If you’re at a hotel, do the former and bag your pig clothes and throw them in the production vehicle.

Ok, done for the day. Your title on the shoot will reflect your next project-related tasks but one thing not on your calendar for the next two weeks is shooting in another hog facility. It’s yet another guideline and health measure—for the hogs. Need more irony? Our clients on these shoots make vaccine for livestock. We shoot them getting their shots.

Before I go, a few more related side bars about these newly suggested Covid-19 guidelines:

  • You touch your face 100 more times more while wearing a MASK versus without one.
  • Wearing latex GLOVES is senseless without simply being trained how to remove them.
  • There are large fans on hog barns which allow INTAKE of fresh air and OUTFLOW of heat, moisture, and gas (yes, that kind). I’ve heard the word VENTILATION mentioned in Covid-19 chats and listed on guidelines. Aside from many questions such as what specifically does that look like to is that pumping air out or in — or both (?) — my first reaction was: Is it a good idea to be moving any extra air on a set with mostly people which may contain a respiratory virus?

Funny, not funny. The upside to shooting with a few hundred pigs is you can smell and see the obvious… Covid-19 is odorless and invisible.

I share these experiences of working on a hog shoot to suggest possible new roads you may be traveling on toward future shoots. The one commonality will be the slowing of all actions in every department. In an industry of “gotta go” and chasing the light and we need it yesterday – we’ll have to see how that works out.

My personal motto on any shoot is: pre-production saves lives. On a Covid-19 era shoot, this will be literal.

Be smart. Have fun. Stay safe.

 

Post content COPYRIGHT Jamie Vesay.