“Frost/Nixon’s” depiction of a moment in TV history required historic efforts by location manager Greg Alpert.
The feature filmed in four California film commission territories — L.A. County, Orange County, Ventura County and the Inland Empire — at 21 locations in 19 days.
“Never before have members of my team and I logged more hotel room nights working on a film ‘in town’,” Alpert said.
In addition to Orange County’s Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Alpert and his team needed access to La Casa Pacifica, the former home of President Nixon in San Clemente, Calif., that was known as the Western White House during Nixon’s tenure in office.
Securing that location was not an easy task as the home’s current owners, who were friends and supporters of Nixon, were very private and protective of the property, having purchased it directly from the Nixons. They nonetheless allowed limited access for research purposes only, flatly denying all filming even for reference pictures. Thus began the search for a double. Failing to find a similar location nearby, the crew spent weeks scouting the shoreline from Santa Barbara County in the north to San Diego County in the south before locating a church in Palos Verdes Estates. The church, a former residence, possessed numerous elements that matched La Casa Pacifica, but it, too, did not allow filming. Eventually, Alpert’s grateful team gained filming access — and subsequently, a converted minister and church board decided to entertain future film projects based on their positive experience.
The church, however, still lacked a few key La Casa Pacifica elements that the pic’s director, Ron Howard, wanted to incorporate into the film. The location team formulated a plan, returned to San Clemente and was eventually granted two days of filming. According to Alpert, stars Frank Langella and Michael Sheen expressed deep satisfaction at working where the events depicted actually took place.
Next on the historical hunt was a match for the Monarch Bay home in Orange County where the 1977 interviews took place. Alpert’s team found the “look” they needed in Thousand Oaks, where, as in Palos Verdes Estates, they needed 100% signature approval — one no and the shoot could not proceed.
The location team gained more than enough signatures just days before lensing was to begin. What began as a war of nerves for producers and all involved — there was no backup plan for a location — became a filming block party.
“Neighbors who had never spoken to each other got to know each other because of the filming,” Alpert said. “Some offered up their houses to be used as green rooms.”
Next, Alpert had to find the actual house in Monarch Bay, which was rumored to have been torn down years ago. City records produced a wrong address. So, armed with archival pictures from newsreel footage, Alpert found the home the old fashioned way.
“We drove and drove and drove, until out of the corner of his eye, my assistant, Alex, saw a house that resembled the picture taken some 30 years earlier,” explained Alpert. “It was located in a private community that we talked our way into like any good location professional would do.”
They shot exterior pictures and, after several phone calls and visits, were granted permission to go inside and take reference pictures for the art department for use in the set build.
“We borrowed actual furniture that was at the house during the interviews for our set as well as staging elements at the practical exterior location in Thousand Oaks, such as putting up signs with the street names from the real location,” Alpert added.
Shooting did not occur at the actual residence where the interviews took place because, over the years, the house had changed. The location manager faced additional challenges. The Beverly Hilton agreed to shut down its lobby for an entire day, and the film became the first to secure full closure of Sunset Boulevard in front of the Cinerama Dome (which was dressed as it would have been in 1977). Shooting “Frost/Nixon’s” Beverly Hilton balcony scene from room 817 — where, according to a 30-year veteran porter, Frost always stayed — added another bit of historical accuracy.
For “Frost/Nixon,” Alpert won this year’s location professional of the year presented by the California On Location Awards. His department for the film totaled only four Local 399 members: Alpert, Alex Kivlen, Mandi Dillin and Jorge “George” Alvarez.