When we watch a movie, we rarely pay particular attention to the setting, unless it’s especially beautiful. And we certainly don’t keep our eyes glued to the protagonist’s residence, unless it’s Norman Bates’s gothic house on the hill in “Psycho,” or the bank-balance-draining mansion in “The Money Pit.”
Yet in many movies a dwelling can be as important as the film’s characters or plot. In fact, a home can actually be a character, driving the story or serving as a metaphor for a theme.
The East End has had its share of these kinds of places. One that immediately comes to mind is Michael Douglas’s Westhampton estate in “Wall Street.” He is a successful broker, and his contemporary fortress features a dome roof, most likely a power symbol. An image at sunrise is an even more potent one: a group of nearby houses lined up and facing the beach. The cluster represents not only wealth but also a spiritual sense of being, a chance at a new life for newcomer Charlie Sheen, who stands in the foreground.
Two East Hampton homes suggest important cinematic metaphors as well: the Springs home where Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, lived both in real life, and in the movie “Pollock”; and the East Hampton residence where, in “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” matriarch Viveca Lindfors gathers her clan each summer, until she decides to put the house on the market.
Architecturally speaking, the two residences are very different. The Pollock house is a rustic, isolated homestead, built in the late 19th century by a local fisherman; it changed ownership a few times after that, until Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner bought it in 1946. It seemed run-down at the time, neglected for many years, even though the beautiful Accabonac Creek can be seen from the house.
The couple added improvements through the years, putting in full plumbing and eventually expanding the property to include 4 acres more. Pollock also moved a barn from behind the house to the north side of the backyard, with the help of a friend and a truck. After they renovated the structure, this became the artist’s famous studio, where he experimented with a new kind of Abstract Expressionism known as “drip painting.” The studio’s floor, complete with splashes of paint, remains the same as it did when Pollock used it.
The filmmakers of the 2000 film “Pollock,” including Ed Harris, who directed and also played Pollock, had to make the house look as it did when the artists lived there, before Pollock’s death in 1956 and Krasner’s in 1984.
To that end, the production crew added dead plants in the Springs backyard, and scattered broken-down equipment around the grounds. Modern touches like air-conditioning units and storm windows were removed. Weathered-looking clapboard panels were installed, and old shutters were hung at odd angles.
In addition, Mr. Harris and the screenwriters, Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller, at times lived separately in the house to soak up the environment.
What meant the most to Mr. Harris was authenticity, according to Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, which is sited where the artists lived and worked in Springs.
And authenticity is what he got. Almost. Exterior scenes were all done on location, yet only two interior scenes were shot in the house itself. Most of the interiors were shot at Bedford Armory in Brooklyn, and in Springs, said Ms. Harrison, who was there to witness the process.
But realism prevailed nonetheless. Ms. Harrison said, for example, that when she visited the Brooklyn sets, she was astounded that Ms. Krasner’s studio looked so real. “It was as if Lee had just put her brushes down and gone out to smoke a cigarette,” she said.
Moviemaking is not all absolutely real, of course, especially when it comes to weather. In a recent interview, the Pollock-Krasner House director recalled both a manufactured snow scene and a rainstorm created by cranes with hoses and big shower jets as part of the setting for the time when the couple first moved into the house.
Sometimes the rain comes anyway, though—this writer witnessed a time when rain did not prevent Mr. Harris from rehearsing a scene in which the title character was painting outdoors, nor did it prevent Marcia Gay Harden, who played Lee Krasner, from watching the scene while pushing one of her very real children in a stroller.
While attention to detail established the physical authenticity of the Pollock-Krasner house, the cinematic compositions created by director Mr. Harris were just as real, at the same time providing visual metaphors. For example, many shots contained windows, suggesting entrapment. The juxtaposition of vertical and horizontal lines produced by the positioning of furniture and staircases also added discomfort. These visual features greatly reflected Pollock’s demeanor and unhappiness.
Conversely, the exterior scenes were often long shots providing a sense of freedom and connection to nature that Pollock yearned for. Both the house and the land became characters in their own right.
The East Hampton home on Cove Hollow Road where all of “Last Summer in the Hamptons” was shot represents a different architectural style. It is a shingled dwelling on a large landscaped lot, surrounded by tall shrubs that hide the house. It, too, is near water, a small cove that finds its way to Georgica Pond. And it was in reality a childhood home of Henry Jaglom, the director and a screenwriter of this independent film.
Like Mr. Harris, Mr. Jaglom insisted on authenticity when he decided to make this movie about a theatrical family who gathers every summer for a single weekend. Unlike with “Pollock,” however, there were no sets, Mr. Jaglom explained in an interview earlier this summer.
“I rarely dress sets, although my mother put a sign at the foot of the driveway, ‘A Safe Place,’ to commemorate my first film by the same title,” he said.
Authenticity is also achieved through the acting style that Mr. Jaglom encourages. In fact, he reminds some people of John Cassavetes. “I was possibly influenced by John, in that he encouraged freedom and spontaneity, but much more I was influenced by Lee Strasberg from the Actor’s Studio, and David Shepherd and the idea of improvisational theater,” he said. His actors in the movie, including his wife, Victoria Foyt, theater director Andre Gregory, Sag Harbor playwright Jon Robin Baitz, and Ms. Lindfors, bring potent realism to every aspect of “Last Summer in the Hamptons.”
Mr. Jaglom’s parents bought the house on Cove Hollow Road in 1975. They spent summers there until Mr. Jaglom’s mother died in 1990, although his father kept coming for two more summers after that. Mr. Jaglom visited often and remembers that he and his then-pregnant wife, Ms. Foyt, were there in 1991 when a storm wiped out all the electricity. In earlier years, he would give his mother a birthday party there, with many of their friends and family arriving from London, Paris and Israel.
Family and friends are very much a part of the plot of “Last Summer in the Hamptons,” focusing on the relationship among characters and the meaning the house has for them. This is abundantly clear when Ms. Lindfors’s character notes to her children, “If you hadn’t grown up in this house, you wouldn’t be what you are.”
Most scenes, including the dinners, take place close to the house, apparently near the back door. Rehearsals for the play that the group does every summer also take place on the grounds, as do a few romantic interludes.
It’s as if the house is watching over everything throughout the movie—“a see-all, know-all” spirit of sorts.
Oddly enough, that spirit is not emphasized in Mr. Jaglom’s shooting style. We never see a long shot of the house as a whole; only fragmented views are featured, like the roof or windows.
Perhaps this kind of composition signifies the fragmented life that the characters have led. It’s certainly a possibility.
The Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs is a national historical landmark. Tours are available. Call (631) 324-4914 for information.