Reprinted from the March/April 2017 issue of Bethesda Magazine.
The movie location manager talks about finding a house for Wedding Crashers,
the power of name-dropping, and memorable moments on the set
Carol Flaisher and Actress Judi Dench aren’t exactly friends, but Dench—or her name, at least—once did Flaisher a big favor. When Flaisher, a movie location manager, was hunting for a house for Philomena four years ago, she was driving up Bradley Boulevard on a rainy Sunday morning when her eyes drifted to a home on the left. “I slammed on my brakes and drove into the driveway,” she says. “The house had everything. I looked like hell, but I rang the bell anyway. The woman who answered the door seemed reluctant. Then I mentioned Judi Dench was in the film. [She said,] ‘Judi Dench is going to be in my house?’ We were in.”
It’s Flaisher’s job to find the perfect room, house, building or neighborhood for movies that are shooting in the Washington, D.C., area. Location, location, location is not just a mantra in real estate; it is essential to movies, too. “Generally, I get a call from a producer and make a deal,” Flaisher says. “They send me the script and most often they put me in touch with the director or the designer who gives the film the ‘look’ and lets me know what they want.”
At 70, Flaisher is a movie buff’s dream date. She has an encyclopedic memory of the films she’s worked on, loves to gossip, and tolerates the blathering of other cinephiles. Over the course of working on countless commercials and more than 100 movies—including Body of Lies, Enemy of the State, True Lies, Snowden and the hit Netflix series House of Cards—Flaisher discovered that her gift of gab was an asset. “I’m a talker,” she says. Once the owner of a home she covets hears her pitch, very few say no, she says, “because it’s fun, it’s different, it’s something for them to talk about.”
As a young girl, Flaisher wanted to be a movie star, but she eventually decided that she’d settle for any job in the business. After graduating from Bethesda’s Walter Johnson High School in 1964, she studied speech pathology at Central Missouri State College (now known as the University of Central Missouri) and then worked in a dental office—two fields that really didn’t interest her. It wasn’t until she was 32, a stay-athome mom with two young children, that she realized her ambition: She turned a gig as a part-time volunteer on stage and film sets into a job as a location manager, and now has her own company, Flaisher Films. Flaisher’s son, Ari, who was named after Paul Newman’s character in Exodus, has spent time working for film companies, and her daughter, Holly, is a TV producer. (Their father is Carol’s first husband, Meir Flaisher, who owned the Georgetown Metal Plating Co.) Carol Flaisher has been married for 22 years to Murdoch Campbell, who has a film-related lighting business.
“So many people say, ‘Oh, your job sounds like so much fun,’ and, yes, it has its moments of fun and glitter. But it’s a lot of work—and a big commitment,” says Flaisher, who received a Women of Vision Award from D.C.’s Women in Film & Video in 2005. “If you love it, as I do, it’s a life sentence. …It’s like being married to the mob.” Years ago, when she thought she’d misplaced the sole original negative for a film she was working on, Flaisher got out of bed late at night and went to Colorlab in Rockville to find it—in her nightgown.
Bethesda Magazine caught up with Flaisher at her modernist home in Cabin John.
What she does
Movie location manager
How did you get your start?
I was fascinated by movies. But I was in Washington, D.C., not Hollywood. After I volunteered for the Kennedy Center Honors show in 1978, I was bitten, and there was no turning back. With my friend Margaret, who was also crazy about movies, we’d do anything. We’d find props, or extras for commercials. We did a Talking Turkey product commercial in the late ’70s. Here we were, two suburban housewives, and we were willing to do anything to be around film.
What was the learning curve like?
I’m really a product of on-the-job training. I didn’t even know the difference between film and video when I started. There was no one before me—no location managers I could learn from—so I had no mentors. And I didn’t mind doing the scut work like babysitting, finding props, whatever. I really built a career from scratch.
How do you go about finding the right locations?
First, I always read the script. Then my job is to tell the director or production designer what is possible. If the writer hasn’t done his or her homework and ends up writing in something that doesn’t exist—like the famous Metro station in Georgetown—then my job becomes double the work.
Tell me about a house that eluded you.
This was for Wedding Crashers. We scouted by air, land and sea for a mansion that had a dock. We found a house in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore, but I couldn’t locate the owner. I went to the governor’s office for help. When I found the owner, she told me the reason they had this house on the bay—tucked away—is that they appreciated their privacy. Most times, when someone initially says ‘no, no, no,’ we can get them to say yes. Not with this one.
Do you use actors’ names to close a deal?
Yes. I call Harrison Ford ‘the golden key,’ because his name helps me open doors and get properties. And Clint Eastwood. When we were shooting J. Edgar, I had to find a specific dining room that looked like Hoover’s. Once I mentioned Clint, who was directing, I had what I wanted. He will smile and wave to the crowd. Leo DiCaprio was the opposite. When Body of Lies was shooting in Annapolis, Leo didn’t do any of that. My feeling is that a wave of the arm [to the crowd from a famous actor] doesn’t cost you one second or one penny, and it helps the whole production—especially people like me.
Will a star offer to help you with a homeowner?
We were shooting Along Came a Spider in 2000 on a street off New York Avenue [in Washington, D.C.,] and I needed a house to add to the shot. So I go to the house I want, and an older man answers and we chat for a while and then he says, ‘You know, I’m blind.’ And I say, ‘In that case, I’m a 6-foot-2 gorgeous blonde.’ We both laughed. I promised the man he would meet Morgan Freeman, who was the lead. On the shooting day, I approach Freeman and explain the situation while apologizing for bothering him. I took him to the back of the man’s house and they sat on stools chatting with each other. So now we’re ready to shoot and they’re still talking. Morgan was engrossed. I was really touched by it.
What kinds of fees do you pay to use someone’s house?
We may pay $2,500 for a one-day shoot for a commercial, up to $10,000 for a movie. With a movie, it depends on the number of shooting days, whether it’s just the exterior or whether we go in. If a family has to move out, it’s a big deal. Sometimes we have to pay the neighbors for the disruption on their street. I needed a house in Georgetown and I offered the owner, a psychiatrist, $10,000. ‘No, I want more than that,’ he said. I told him, ‘Look, I’m not selling cars here, this is what I have.’ We paid $37,000 for a house in Chevy Chase Village for National Treasure: Book of Secrets, but that included repainting the house. The Wedding Crashers house was expensive, perhaps at least $50,000.
Any bad experiences with houses or homeowners?
We were shooting in a gorgeous home off of Wisconsin Avenue near The Washington Ballet. As usual, we covered the floors—we use layout board and paper tape, the kind the painters use. I don’t know what tape was used, but it completely pulled off the wax finish of those nice floors. We had to pay thousands to refinish the floors.
When we were shooting Wedding Crashers, we shot some scenes at the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels. But we were only allowed two days at the inn and we needed more time. So we found a house that looked enough like the inn and we booked it. Well, as we were replacing the roof shingles to match the inn’s roof, I noticed the woman who owned the house was rereading the contract and seemed to be rewriting it. I went to the producers and told them the deal was going south and we should get out. So we paid her a kill fee and pulled out.
Describe some unusual occurrences on the set.
When we were shooting Oliver Stone’s Snowden in April 2015, we were on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House when there was a partial electrical blackout due to [an explosion at a D.C. power plant]. So police blocked off the street and we had to move to Lafayette Square to wait. Finally, we’re given the all clear and we’re rolling again on Pennsylvania Avenue. Then the police find an unclaimed briefcase in Lafayette Park, and again we had to evacuate. We all went to lunch.
You’ve said your favorite director to work with is Ridley Scott. Why?
Ridley’s longtime production designer, Arthur Max, is a friend, and Arthur treats me like an equal. So does Scott. And Ridley is really an artist—when he comes to the set, he’s ready to shoot.
Can you give me an example of your collaboration with Scott?
During Body of Lies, Max says to me, ‘We have to come up with Holland.’ There’s a key explosion scene in the Netherlands in the film. I told him I had two ideas: the canal in Georgetown and Eastern Market. I take him to the market and he says, ‘Bingo, we got it!’ I said, ‘Wait a mi-nute, I don’t know what we can blow up here.’ But he tells Ridley [Scott] we have the location. Eastern Market had recently burned down, [but] we only needed the exterior. D.C. owns Eastern Market and they were looking for money to restore it. Cha-ching! I had the money. Next problem was the explosion itself, since the market is eight blocks from the Capitol. So between the fire department, the shop owners and the market, I paid out between $35,000 and $60,000. For one day. But it went off great.
How did you get the house on Aspen Street off Connecticut Avenue for True Lies?
The character in the movie played by Jamie Lee Curtis is Helen Tasker. When I knocked on the door of the house, a very beautiful woman answered. I explained who I was and my reason for knocking, and then I asked her name. Helene Tucker, she replied. I knew I was in. I almost called [James] Cameron to ask if we could change the name in the script.
You reportedly are able to do everything but change the weather. True?
We were filming near National Airport, and the director, perhaps half-jokingly, said, ‘Carol, can you change the way the planes are going?’ Unbeknownst to him, I had a friend in operations at the airport because I’ve worked that location so often. I also knew that, weather depending, he could change the takeoff-landing directions. So I said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’ And I made a call to my friend. He changed the pattern. The director was amazed. Also, during the first season of House of Cards, director David Fincher—who loves to challenge me—asked me to get the lights turned on at the U.S. Capitol. I didn’t tell him how, but I just called the house electrician and the lights came on.
OK, so you’ve amazed others. Have you ever been surprised?
In the 1980s, I was hired as production manager on a film called Good to Go, with Art Garfunkel in the cast. The producer, Sean Ferrer, planned the film with me over the phone and then flew to D.C. to begin shooting. I go to the airport to meet him. I’m expecting an older guy, and he’s probably looking for someone younger. I finally spot him, and he’s this handsome young guy carrying a boom box on his shoulder. First thing he asks [is] if we can go to a bank so he can open an account. Fine. So at the bank, the woman is taking his personal info—he’s making a large deposit—and she asks for his mother’s maiden name as a security question. Sean says, ‘My mother’s name is Audrey Hepburn.’ I’m sure I made a sound that was unworldly. You see, my daughter’s name is Holly—named for Holly Golightly, the Hepburn character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Has your job become more difficult since 9/11?
It’s a little bit tighter around the White House. The real problem is getting through security in every government building. I even have to go through security to get to the D.C. Film Office.
The National Park Service (NPS) has jurisdiction over many government buildings and monuments. Is it a challenge to work with them?
They have their rules and regulations, and you may not like them but you have to work with them. The biggest problem now is scheduling. For example, the Lincoln Memorial is hard to schedule because it’s so popular with tourists. Also, we were filming True Lies around the same time that Forrest Gump was shooting in D.C. The NPS wouldn’t let Arnold Schwarzenegger ride a horse over a submerged plank in the reflecting pool, but they allowed Tom Hanks into the pool. They explained that Gump was in a re-creation of a historical event—the “I Have a Dream” speech.
Are there any great locations that are underused?
The Old Executive Office Building is wonderful. The hallways are fantastic. But they won’t let us shoot there. Union Station was very popular, but they’ve raised their rates and are too expensive.
You’ve said that you were so dedicated to your job that you never really developed a life outside your work. Would you say that your career conflicted with your first marriage?
Yes, my interests left the house. At first, Meir was very much in favor of it; I was having fun and making money. But I was pulled away. All of a sudden I was getting attention because I had an interesting job meeting famous people. I had an ego, I was an independent woman. I was a big fish in a little sea. I always think I could have made a good film critic, and I kind of wish I had a radio show.
Do friends and relatives ask you to introduce them to movie stars and get autographs?
I do get that request, but I’m really not comfortable with it. I’m there in a professional capacity. What I try to do is get them to visit the set, and they’re free to have at it. If you’ve never been to a movie set, it can be interesting, exciting and fun. Other times, totally boring. A lot of standing around and waiting.
Are movies always more exciting than commercials, or would you sometimes rather get a call from a place like the United Services Automobile Association?
The movies are exciting, stressful, exhausting, demanding. They drain all the energy—a call can come from anyone at any time from any department, with a change or an addition that is usually an impossibility that they want me to accomplish in a wink. When I’m on a movie and we’re close to shooting, I won’t even go out to dinner in anticipation of such a call. I totally focus. And this can go on for weeks. A commercial can have the same demands but on a much smaller scale and in a much shorter time frame. Much more manageable.
Any other memorable moments from shoots in Montgomery County?
When we filmed Random Hearts, Harrison Ford’s character lived off Bradley Boulevard. Harrison was all over the area—he and the whole crew even had lunch at the Landon School. The neighborhood went nuts. We had to have extra police, but everyone had a blast.
When we shot Philomena off River Road, the news got out to the press and the traffic jam was enormous. News helicopters were overflying us…we couldn’t shoot! The movie company was blamed for a colossal mess, but in truth we were completely hidden off the road, and all vehicles were concealed in a lot behind a nearby church. The lookie loos and press and rubber-necks caused the problem, not us. But we got the bad rap that day.
Do you find yourself trying to convince people to shoot in Montgomery County?
Yes, I do. Most movies that come to D.C. want what I call the “big five”: White House, Lincoln Memorial, the Mall, the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. So most movies stay in D.C. But our suburban houses are an easy sell. Random Hearts, Yuri Nosenko, National Treasure, True Lies, Philomena come to mind, all of which filmed [at] houses in Montgomery County.
Can you tell us about some behind-the-scenes moments with the actors?
On My Fellow Americans, it was raining and muddy, and I slipped and fell into the arms of James Garner. He was furious, but I thought it was hilarious. While getting ready to shoot a scene at Ben’s Chili Bowl, Russell Crowe was hanging around. Russell was introduced to the owners and they started talking. Then Russell got a chili dog. After about 20 minutes, Russell had the director make the scene larger to include more of Ben’s. You can see Russell’s enthusiasm in the scene in the movie.
If you were filming your life story, who would you cast as yourself?
Shirley MacLaine, particularly as she appeared in Terms of Endearment.
Any plans to retire?
I have the most wonderful young people working with me. I’m doing commercials, House of Cards, but no big movies in the near future. I always say, ‘This is it, this is my last one.’ But it never is. I can’t give it up.