by Nancy Mills
When SLM Douglas Dresser/LMGI signed on to help make a new version of Little Women, it took him a while to realize that more was at stake than finding nearly 40 locations in 14 different Massachusetts cities. “My biggest challenge was honoring the novel and vision of Louisa May Alcott and the legion of fans who loved the March family for generations,” he says. “I was surprised by the emotional response we would get from people who had been inspired by the book when they were younger.”
Dresser was determined to create a world that doesn’t exist anymore. “It was hard to find, pull out and make authentic,” he says. “A story that takes place in the 19th century is difficult in these modern times. We were creating a world filled with heartache but also with joy, love and family. It was a really great project to be part of.”
“It’s so inspiring to be in the real places,” Little Women producer Amy Pascal says. “You feel like Louisa May Alcott, the beginning of American literature and all of American history are right there in Concord.” Pascal spent a lot of time traveling through Massachusetts with Dresser and his crew, looking for the right places to film. “The location people were fantastic,” she says. “There were a lot of people in that van, and we were all tramping around in the mud. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not really making a movie.”
Former Chairman of the SPE Motion Picture Group, Pascal has spent much of her career checking out locations. “When I ran the studio, I made lots of movies in different time periods,” she says, “but I never did something that looked like this.” This is the second version of the Alcott classic that Pascal produced. The first, which was released in 1994, was shot in Vancouver and featured Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth and Christian Bale as Laurie. “What (director) Gillian Armstrong and (writer) Robin Swicord were interested in doing in that movie was different from what (director) Greta Gerwig was interested in doing in this new movie,” Pascal says. “Greta wanted to do something that was inspired by her love of the novel—reading it as a child and reading it as an adult and the different things the novel made her feel as an adult. This movie is centered around the March sisters—going back in time to the halcyon days of childhood. It’s very much about memories.”
As residents of Massachusetts have long known, the Alcott world still exists there, at least in terms of historic buildings. Preservation groups like Historic New England and The Trustees of Reservations offered the film company access to numerous locations, including small museums that preserved furnishings of the period. “Because of the subject matter and the book, they were willing to open their doors and have us film there,” Dresser says. “Some also do special events and weddings, so they’re used to people coming through the house and touring.” Dresser found himself eliminating any sign of modernity before shooting could commence. “We came in and removed all the modern bits,” he says. “We took the lighting out and hid smoke detectors and telephones. These places were originally built for gas lamps. We had to create a look before people had electricity. We had to bring real places back to the way they looked in the late 1800s.”
“Doug does a lot of things,” executive producer/UPM Adam Merims says, explaining why Dresser was tapped to be SLM. “He had just returned from Korea on Black Panther. Little Women is not an action film and doesn’t have the same amount of resources. Usually they’d hire an LM from the area, but there are only a few people who do locations in Boston, and none were really available. People are often nervous about bringing non-local LMs into Boston, but we only shot about six days in Boston proper. Doug is really skilled at going into places that he’s never been before. We worked together in Atlanta on Baby Driver, so I rationalized in my mind that he could do Little Women. KALM Snappy Oliver/LMGI was also on Baby Driver. Working with people more than once meant that I knew their strengths.”
“I come from more of an action-film background,” says Dresser, who has worked on such pictures as Kill Bill: Vol 1, The Revenant and Gemini Man. “When I took Little Women, I was so excited. I thought, ‘I won’t have to do any car chases.’ But when you get into a situation where you can’t see any streetlights, electrical wires or pavement, you realize you have to create every element and make it as authentic as possible. That adds a whole new layer of challenges.”
He arrived in Boston about four months before the 50-day shoot started. “Location scout Mark Fitzgerald, from the Boston area, did a lot of the preliminary scouting six months before we started shooting,” he says. “Some of the locations were available. Others weren’t. But we had time to craft the look of the film. We had ballroom scenes, party scenes, street scenes, plus New York, Boston and Concord scenes, all in the 1860s. We went through architectural styles and areas where these kinds of buildings still existed, and that helped craft the look of the film.”
THE ALCOTTS’ REAL HOME
Orchard House, the Alcott family home in Concord, was an important reference for Dresser and his team. The building is now a museum, and the location team spent time inside walking in the footsteps of this famous family.
“One of the really interesting things about the state of Massachusetts is that they’ve done a great job of preserving 18th- and 19th-century buildings,” Merims says. “We knit together the world of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women by going to a lot of those places. Many had never had filming and were anxious, so we made them feel comfortable.”
“Orchard House was a great partner,” Dresser says, “especially Jan Turnquist, who was a terrific resource for us on the family, the style, architecture and set dressing. Over and over, we returned to her for insight and advice. She’s the one in charge of that house. She runs it. She has dedicated her life to preserving the memory of this book and the writer’s family. Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was a famous person in his own right. The house itself was a little too difficult to film in, but we managed to film the school house on the property. Louisa’s father built it, and it’s almost perfectly preserved. It’s amazing to feel the history and to know these characters we’re recreating had actually been in that space.”
“Many people are now visiting Orchard House after hearing about the new film,” says Turnquist, Executive Director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where Little Women was written and set and where Alcott and her family lived for 20 years. “Sometimes we’ve welcomed over 300 people a day. Little Women has never been out of print and is beloved around the world, having been translated into over 50 languages.” Also helping drive attendance is a 27-minute documentary, Orchard House: Home of Little Women, which ran on PBS in May 2018. Turnquist wrote, directed and co-executive produced the short film. A few months ago, it won an Emmy for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Program/Special at the Boston/New England Emmy Awards.
Turnquist was impressed with the laser focus of both Dresser and production designer Jess Gonchor. “They wanted everything as authentic as possible, down to exact paint colors,” she says. “I drove around Concord with them looking at locations. They couldn’t use Orchard House with so many of the Alcotts’ belongings inside, so they wanted to find a place to build an exact replica of Orchard House. They needed a location with a lot of land and a grand-looking house that could represent the wealthy next-door neighbors. They had done a great deal of research and still asked me so many questions. Ultimately, they built an exact replica of Orchard House on private property with just the right grand house on it. When I saw their Orchard House replica, I was awestruck. It was perfect!”
In 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott purchased 12 acres of land with a manor house that had been on the property since the 1660s for $945. He then moved a small tenant farmhouse and joined it to the rear of the larger house, making many improvements over the course of the next year, as he detailed in his journals. The grounds also contained an orchard of 40 apple trees which greatly appealed to Mr. Alcott, who considered apples the most perfect food. It is not surprising, then, that he should name his home “Orchard House.”
After moving more than 20 times in nearly 30 years, the Alcotts had finally found their anchoring place at Orchard House, where they lived until 1877. The house is most noted for being where Louisa May Alcott wrote and set her classic, Little Women, in 1868 at a “shelf desk” her father built especially for her.
Fortunately, there have been no major structural changes to the house since the Alcotts’ time, with ongoing preservation efforts adhering to the highest standards of authenticity. Since approximately 80 percent of the furnishings on display were owned by the Alcotts, the rooms look very much as they did when the family lived here, causing many modern-day visitors to comment that “A visit to Orchard House is like a walk through Little Women!”
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FROM THE COEN BROTHERS TO LITTLE WOMEN
Little Women is Gonchor’s first experience with historical fiction. Best known for his production design work with the Coen Brothers on such films as No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, he says, “I wanted to try something new. It was extremely motivating because of the cast (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk and Meryl Streep, plus Oscar-nominated director Gerwig). Rarely, if ever, do I get to shoot where the story actually took place. We had a lot of historically correct houses, architecture and museums to help bring the movie to life. We filmed in a lot of intact locations. What really helped was that I was living in Lexington, near Concord, where the story took place, in a Colonial house built in the 1700s.”
Dresser had a similar experience. “I lived in Concord in an apartment above a barn that was built in the 1820s,” he says, “behind a house that was built in the 1700s. Living and working in that environment helped embed a sense of history, joy and art.”
The two men had never worked together, but Gonchor says, “We hit it off very quickly. We even socialized after spending 14 hours a day together in a car. Doug has a great personality. He really enjoys his job, and that makes things easy for me. He takes amazing photos. He knows what needs to be found. He understands filmmaking and the functionality of what has to be done. We’d review photos at the end of the day, and then he and I would go back out to see what else they came up with.
While many cities seem to knock buildings down every 25 years, this is not true in the Boston area. However, just because old buildings are still standing doesn’t mean filmmakers have easy access to them. “Anytime you’re filming in an historic building, there are unique challenges,” Dresser says. “One of the great things we were able to do was film in Concord and the greater Boston area. Not only is their history preserved but they have a fondness for story and an appreciation of buildings. We filmed in six or eight houses that are historically significant. They were created in the time when the story was written. We also filmed in a few pre-Revolutionary War locations (Minute Man National Historic Park). You don’t find many of those in Los Angeles.”
THE ALCOTTS AND THE LAURENCES
One of the key plot points in Little Women deals with the relationship between the Marches and their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson Laurie. The location team spent months looking for two houses—the March house and the Laurence house—that would work well together. “We scoured greater New England,” Dresser says. “Finally, we found the Laurence house in Concord, where the story takes place. Then we made the decision to build the March house in the field opposite so that they were facing each other. We tried to stay true to Orchard House.”
Adds Gonchor, “You could see one house from the other, which had not been done before in previous versions of the film. I think Greta liked having that relationship between the two. It was good for filming because a lot took place in the space in between the two houses. It was right to do that because that’s how the story really was told.”
“The interiors of the Laurence home were shot on a sprawling 60-acre, 22,000- square-foot estate built in the late 1800s by the Thayre family,” KALM Oliver says. “It was later purchased by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation. Guests such as George Harrison, Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and George Hamilton frequently visited. It was up for sale for $10 million, and if I’d had the money, I would have bought it.”
Gonchor adds, “We had scenes there of someone playing the piano, studying with a tutor and the Christmas dinner. It was cool. It had good vibes. The building was huge. It had something like 60 rooms.” It took months to figure everything out. “There are so many ways we could have gone with the two houses. We found a mansion that was great for the Laurence house, but not enough room to build the March house. There was a great March house, but could we build the façade of the Laurence house? Eventually, we found a place that was on a decent piece of property, and it was changing owners.
“Someone bought it but wasn’t planning to move in for a year, so we had the run of the grounds. It was perfect for the Laurence house. Then we had to decide where we were going to build the other house. When we were about to shoot it, it turned out that it was Trustee land and they didn’t want us to shoot there. Doug and I took a walk around the property and found this other place to build the March house. You couldn’t see the front of it because it was so big, but you could see the back. Then we saw the pond nearby. It opened up a whole world of possibilities that we never would have found if they hadn’t stopped us shooting.”
AUNT MARCH’S HOUSE
“Aunt March’s house was challenging to find,” Dresser says. “We wound up using one of the Trustees’ properties in a fantastic neighborhood south of Boston (the Bradley Estate in Canton). It was one of the houses where we had to add snow. We watched for it to snow, and then we sent a camera crew over to shoot establishing shots in a snowy landscape.”
“Aunt March’s house was actually two things,” Gonchor adds, “her house and also a school at the end. We wanted to find something that looked regal and institutional—a little bit stern and a little more masculine. We used the outside and inside of a private home. There’s a whole list of historic homes that they use for functions. We shot at three of them. They’re wedding venues now, updated with electricity and plumbing.
“This place was tucked away. It wasn’t a giant place like some of the other mansions we shot at. It was an A–frame, and when I first looked at it, I thought, ‘That’s a great academy.’ Inside were three rooms and a great backyard. I said, ‘We’ve got to grandmother this place up and make it into something cool.’”
Another location that impressed Gonchor was the Arboretum of Harvard University, which had never before been used for filming. “We did a carriage scene with Meryl Streep in a perfectly restored buggy,” he says. “We had the arboretum for one day. It stands in for Paris gardens. Watching Meryl ride by in a buggy in her historic costume, makeup and hair made me forget for a moment that I was living in the modern world. It takes you to a different time. ‘Wait a second. We’ve gone to 1860.’ You breathe a little differently.”
Dresser adds, “I loved the sound of horses and carriages running on dirt roads in downtown Boston that just hours before had cars and taxis passing by.”
CAN LAWRENCE REALLY LOOK LIKE NEW YORK CITY?
One of Little Women’s physically biggest locations took place in Lawrence, a manufacturing town from the turn of the century. KALM Oliver took on the challenge of transforming the downtown city center of Lawrence into New York circa 1880s. “Preparing Lawrence to be filmed as New York in the late 1880s was one of the proudest, hardest and most challenging moments of my career.” Although much of Little Women takes place in and around Boston, Jo (Ronan) moves to New York at one point to further her writing career.
“Jess Gonchor and art director Chris Farmer brought the vision to Lawrence, one of Massachusetts’ main textile cities, on the Merrimack River,” Oliver says. “The city had preserved many of their great historic buildings, including massive factories, City Hall and the Superior Court. We began with a lot of legwork and jumping through hoops long before any actual changes. There were months of preparation before we landed. Then, a few days before we arrived, on September 13, 2018, the gas explosions of the Merrimack Valley hit Lawrence. More than 40 homes blew up from overcharged gas lines, and 30,000 residents were displaced. Most of them were forced to live in makeshift shelters throughout the city. That is where we came in. We had to consider the effect on businesses that feed off the limited traffic coming in and out of the city and stay out of the way of the relief efforts. We also coordinated to make sure businesses weren’t additionally impacted. The mayor, all of the city staff and most of the residents were extremely supportive with such a prestigious and historically influential story. Over the course of three weeks, we basically transformed three city blocks into New York 1880s and got to film for two days.”
“It was a major transformation,” Gonchor adds. “There were so many people and businesses to deal with and for such a long time.” For reference, he looked at paintings from the era. “I wanted to see what the light was like and the different shades of colors. I think half of my research was examining painting from Colonial times and the streets of Concord, which we built as well. There were no real photographs of what it looked like back then.”
HOMES AS MUSEUMS
Because of Boston’s historic preservation, the location team had many choices for possible shooting sites. “A lot of the locations we filmed at were built in the late 1800s,” Oliver says. “They have been well cared for over the decades and some turned into museums. In one case, we got the unique opportunity to film at a home built in the 1850s by a prominent Bostonian, Charles Hammond Gibson. It served as the New York boarding house. Because it is preserved as a museum and not someone’s home, we didn’t have the additional task of making arrangements to move them out for several weeks while we filmed. But a lot of the things in the home were antiques. Nothing in the house was updated or modernized. This home even had its original gold leaf, embossed wallpaper, popular for the period and very delicately preserved after all these years.
Our job then, as location professionals, was to ensure we protected it—like not accidentally dragging some sharp object down the stairs and putting a hole through the wallpaper. One of the things that comes with our job is being the bad guy to our crew,” Oliver adds. “This role isn’t something I like but is sometimes what we must do. It takes a lot of hard work to address all of a property’s concerns, even before they allow us to film somewhere. But then, after all of that, you get there and the crew doesn’t necessarily think, ‘This vase the designer wants to use is priceless’ or ‘This 200-year-old piece of furniture is something we can’t easily replace.’ They’re thinking, ‘My boss needs me to screw a light into the ceiling or remove a 100-year-old door for a camera position.’ So we have to act as the enforcers on the set. This way the director can get all the shots needed and we, happily, are allowed back.”
NO, NOT THAT HARVARD
Dresser mentions one of the key locations he is most proud of. “The production designer and the art department did a fantastic scene that is supposed to be Concord in the 1860s,” he says. “We were in Harvard, a small town in Massachusetts (pop. 6.500), and we were able to take over a few blocks of the downtown area and add horses, buggies and smoke. It’s one of the most incredible sets I’ve ever seen. We brought in truckloads of dirt and snow. Most of what you’ll see is real—not a completely designed computer graphic that is just made up. When you’re standing there, you can smell the horses and the smoke burning. It helps the actors get the feel of the times. The buggy was 150 years old. It made it all feel real and authentic.”
How did they find it? Luck. Dresser and some of his team stopped there for lunch one day while scouting. “We went to the historic neighborhood market and were struck immediately that we could look 360 degrees and all we could see were historic buildings,” he remembers. “They’ve preserved it for hundreds of years. We kept thinking about this town. ‘Remember where we stopped for sandwiches?’ Eventually, we approached them and said, ‘We’d like to add a few buildings and take over your streets for a few days and bring in snow and horses. We want to make a movie.’
“They’d never had anything quite the scale of Little Women. They were willing, somewhat hesitantly, to go along with us. In the end, we involved the town. We had town meetings and hired some of the locals as extras. Everyone was supportive. We were there for multiple days over the course of several weeks. We built enough and changed enough to make it story-specific.”
Adds Merims about the choice of Harvard, “I initially thought we’d film in downtown Concord, but when Jess Gonchor and I went to see it, I thought it would be very difficult to control. It looks period, but it’s a modern operating town. So I asked, ‘Aren’t there any other smaller towns?’ The town of Harvard was suggested. Doug got involved working with the town, the city council, the town manager, and the police force for our two different time periods—winter, when we were putting down tons of snow, and not winter. The town really embraced us. Doug and I did town halls and learned about their concerns. We were really protective about being period-correct, so we had to cover up things like wheelchair ramps and asphalt.”
ALCOTT FAMILY CONNECTIONS
Dresser hoped to be able to film inside Orchard House, the Alcott home, but it was impractical for many reasons. “It’s on a busy road,” he says. “It would have been difficult to film for as long as we needed and do the things we needed to. The movie takes place over time, and we go through the seasons. We had to make it snow a little early, and we raced the beginning of production to make sure we had enough greenery and flowers for spring. When we moved into the winter months, we added snow and rain. The story will take you on a journey through time and seasons—just getting a little slice of life of this family.”
Another location that had a direct connection to the Alcott family was Fruitlands, an agrarian commune that Bronson Alcott helped found in 1840 in the town of Harvard. “It was an important location because the Alcott family lived there for a while,” Gonchor says. “On that property is a working farm. I think the story of Little Women is not all her memories. I think if you go into the Alcott house in Concord, a lot of things aren’t there but are in the story. Louisa made up a lot of things about where she lived. They did live for a number of years at Fruitlands before they moved to Orchard House. Fruitlands is where we shot Meg March’s house after she got married.”
FROM THE MASSACHUSETTS FILM OFFICE
“Filming Little Women was a real team effort,” says Lisa Strout, Director of the Massachusetts Film Office. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. There have been many small—and large—screen versions of this story, and a number of those were filmed in Canada. We are very grateful to have had our story filmed in our towns, in our state. People here grew up with Little Women and are very emotionally attached to it.”
Numerous times, Strout smoothed the way for the location team to get access to properties not accustomed to opening their doors. “I was happy to reassure locations that the location folks were professionals and that they knew what they were doing,” she says. “Being local and being a government agency helps. We were involved early on in the scouting, mostly dealing with logistics. I had many calls with Doug Dresser, who did a fantastic job. He’s very knowledgeable, and he put together a great team.
“Massachusetts is a prime state for preservation, and we are so fortunate that so much of our period architecture is still in pristine condition. It comes down to trust, and we knew these properties would be well-protected.” She gives an example: Boston’s William Hickling Prescott House is a thoroughly untouched property, where they filmed the Moffat Ball.
“A few years back, we created an online course for our municipalities to become film liaisons. Its purpose is to familiarize our cities and towns with what to expect and how they can benefit from film activity,” she says. “It’s important that locations know that it’s going to be like a crazy wedding that goes on for days at a time, and then, miraculously, when it’s all over, everything will go back to normal.’”
Throughout pre-production, the location team interacted with various historical groups. “They care for and preserve historical buildings,” Dresser says. “We were able to partner with them and use some of their properties. They fit perfectly into our story. They don’t usually allow filming in these buildings, so it took a lot of planning, time and care. These are true historic gems that we were fortunate enough to have access to.”
One of them was the Crane Estate, a 21-acre seaside property in Ipswich. “We shot a lot of our European sequences here, including the beach scene at Crane Beach,” Dresser says. “We were always planning to use that beach,” Merims adds. “It’s a public beach. When we scouted it, Greta fell in love with shooting there. It was late fall but still warm enough. The actors didn’t have to go in the water.
“The most challenging thing for all of us was trying to help Greta depict two years—1861-62 and 1867-68. We were on location from the end of October to mid-December, and we were trying to get four full seasons in three months.”
Pascal’s favorite location? “Probably the March house,” she says. “Orchard House was just down the road. We were really inspired by the house itself, which production designer Jess Gonchor rebuilt. It’s such a little jewel box.”
Merims’ favorite location? “It was the side of a hill overlooking a valley,” he says. “It’s the scene where Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal. It was a cow pasture owned by a farm, overlooking a valley, and it was absolutely gorgeous. There was really no need to do anything. It might have been the 1860s.”
Gonchor’s favorite location? “The publisher’s office at the beginning and end of the movie,” he says. “We built it in Boston, in an old Steinway factory. I loved that. We shot the European scenes in downtown Boston, Boston Common (America’s oldest park, founded in 1634) and in a European-style mansion out toward Gloucester.”
Oliver’s favorite location? “We were filming at the historic Lyman Estate in the dense city of Waltham, and they wanted to film the Hummel House in the middle of the woods where the March sisters’ poor neighbors lived. We needed to find it within a mile or so of the estate, which meant it had to be somewhere within the city. I’m pretty OCD when I’m scouting, so I never give up and I finally came across this 10-acre plot of land—a functioning Girl Scout camp. You’d never notice it driving up and down the street because it’s well hidden. It turned out to be the perfect location and thankfully the theme behind Little Women aligned with the Girl Scouts’ objective, so it came together seamlessly.
“What was really amazing to me was that we got to film this movie where our story actually took place and that it happened to also be the birthplace of many things such as the American Revolution, the “Shot Heard Around the World” and Paul Revere. My favorite story from the film is when we were at Fruitlands, founded in 1843. Doug was trying to work out filming in one of the houses and someone on the crew says, ‘Well, we’ll need to move this chair,’ and the park ranger says, ‘No, you can’t move that chair. That chair stays there. That chair is literally the chair that George Washington sat in. ‘Well, I guess we’re not going to be moving that chair.’ That’s how much history is in that state.
“I want to do movies where two people sit on a park bench for the whole film. I always joke that somehow I end up on incredibly hard, challenging projects. With Little Women I thought, ‘Hey, it’s just four girls talking. How hard can it be?’ Then you get into Boston and have to overcome all these historic challenges—things money can’t resolve. Even though they are excited to be a part of a film, everyone is a lot stricter and a lot more serious about what they will allow you to do.
“Think about this,” Oliver says. “Just to support the horses for extras in the background of a scene, you need to find and secure these things: the holding area when they are not on camera, a storage lot for the period buggies and carriages they tow, land and store the modern trucks and trailers that bring them in from all across the country and the scores of people who own and operate all of this. Getting all of this done is only a small portion of our job. This small dialogue-driven movie of four little girls just talking becomes this enormous project with hundreds of moving parts. It’s incredibly fun but literally nonstop work.”
Oliver recently moved up to LM and is currently working on Penny Dreadful: City of Angels. “The saddest thing for me is that I won’t be working with Doug anymore,” he says. “He’s like my brother. We’ve been working together for over 24 years. We like to say, ‘Longer than most movie marriages.’ We know each other so well, and that has a lot to do with pulling things off and getting things done.”
Dresser shares a story about Oliver that shows what lengths he will go to get the job done. “Snappy was in charge of the NYC scenes shot in Lawrence,” he says. “They had a major gas explosion in the town on the day we had our technical scout. Snappy called the town, asked what they needed, then filled his car with supplies for the residents and the shelter for people who were evacuated from their homes. He’s a great person.”
“Massachusetts has one of the largest rebates in the country,” Gonchor says. “It’s comparable to New York and Georgia. You get a lot for your money. It was the right place to do the movie. There was no way we were finding those places anywhere else. Little Women is definitely a great location movie. I think it will stand out from some of the other versions. It’s on a bigger scale and is more detailed, but it’s not because of technology. We had to do a ton of work at every single place. We built a lot of sets on stage and in the woods. Some places we just went to and shot or altered a little bit. It was easy to mix all three of those things together.”
Where did the snow come from? “We got ice from the fisheries industries,” Merims says. “A lot of crushed ice was made and we were blowing it around as we needed it.” “It was winter almost all the time in our film,” Oliver adds, “and almost every single location had snow. We’d be trucking in 80-to-150 tons of snow to each location. Our greens people would spread it out to make it look like winter. Even though it was at the end of the year and always cold, it very rarely snowed when we needed it to. We used two types of snow. One was biodegradable paper material, which you’d think would be a great material to use, but when it gets wet, it’s not easy to sweep up. We used real snow in the areas where the actors interacted with it, like walking. On the edges, we’d fill with the biodegradable paper product.”
Oliver, who is based in Southern California, says he was nervous about driving in snow. “The night I arrived in Boston it had snowed about four inches. By the time I woke up the next morning, they’d shoveled all the snow off the roadways.” He wishes it had been that easy to deal with the non-real snow, which had to be cleaned up afterward. “Real snow would melt, it is a normal occurrence so the city would leave it alone,” he says. “We had to arrange for closing down streets and lanes of traffic to put snow in and then had to clean it up the day after. That often meant maintaining a street closure until we were done sweeping it up.”
Not everything could be shot on location, despite the plethora of options. “I’d say we shot 80%-90% on location,” Dresser notes. “We did build some interiors in a warehouse in Franklin. We needed some things for weather cover, so we turned the warehouse into a studio. That’s where we filmed the interiors of the March house.”
Oliver adds, “Back in the 1880s, people were shorter. In the real Orchard House, the ceilings and doorways are low. I’m 5’7”, and I could almost hit my head on the ceiling. You can imagine trying to put a light above the actor. It was not necessarily easy to film interiors at real locations. We went to the warehouse to reconstruct the interiors because the ceilings were taller and we could fit the lights, cameras and actors all in the same room.”
WORKING WITH DIRECTOR GRETA GERWIG
“I enjoyed walking Greta and Jess through some of these places and getting Greta’s take on why something would work—or wouldn’t work,” Dresser says. “I liked how her eyes would light up when she walked into a place for the first time. When they give you a wink, a nod or a smile, you know it’s the place where it’s all going to happen. It’s one of the greatest things we have as location professionals.”
Dresser credits Gerwig with inspiring the crew by filling her office walls and the art department walls with historic photos of the world of Little Women. “It helped set the mood,” he said. You’d go get a cup of coffee and look at the photos and be part of the world the film is set in. Even when I was scouting, I was constantly reminded what it would have been like to live in the 1860s. We tried to find locations where you could look left, right or behind you and there would be no modern buildings.”
Dresser, who has worked in locations since the 1995 film The Demolitionist, is still surprised by his need to be flexible. “One of the most amazing things about what we do is that we start out with the words on the page, and we have creative autonomy that’s open and free,” he says. “Then we have to switch our heads from being creative and scouting to the management part. We have to create legal documents with these historical buildings and make sure all permits for the police and fire departments and building codes are completed. And then we have to clean the locations and make them look in the same condition as we found them. It’s the only job where you start out with creative autonomy and end with cleaning up horse poop.”
The Location Team:
SLM Douglas Dresser/LMGI
KALM Kyle “Snappy” Oliver/LMGI
KALM William O’Brien/LMGI
ALM Colleen Coviello/LMGI
LM Tim Gorman
KALM Tiffany Kinder
KALM David Becker
ALM Sam Gillis
Locations Assistants Brendan Flynn, Eric Crocombe,
Frank Ferrari, Christopher Ciotoli, Matt Melia