In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
For nine days in the fall of 2014, A.V. Club reader Todd (last name withheld by request) shared his family’s Los Angeles-area home with the first family of Pawnee: Leslie Knope, Ben Wyatt, and their fictional triplets. Todd’s home served as the shooting location for every scene at the Knope-Wyatt house in Parks And Recreation’s seventh and final season, so when Ben and Leslie are watching TV, they’re watching Todd’s TV; when Rachel Dratch’s harried babysitter cleans up after the triplets, she might be tidying up toys that belong to the real-world kids who live in the house. On the occasion of Parks And Rec’s series finale, Todd reached out to The A.V. Club to talk about what it was like to invite the sitcom into his home—a house that, if things had gone another way, might’ve been haunted in an installment of the Paranormal Activity series as well.
The A.V. Club: How did this process begin?
Todd: It began with a flyer on our door, from the location department, with a phone number asking us to call them if we were interested in having them come look at our house for the show.
AVC: Had this sort of opportunity come up before?
T: It had. I think we’ve had about four or five occasions where we found flyers on our front door with phone numbers asking us to call. We always have called, just because our view is that there’s no downside to it, and if it’s something we ultimately didn’t want to do, we could just say no. But it was worth exploring. And on a couple of occasions, people have come out and looked at the house.
AVC: What were the other productions that have expressed interest?
T: We got fairly close to having our house selected for Paranormal Activity 4. We got to the point where the director and one of the producers came over to the house to look at it, but they selected somebody else. Another, I believe, was a movie that was going to be shown on HBO. And I think they may have come over a second time for that, but we were not used for that one. The Parks And Recreation shoot is the first time our house has been used.
AVC: Do you know why your house is the subject of this many requests?
T: In talking to [Parks And Recreation location manager Paul D. Boydston], he said that one of the attractive attributes of our house is that it’s not a typical Spanish style house that you see all over the place in Southern California. The house could be anywhere—it doesn’t necessarily have to be in California. Obviously, they wanted it to be a home in Pawnee, Indiana, so it fit that. They could pretend that it was somewhere else.
AVC: So there are location scouts and there are location managers—by opening up your house to Parks And Recreation, what other behind-the-scenes showbiz roles did you learn about?
T: I’m not an expert in this, but having talked to the people who we worked with on the Parks And Recreation crew—as well as the site rep that we hired to be our representative for the show—there are a lot of people in major cities like Los Angeles, and I would imagine New York, that have location agents. They’re like any other kind of agent in the film industry: They essentially try to get your house used for production, and they get a percentage of the fee. We were fortunate that, because we were contacted directly—we weren’t actively seeking to have our house used—we did not have somebody who we had to give a portion of our fee to.
AVC: You probably can’t—and might not want to—give the exact figure for that fee, but can you put it within a price range?
T: I can say we’re not retiring anytime soon because of this, or paying for our kids’ college. But we are able to use the money that we got for a family vacation, and then we’ll have some money left over that we’ll put in the bank. It was definitely worth our while, but it’s not like I’m going to quit my job tomorrow.
AVC: How familiar with Parks And Rec were you when the flyer appeared?
T: I was very familiar with it: It was one of those shows that I always wanted to watch, because we were huge fans of The Office, and knew that the people who created The Office created this show, and we really liked the cast. But it was just one of those shows that we never got around to watching. And between when they told us that the house was selected and when they started shooting, we binge-watched every episode on Netflix. We might not have been completely caught up by the time of the first shoot, but shortly thereafter we were up to speed and absolutely loved the show. We’re sad that it’s ending.
AVC: So you knew the show as skipping ahead three years? Or was that a surprise?
T: I think I knew about it, just because it was in the media. Also the name of the first episode that we were privy to was “2017.”
AVC: What other information about the episodes filmed in your house were you privy to?
T: I probably knew more than somebody who was not part of my family, but I certainly couldn’t have told somebody exactly what was going to happen in season seven.
Each episode was different. Since most of the season has already aired, you can see that the entire season is not based out of our house. There are just scenes here and there. I wasn’t there for the whole shoot, but what I did see, it jumped around a lot, so it wasn’t as if the producers sat us down and said, “Here’s where the story is, here’s what we’re going to do.” But the scouts, what they would do is they would come and plan out what they were doing in the various parts of the house. So I knew where they were going to shoot in our house, and somebody had to let them into the house, so I overheard some of the stuff.
AVC: So there’s not always a member of your family at the house while filming is happening—who’s watching over everything to make sure things aren’t being broken or scratched or messed with? Who’s keeping the integrity of your home intact?
T: This goes into the process of them setting up each shoot, and it leads into us hiring a site rep. Before we did this, we contacted friends who know somebody who had film shoots done at their home. I had a pretty extensive back and forth with a friend of a friend who has done this a few times, who gave me things to look out for. And she was the first person who told me about a site rep. And a site rep is essentially your eyes and ears on the production. They will come to the various scouts before the episodes, so they’re aware of what’s going to happen. They’re supposed to be the first person in the house and the last person to leave each day. They’re the production crew’s conduit to us—if they have questions, if they want to know if they can use something. This didn’t happen on this shoot, but if she saw them lugging heavy pieces of equipment on our roof, she would probably tell them that it’s not okay.
I was there for a fair amount of the shooting, just out of curiosity. But I also have a full-time job, so I wasn’t there for everything. And my wife was there for a little bit of it as well, because we had never seen a TV show being made, and had not had this kind of access to seeing a TV show being made. It’s not every day where you have a major show like this—especially one that you like—filming in your home.
AVC: What surprised you the most about the process of making the show?
T: Overall, it was how such a large group of people can work like such a machine and get things done so quickly. I’m aware enough of how things are filmed to know that there are a lot of different takes and you’ll see people trying things different ways—that was kind of fun seeing them try different lines in different ways.
Each shoot was a three-day experience, and they did it three times. One day was setup, one day was shooting, and one day was wrap. The first time, our site rep called me at the end of the day and she said, “You’ve got to come over and look at what they’ve done.” I was blown away by how much they had done. They used a lot of our furniture and a lot of our kids’ toys and a lot of our kitchen items. But there was also a lot of equipment, and they put things down to protect the floor, and they added props. It was impressive how efficiently they worked. And even more impressive was how they put everything back exactly how it was when they started. They take photographs of everything at the outset, they know that that picture goes there. I have small kids, and if they can’t find a toy, it’s kind of a nightmare for us—so, fortunately, everything was back in its place once everything was said and done.
AVC: How aware were the kids that a TV show was being made in their house?
T: They were really excited, because they’re aware of TV, obviously. But for them, the most exciting part was, when Parks And Rec was at our house, we were put up at a nearby hotel, which was very kid-friendly and had a swimming pool—which we don’t have. So it was like a mini-vacation for them. And they had bunk beds which they don’t have at home. [Laughs.]
As their parents, moving them out and moving them back in was a bit of a pain—but they thought it was great. And when it was done, they were wondering [Laughs.] when it would happen the next time. They were a little disappointed that production was over.
AVC: To what extent did you interact with the stars of the show?
T: We were there a lot the first shooting day, and I was there periodically after that, so we saw the cast. It’s surreal to see Amy Poehler and Adam Scott sitting around your kitchen table—and it’s equally surreal to see it on the show. But they’re busy and doing their jobs, so we didn’t want to be intrusive.
There was a point on the first shooting day where I was standing in our garage, and Amy Poehler came in and they were doing some final adjustments on her costume. And she was about a foot in front of me, facing me, so she said “Hello,” and I said “Hello.” If I ran into some cast members, I would say “Hi”—I said “Hello” to Nick Offerman and Rachel Dratch. Kathryn Hahn was very friendly and introduced herself. She was very sweet. Probably, in terms of cast members, I had the most interaction with her. Though I guess she’s a guest star, not a cast member.
I was interested in watching Nick Offerman, and I did not know that he was going to be in a scene at the house. But he showed up—it was the scene where he comes to the front door with the drone. So I got to watch that whole scene being shot, with the rain and all that.
AVC: That drone episode, “Gryzzlbox,” is bookended by scenes at Leslie and Ben’s house with Ron and the drone at the end of the episode, but also the first sighting of the Gryzzl drones in the cold open. So it’s your house in those exterior shots?
T: All of the shots of them at home that we’ve seen have been our house—the interior shots and the exterior shots. There was a preview video that was put on YouTube and shown all over the place before the season started where Ben and Leslie are looking outside and the wind’s blowing and they see a drone in front of them—that was all at our front door.
AVC: That shot is the big impact moment of the trailer. After it debuted, did you hear from a lot of people wondering if they’d seen your house in a Parks And Rec ad?
T: Prior to that being released, we told some close friends they were using our house. We weren’t publicizing it or anything—just telling close friends and family. A friend who was aware they were shooting it at our house emailed us a link to that preview video, so once we saw that it was out there, we were much freer with telling friends who are not as close to us about the fact that they shot those season seven home scenes at our house. But there was no one out of the blue who said, “Hey, that looks like your house—isn’t that kind of funny?”
Because they changed little details, I would imagine it would be hard to spot. When you’re watching a TV show, you’re in the moment and you’re not thinking “I wonder if this is the house of somebody that I know?” I’ve since found out that there have been other locations they’ve used in the area that I’ve probably driven by a hundred times and never even noticed that that was what they were using on the show. But it’s kind of hard to spot when you’re watching.
AVC: Watching the scenes that were filmed at your house, do you feel like you’re being pulled out of that moment? Do you notice the little details that were changed?
T: The first scene that I think that they showed, Leslie and Ben were sitting on the couch, watching TV—and we were sitting on the exact same couch watching the exact same TV, watching them doing the same thing. So that was very surreal.
I had seen the setup for a lot of the scenes, so I was aware of what they had done. It was pretty amazing, seeing it in person, how messy they made the house. It does take us out of the show, because partially we’re excited to see our house on the show, and we are looking at various things that the average viewer probably wouldn’t. In the show, you can see a photograph on the bookshelf, and that’s actually photograph of my wife’s grandparents—their wedding picture. It could be any black-and-white photo of people getting married, but we know who those people are. It does take us out of the moment of the show, but it’s been a really great season so far, so we enjoy watching it and we’re enjoying the story.
The other thing we find cool, as parents, is most of the kids’ artwork that’s around the kitchen is my kids’ artwork. The only kids’ artwork they removed was holiday-themed—if my children drew something for Halloween or Thanksgiving, since the show’s being shown in January in February, they took those down. But I would say 90 percent of the kids’ stuff on the walls is from my children, and they threw in a couple of prop items to fill it out. And most of the toys are my kids’ toys. In one scene, Amy Poehler’s sitting on the couch next to my daughter’s doll. [Laughs.] So “Baby Adam,” as she calls him, got to make a cameo. [Laughs.]
AVC: “Baby Adam” sharing the screen with Adult Adam Scott.
T: I didn’t make that connection, but yeah.
AVC: Would you do this again?
T: Absolutely. We didn’t know what to expect going in. We have a couple of friends who are involved in the entertainment industry. They gave us some warnings about the impact on the neighborhood and just being careful with our house because, to the production crew, and the actors and everything, this is not their house, and at the end of the workday, they go home to their homes, and we come back to this. But they took excellent care of us and were very respectful and the crew couldn’t have been nicer, from the people who were lugging in the heavy equipment to one of the people probably I was most excited to meet and didn’t expect to meet [Parks And Rec co-creator and Office showrunner], Greg Daniels. He directed one of the episodes and was there for the scouts for the episode. He couldn’t have been nicer and friendlier. Anything that was broken they either fixed themselves or had fixed. Any knicks or scratches on walls they repainted. They were great.
We had been told that our experience was uniquely great because it’s not always that way—you don’t always have crews that are so nice and so easy to work with and so on top of things. This is the only one we have experience with, but even watching them work together, they just seemed like a great group of people who enjoyed working together and were just nice to us. I described it to friends afterward as an overwhelmingly positive experience. It’s fun to be associated with a great show, and to have seen how the sausage is made, seeing the cast members act—and craft services is tasty. And we got paid, so that was nice as well.