In the new movie Foxcatcher, which began a slow nationwide rollout just before Thanksgiving, there is a scene in which a helicopter sits – propellers whirling – in front of what the movie’s characters call “the big house.”
But in that scene, what’s hidden from the moviegoer are the employees at this very real “big house” – the Davis Mansion at Morven Park in Leesburg, Va. – huddled behind the front windows, hearts pounding, as the helicopter landed and took off, over and over and over again before the director finally deemed the shot “just right.”
As I tried to stay out of camera range, the sound of the helicopter blades roared in my ears and I struggled to dispel the mental image of the Mansion portico’s four massive white columns shattered into bits by an out-of-control helicopter. But my fears proved to be unjustified. The pilot and the film crew were amazingly skilled professionals.
Serving as the location for this highly anticipated and critically acclaimed film turned out to be an unimaginable opportunity for the 1,000-acre hidden treasure that is Morven Park. The home of Westmoreland Davis, who served as governor of Virginia 1918-1922, Morven Park is operated by a private foundation, which has preserved the property and presented educational and recreational programming for the public since 1967. Building widespread name recognition for a historic site like Morven Park is not an easy task, especially given the competition in a region that is filled with historic presidential homes.
We first heard about the film in the summer of 2012. As the associate director of development and communications, I took the call from a location scout who was searching for an estate to represent the exterior of Foxcatcher Farm, the family home of John E. du Pont. It was my job to negotiate the contract and to strike the balance between keeping the film crew happy and ensuring the protection of our historic building (parts of which date back to 1780) and the several thousand priceless items within its collection.
While the helicopter scenes certainly were the most anxiety-producing, the first moments of the crew’s arrival (in October 2012) ran a close second. As I stood in the main entry of the Mansion, a swarm of what seemed to be hundreds of workers suddenly approached from the home’s many doors, covering the floors with massive sheets of cardboard, running miles of thick black cable, and piecing everything together with rolls and rolls of duct tape.
After a full day of prep work, the actors arrived and two long days of shooting began. Steve Carell and fellow actors Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo created quite a stir as news leaked out that they were on site. We interacted freely with the actors between takes, and Carell, especially, was gracious and appreciative of our opening up the home for filming. Once in his makeup, though, he was virtually unrecognizable, and I was not the only staff member who gave him a perfunctory glance and hello, thinking this guy must be Carell’s stand-in, completely unaware that I was snubbing the real Steve Carell.
And when a group of Morven Park employees went to see “Foxcatcher” recently, we were dazzled by just how beautiful our historic house appeared. (Admittedly, a few of the employees were equally dazzled by the beauty of actor Channing Tatum, but that’s another story.) See it for yourself, then visit Morven Park to see “the big house” up close!