NEW YORK — It was like a dream. One of those dreams where you think you’re at home, except it’s not really home but a weird, alternate version of home.
And then you wake up.
But I was already wide-awake. I was on Stage 21 on a set at Broadway Stages in Brooklyn, 9 miles north of my actual house in Windsor Terrace. Yet, here it was, my barrel-fronted red-brick two-family, with its bone-white stoop with dirt on the edges, the signature red door whose paint I had picked out seven years ago, and the gold number of my address in Delancey typeface etched on the glass transom. Inside were 14 carpeted steps leading up to the family bedrooms. Our decorative white heating vents were scattered here and there.
Except no heat would ever come out of those vents, the bricks were hollow when you tapped them, the stoop was 2 feet wider than usual, and the carpeted steps led only to a lighting grid and catwalk. There was no ceiling, just stage lights and cables.
I got a funny feeling in my stomach when I saw the replica of my kitchen with its aqua backsplash and deep farmhouse sink, whose twin I had just washed dishes in an hour earlier. The cabinets were slightly darker, but everything else was identical, down to the wall sockets.
The pilot for the new Fox dramedy “Almost Family’’ was shot in my home last April, but when the show got picked up for prime time, the producers decided to re-create the house on a soundstage. And here I was, stopping in for a visit. Actress Emily Osment’s frowning face greeted me in my fake living room while a crew of more than 100 milled about.
Trippy was an understatement. I expected Rod Serling to climb out of my fake closet and start his opening monologue for an episode of “The Twilight Zone.’’
This strange trip began one cold afternoon last February when I heard my mail slot creak open. I went to see whether my bills had arrived and saw that it was a flier from a scout looking for a shoot location in our neighborhood.
I flung open my red door, searching for the scout, who was already down our tree-lined block. I quickly called his cell number from the flier and enthusiastically invited him in, telling him this was the place he was looking for. With a son in college and our daughter soon on her way, we could use the extra cash, which I had heard could climb into the mid-five figures for TV shoots.
The scout, Ethan Yaffe, said they were looking for a house for a new show, as yet untitled. It was based on a popular Australian show called “Sisters,’’ which is about three women trying to forge a relationship after they suddenly discover they are related. Their father — played by Timothy Hutton in the new American version — is a famous fertility doctor who, it is discovered, used his own sperm decades ago to impregnate dozens of patients.
The sight of film crews and production trucks lining the streets of Windsor Terrace is not all that unusual. Location scouts have long admired its picturesque brick rowhouses and wood-frame town houses. “Windsor Terrace offers a Brooklyn look that isn’t the expected look you might find in Brooklyn brownstone neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens or Park Slope,’’ said David Ginsberg, the location manager for the show. “It gives a more outer borough feel without looking too far away from the city.’’
The last big production shoot on our street was Vince Vaughn’s 2013 “Delivery Man,’’ a feature film which, strangely enough, covered the same terrain as this “Sisters’’ spinoff, with Vaughn meeting his dozens of sperm-donor children.
No one could forget the shoot that got the film ball rolling in Windsor Terrace: “As Good As It Gets,’’ which was shot at the Howard Place home of my friend Lisa Sack back in 1997, starring Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt. Sack remembers the day Nicholson’s germaphobic character spent a better part of the day climbing her stoop and ringing her doorbell again and again, take after take. “They told me not to answer,’’ she said, laughing. On a visit to Sack’s house that autumn during the shoot, I had come face to face with Hunt in her front hallway and said the first thing that popped into my head, “You’re Helen Hunt!’’ She pursed her lips and nodded her head in trademark Helen Hunt fashion, as if to say: “Why yes, yes I am.’’
For years, “Boardwalk Empire’’ had filmed in our neighborhood — and seemingly on every other block in Brooklyn. Every time I angrily moved my car for production, I enviously wondered when a scout would darken my doorstep. If you were going to lose parking to crew trucks and vintage cars, you might as well get paid for it.
After my enthusiastic welcome, Ginsberg, the location manager, returned the next day with the show’s director, Leslye Headland. Then, a few days later, they descended with 30 studio department heads for a tech scout. They fell in love with the same things we had when we bought the house: the moldings, the heavy wooden five-panel doors, the bright light that streams into our dining room from our backyard.
We got a call in March that the pilot would be shot in our house. “It’s sort of rare,’’ said Ginsberg, “to build a set for a pilot, since we don’t know if it’s going to get picked up or not. We prefer to do it on site.’’
Within days, the house was measured and painstakingly photographed so that Susan Ogu, the set decorator, could clear out our belongings and fill it with different furniture, drapes, lamps, and wall hangings. The first week of April, we left for my mother-in-law’s place in Prospect Heights, and our furniture was moved to the basement and onto a truck. Our house was now officially “Julia’s house’’ — what’s called a hero house in production parlance — where the main character lives, in this case Brittany Snow of “Pitch Perfect’’ fame.
“The character wouldn’t live in a brand-new building in Williamsburg,’’ explained Neil Patel, production designer for the pilot. “She would live in a house with character, history, and soul. Her house is important because it becomes the home for these newly discovered sisters.’’
A layer of clutter was added to give the place a truly lived-in feel. Several of our paintings, art photographs, and our 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints were kept for the shoot. We made sure the artists who were still alive were paid for the rights to show their work. (The crew asked us to e-mail a detailed list of all the artists and contact information.) The producers also donated money toward the annual block party so our neighbors wouldn’t hate us too much for those lost parking spaces. The shoot itself was only two days, at $7,500 per day, although there were prep days and wrap days as well, which paid less.
In May, the show was picked up. Since “Julia’s house’’ would appear in several scenes each episode, it made sense to build a faux version rather than keep coming back to our house to shoot.
Within days, Jim Feng, the show’s art director, showed up with an assistant, spending a whole afternoon measuring everything again for the studio set, right down to the creaky mail slot on my front door. By this time, Patel had signed on for a new Apple TV Plus series about Emily Dickinson, so a new production designer was brought on to adapt our house to a soundstage.
“If we had to come each week and empty out your house and put you out each week, you would be a little upset,’’ Feng said. “It’s also more efficient for us. We can control things a little bit more. It’s more economical to be onstage. And it makes it more pleasant for your neighbors since we always take up parking. We’re like a little army that moves around. We’re annoying.’’
We were ambivalent about the shoot moving off-site, since we would have loved more money but were more than happy to have our house back. Our teenage daughter was glad to see them go.
Two art directors drew up blueprints for the new “house.’’ Then a half-dozen carpenters, a team of electricians, and about a dozen scenic artists — plasterers, painters, and wallpaperers — got to work in the hangar-like studio in Greenpoint. Some of the scenic artists made the new construction look old and lived in, placing marks on the front door and smudges on windows.
The house itself was re-created to the smallest detail. The pine floor was meticulously copied, and the period molding was replicated. “Under your stairs, the molding collides in a funny way,’’ said Feng. “It’s unique and quirky, which lends to our character, so we kept that. It’s part of the character of your house.’’ It was a detail I hadn’t even noticed before, and there it was, re-created in Greenpoint.
The antique Japanese prints were replaced with cheaper knockoffs.
To the undiscerning eye, the set looks exactly like our house. But production designer John Kasarda eliminated the middle room — my office — on the first floor because it wasn’t needed, got rid of the second door in our vestibule and made that space 27 percent larger, widened several doorways, added a few panes to the French doors in the dining room and stretched some of the rooms by as much as 3 feet in width.
Of course, I’m not the only one who has experienced this Bizarro World phenomenon.
Kaylie Jones, an author whose childhood home in Sagaponack, Long Island, was duplicated in Wilmington, N.C., for a Merchant Ivory film 21 years ago, was invited down for the shoot of “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.’’ (The movie is based on Jones’s novel of the same name.) And she still remembers every last re-created detail.
She had just given birth to her daughter and brought the baby with her to the set of the two-story saltbox farmhouse. She knew it would be strange to see a copy of the house where she had grown up, but she didn’t realize just how strange.
“It was a mind-blowing feeling,’’ she said. “It was like this parallel universe.’’ It wasn’t just the house itself, but everything in it was copied: antique furniture, including Louis XIII chairs, a Tiffany lamp, a pulpit that her father had converted to a bar, and a Calder mobile. Her father had been close to death in that house, and played by Kris Kristofferson, would fade again right in front of her eyes. “I burst into sobs,’’ she said. “I’m walking through where my father is dying, with a small baby in my arms. Doom is coming and there’s nothing you can do to change it.’’
Elisabeth Martin and Michael Duddy, Park Slope architects whose neo-Georgian house was used to create the home of Tea Leoni’s character in “Madame Secretary’’ five years ago, had a much more cheerful experience when their house was copied.
Scouts and production crew came to their home on Carroll Street four times, measuring and shooting photos, but never committed to filming inside. “They kept coming back and coming back,’’ said Martin. “But we thought this is never going to happen.’’ Finally, the scout asked whether they could shoot the exterior of the house, with its grand white columns and its arched Palladian doors opening onto the second-floor Juliet balcony.
He also told them that they had already built much of the house on a set at Silvercup Studios in Queens, so there was no need to do interiors in their actual house. Martin and Duddy, who had had Martha Stewart and a couple of commercials shoot in their home over the years, knew the disruption involved, so they were fine with that.
Martin and Duddy don’t have a television, so when the show finally aired, they went across the street to watch it with their neighbors. And sure enough, there were their glass-fronted kitchen cabinets, the suite bathroom, and the baby grand piano near the elegant white-spindled staircase.
“We all just squealed when we saw it,’’ said Martin. “And every time we saw it, every Sunday night, we squealed. The four of us go into a squeal chorus. It never ceases to amaze us.’’
When the pilot for “Almost Family’’ finally aired last month, my son came down from college in upstate New York to watch the show with us as a family. Not “Almost Family,’’ but our actual family. The four of us huddled on the couch, seated in the very living room where the action was unfolding on the television screen in front of us. It was all very meta.
The reviews have not been great, with just a 27 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But every Wednesday night, my mother tunes in to see my house, and we DVR it so we can fly through the commercials. There have been especially weird moments, like when Edie falls into bed with a fellow lawyer in our library, 10 feet from where we are sitting on the couch.
And we get a certain pang every time we see our phony red door swing open and a new character walk through it on the television screen, the house itself almost like a family member who’s helping put our children through college.