It takes ashtrays made from spun sugar to create the illusion of glass that can shatter without harming nearby actors. It takes yards and yards of black fabric covering windows to make a bright, sunny day look like night, and it takes a vintage taupe and white Dodge Polara with 1965 Maryland license plates to travel back in time.
All were on view in the 3300 block of Midfield Road in Pikesville on Thursday, the fourth and final day of shooting a residential scene in the film adaptation of “Lady in the Lake,” the Baltimore-based novel by local author Laura Lippman.
There also was what appeared to be an old hatbox from the former Hecht’s department store, 80 hot dog buns used to make just one snack for the cast and crew, and walkie-talkies that squawked cryptic references to “Natalie” — presumably the actress Natalie Portman, who is starring in the Apple TV+ limited series of Lippman’s 2019 bestseller.
”Lady in the Lake” takes place in Baltimore in 1966 and was inspired by two real-life murders during that decade.
The body of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker (Cleo Sherwood in the book) was found June 2, 1969, in a fountain at the center of Druid Lake. Parker was a 35-year-old barmaid at the then-famous Sphinx Club.
Just three months later, 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz (in the novel, she’s named Tessie Fine) was murdered in the basement of a popular local aquarium store. The girl’s badly bruised body was found two days later in a wooded area known as a local lover’s lane.
In Lippman’s novel, both deaths are investigated by Madeleine Schwartz (Maddie), a housewife turned reporter played by Portman in the TV adaptation. Maddie’s perspective is challenged and at times contradicted by the voice of Sherwood, who is portrayed by the Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o.
Excitement on a quiet Pikesville street
Everyone involved in filming the television series signed nondisclosure agreements, so specific details about the location shoot were in short supply.
But, based on Lippman’s novel, it seems likely that the four days of shooting on Midfield Road were re-creating the novel’s first scene, which is set in an affluent Jewish neighborhood in Pikesville. A disastrous dinner party propels housewife Maddie to divorce her husband, leave her teenage son and begin life anew at age 37.
Midfield Road is located in an area where homes sell for around $750,000 according to real estate records, and it is just down the road from Beth Tfiloh synagogue.
When The Sun stopped by to observe the shooting Wednesday and Thursday, Portman was not seen, though crew members indicated that she was filming indoors. The character played by Nyong’o doesn’t appear in that scene in the book, and Lippman also was nowhere in sight. Even so, there was plenty to see.
At least 13 white trucks lined Midfield Road between Lightfoot Road and Seven Mile Lane.
While many homes on the block are contemporary, the shooting took place in a sprawling, 8,500-square-foot white brick ranch home built in 1957, according to Maryland property records. Its windows were shaded with white curtains in an Op-art print. A large weeping elm dominates the front yard, while azaleas to the east bloom in shades of fuchsia, pink and purple.
“This house is stuck in time,” one neighbor said as she walked past. “Just look at those curtains.”
A man with orange hair wearing a tool belt carted potted evergreens around the yard, adding greenery to a setting already replete with it. Banks of lights lined a nearby driveway, which a crew member said also had been rented for the shooting. Actors hired to substitute for the stars during some scenes sat in chairs set up alongside the driveway and marked with the words “stand-ins.”
One stand-in passed the time reading a book, and another crocheted something purple that looked like it could be a scarf or a cap.
Set rules required that masks be worn, even outdoors. Although the shooting occurred behind thick walls and doors more than 30 feet away, members of the crew occasionally stepped toward onlookers who stood across the street, putting a finger to their lips in the universal gesture asking for quiet.
A contraption resembling a stoplight positioned just outside the front door alternately flashed green and red, telling members of the crew when to stay put and when they could move about freely.
From time to time, a faint “quiet on the set” or “rolling” could be heard emanating from inside the house.
Film shoot continues until fall
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Thursday in a news release that filming for “Lady in the Lake” in the Baltimore area would continue through October.
”We are excited that Maryland will serve as the backdrop for the television adaption of this New York Times bestseller,” Hogan said. “This type of series generates a positive impact through job creation and revenue for the local businesses that provide goods and services to film and television productions.”
State officials said shooting the final season of the Netflix series “House of Cards“ in 2017 and 2018 provided more than 1,600 jobs, patronized more than 1,700 Maryland businesses, and had an estimated economic impact of more than $100 million for the state.
A film adaptation doesn’t always mirror its source, but perhaps locations important in “Lady in the Lake” could be the sites for future filming.
Among them: Druid Hill Park, where Cleo Sherwood’s body is found; an apartment on Cathedral Street, where Maddie lives after she leaves her family; and the former Baltimore Sun building at 501 N. Calvert St., where Lippman worked as a reporter for 12 years. The latter appears to be the inspiration for Maddie’s newspaper, The Baltimore Star, since both featured dilapidated fifth-floor newsrooms piled high with newspapers and cigarette butts.
Back in Pikesville on Thursday, an exceptionally well-mannered Siberian husky named Bjorn observed the shooting with one blue eye and one brown. His owner, Ora Chaya, discovered the film shoot after completing a voice lesson nearby and lingered to watch for at least a half-hour.
”I am a Natalie Portman fan,” she said. “I have been watching her movies ever since the one where she gets apprenticed to a hit man when she’s about 12 years old. I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish, and I’m like: ‘Wait. Her parents allowed this? How does that even work socially?’ ”
Motorists driving down Midfield Road did double takes that almost always followed the same pattern:
First, cars slowed as they passed the white ranch. Some halted completely. Drivers and passengers glanced briefly to the left, then straight ahead.
Then the realization sunk in that a film shoot was in progress. The motorists’ heads snapped back again — fast — to the left, stayed there for a long moment and then swiveled 180 degrees to the right. They grinned and drove away.
Among them were four high school seniors on their lunch breaks.
”I feel like I’m in L.A.,” one of them said. “This can’t be happening in Baltimore. Baltimore was never this cool.”