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How’s bayou? It’s crystal clear, when moviemakers come to call

Angela Bergeron does battle with a C-12 chandelier at Madewood.

“Hello? Mr. Marshall?

The connection to Ireland was scratchy way back then, in July of 1987.

“A Saudi Prince has cancelled his order for two C-12’s,” chirped the saleslady from the Waterford Room of Switzer’s department store on Dublin’s tony Grafton St.  More static. “Would you like them?”

My stomach churned. The previous year, my wife, Millie, and I had ordered two immense C-12’s, and one smaller B-10, chandeliers during a casual visit to Waterford, Ireland. The dollar and the Irish pound were roughly at parity, so the chandeliers were a bargain at the time. We paid for the smaller, which would ship immediately. But the C-12’s, well it would be years before we would see them: The waiting list for those stunning behemoths was miles long, we were told.

You’d think that a tradition-oriented firm like Waterford would have named their top-of-the-line creations “The Georgian,” or even “The Fergie.” But no, I had to make an on-the-spot decision to accept two unromantic-sounding C-12’s (Style C, 12 lights, I had learned). I had no idea what the current price would be — only that in the previous 12 months the Irish pound had reached a new high against the dollar.

I took a deep breath. “Sure,” I replied. “Do you accept American Express?”

In those pre-Internet days, I waited a couple of hours and called American Express. “Can you tell me the amount of my most recent charge?” I asked timidly, before sitting down in anticipation of really bad news. Good thing I did.
“Millie,” I asked when I got home, “why don’t we stay in tonight and try that new restaurant some other time?”

On the way up to Madewood the next day, I thought of what I could do without to find the money to pay for those chandeliers. When I arrived, a man was pacing nervously back and forth on the screen porch. He turned out to be an agent who had visited Madewood the day before and had returned to discuss filming a movie there.

Over coffee, we hammered out details, and the agent asked, “How much of a down payment would you like?” That was easy, I thought, as I heard the amount I had charged on the card the day before slip though my lips. Done deal.

The film was now-famous Bill Condon’s directorial debut, a Southern-Gothic tale of strange goings-on at a plantation house turned B&B – a perfect fit for Madewood – titled “Sister, Sister.” It boasted a cast headed by Eric Stoltz, Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Judith Ivey. But its down-market similarities to “Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte” earned it only a short run in local theaters. The French, however – at the time enamored of all things Louisiane – loved the film. In Paris the following summer, the Champs-Elysees was blanketed with large posters of “Soeur, Soeur.”

Fast forward to November, on the first day of shooting. One of the stipulations in the contract was that nothing could be attached in any way to the wood-grained doors and frames in the house. The first thing I saw as I stepped into the main hall that day was a carpenter on a ladder pressing a drill into the frame of a doorway.

“Cut!” I shouted proudly and rushed off to find Richard Sheridan, the set designer, who also was making his creative debut with this film. He decided it would be a good idea to whisk me off to lunch at Chef John Folse’s celebrated Lafitte’s Landing restaurant, then standing at the foot of the Sunshine Bridge in Donaldsonville, while the crew dressed the set. It worked, and whenever I got nervous about what was happening with the production, someone would ask if I’d like to join them for a meal at Lafitte’s Landing.

Early in the shooting, I noticed Sheridan eyeing the B-10 in the entrance hall. That was the beginning of musical chandeliers. I still think the entire film could have been shot without moving a single fixture, but Sheridan was determined to demonstrate the quality of his eye, so one by one by one, chandeliers migrated throughout the house – all except the huge C-12’s, saved by the fact that they hung in the original double parlors, and moving them would have destroyed the elegant symmetry of the rooms.

The real culprit, however, was the “gator snapper,” a mechanical alligator programmed to drag someone into the swamp. This sequence was filmed several miles away, thank goodness, as tempers flared when the gator snapper repeatedly malfunctioned, obliterating the filming schedule and necessitating the filming of daytime sequences at night and vice-versa. For days, Madewood was completely wrapped in black visqueen, like a Christo installation, so sunlight wouldn’t intrude on the spooky nighttime scenes being filmed within.

Filming went on for an additional two weeks, conflicting with the Christmas party that nuns from the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans had scheduled at Madewood one evening.

Never underestimate the fury of an administrative nun whose plan is disrupted. Because filming was going on in the main house, the party was moved to the Charlet House. Of course, it rained, making the parade of nuns look something like the young girls in the French storybook “Madeleine,” crossing the damp patio “all in a row.”

Bill Condon graciously offered to address the nuns and allow them to watch the filming, but this only fanned the flames. “That’s NOT what we came here for,” an enraged sister told me firmly as she eyed a fly swatter in the Old Kitchen that would have been perfect for rapping me on the knuckles.

Sisters in the movie, I thought. Sisters of another sort at my neck. Sisters everywhere! I knew that the envelope that arrived in the mail a few days later would not hold good news, considering Who these ladies worked for – in this case, no doubt, an Angry, Avenging God. I offered all the nuns free admission to Madewood for a year as compensation, but they must have been too busy in New Orleans.

A bigger hiccup came when filming overlapped Madewood’s annual Christmas Heritage Banquet. The company hired the Donaldsonville high-school football team to strip the set, return Madewood’s furniture that had been removed during filming, and decorate the house for Christmas, complete with the usual 15-foot-tall elaborately decorated trees in the parlor and ballroom, on the morning of the event. Christmas departed with the last guest that evening; and by midnight Madewood was “Sister, Sister” once again. Two days later, the team returned, and voila, it was back to Christmas at Madewood.

Years later, Mother was sitting in the parlor, light streaming down on her from one of the C-12’s, when who should walk in but Bill Condon, by then an Academy Award-winner for his film “Gods and Monsters,” who soon would become famous for “Dreamgirls” and “Chicago.” He was passing through, he said, and wanted to give her an autographed copy of “Sister, Sister.”

He was just lovely, Mother later told me. And he didn’t try to move a single chandelier.


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