It’s been more than 10 years since Alex Gaffey’s family home was used as a set for the movie Animal Kingdom, but the house still bears the evidence.
“There was a scene that got cut from the film where someone was hacked up by a chainsaw in the bathroom,” Gaffey says. “So there was blood splatter everywhere. And because it was this grey Besser brick, the red food dye and tofu chunks were stuck in the wall.”
“I remember after the film was done, the art directors and assistants were scrubbing it out with toothbrushes and stuff. There’s still a few little spots left where we’re just like ‘oh, that’s Animal Kingdom’.”
Gaffey was a teenager when his Melbourne home became the main set for the grizzly 2010 crime drama, recruited after a location scout dropped a note in their letterbox. A cast and crew of around 70 spent a month there filming, shooting death scenes while the Gaffey family lived around the happy chaos.
The shoot temporarily transformed the home – and the lives of the Gaffeys. Their furniture was removed and replaced by items sourced by the art department. To prevent continuity errors, the batteries in their clocks were taken out and any props – giant bongs on coffee tables included – had to be left exactly where they were.
When the crew shot at night, the family were put up at hotels. For their trouble, the Gaffeys were paid about $1,000 a week – a relatively small sum as the shoot was on a tight budget. They didn’t mind.
“It was awesome,” Gaffey recalls. He remembers running home from school each day, excited to see what they were filming that afternoon – and even snagging work experience on the set. One of his jobs was to run traffic cones outside early each morning, blocking off space for the crew to park their trucks.
The Gaffey family aren’t alone: many Australians loan out their properties to big productions. The reason real homes appeal to film and TV crews is simple: “Finding a house that meets the brief is quicker than constructing a set in a studio,” says location scout James Doherty.
Animal Kingdom went on to win an Academy Award nomination and sweep Australia’s AACTA awards. But not every local production is destined for such acclaim – in the mid-2000s, the video version of self-help book The Secret was filmed at the Melbourne family home of then-teenager Tom Pitney.
He remembers the windows of their Deepdene home being blacked out, big lights being positioned “everywhere” and hordes of crew members running around. Doors were taken off hinges and fake walls constructed to make rooms look smaller.
As it was for the Gaffey family, their furniture was taken out and replaced. It was an exciting swarm of activity that, miraculously, left no trace. “When they were there, the whole house was trashed,” Pitney says. “And when they left, it was like they were never there.”
And for a growing teenage boy, there were other perks: “Being a young kid, the best thing was just the fact that they had catering. So we raided all the food.”
Their home’s appearance in The Secret led to it being used for a big-brand commercial and a Foxtel series called Satisfaction, which followed the lives of sex workers in a Melbourne brothel. Pitney has somewhat uncomfortable memories of the latter.
“I was probably mid-puberty and came home after school with Mum and my little brother and they were filming sex scenes on our kitchen bench, which was so awkward,” he says. “They had sex in the laundry too.”
Some people invite sex scenes – real ones – to be filmed in their property. In 2010, an all-female pornography company worked its way through Canberra share-houses. This writer was one of those who volunteered their home as a set.
“All of our friends were having porn filmed in their house and you got a fee for referring someone else, so it just kind of spread,” my then-housemate Claire recalls.
Our end of the deal was to vacuum, tidy up, leave and not return home until the shoot was over. In return we received $300 a day – a big payday for broke university students. “It was riches – so much money for literally just being out of the house for a day,” Claire says.
“When I came back some things were in different spots, which was very disconcerting. A bunch of stuff on my desk was kind of moved around – my Post-it notes and my pens were in different spots. So I guess they’d done some desk stuff.”
Despite the suspiciously rearranged stationary, Claire didn’t have major qualms about the shoot. “It was an all-female production company, so it wasn’t like there was going to be semen in places. I felt like that is really what made it OK.”
For more family-friendly productions, sticking around to watch the shoot can even snag occupants a last-minute role.
Cecile Owen had a scene from the Foxtel series Mr Inbetween filmed at her home in the Sydney suburb of Concord – “pure luck” , she says, that followed a letter drop in her street looking for locations.
The scene in question featured the show’s central character, hitman Ray Shoesmith, going to visit the home of a man who wanted his pregnant mistress killed.
“Because we have three children, we had scooters and toys all through the backyard,” Owen says. “[The producers] explained what the plot was and said: ‘We’re just going to get rid of everything.’ But then, as a joke, my husband said: ‘Wouldn’t it be funnier if the happily married man actually has kids?’ Because it makes the plot even worse: that he wants to get rid of the mistress and her baby when he has kids already.”
“Next thing we know the producers were like: ‘Ah, we’ve got a big favour to ask. Do you think we could borrow your kids? Because we hadn’t thought of that and actually it would be good if we had children in the background while they’re talking in the garden.’” In addition to the $1,000 a day Owen received for the shoot, the kids each got $50 for five minutes of work.
The Gaffey family ended up appearing as extras in a supermarket scene and their dog, Titian, snagged a role over the “professional dog” the crew was going to pay to bring in.
Actor Ben Mendelsohn, who played Pope in the film, took a particular shine to Titian. “He loved our dog and claimed ownership of it,” Gaffey says. He’d be like: ‘No one’s allowed to feed her but me. Her and I are on a pure bacon diet.’”
Mendelsohn was a “character”, Gaffey says. “He was definitely the craziest of them all, in the best possible way. He had no filter and was so down to earth. He would hang out with us all the time and bring us food from the catering cart. He’d be like: ‘How was ya fuckin’ day, mate? What’s going on? What are the teachers telling you?’ Then he’d just talk at you.”
The Gaffeys’ Ivanhoe East home – a distinctive, mid-century house designed by architect Guilford Bell – became an important part of the film. “[Director] David Michôd wanted to treat the house like a character,” Gaffey says. “It was this grey backdrop, rather than your standard white walls, so it had an energy that matched the dark family that lived there.”
Months later, getting to see their home on screen was part of the fun. “It was pretty surreal,” Gaffey says. “Now we have an Animal Kingdom poster up at home.”