The Lake House
Feeling that it's time for a change in her life, Dr. Kate Forester (SANDRA BULLOCK) leaves her suburban Illinois practice for a job at a busy Chicago hospital. One thing she is reluctant to leave behind, though, is the uniquely beautiful house she has been renting - a spacious and artfully designed refuge with large windows that overlook a placid lake. It's a place in which she felt her true self.
It is a winter morning in 2006.
On her way to the city, Kate leaves a note in the mailbox for lake house's next tenant, asking him to forward her mail and noting that the inexplicable painted paw prints he might notice by the front door were there when she moved in.
But when the next tenant arrives, he sees a much different picture. Alex Burnham (KEANU REEVES), a talented but frustrated architect working at a nearby construction site, finds the lake house badly neglected: dusty, dirty, overgrown with weeds. And no sign of paw prints anywhere.
The house has special meaning for Alex. In a happier time it was built by his estranged father (CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER), a renowned architect who let his professional acclaim grow at the expense of his family life. Alex feels a sense of peace here now and commits to restoring the property to its original beauty. He disregards Kate's note until, days later, while painting the weather-beaten jetty he sees a stray dog run across the fresh paint and then towards the entrance of the house, leaving paw prints exactly where she said they'd be.
Baffled, Alex writes back, saying that the house had no occupant before him and wondering how she could have known about the dog; while Kate, who just left it a week ago imagines he is playing some kind of joke on her and fires back a reply.
Just for argument's sake, what day is it there?
April 14, 2004.
No, she says. It's April 14, 2006.
The same day, two years apart.
Can this be happening?
As Kate and Alex continue to correspond through the lake house's mailbox they confirm that they are, incredibly, impossibly, living two years apart, and each at a time in their lives when they are struggling with past disappointments and trying to make a new start. Sharing this unusual bond, they reveal more of themselves to one another with each passing week - their secrets, their doubts and dreams, until they find themselves falling in love.
Determined to bridge the distance between them at last and unravel the mystery behind their extraordinary connection, they tempt fate by arranging to meet. But, by trying to join their two separate worlds, they could risk losing each other forever.
STARRING: Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, Christopher Plummer, Shohreh Aghdashloo, John Corbett, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Dylan Walsh, Lynn Collins
DIRECTOR: Alejandro Agresti
STUDIO: Warner Bros.
Wild About Movies Grade: D
"The Lake House"
Behind The Scenes
A Love Story That Reaches Across Time
"The Lake House is an epic love story," says Sandra Bullock, who stars as Kate Forster, an independent and rationally-minded doctor who finds herself drawn deeply into an elusive romance that seems to defy all rules of reason and exist in a realm all its own. "It's about possibilities and impossibilities and the decisions we make on our way to finding the right person. It invites you to believe in the impossible and the power of certain connections to challenge any obstacle because you want so much for these two people to find a way."
It was precisely the film's unique structure and storyline that attracted Bullock, who refers to it as the allure of "something you know you haven't seen before."
Keanu Reeves, who shares the screen with Bullock for the first time since their memorably combustible pairing in Speed, plays Alex to her Kate, and was similarly taken by the story's unusual premise. "The way they come together is so original and heartfelt," he says, noting how The Lake House's timeless idealism meshes completely with its contemporary setting and characters. "I'm not the hero here and she's not the damsel in distress. It's not about two people seeking someone or something to make themselves whole; it's about two people who discover that together they can create something new."
That they find each other at all is in itself a mystery beyond anything they could have imagined. Who could explain how she could place a letter into a mailbox in 2006 and he could pick it up on the same day two years earlier?
They are two people with separate lives talking to each other across an unfathomable two-year divide and yet, in every other way they couldn't be more perfectly in sync.
"The letters start with mundane subjects but it doesn't take long to get to the underlying question of 'who are you,' and that becomes the theme. Who are you? From there, Alex finds someone with whom he can share all kinds of questions and reveal his innermost self, and she responds in kind," says Reeves.
Both he and Bullock feel certain that E-mail or some other medium would not have served the story as well as letters do, with Reeves citing that, "The very act of letter-writing requires that you take the time to collect your thoughts. It allows you to be your best self, your most intimate and thoughtful. You have to wait for the other person to receive the letter and then respond so there's a sense of longing and waiting that concentrates your intention."
Through letters, says Bullock, Kate and Alex avoid "the superficial song and dance that always happens when people first meet and are trying to present their best side. Without that, they're able to be themselves, completely and honestly, bad jokes and bad moods included - silly, angry, wistful, earnest. Because of the unusual nature of the connection there's no embarrassment and no fear of sharing all of yourself because there's a part of you still saying, 'Well, this doesn't really exist,' or 'Even if it does, I'll never meet this person so what's to worry about?' What makes them fall in love so deeply is the utter fearlessness they have in revealing their vulnerabilities up front."
Moreover, there's the feeling of holding in your hands something that someone else has touched, especially when there is so little of the physical realm they are allowed to share.
As the correspondence between Kate and Alex flourishes, it brings not only romance and spontaneous laughter into their lives but gives them strength and inspiration for issues they've both been separately working on and, says Reeves, "I don't know if they're consciously preparing themselves for love but they're changing course in their lives and becoming open to whatever is next."
Kate has just begun a new job. She's traded her country retreat for Chicago, a city whose innate beauty she has yet to recognize, and a small, sterile apartment that quickly closes in on her. Unwilling to compromise on love, she recently ended a relationship with a man who simply wasn't "the one," though she sometimes can't help wondering if there really is a "one" and how long she is expected to wait for him.
Meanwhile Alex, a gifted architect, has been squandering his talent on a standard condo development rather than remain at the prestigious design studio run by his famous architect father Simon Wyler, played by internationally acclaimed screen icon Christopher Plummer.
"He's trying to go beyond things that his father has predetermined for him, in life and in his profession," offers The Lake House director Alejandro Agresti. Estranged since the elder Wyler's increasing fame and arrogance drove away Alex's beloved mother and damaged the family, father and son still find it difficult to occupy the same room. Alex has struck out on his own to see if he can make something of himself away from his father's formidable shadow, even if it means putting his own design dreams on hold.
"They're in a period of transition," offers Reeves. "Kate in 2006 and Alex in 2004 are both in the same place in their lives where they're waiting for something to happen but they haven't yet figured out what that is."
"They couldn't have known until they started talking," says Bullock, "that what they've been waiting for is each other."
The Lake House is based on the original 2000 South Korean film Il Mare, which explores the intriguing concept of a communication across time. An audience favorite at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea, it caught the attention and imagination of producing partners Doug Davison and Roy Lee, founders of Vertigo Entertainment, who subsequently sought to bring its message to a wider audience.
Says Davison, "It was a love story unlike anything we had ever seen before, unique and complex. Its theme about the power of love and how it can change a person's life is what really affected us when we first saw it. In the three and a half years it took to see this project through to fruition I've never stopped being passionate about it."
Adds Lee, "it was easy to imagine the whole movie remade with an American cast and set in the United States because the story is absolutely universal and there is nothing in it that makes it uniquely Korean or ties it to any specific culture."
Davison and Lee selected David Auburn to write the new screenplay, based largely upon the emotional power of his stage play Proof, which won the Pulitzer Prize as well as a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award in its Broadway run and was subsequently adapted for the screen in 2005. Says Davison, "David's writing is captivating and he was a wonderful fit for this non-linear, unusual love story. He delivered an amazing script."
Likewise, they found in renowned Argentinean director Alejandro Agresti, "The ability to capture an emotional element that is missing from so many films in general." Davison and Lee were particularly impressed by Valentin, a poignant and nostalgic coming-of-age tale about a young boy's dreams of becoming an astronaut, which Agresti wrote and directed, and which received a plethora of international recognition including The Silver Condor from the Argentinean Film Critics Association for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay and the Golden Calf Award for Best Director at the Nederlands Film Festival.
Although centered upon an ongoing dialogue between two lovers separated by time, in Agresti's hands The Lake House is significantly visual in its storytelling, allowing viewers, as Bullock explains, "the freedom to interpret and project your own feelings onto the story as it unfolds, more easily than you might if we were constantly telling you what to feel."
"I like the way we see the stories unfold, how we learn about these two people," says Agresti. "Also, I like how the story plays with time and how these two fall in love while existing in two different times and not being able to meet. At first they think it's a game, leaving these letters for each other. But what seems illogical comes to have its own logic."
"It captures that instinctive feeling you sometimes get of pieces falling into place," says Bullock about one of the story's recurring themes. "Someone or something might come into your life and just at that moment something seemingly unrelated that happened years ago just clicks and you see how one is connected to the other. Maybe one thing has to happen in order to bring something else about, but we don't often see the whole picture."
Ultimately, she suggests, "It's not a matter of fate, but of choice. It's a choice they make to believe in something worth waiting for, even though everything about it seems impossible."
Life Imitates Art
In a style mirroring that of their characters, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves play opposite each other in turns for The Lake House. Working within the unique structure of the piece, the two actors generate heat for their developing love story mostly with parallel rather than shared screen time and bring their correspondence alive as a thriving, intimate dialogue.
It doesn't hurt that Bullock and Reeves enjoy a genuine camaraderie off-screen and have been friends since meeting 12 years ago on the set of the 1994 international blockbuster Speed, a film that marked Bullock's first leading role and earned the pair a bouquet of MTV Movie Awards and nominations including Best On-Screen Duo and Best Kiss.
"I find her inspiring," says Reeves, in reference not only to Bullock's career, which has branched into producer and executive producer duties, but to her diverse life interests, including restoring houses. "We haven't worked together since, but we've stayed in touch and really enjoy each other's company. It was great to work with her again. She gives Kate a mix of vulnerability and strength, and that feeling of being present yet somehow very distant also, which is one of the intriguing aspects of the story. There's so much she has to convey silently. Plus, she still has her light touch and sense of humor."
"Keanu was my first film partner. Prior to that I had been in supporting roles but in Speed I was really part of a team. I have a great affection for him," Bullock responds. "We've never lost track of each other. The minute we started rehearsals for The Lake House it was like coming home. It's an understanding and trust you cannot explain," she says, before jokingly adding, "You can tell because we argue all the time!"
With The Lake House, Bullock recalls, "We were working together, although mostly in passing. It was very much like the story itself, where you imagine that if Kate had turned here instead of there she might have seen Alex, or if she had not taken a particular path she would have been walking towards him rather than away," she says, noting how this tantalizing element of near misses helps build the romantic suspense. "They're kept apart for so long and things are so difficult for them it's heartbreaking. You really long to see these two people get together almost as much as they do."
Director Agresti's attention to the myriad visual elements at play reinforces the links and reference points between the two lovers. As Bullock explains, "Every shot was set up a certain way for a reason and everything in the shot, be it furniture or art or a detail just in camera range, can connect directly to something else or be symbolic, so that Kate and Alex are always in touch, whether or not they're aware of it. Even if they aren't in the same room, an action on Kate's part will affect Alex's world and vice versa."
On impulse one day as winter approaches, Kate leaves a warm red scarf in the lake house mailbox for Alex and he begins wearing it, adding another element to their communication. Later, in a touching sequence that takes place after the two have accepted not only the limits but the incredible possibilities of their situation, Alex brings much-needed beauty into Kate's life by planting a sapling, in 2004, by the site where her future apartment building will stand - knowing that, by 2006, it will have grown into a tree she can enjoy.
"Cinematically, by juxtaposing Alex's scenes with Kate's, you see them essentially sharing the same space," says Reeves. But he believes that, more than anything else, it's the growing "intensity and intimacy of their dialogue" that draws audiences into the feeling that these two people who clearly belong together are, actually, together.
Still, the frustration of being so deeply connected yet two years out of step becomes increasingly difficult to bear and Kate begins to wonder if this extraordinary romance is just a futile fantasy.
At this crucial juncture, her former fiancé Morgan re-enters her life.
Convinced that it was his unwillingness to follow Kate to Chicago for her new job that precipitated their break-up months ago, Morgan still loves her and is anxious for another chance. It's not the first time he has tried to rekindle the flame, but it's the first time Kate has been willing to meet him even halfway.
Dylan Walsh, currently enjoying a successful run as Dr. Sean McNamara in the Golden Globe Award-winning FX Network series Nip/Tuck, lends Morgan a deft touch as the man Kate once cared for and might possibly choose again. "Truth is," Walsh says, "there's really nothing wrong with Morgan, except that, in contrast to Alex, he's fully earth-bound. He's real. He may not have his rival's soulful depth but he clearly loves Kate and he has a great advantage in that he's right there with her."
Bullock concurs, conceding that the Morgan character "is really a great guy, the kind of guy your friends would be happy to see you with. He's open and loving and he adores Kate. Truth is, she can't deny he's everything a woman should want." Though, in the end, she says, "You have to realize that someone can be a perfect person, yet not be the perfect person for you."
Meanwhile at work, Kate attends patients with her usual care but there's a subtle change in her that catches the kind attention of her friend and colleague Dr. Anna Klyczynski, played by Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo, a 2004 Oscar nominee for her performance in the acclaimed drama House of Sand and Fog.
"Anna realizes there's something troubling Kate," says Aghdashloo. Sensing her dilemma though not aware of what the problem is, Anna draws upon her own life lessons to encourage Kate to do what's best for her. "Anna has seen something of life herself, and gained some wisdom. When she sees this young woman possibly on the verge of making the same kinds of mistakes that she once made herself, she wants to warn her, as any true friend would; to hopefully direct Kate toward the right path."
Choosing to give up something tangible for a seemingly impossible romantic dream, "is a huge risk," Reeves acknowledges. "But so often that's exactly what you have to do in order to grow, or change, or move toward what you really want."
The Lake House
One of the things Kate and Alex share is their love for the lake house.
When Kate relocates to Chicago, she remembers the lake house as the place where she felt most like her true self. For Alex, the house has an even deeper meaning. It was built by his father in a happier time, before he became well-known and when they all lived together by the lake as a family. By restoring the long-neglected property to its original beauty, Alex seeks to reclaim a measure of the peace he once felt there. Says Reeves, "He's trying to make this house a home again."
No ordinary house, it's an uncommonly beautiful refuge of light and glass suspended over the water, protected yet completely and organically in touch with the lake and the surrounding land.
"It's such an unusual design, undeniably beautiful but not the kind of design everyone would fall in love with. Only a certain kind of person could live in this house. It's for very specific tastes," says Bullock, believing this in itself is indicative of how much these two people are alike. "For both Kate and Alex to feel so comfortable within these glass walls shows how much they have in common and is symbolic, really, of the greater understanding they offer each other."
An admitted "architecture nut," she finds the effect reminiscent of, "Paris Metro stations from the turn-of-the-century, clean and minimalist with lots of glass and steel. It's a design that might sound cold but is actually quite warm when you see it," she says, citing how sunlight is captured and reflected in the building's many planes. "Like the Taj Mahal, it was a home built by a man who adored his wife and family and expressed his love through that structure."
After weeks of scanning lakefront locations in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana and virtually every mile of the vast Lake Michigan shoreline for something that embodied all the necessary elements, The Lake House production team rose to the challenge and built the iconic house themselves. Location manager James McAllister (Road to Perdition, Batman Begins) returned to Cook County, Illinois, where he had worked a decade previously on Evil Has a Face at a Forest Preserve location along the tranquil, 55-acre man-made Maple Lake. It proved to be the perfect setting: naturally serene and romantic, with the surrounding texture and terrain Agresti had in mind.
"The house was our most important set, the one key piece around which the story revolves, so it made sense for us to create exactly what we wanted," says production designer Nathan Crowley, a 2005 BAFTA and Art Directors Guild Award nominee for Batman Begins and the third generation of men in his family to hold a degree in architecture.
"We wanted a mixture of modern and classical, something that Alex's father might have designed. In some ways its roots lie in the kind of 1960s glass box style, but we also drew from the Regency Period, a style popular in England in the early to mid-1800s, to add romance and elegance to the overall look, and even integrated some elements of greenhouses."
Considering how Kate and Alex, at this stage in their lives, spend so much time in solitude and introspection, Bullock finds it particularly interesting that the predominantly glass structure offers them "no place to hide. These are two people who are, in many ways, hiding from the world, and yet the house they both love is absolutely exposed," as if the mere fact of their being there brings out their genuine nature. "It also puts them immediately in touch with the lake, the trees, the soil, everything around them. It's almost like living outside."
From a practical standpoint, the building's transparency meant, "We didn't have the opportunity to shoot an exterior separate from the interior, as you would traditionally do," explains Crowley. "We had to shoot them together, which meant engineering and building it like a real house rather than a set."
Collaborating with veteran Chicago construction coordinator Troy Osman, Crowley's team had a mere seven weeks to create the house, which measured more than 2,000 square feet and sat atop steel beams ten feet above the waterline. The massive project used 35 tons of steel and employed a near-100 member crew of carpenters, welders and painters. "It wasn't very big but the logistics were a real challenge, especially in the limited time we had to do it," Crowley says. "We even had a heating system installed to keep our actors warm."
Because the area's geology would have necessitated pile-driving supports 30 feet deep into the lake bed, Crowley opted instead to "put them on concrete pads, but that meant going underwater." Ultimately, a dam was built to hold the water back while workers excavated 20 feet down to plant steel foundations. "We ended up building it next to the lake," he confesses. "With the great help of the Forest Preserve, we then brought the lake to the house. We essentially created a new inlet. Once the site was excavated and concrete bases set, we removed the dam and flooded the underside of the house."
Bullock's only regret was that the house was not fully functional and available for her to move in. "I loved it," she admits. "I was so disappointed that I couldn't keep it, move it, and at least use it as a guest house somewhere."
In fact, the production team worked within strict guidelines from the EPA and numerous agencies including The Audubon Society and the Friends of the Forest Preserve, not to mention Cook County building and zoning regulations in the construction of their lake house - and in its ultimate dismantling. When filming wrapped, nothing was left behind.
Chicago Provides an Authentic, Architecturally Rich Backdrop
In addition to the Maple Lake site, production encompassed approximately 40 separate locations in and around Chicago, a city selected not only for its geographic features that fit the story so perfectly but for its equally appropriate and renowned architectural heritage.
Many world-famous architects played a role in rebuilding the metropolis following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; among them Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan and Mies van der Rohe. As Crowley attests, "It's truly one of the great architectural cities in the world. Anyone who was anyone in the field built something there, and it gives downtown Chicago a look unlike anywhere else."
Among the practical locations used in The Lake House are such recognizable landmarks as Roosevelt University, designed in the late 1880s by Louis Sullivan, which lent Crowley its vast library reading room to turn into Alex's father's design studio; the Artist's Café in the downtown Fine Arts Building, built in 1885 and one of the last surviving structures of architect Solon Beman; and the historic Old Colony Building, designed by Holabird & Roche in 1894 and bearing the distinction of being, says location manager McAllister, "one of the first true skyscrapers in the country"; as well as Wyler's Children's Hospital at the University of Chicago Medical Complex in Hyde Park; and the Wrigleyville neighborhood adjacent to Wrigley Field.
Production also filmed at Daley Plaza, with its famous Picasso sculpture towering over one of the film's most dramatic moments; as well as the city's newly designed Millennium Park, home of the world-renowned steel sculpture "Cloud Gate," by British artist Anich Kapoor, and the popular restaurant The Park Grill, which doubled here for the upscale restaurant Il Mare, where Kate and Alex hope to have their first meeting.
Moving outside the city, The Lake House production spent more than a week in the tree-lined suburb of Riverside, where a picturesque Metra Rail station stands in for an Amtrak stop where Alex gets his first fleeting glance at the woman he's been writing to.