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Big Little Lies' Stunning Beach Houses are the HBO Series' Real Breakout Stars

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courtesy HBO

Viewers may have tuned in to Sunday’s premiere of Big Little Lies on HBO for the all-star cast, which includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley, but the series’ surprise breakout isn’t a character, it’s the stunning settings.

The show, based on Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, is set on California’s picturesque Monterey Peninsula, and the well-to-do characters, including Witherspoon’s professional pot stirrer, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, Kidman’s lawyer-turned-mom, Celeste Wright, and Laura Dern‘s high-powered exec, Renata Klein, have a truly stunning real estate portfolio between them.

All three of the oceanfront houses are real homes, not sound stages, though only one is actually in Monterey. PEOPLE spoke to location manager Gregory Alpert to get the scoop on the enviable properties.

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Courtesy HBO

“Very early on [director] Jean-Marc [Vallée] had an idea of how the houses would play out based on the characters’ socioeconomic levels,” location manager Gregory Alpert tells PEOPLE. “So Renata is at the pinnacle and physically at the top, looking down upon everything. Celeste’s house is sort of the next step down. And then right below that is Madeline, who’s right on the beach.”

Celeste’s impossibly stylish, treehouse-like residence (the only house located in the seaside town of Monterrey) was a fateful find for Alpert. When another location just down the road, in the town of Carmel, fell through at the last minute, he had to scramble to secure a replacement. Aerial imagery from Google Earth and Google Maps helped him pick out the perfectly sited residence.

courtesy HBO
courtesy HBO

“When we found that house and walked into it for the first time, we all felt the same way, where you just go ‘oh my god, that’s it.'” The cliffside property, he says, had been in a state of disrepair after sitting vacant for 15 years, before the original owners’ children restored it. When Kidman and screen husband Alexander Skarsgard aren’t occupying the house, it serves as the family’s vacation home.

The houses used for Renata and Madeline’s homes are actually located about 300 miles south of Monterey, in Malibu.

courtesy HBO

Renata’s modern mansion is a frequent filming location for shows, movies and music videos, a fact that initially worked against it for Alpert. “That was one that I kind of battled with internally. I knew what the director wanted, but I’d seen this house used before.” When he watched the first episode however, he says, “Jean-Marc had transformed what really bothered me into something that not only doesn’t bother me but I sort of revel in it.”

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courtesy HBO

The pristine home features a soaring double-height living space and a dramatic curved staircase, but the real standout feature is the sprawling terrace. “The first time you see it, and [Renata] is standing there, and she’s got a glass of wine in her hand, you really feel like she’s on top of the world.”

courtesy HBO

Madeline’s traditional-style house, situated directly on the beach, while meant to represent her lower economic standing, is still a stunning property. “We took a little liberty with that house,” says Alpert. “If you go up and down the Monterey Peninsula there are only a handful of houses that are actually on the beach itself, so that’s a little bit of a stretch.” In Malibu, the home’s actual setting, the Pacific Coast Highway is lined with homes sited right on the sand.

courtesy HBO

The feature that ties all three homes together is their incredible ocean views — what Alpert calls “a water connection” and hints will come to play an integral part in the series’ unfolding murder mystery. “Even if you don’t see the water when you’re at a house, you’re still hearing the water.”

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With Celeste’s house in particular, he points out, “that connection to the water is sometimes very soothing and it’s also sometimes very violent.” Avoiding spoilers for the second episode, which airs this Sunday, he adds, “There’s sort of a subtext there, that when you look out at the ocean there can be moments of meditation and reflection and solace and then there can be other times of fright and potential danger.”

Big Little Lies airs on HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.