Music + Culture
9:21 am
Wed May 23, 2012

For Location Scouts, It's All About Making The Scene

In the old days, movies — even the big epics — were shot on studio back lots. Tara, that iconic Gone With the Wind plantation, was made of plywood and papier maché.

These days, movie locations are mostly real, though. And they're found by location scouts, who are often the first people hired for a film.

Should be easy work, right? You drive around town, spot a house you think could work for a film, drive back home? Not quite.

In downtown Los Angeles one recent afternoon, location manager John Panzarella was working on a bridge he'd found, staging a car chase for the Justin Timberlake movie Now. It's one of a long list of locales he had scouted for the film.

"In many scripts you get about 40 locations," Panzarella says. "In this picture, there are over 100 locations."

And he has to find them all — bridges, tunnels, office buildings, apartments, beaches. Then, once shooting starts, he has to manage every aspect of every location.

His job includes "setting up parking, making arrangements with all the neighbors, making the deals with the places we're going to be filming, and then sort of babysitting the whole crew and make sure everybody plays nice together," he explains.

A period film presents particular challenges. On 1997's L.A. Confidential — set in the 1950s — Panzarella was responsible for what's called "anachronism removal."

Take the stripes on the road: Today's are yellow. In '50s L.A., Panzarella says, "there were no double yellow stripes.

"So everywhere we went, we had to get permission to change the yellows to double whites."

They took down satellite dishes everywhere they went, took garbage cans off the streets, crime bars off the windows.

"Everywhere we went, we had to make it perfect period '50s," Panzarella says.

Filming In The Concrete Jungle, With All Sorts of Animals

Panzarella also scouted and managed The Italian Job, starring Mark Wahlberg and Donald Sutherland.

"It was about as ambitious a location film for action as has ever been shot in L.A.," he says. "We closed Hollywood Boulevard for six days. We had traffic jams with hundreds of cars lining the streets. We had helicopters flying 500 feet over our heads."

Chaos like that means one more thing for location managers to manage: the enmity of non-movie-makers. For the Timberlake film, two bridges were shut down for a recent day of shooting. Imagine how unhappy that made L.A. drivers.

Near Hollywood, some other streets have been closed in recent weeks for a film called We Bought a Zoo. Director Cameron Crowe was filming in the neighborhood of Los Feliz.

"Yesterday I came in angry," says local resident Kerry Sutkin. But it didn't last. "Matt Damon kept walking by."

Four-legged neighbors? Gotta think of them, too. Miles from Los Feliz, on a 450-acre ranch in Thousand Oaks, location manager Chris Baugh is overseeing the creation of that same film's zoo — made from scratch just for the movie. There are horses pastured nearby, and while everything seems bucolic and calm at the moment, that could change: Tigers will eventually populate the zoo set.

"Wait till we bring in the big cats," Baugh says.

Plus, there will be a lot of other creatures on the film — flamingos, llamas, monkeys and the bear. For a six-week shoot, Baugh will also have to provide facilities for the care, feeding and safety of a tamer group (one hopes): the cast and crew.

It must be tempting to throw up your hands, say it's too difficult, opt to build the zoo on a sound stage instead. But that's not an option for a location scout.

"We're not allowed to say no; we have to make it work. So we find a way," Baugh says.

Following The Director's Orders

Location scout Lori Balton steered filmmakers to the ranch for Zoo's makeshift zoo. She first discovered it for the film Seabiscuit.

"We leave no stone unturned," Balton says. "And you have to show [a director] lots of possibilities, but in my heart I felt this was the right one."

Balton says a big part of scouting is getting inside a director's head to find sites that match his or her mental images. She says working with director Michael Bay on Pearl Harbor was a challenge.

"He said, 'I want something white. It's gotta be white, it's gotta be white, it's gotta be white.' Oh, week after week, into months, we're looking for white, white, white. And finally I see something black, and I go, 'You know what? This kind of works. I'm going to show it to him.' And he looks at it. And he looks at me. And he goes, 'This is exactly what I asked you to find — why did it take so long?' "

On The Road With A Scout

Scouting can mean days and weeks on the road, so your car becomes a home away from home. Location manager Doug Dresser keeps his trunk loaded up: a toolkit, safety goggles and a dust mask — you never know when a wind storm is going to come up — an extra pair of socks, bright orange safety cones, tent stakes and poles, duct tape, an umbrella, a poncho.

But the most important item in his trunk is a camera.

"When you're scouting, when you have to get the shot — dust mask, goggles, I'm in! I'll do anything for the shot," Dresser says.

Today he's checking out six L.A. sites, and as always he'll take tons of photos to show the director and production designer. One location has a big open space: "You can build sets in here," Dresser notes. "We could pull our movie trucks right up here"

But the smell is just too much — the building is a defunct dairy near L.A.'s Chinatown, now a huge warehouse with the distinct aroma of sour milk. It's not right for the project Dresser is scouting: a Screen Gems fantasy adventure that's in its very early stages, and whose title he's not at liberty to share. (The outline, though: teenagers, abandoned buildings, creepy situations.)

Done with the dairy, Dresser moves on.

"We read the script, we break it down and it's a blank canvas," he says. "You're always on a hunt for that perfect location."

Perfect is the next place Doug scouts: Linda Vista Community Hospital. It's been rented out to filmmakers for more than 20 years, and it always looks different. (Witness its various guises in movies from Pearl Harbor to Outbreak to L.A. Confidential to Conspiracy Theory.)

He takes me to the basement, into the hospital's former morgue. It's cold and dark, with paint peeling off the walls — a pretty dreadful place.

"It's a glamorous profession," Dresser says.

Half-true enough. On any given day, Dresser could spend time in multimillion-dollar mansions and then in the dirtiest, most flea-ridden alley you've ever seen in your life.

"To do our job, to be a location scout, you have to love both equally," he says.

That same day, Dresser scouted an abandoned, boarded-up library filled with cobwebs; the old Alexandria Hotel, built in the early 1900s and once home to big Oscar-night dinner parties; and an outdoor expanse underneath the Sixth Street Bridge. That last one is among the most-filmed locations in Los Angeles.

"It looks like any industrial downtown," Dresser says. "It's graphic; you got parking and trucks underneath it. It's kind of beautiful architecturally, and it fills in for Any City, USA."

'Like Throwing A Full-Blown Wedding Every Day'

After a location has been scouted and approved, the location manager has to deal with other filming preparations: permits, extra police, tents for hair and makeup, food — everything.

"The recurring dream any location manager has," Dresser says — and by "dream" he clearly means "nightmare" — "is that you show up and the gates are locked and no one's there."

At a small corner restaurant back in Los Feliz, shooting has begun for the Matt Damon movie We Bought a Zoo. Location manager Chris Baugh, who was working before on the zoo construction at the ranch, comes to Los Feliz to solve a few problems on the neighborhood set. One question comes from the best boy grip, who wants to know where on the location he can park his car.

It's little things like that that fill up a location manager's day. Baugh says it's like throwing a full-blown wedding for 200 people — in a different place every day for 50 days. Except that at these weddings, commandos drop onto the roof some days, or a machine gun fight begins. And then there's a tidal wave.

When problems crop up, Baugh says, the cry goes up: " 'Get me location, get me locations, where the hell is locations?' And you have to solve everything."

Director Cameron Crowe says it's all worth it, if it helps an actor like Damon.

"What was great was being able to bring him to these places and say, 'This is what we found.' And he immediately said, 'I feel the movie here. I can play this character,' " Crowe says.

For Crowe, the long, hard work of location scouting — and set designing, lighting, cinematography, performing, directing, all of it — is most successful when it disappears.

"The movie should make it all feel invisible," he says. "The movie should make it feel like you're just viewing somebody living a life. To be living a life on screen, they have to feel like that's their house, this is where they were born. [They have to be] comfortable enough to make you believe it."

And so location, location, location: It's the first step in getting us to suspend disbelief for a few hours, and enter other lives.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of music, "Tara's Theme")

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the old days, movies - even the big epics - were shot on studio back lots. Tara, that iconic plantation in "Gone with the Wind" was made of plywood and papier mache. These days, movie locations are mostly real. And they're found by location scouts who are often the first people hired for a movie.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met up with some for her annual pre-Oscar series on movie jobs.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Location scout, easy. He, usually they're men, drives around town, spots a house, thinks it could work for the film. And drives home?

Unidentified Man #1: Rolling.

STAMBERG: Well, no.

Unidentified Man #2: Tape One and action.

(Soundbite of a car and gunfire)

STAMBERG: They're filming a car chase in downtown Los Angeles. It's just one location John Panzarella found for the Justin Timberlake movie, "Now."

Mr. JOHN PANZARELLA (Location Manager): In many scripts, you get about 40 locations. In this picture, there are a hundred different locations.

STAMBERG: And John Panzarella had to find them all: bridges, tunnels, office buildings, apartments, beaches. Then once the shooting starts, he has to manage every location.

Mr. PANZARELLA: Setting up parking, making arrangements with all the neighbors, making the deals with the places that we're going to be filming, and sort of babysitting the whole crew to make sure that everybody plays nice together.

STAMBERG: Location managers have to handle the enmity of non-movie makers. Two bridges have been closed for today's shoot. You can imagine how happy that makes L.A. drivers.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3: Cut.

STAMBERG: Near Hollywood, some streets are closed for the Matt Damon movie, "We Bought a Zoo." Director Cameron Crowe is filming in the neighborhood of Los Feliz, Where Kerry Sutkin lives.

SO to me it looks very exciting, you got a movie shooting down your street.

Ms. KERRY SUTKIN: But the street's been closed for two days. But it's kind of fun. Yesterday, I came in angry. And then Matt Damon kept walking by and then I was happy by the end of the shoot.

STAMBERG: And what about four-legged neighbors? Miles away, on a 450 acre ranch, location manager Chris Baugh is overseeing the creation of the film's zoo.

Mr. CHRIS BAUGH (Location Manager): Tigers are going to be just on the other side of these trees right here. And you can see next door, there's some horses from the ranch next door.

STAMBERG: Very calm right now.

Mr. BAUGH: Well, wait till we bring in the big cats.

STAMBERG: Plus, there'll be lots of other creatures on the film.

Mr. BAUGH: Flamingos, lamas, monkeys, and the bear.

STAMBERG: For a six-week shoot, Chris Baugh will also have to provide facilities for the care, feeding and safety of a tamer group - one hopes - the cast and crew.

What point would you simply say this is just too hard - we've got to build it in a sound stage?

Mr. BAUGH: We're not allowed to say no. We have to make it work, so we find a way.

STAMBERG: Location scout Lori Balton found this ranch. She discovered it first for the film "Sea Biscuit." Lori says a big part of scouting is getting inside the director's head, to find sites that match his or her mental images.

Working with director Michael Bay on "Pearl Harbor" was a challenge.

Ms. LORI BALTON (Location Scout): He said I want something white. It's got to be white, it's got to be white, it's got to be white. Oh, week after week into months we're looking for white, white, white. And finally, I see something black. And I go you know what? This kind of works. I'm going to show it to him. And he looks at it and he looks at me. And he goes this is exactly what I asked you to find - why did it take so frigging long?

STAMBERG: Scouting can mean days and weeks in the car, a kind of home away from home.

Mr. DOUG DRESSER (Location Scout/Location Manager): Ah, let's see. I have a tool kit. Safety goggles, you never know when a wind storm is going to come up. I have an extra pair of socks.

STAMBERG: The most important item in location scout/location manager Doug Dresser's trunk, is a camera. Today, he is checking out six L.A. sites, and will take loads of photos to show the director and production designer.

Mr. DRESSER: Big open space. You can build sets in here. We pull our movie trucks right up here.

STAMBERG: But the smell. It's a defunct dairy near L.A.'s Chinatown; huge warehouse, with the distinct aroma of sour milk. Not right for his film, a fantasy adventure - teenagers, abandoned buildings, creepy - like the next location Doug scouts.

Mr. DRESSER: So we're inside the morgue of the former Linda Vista Hospital. It's a cold and dark basement. Paint peeling off of the walls.

(Soundbite of camera click)

STAMBERG: You hang out in an awful lot of really dreadful places, Doug.

Mr. DRESSER: It's a glamorous profession.

(Soundbite of camera click)

STAMBERG: There is some glamour at a small corner restaurant in Los Feliz today. They're shooting the Matt Damon movie "We Bought a Zoo."

Unidentified Man #4: And Matt should be stepping out at any minute.

Unidentified Man #5: All righty.

STAMBERG: Location manager Chris Baugh has left the zoo construction on the ranch and is here solving problems. This one from the show's - they call movies shows in movieland - the show's best boy grip.

Unidentified Man #6: Hi, can I park my car tonight up on that side walk.

Mr. BAUGH: Yeah, that shouldn't be a problem.

Unidentified Man #6: Okay.

Mr. BAUGH: Thanks for asking.

STAMBERG: Chris says location managing is like throwing a full-blown wedding for 200 people in a different place every day for 50 days. Some days commandos drop on the roof, or a machine gun fight begins, and then there's a tidal wave - fun.

Mr. CAMERON CROWE (Director, "We Bought a Zoo"): And cut. That's a cut. Okay, very nice.

STAMBERG: Inside the restaurant, between takes, Director Cameron Crowe says it's all worth it, if it helps actors like Damon.

Mr. CROWE: What was great was to be able to bring him to these places and say this is what we found. And he immediately said I feel the movie here. I can play this character.

STAMBERG: For Cameron Crowe, the long, hard work of location scouting, and then set designing, lighting, cinematography, performing, directing, all of it is best when it disappears.

Mr. CROWE: The movie should make it all feel invisible. The movie should feel like you're just viewing somebody living a life. To be living a life on screen, they have to feel like that's their house. This is where they were born. Or they're comfortable enough to make you believe it.

STAMBERG: And so location, location, location. The first step in getting us to suspend disbelief for a few hours and enter other lives.

(Soundbite of movie, "Field of Dreams")

Mr. DWIER BROWN (Actor): (as John Kinsella): Is this heaven?

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (as Ray Kinsella): It's Iowa

STAMBERG: In California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music, "Field of Dreams")

MONTAGNE: You too can scout some movie locations yourself, just by going to our website, NPR.org.

And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.