Making a Scene: A No-Drama, No-Frills Primer to the Criminally Overlooked Process of Location Scouting

Everyone is acutely aware of the creative impact that cinematographers, editors, production designers, and even the glamour squad can bring to a film’s final product.

That’s why they give ’em Oscars. Finding locations, on the other hand, is seen as a technical job, all about street closures, permits, and where to park the caterers. Yet the impact of locations on creative, production and budget is probably the single biggest component within a moviemaker’s control. Good locations enhance a film and poor choices can add tons of additional stress, challenges, and costs.

Location is character, it’s the fifth Beatle, the man behind the curtain. Whether it’s Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas or John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, location-specific titles themselves can cast an image in your mind which develops into a canvas against which the story unfolds. Since Edison Company cameraman William Heise left the studio and shot the New York City-set documentary short “Herald Square” in May of 1886, it’s been about “Location, location, location!” And when your script calls for a “lonely highway” or a “majestic sunset,” locations is the department given the job of fulfilling that image.

Moviemaker Jon C. Scheide on a location scout in downtown Los Angeles. Photograph courtesy of Jon C. Scheide

Honor Your Scout

While I’m not revealing any big secret here, moviemakers far too often downplay location scouts and scouting as a necessary evil. It’s an afterthought. Why do so many producers fall in love with locations that charge huge fees and create ringing production headaches? I’ve known directors and producers who will bend a budget over backward to find money for luxury star trailers, then complain after they’ve signed off on locations where there is no parking. 

The problem is that the locations process, either due to lack of experience or money, is cut short more often than not. Location scouting should take place long before budgets get locked and production gets started. After all, how can camera, grip, and lighting crewmembers do their budgets and assess their manpower without knowing when and where a scene will be shot? 

Where In The World Is Your World?

Even if it involves the director and cameraman simply driving around town searching and talking about the story, opening themselves to options, the scouting process is a fundamental step in taking a film from the page to the screen. Scouting this way is essentially free in the grand scheme of a film production; it only costs time, a couple of lunches, and some gas. 

Once you settle on your location, get a really good look at it. Ask yourself, “Who are my characters? What is their world?” These questions have nothing to do with what will look cool, or what you can get for free. Ask your location manager to create a lookbook for your cast. I’ve never met an actor yet who doesn’t crave all the external details of their character’s life, so why wait until they arrive on set to show them where they live or work?

Location scouting is the first time that the visual world of your film will begin to take shape. (And, yes, you do have to go look at a location at the time of day when you will shoot it.) Most of the moviemakers we all revere did light studies and spent hours walking a set, blocking scenes, and just experimenting before they shot their films. With today’s digital SLRs (single-lens reflex camera) and lenses, there’s no excuse for not shooting high-quality location studies. Often in the indie world, your options will begin with a list of places that the producers and directors already know—the houses, businesses, and buildings belonging to friends and family— and that’s fine. But if you bring a real location manager or scout into the process early on you’ll not only explore new options, but avoid some costly mistakes as well.

You’re Never Home Free

 “Free” is never truly free. For instance, I worked on a project that “made do” without a location manager, and called for an abandoned farmhouse as a key story point. The farm represented a key aspect of the lead character’s past that he was not willing to give up. Through a friend of a friend, we were sent a picture with the message: “You can shoot here, no charge.” 

So, everyone—two producers, director, cameraman, production designer, assistant director, and gaffer—piled in cars and drove out to take a look. Sure, it looked great (from the outside) and the director fell in love and started to plan shots, but… it was unshootable. One: Getting there was a 45 minute drive each way, which meant that production loses one and a half hours off our child actor’s nine and a half total hours per day allowed on set. Two: It was 75 feet off of a state road which we would have no control over. Three: It had no power and no facilities, which meant we’d have to bring everything in, from generators to porta-potties. The place was actually abandoned (which is why it was free). It was sealed up for who knows how long, with rotting floors, broken glass, mold, and rat droppings. There was no way that a film crew could actually shoot that interior, let alone expose a child actor to those hazards.

That location should never have been shown to the director, and an experienced scout or location manager would have known that as soon as they laid eyes on it. Even looking at it online would (or should) have sent up red flags. A good scout reads the script, meets with the director, and goes through pictures before they head out. Using tools like Google Earth, Pinterest, and Evernotes can make the job easier, but they cannot replace the experience of a proper location person actually walking a site, or the knowledge of what can or cannot be shot given the time and money that the production has available. 

Is it practical that all the locations will be locked before the rest of the crew comes on board? No, not really. But the key locations—the ones that will paint the big picture—should be. (By the way, “locked down” means that your contract is signed, deposit is paid, base camps are found, and crew parking is budgeted.) This gives your film a base—a neighborhood to explore for other resources—which means fewer company moves, which in turn translates to more shooting time.

The crew of the upcoming war film The Outpost, based on the novel by CNN’s Jake Tapper, scouts locations in Morocco. Photograph courtesy of Jon C. Scheide

Scrapping The Script Vs. Sticking To It

 Again, pointing out that creative location scouting is as fundamentally important to your finished film as a well-crafted script is to your actors is not big news. And yet (with no insult intended to screenwriters), just because your scene was written in a fine dining restaurant, does it really have to be shot there? This question applies equally to big budget features and micro budget indies. 

What is your scene really about? Does it require closing down an upscale café, paying for Michelin-star prop food, well-dressed background, waiters, etc.? Does it have to be shot at night? Sometimes the answer is “Yes,” and that is where you’ll have to spend your money. But if you start to look at locations as enhancing the story rather than just checking a box off of your to-do list, you can discover additional layers that will elevate your film in more resourceful ways.

Another big part of location scouting and shooting often overlooked or forgotten: For the most part, what’s outside the lens doesn’t exist. I’ve shot “camping in the wilderness” scenes in Franklin Canyon surrounded by multi-million dollar homes perched atop the Hollywood Hills. (Google it.) Sure, we’d planned to drive up to the mountains, even scouted a couple great sites, but our big-name actor was only available for one day and our other scene took place at a café on Sunset Boulevard. Our location manager said, “Can I just show you?” and it worked beautifully. Our success in that case was largely due to the director and DP being willing to consider new creative solutions.

Set To Work

The takeaway: Locations are as much about creative solutions as they are about management. Yes, there are permits and crazy layers of bureaucracy—especially in major production centers like New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and that’s why you hire an experienced location manager. But I don’t know anyone who works in this business who doesn’t want to contribute creatively. 

Include your scout in the big picture. Once the scout knows your film’s hero is a hard-working, blue-collar, law-abiding citizen, that’ll keep him or her from showing you homes that bankers and lawyers live in. That way, when you make that amazing crane shot that establishes your character coming home from work, your audience already knows who he or she is before they ever walk up to the front door. MM 

Featured image photograph courtesy of Jon C. Scheide. This article appears in MovieMaker’s 2019 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on stands November 6, 2018.

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