The right location can make a film, the wrong location can break it.
Recently, my family went looking for a home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I had my list of wants, which included a man cave, a garage, and a nicely sized yard. My wife wanted a spacious kitchen with an island, and a house with no neighbors in sight. And my daughter wanted enough room to build a tree house. All of these criteria had to be taken under careful consideration. It wasn’t easy—even for a professional location manager—but eventually we found our perfect spot.
They say “location, location, location” for a reason. The right sense of place can make or break a film. A location often acts as a central character, a la The Grand Budapest Hotel, or contains the entirety of the action, like the courtroom in 12 Angry Men or the classroom that serves as detention for The Breakfast Club.
When searching for the right location, a moviemaker must take into account not only the overall vision for the film, but also how well the location functions for the gaffer, grips, assistant directors, art department, cinematographer, truck drivers, and even the caterer. Furthermore, anyone from the director or producer to the UPM or designer may be called upon to perform some of the duties that belong to the location manager. It’s extremely important to know what goes into location scouting and management, and how to identify any red flags that could disrupt a production.
Step One: Preparation
You’ve read the script, taken location notes, and talked with your team. The quest begins.
- Research. Great location scouts go online first to narrow down their search. With so many locations with pictures online, it’s easy to get a feel for the building in advance to determine if it’s the right look you need. Look for business hours and potential event conflicts.
- Film Commissions. Film offices, as well as city and county offices like the Chamber of Commerce, want you to find the best looking places their locale has to offer. Seek them out because they know the places (and people) intimately and can be your permit resource, as well as hook you up with local police if you need to shut down streets.
- Local support. Don’t be shy about getting an entire town to help you find locations. Enlist the efforts of postmen, police, firefighters, realtors, and store owners in the search. They’ll feel like they’re on your location crew, give you tons of leads, and in the end, you’ve made a new friend (at least on Facebook).
Step Two: Scouting
You’ve got several sources of information and you’re ready to go take pictures of those leads.
- Parking. All of your trucks and crew, including self-driven talent and extras, have to park at the location you choose. Make sure you have ample parking for vehicles to park and unload things (including the generator). Those big trucks and motor homes need lots of space to move around. If the parking isn’t adjacent to the building, it should be very close by—you’ll thank yourself for this.
- The Load-in. All departments, especially the grip and electric departments, have heavy gear to lug around, so it’s ideal to be on the ground level. However, if you have to be above ground, don’t choose a great-looking location on the third floor that only has one small elevator or a tricky, narrow stairwell. It’s going to take tons of extra time just loading in and out and no one is going to be in a good mood after huffing up those stairs. Plus, you’re going to have to work with the building to repair any nicks and scrapes along the way.
- Space. The best-looking rooms in the world won’t work for you if there’s not enough space to accommodate the actors, cameras, and lights. It’s never good to be crammed on top of each other with hot lights, in a tiny space with no air conditioning, in 100-degree August. Been there, done that, and have the sweat stains to prove it.
- Combinations. See how many sets you can get in one location, or in one small area. After all, the longer a production can stay in one location, the better. My team once transformed a large downtown church into a police station, a prison warden’s office, prison hallways, a basement, an upscale office, a Brazilian kitchen, and a small Brazilian church—all in one cost-effective swoop.
Tips and Tricks
- Take pictures of everything. You never know what a production designer will like, so capture everything with your digital camera, tablet, or phone. I once discovered a man who had a small shop where he built and repaired old wooden merry-go-round horses. I took photos of the horses and the shop on a whim. When the director saw them, a scene was rewritten to include the shop and horses in the movie.
- Get lost. Start out with your chosen locations and then head off the beaten path between targets. Switch off your phone and your GPS. Great farms can be found down dead-end dirt roads, great churches are sometimes hidden deep in neighborhoods, and architects build gorgeous buildings that aren’t always right on the corner of Broadway and Main.
- Look in every room. You might be surprised what you find behind every door. Sometimes a location may not be right, but you might find a perfect prop or set piece. I once scouted an old, shuttered grocery store and uncovered a wooden cash register, along with several wooden and glass display cases from the 1930s. The art department restored them and they added great production value to the scenes.
- Word of mouth is king. Always leave a potential location with more information than you arrived with. If you’re scouting an office and it’s great, find out from the owners where others are like this one. If it’s not quite right, explain that you’re looking for offices that have a different look, layout, and design. Ask everyone you come into contact with about all the locations you’re seeking.
- Be flexible. You may not always be able to get exactly what you’re looking for. For instance, airports are notoriously tough locations due to security clearance, traffic, crowds, parking, etc. Large universities with newer buildings or shopping malls are a great substitute because they have the capacity, the escalators, and crisp, clean interiors.
- Look at the best location…again. On a feature I worked on, a principal house was becoming increasingly difficult to find. In fact, we’d already seen the perfect one, but when we’d showed it to the director, he hadn’t bitten. Weeks went by, and the director and I were still looking frantically. Finally I decided to take him by the same house again. By this time, he’d looked at so many that he’d forgotten it, and exclaimed, “This is it!” Of course, I’d known all along.
Step Three: Management
You’ve selected the appropriate locations, and production is ready to begin—but your job’s not over.
- Owner agreements and communication. Making a deal with the tenant of a property, whether a home or business, is only the first step. You have to make sure the owner of the property knows what’s happening at all times and has signed an agreement. After all, you don’t want to have trucks there, lights up, actors on the property, with the owner telling you to leave. And he’s got you over a barrel if you try to sign an agreement on the spot.
- Only shoot where you have permission. It has become clear that in the recent tragic Midnight Rider shoot in Georgia, the producers did not have full permission to film on the location they had chosen. Their failure to follow proper location protocol (by having train officials on site during the shoot) cost the life of young camera assistant Sarah Jones. Had they had proper permission, they wouldn’t have needed PAs along the tracks to warn of oncoming trains. Bottom line: Don’t shoot on active streets without police support, don’t go down that dark corridor with an open elevator shaft, and don’t go through the locked ranch gate.
- Clean up. I was taught by an award-winning producer that the key functions of a location manager are to keep the cast and crew safe; select, protect and safeguard every location; and, most importantly, always leave locations in better condition than when you arrived. Trust me—you’ll be warmly invited back for your next project.
Your locations might not be as specific or detailed as Wes Anderson’s or Stanley Kubrick’s, but they are as vitally important to your film as the screenplay or cast. If you prepare and manage locations effectively, you’ll be that much closer to a smooth production—and one terrific-looking film. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies, 2015.