Having handled the locations for such films as Flags of Our Fathers, Ali and this summer’s action thriller Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie and James McAvoy, Mark Mamalakis has become one of the film industry’s leading contacts in the Windy City. As he tells it, managing locations is one of the most intricate and important parts of the moviemaking process.
Does the location reflect the character and mood of the scene? Can the scene play out in the location? Are there issues that could get in the way such as sounds or unexpected construction that could alter the look in any way? All are questions location managers must ask with each production.
“I heard a story of one production crew (not mine) that showed up to film a scene at a pedestrian bridge only to discover—to their horror—that it had been torn down the night before,” Mamalakis explains of the hazards of shooting on location. “I remember one time we were scouting with a director for a quiet, idyllic-looking, old-fashioned town. We went to a historic suburb and from the van it looked great as we went up and down the historic streets. But once we got out of the van it was like stepping into the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he reminisces. “The noise was overwhelming as the O’Hare flight path was directly overhead. Recording dialogue in such a place would have been a problem resulting in having to re-record it in a studio.”
Mamalakis, who has also directed films of his own, discusses the challenges and rewards that come with the art of finding the perfect location with MM.
Carla Pisarro (MM): As location manager, what does a typical day look like during pre-production and filming? Is there such thing as “a typical day”? What kind of problems and constraints typically pop up?
Mark Mamalakis (MA): During pre-production I read the script and discuss the locations with the director and production designer. Typical days in the early part of pre-pro are spent photographing possible locations and e-mailing pictures to the director and production designer. Once the designer and director have narrowed down the choices they come to town and days are spent visiting their selections. In the meantime other scouts in my department are looking for more locations to show in the coming days. Sometimes finding the right location can be a long and frustrating experience, especially since the creative process of the director and designer sometimes leads them to alter their idea of what the location should look like based on our scouts.
On feature films this process could take three to four months, however on episodic television you have about seven days to find the locations. As the choices are finalized, I negotiate the location fees and write up the contracts while simultaneously working on the budget. The assistant location managers are securing crew parking lots, drawing maps with directions to each location, finding extras holding areas, crew lunchrooms and parking for production vehicles at each location.
Once the director makes the final choices, we organize what is called a tech scout. The department heads and producers go to each location and the director and first AD explain how the scene plays out at each place so that each department can make the necessary preparations. Following the tech scout there’s a production meeting and then a few days later we start the filming.
On the shooting day I usually get to the set three hours before crew call with one of my assistants to meet with the police to make sure the streets we have permitted for our trucks are clear. If the trucks can’t park, then production could be delayed and this is not how you want to start the day. During the filming I stay on the set with my assistant until I feel comfortable with the way things are going. There always is at least one representative from the location department on set during filming to work as the liaison between the company and the outside world.
MM: Every city has its well-known landmarks. But part of your job is helping a director discover the undiscovered parts of your city as well. How do you keep your knowledge of possible locations as informed and up-to-date as possible? What is the strangest way you’ve ever stumbled upon a perfect location for a project?
MA: Whether I’m working or not I like to drive around the city and explore. Sometimes I’ll come upon an interesting location and I’ll make a mental note of it for future projects. I know the Chicago neighborhoods pretty well but I look forward to being surprised by something new. When I’m scouting alone in the car for 12 hours and I start getting tired and frustrated I sometimes catch myself thinking, “I was driving down the street and suddenly I turned the corner and there it was!” half-heartedly expecting that to happen as I turn the next corner. Oddly enough it sometimes does happen that way, but only after turning many corners. Scouting is research, phone calls, photographing and a lot of driving.
MM: Your latest project, Wanted, is a high-profile action flick, with locations in Prague and Chicago. What particular challenges did this movie pose for you?
MA: On Wanted I was the Chicago location manager and Michael Sharp was the supervising location manager for the whole project; he dealt exclusively with the filming in Prague. I can’t say too much about the project at this time but our scouting involved finding and managing main locations and also locations that would be filmed as plates to be incorporated with green screen shots.
I remember the night we were shooting a scene from Wanted, which we had planned for weeks and which involved the hero car being chased down Wacker Drive, one of the major downtown streets along the Chicago River. After weeks of preparation the day had come for filming. It was a warm summer night and of course there were onlookers everywhere who we had to keep safely out of the way. Twenty-three Chicago police officers had locked up blocks of traffic just after the noisy rush hour, the safety police boats were standing by in place hidden under the bridges, stunt cars were in position and suddenly everything was quiet. The radio chatter stopped, the camera helicopter was called into position and hovered in place over the river, behind it in the distance one of the camera crews waited in position on a distant rooftop. Nothing could be heard but the hypnotic whirling of the blades, then the tail of the helicopter tilted up like a cat about to jump, the AD yelled “Action” and the red hero car came screeching around the corner.
Sometimes dealing with logistical problems of location managing, meetings with the city about street closures, working with the safety people of the fire department, the barricade people, finding and coordinating parking, lunch areas, extras holding areas, talking with all of the buildings along the route, asking them to leave their lights on—all of these behind-the-scenes activities seem distant to the actual filmmaking process, but when that helicopter was hovering with the blades whirling waiting to start its run I remember thinking, “We actually are making a movie here.”
MM: This movie is the latest in a number of sleek comic book adaptations. How do you work with the moviemaking team to realize a stylish vision like this one? Who are your closest collaborators on the set?
MA: We were fortunate to have worked closely with John Myhre, the production designer, visual effects supervisor John Farhat and director Timur Bekmambetov as they created an incredible world. The end result is going to be very exciting and extremely cinematic.
MM: You’ve worked with a number of veteran moviemakers, including Clint Eastwood and Michael Mann. What are some of the most important things you’ve learned, or pieces of experience you’ve gained? Which movie has posed the biggest challenge to you?
MA: I used to joke that my job was like being a public relations director on a pirate ship. It can be very intimidating to see 15 trucks parked in front of your house and strangers entering your living room or bedroom moving furniture, wall pictures, carpets, kids bicycles, etc. Since the location manager or scout are the first crew members that the homeowners will meet, usually days or weeks but sometimes only hours in advance, it’s important for the locations department to build a rapport with the owner or tenants before the actual prep or shooting starts, making them feel comfortable and interested in what is going to happen.
The key is to create a situation where our crew can get their work done and hopefully the experience will be memorable for the owner (and it usually is, in a good way). I like to make the owners feel that they can help to be the solution to a problem, the problem being trying to shoot everything we need in the time we have. I remember on the William Friedkin film, Blue Chips, we were filming at the suburban home of an elderly widow who lived alone. She stood by watching everyone loading in and out, setting up the lights and camera and at the end of the day she told me she was apprehensive at first but watching the crew work as they did was like watching the Chicago Symphony. She had a good time.
MM: You’ve played an integral part in some of the most famous Chicago-set movies of all time—from The Blues Brothers and Home Alone to Primal Fear and The Lake House. Why is Chicago such a special city for movie locations?
MA: Chicago is a unique city. After the devastating fire of 1871, which destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, architects came to Chicago from all over the country to help rebuild. Chicago was like a canvas for architects and some of the greatest ones made their homes here. As a result Chicago has buildings from the early innovations of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Daniel Burnham to their successors, Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas, Helmut Jahn, Frank Gehry. The city is known for its beautiful lakefront and architecture. But it also offers gritty urban landscapes, subways and elevated trains, distinctive neighborhoods and 20 miles of sandy beaches.