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A Sense of Place: The Job of the Location Manager

John Latenser scouting for Nebraska

The following article appeared in Filmmaker’s Spring, 2018 print issue.

Like many departments on a film set, the locations department has duties that are a mixture of artistic and practical, a blend of orchestrating creative epiphanies and managing tedious logistics. Location managers might jaunt off to explore tropical beaches or spend the day sharing their favorite secret enclave of New York with an esteemed director, but they also might toil for weeks figuring out where the crew will park, eat and go to the bathroom. And if you’ve ever worked on a low-budget movie without the cash for a fancy honeywagon, you know that invariably involves a plunger.

“There’s nothing more exciting for me than getting on a plane and going to find locations in a place I don’t know. It’s like being a paid tourist. That’s part of the creative side of the job,” says Brian M. O’Neill, a Los Angeles–based location manger whose credits include The Disaster Artist. “But then there’s also the monotony of ‘Where does the trash go? Where does everyone park?’ Believe me, no one has ever parked close enough to make them happy.”

The job of a location manager has two main phases, beginning with searching for the places where the movie will unfold. Scouting begins early in preproduction, sometimes months before cameras roll. Though scouting often continues during principal photography, once the crew is assembled on set, the location manager also becomes the guardian of a teetering Jenga tower of logistics.

“You’ve got to see problems and fix them before they even happen,” says John Latenser, an Atlanta-based location manager who frequently collaborates with Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne and recently worked on Black Panther. “You don’t really hear much on set about locations when you have a good location manager. It’s only when something is overlooked or there’s a screw-up that you hear about the locations department.”

Location managers are among the first people on a project to offer their interpretation of a script. They are often hired before the production designer and occasionally even before the director. When O’Neill gets a new script, he tries to do his first read-through without focusing on the potential logistical nightmares. “I try to not even take notes the first time I read a script. I just try to focus on how the material makes me feel,” he says. “That can be hard to do because my brain immediately wants to be like, ‘Rush hour on the 10 freeway in Los Angeles and it’s 1974? Jesus, how am I going to do that?’ But I try to save that for later.”

Inevitably, the job of the location manager does indeed become “Jesus, how am I going to do that?” “There are always ten ways to dice the apple, so you have to figure out how much time you have, how much money you have, and what’s most important,” says O’Neill. “The first thing to figure out is where in the world you’re going to shoot. In the current economy of filmmaking, that means ‘What tax incentive are we going to try to chase?’ It means, ‘Can we make Atlanta look like Puerto Rico?’” For Latenser, the scouting phase of the job is where the creative fulfillment arrives. “That’s the best part of location managing, when you’re out scouting and helping shape the film,” says Latenser.

Lori Balton loved the scouting component so much that when she became a parent in the early 1990s she ditched the on-set production management portion of the job completely. “Location management is the toughest job on the set. It’s 24/7. Not a great fit with parenting,” she says. “Scouting is also long hours, but as long as I get my work done, I can shift my schedule around.” Balton initially worried that the decision to limit herself to scouting would cost her work, but the opposite has proven true. Her résumé is dotted with films by notable directors like Steven Spielberg, Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann. Her keen eye for locales can currently be seen in Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time. She logged 20,000 steps a day on her Fitbit scouting the beaches and forests of California’s Humboldt County for the film.

When searching for the perfect spot, the location manager must account for the conflicting needs of different departments. A location might have a window that lets in the perfect amount of glowing magic hour light at dusk, but it’s next to a screeching scrap yard: perfect for camera, not so much for sound. Ultimately, it’s the director along with the producers who make the final call, and location managers often go to extreme measures to give them what they want. For New York–based Kip Myers, that meant matching a location to the childhood memories of Martin Scorsese for a scene in Netflix’s upcoming The Irishman. Based on a memoir of the hitman who claims to have taken out Jimmy Hoffa, The Irishman features a recreation of a mob hit that took place at Umberto’s Clam House on Mulberry Street in 1972.

Scorsese grew up on Mulberry Street and was disappointed to learn from Myers that contemporary Little Italy had become too congested and touristy to properly restage the scene. Instead, Myers found a spot on Broome Street and Orchard Street, which first had to pass a Scorsese inspection. “Marty loved it, except one thing — he said, ‘I need you to measure Orchard Street and see if it has the same width as Mulberry Street. If it’s close, we can film here,’” says Myers. “We measured and were off by two feet. Marty accepted that and we shot at the location.”

Sometimes a location manager must find the ideal spot — even if the director doesn’t quite know what he or she is looking for. “I was working on a Michael Bay film, and Michael said he wanted a location that had to be black,” recalls Balton. “So I’m looking for months and finally I see something that’s the direct opposite — it’s white — but I just had a feeling. So, I showed it to him and he says, ‘This is exactly what I was asking for. Why did it take you so long?’”

Once locations are chosen, the location manager must convince property owners to let production disrupt their businesses and their lives with armies of trailers and hordes of crew members. “Scouting is the creative side of the job, but then you’ve got to get the [location owners] to let you do what you want — to turn this street back to 1983, to close that bridge, to have this explosion in the middle of this intersection,” says O’Neill. “We are basically the liaison between our fictitious world and the real world.” “A lot of the job is knowing how to talk to people,” Latenser agrees. “Alexander Payne calls his locations department his ‘diplomatic corps.’ There are many different approaches, and you just have to feel out each person and figure out what’s going to persuade them.”

Persuading locations to share their hospitality can be a difficult ask in the cramped confines of New York City, where Myers’s unusual requests have included bringing 10 camels onto Fifth Avenue for The Dictator. On any given day, Myers might hire up to 15 or 20 parking production assistants just to place permit signs and cones to “hold” parking 24 hours in advance of the arrival of production trucks and campers. “We arrive early in the morning and stay late at night with our trucks and equipment in residential neighborhoods that aren’t used to having an additional 100 people hanging out. I am constantly reminding our crew that we are guests,” says Myers. “This isn’t just a New York issue, but it’s heightened because we are working in such a heavily populated, congested urban area.”

With the proliferation of tax incentives pushing production into nontraditional regions, location managers are now frequently dispatched to locales where folks are all too happy to be involved in the making of a “major motion picture.” But that initial excitement can be tenuous. “When you go to a place that’s new to film production, you get welcomed with open arms. The circus has come to town and everyone wants to be a part of it,” O’Neill says. “If treated properly, they’re happy to welcome you back. But ultimately, if you stay in one place too long, the welcome sometimes wears out.”

Having money to throw around can certainly extend that welcome. Big-budget movies can solve problems by throwing cash at them in a way that indie films can’t. That’s a lesson that Latenser learned during his days working in Washington, D.C., where flashing a few bucks to grease the wheels is a time-honored city tradition. Latenser offers up an anecdote from National Treasure: Book of Secrets to illustrate the point: “The Library of Congress is generally considered off-limits for filming. Almost everything that’s within the jurisdiction of the capitol police is off-limits to filming. However, if you have $50,000 to start with, they’ll consider allowing you to film there. Some places like that are just totally inaccessible to a small film, but the big movies can make it happen with their money.”

O’Neill had to use the full might of Warner Bros. to get Christopher Nolan what he wanted on Dunkirk. The based-in-fact World War II epic was shot largely overseas, but Nolan hoped to film the actors’ close-ups for the aerial scenes on the California coast. The special effects department built a gimbaled plane cockpit, which was armed off a cliff at Point Vicente Lighthouse about 200 feet above the ocean. The rig allowed a 270-degree view of the ocean horizon. To secure the lighthouse location, all O’Neill had to do was facilitate an advertisement for the Coast Guard that would reach tens of millions of people. “I scouted every single bluff and point from the mid-central coast of California all the way to the Mexican border. It turns out that the U.S. Coast Guard did that same search about 150 or 200 years ago and put a lighthouse on each one of them,” explains O’Neill. “That posed an interesting hurdle because the Coast Guard doesn’t allow shooting on its property unless the production is showing the Coast Guard in a positive light.”

O’Neill went to Nolan with the bad news. “I tried to show him some backup options and asked if he wanted to go look at Plan B. He said, ‘Plan B is Plan A.’” So, how do you show the U.S. Coast Guard in a positive light in a period film centered around the British military? You get creative — with the help of Warner Bros. media and publicity departments. “We came up with a pitch where we figured out the social media reach we could get if we shot some behind the scenes footage with Christopher Nolan speaking to the Coast Guard,” says O’Neill. “Basically, we would make a commercial for them that they could air on all of their social media platforms, and that Warner Bros. and Christopher Nolan would then retweet. That was a time when having money and resources allowed us to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes.’”

Without those overflowing coffers, a “no” can stay a “no.” On The Disaster Artist, O’Neill needed a theater to host the film’s climactic movie premiere scene. Because the scene required much of the film’s sprawling cast to be on set at once, O’Neill had only a slim two-day window in late December 2015 to work with. There was only one problem: It was the weekend of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere. “Any functioning movie house was going to be showing Star Wars, and we didn’t have enough money to throw at them to make them not show Star Wars,” says O’Neill. “I ultimately found a closed theatre in Westwood that at the time was just doing private events, called The Crest Theatre, and I think that place ended up looking great.”

Working in locations can mean scouting in a seaplane next to Alexander Payne, like Lori Balton did for Downsizing, or it can mean rubbing elbows with prime ministers, which O’Neill has done. But the day-to-day grind of the locations department can be far from glamorous. That’s particularly true for the locations assistants working their way up through the department. They are the ones picking up the trash, dealing with the angry residents who want to know why there’s an orange traffic cone in their favorite parking spot and wielding the plungers. The hours can be brutal: Locations assistants are among the first to arrive each day as they post signs to direct the crew to parking and set, and among the last to leave as they pick up the trash left behind.

When you reach the level of location manager on bigger productions, most of that grunt work gets delegated. But O’Neill makes it a point to limit the hours of his staff: “I don’t believe in the 15-hour workday for any human. It’s not safe and it’s not healthy. I rotate my staff in so that the person who is there to open the company isn’t the person who is there to close the company. I’m lucky enough to be working on projects with budgets that accommodate that sort of personnel distribution, but there are productions that don’t have the numbers to do that.”

Though she now works in the rarified air of prestigious auteurs, Balton certainly remembers her days of grunt work at the start of her career. “I always used to laugh when people told me location managing was such a glamorous job,” says Balton. “I will never forget crawling around with a flashlight picking up cigarette butts at 2 a.m. or hauling leaking trash bags home. High glamour.” Recalls Myers, “My first locations job was as a unit PA on Autumn in New York. I worked 16- to 18-hour days on that film picking up garbage and cleaning bathrooms.”

For Letenser, there is a silver lining to those long hours and the drudgery of parking and plungers. “You get to see things and meet people you never would have access to if you weren’t doing this job,” says Letenser. “I’ve seen secret tunnels under Washington, D.C. I’ve met congressman and senators. I got to scout vineyards and talk to winemakers for Sideways. You learn about so many different things and meet so many interesting people.”

For O’Neill, the rewarding part of the job lies in facilitating the creative partnership that is unique to the art of movies. “The beauty of filmmaking as opposed to other mediums is that it’s such a massive collaboration of so many different people,” he says. “The location manager gets to provide the easel, the canvas, and the paints for the rest of the artists — from the production designer to the DP to every technician in between.”

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