Fetch the Bolt Cutters: Location Scout Aean McMullin on TV Production, Shooting Lucifer During COVID and LA Permitting
Aean McMullin [pronounced Ay-In] spends his time traveling from helicopter pads in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, working with gang members in Compton and sitting in the cacophony of LA traffic (even during the pandemic) all the way from his one-bedroom apartment in Glendale to the seaside city of Long Beach—a whopping 30 + miles. A key location assistant manager from the small town of Godfrey, Illinois, McMullin received quite the culture shock upon his arrival five years ago to the city of Angels. “[My] impetus to get out of Godfrey was because there was nothing to do,” McMullin explained. “I needed to find [a place] where there was too much to do. Los Angeles checked that box.”
While he doesn’t have the ingrained knowledge of an Angeleno who can tell you Runyon Canyon is an overrated tourist trap or to avoid the water in Venice Beach, McMullin eventually found his way around the sprawling metropolitan landscape like any self-respecting individual: by playing a game of GPS-and-seek with a true SoCal icon, the Hamburglar. McMullin’s process for geographically educating himself was during one of his first jobs in the city, driving rental equipment while making visual connections. “It was a lot of [fast food] for lunch,” he says. “I can pretty much tell you wherever we’re shooting where the nearest McDonalds is.” The GAPS (golden arches positioning system) still serves him well when he’s out on production: “I’ll use a nearby McDonald’s cross-street to get my bearings and say ‘OK, now I know where I am.’”
McMullin’s skillset landed him a role working in the locations department on two of Netflix’s popular shows Ryan Murphy’s Ratched and fan favorite Lucifer, currently filming its sixth and final season. “It’s weird, but my main selling point is being able to look at a parking lot and tell how many [catering, equipment, misc.] tents will fit there.,” he explained. He’s also a tinkerer who built a gaming computer tower during the early days of COVID-19 quarantine to fill his creative void. “I wanted to challenge myself,” McMullin explained during our Zoom interview, “I had all this [displaced] hands-on energy from work, constantly problem solving all day.”
Filmmaker: What’s it been like location scouting during the pandemic?
McMullin: WB [the studio partner on Lucifer] is operating safely. Also, I’m a part of a crew that works so well together; we have that familial connection, which has kept the [pressures] of operating within the guidelines at bay. Right now, we are seeing that when a director/producer comes in and asks for a certain location, a lot of the deciding factors [of where we film] are coming down to whether or not it is COVID compliant and less so if it meets the director’s vision—which is an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic. But we understand that there’s more of a desire to keep each other safe for cast and crew in order to make [Lucifer] happen.
Filmmaker: Where does location scouting fit into the production process? Does your department have an idea of where a scene should be filmed before or after receiving a script?
McMullin: First, the writers have an idea, then from there they do a basic script [outline]. That’s shared with the producers, then relayed to my boss. For example, the script might be like “There’s a picnic and we need an open field.” As soon as we have that snippet of information, we have to start looking. If we need a park, we don’t know if that means a small local park with a jungle gym or a beautiful scenic park near the water—it can be a wide range of things. The team then gathers options we think might work, and we’ll do the show-and-tell with the producers and director(s). If they don’t like the locations, we’ll go back to research.
Filmmaker: You first started off as an actor in Los Angeles. Is there anything from that experience that helped you in your transition to locations? Do you have a McMullin visual system of checks and balances when you’re looking for something specific?
McMullin: What’s stuck with me since being an actor is the imaginative aspect of [set design]. I can walk into a space and feel the energy radiating back to me. Stage acting is all about doing voice [projection] and movement. It sounds cheesy but the emphasis is on “We’re going to feel, we’re going to energize.” As fun as that is, it doesn’t pay the bills— which is why I don’t do it anymore—but there’s still value in recognizing that. As human beings, we emotionally respond to the way things are constructed and built, whether subconsciously or not. For example, if you have an all white room and there’s no depth, detail or texture, it’s going to read as cold or lonely. Same as if I was looking for a bunker or a prison: I’d have to think of what visual data I have compiled since being out here in Los Angeles makes me feel entrapped or isolated [laughs]. I couple those vibes I’m looking for with the technical aspects I’ve developed while working with productions. I think things like: “Will the camera crew have enough space here?” or “Does this structure resonate well with the scene being filmed here?”
Filmmaker: Do you put yourself in the shoes of Lucifer or Ryan Murphy and think about what locations they may favor more and let that influence your decision?
McMullin: For big productions like Lucifer and Ratched it’s impossible to do all this work on your own. It’s all collaborative. As an entire location team, we all kind of lean on the experience that each other has had. For Ratched specifically, I have to assume that like myself, my co-workers have this Rolodex of locations in their mind to figure out what might fit before we research. We stayed up in Monterey scouting locations, and that’s when the discussion started. Things like “I don’t know if the arches in that space will play well for this scene, I think [Murphy] wants something more eccentric. ” So we might want to target locations with more ornate architecture perfect for quirky detailed surroundings.
Filmmaker: In addition to Ratched and Lucifer, you’ve also done work on Mayans Motorcycle Club. Lucifer is certainly the more outlandish of them all—I mean finding a location for him to accidentally wear assless chaps to a crime scene? But then at the same time finding these beautiful locales to support those sweeping melodramatic romantic moments…Is it hard adjusting your mental frame jumping from one production to the other?
McMullin: Each show has its own frequency. With Lucifer, we always have to think about spots where we can have cop cars pull up, guns drawn, gunfire and flashing lights—it’s chaotic, fast-paced energy. For a period piece like Ratched, it’s more of a slow burn. We have to make sure we’ve closed off entire streets so we can park period appropriate cars to get the look right. Mayans took place on the border wall between Mexico and the US, so everything was dusty and loud. For that we scouted industrial buildings, dusty cemeteries, gritty places where motorcycles could roam free. A lot of these energies are dependent on the director of the episode, the producer(s) and whatever kind of money agreement they made on location spending. For Lucifer, I’m always looking for the vista—the beautiful backdrop—that will [accentuate scenes between Lucifer and Chloe]. As for Ratched, I was mostly an assistant, but we really scoured far and wide for those locations [like Lucia Lodge] to get those creepy, intricate shots that focused on a set piece in the distance and nothing more. A lot of money went into all those old timey cars, clothes and set design.
Filmmaker: What’s the turnaround like on a TV show?
McMullin: We’re generally a week ahead of production, but since COVID we have some extra preparation time now that we have extra protocols to follow in compliance with the city—so, give or take two to three weeks to get everything squared away. Oftentimes we’re scouting locations, prepping locations and shooting locations all on the same day. It’s a much faster paced, aggressive workflow. TV [producers] understand the locations team only had a week to find a place, so there may be things that aren’t quite as perfect as we would have imagined, and it’s understandable because the turnaround was just so tight. What’s good about Lucifer is that it’s coupled with the production filming on stage. So, usually we are not [McMullin knocks on wood] working on finding a location, being present while filming on a location and also prepping for the next week’s location. That does happen sometimes though, the back-to-backs [sigh.] That keeps us working like crazy, from sunrise to long past sunset. But if we play our cards right, we can put all the locations of an episode within a week and a half window, which will allow us time to prep all those locations, get them squared away and have all our bases covered. Then a week of hell: we’re out twelve hours for four days getting this location shot.
Filmmaker: I noticed in Season 4 and 5A there’s use of a lot of popular, often overcrowded tourist traps like Echo Park, Muscle Beach, Bronson Canyon and even some exclusive locations booked for the upcoming Season 6 in Lucifer. How are you all pulling that off? Are you all shaking hands with Mayor Eric Garcetti?
McMullin: Not quite [laughs.] We don’t go that high up the food chain. FilmLA is the main governing board of Los Angeles, but certain cities have their own set of requirements that can make it a little more challenging to gain access. For instance, Malibu is a tough one to get a permit for, but it’s also a case by case basis. If all we were doing was booking one parking lot for a driving shot with minor road closures and a couple of [cop cars], that’s a different story than saying “OK, we need to shoot on this block, we need a road closure, we’ll be filming there for a week…” That’s when it starts to get a little more difficult.The complexity of the shoot will dictate the difficulty or complexity of the permit that pulling. There’s always the places that you try to avoid. Some teams will hesitate to go places because of an annoying permit process. But not us! [laughs.] The team we have here at Lucifer is very good at saying “What does the production need?” and doing whatever needs to be done.
Filmmaker: Since you’re not from California, do you ever get place-struck? You know, like starstruck, but for locations? Do you ever fanboy over being able to use the iconic Sixth Street Bridge used in Grease, and The Dark Knight Rises for Lucifer Season 5A? It’s kind of cool that Episode 2 directly parallels the car chase scene from Drive, which was also shot on the bridge, and mentioned in that episode.
McMullin: I didn’t have a lot of exposure to film and television culture growing up. It was a very small, close-knit religious community. We had no cable TV and only very basic channels. When I came out to pursue an acting career, I realized very quickly I was out of place. These people had all these references to long running TV shows or popular movies and would assume I had the same frame of reference. I didn’t. Don’t worry, many of the managers I’ve worked with have told me to watch every film in existence to study techniques [laughs]. Now that fanboy feeling of working with a certain actor or director has started to shift towards excitement for these historic landmarks. And now that I’ve seen these films, that’s when I get the most excited that my job allows me to have access to the grounds that cultivated film culture in Los Angeles.
Filmmaker: What is something you’d think people would be surprised to know about location scouting? Other than you all spend way too much time doing the most. I mean really as an audience member, I’m thinking of how beautiful a park was in a particular scene that got like 5 minutes of screen time just so my favorite characters could have their first kiss, and it’s taken you weeks on the backend to find and book.
McMullin: Exactly that! There’s a lot of driving involved. As a viewer, you don’t think about how your favorite character got to the beach. You’re kind of just like “Oh yeah, of course they’re at the beach, because they went there.” But there’s an enormous amount of movement involved with the production. You just see a beautiful beach for like a two-minute scene that we spent three days on. Usually, there’s 30 miles in between where they were in a scene prior and where they end up next, but it looks so simple onscreen. In reality though, when I’m scouting for an episode like that, I’m bouncing between the beach, WB studio lot, my house… I basically live out of my car almost [laughs.] I’ve got everything I would need in there.
Filmmaker: Like what? water bottles? Granola bars? A wrench? What’s the most important item in your car right now?
McMullin: I stay prepared for any type of situation. I’ve got a bike in there for when I’m on large sets, need to jam from one end of the set to the other and driving isn’t an option. But the most important are my “the keys to the city,” a.k.a. my bolt cutters. I was just defending myself the other day to someone for why I needed them, even though I have legal access to the places we’ve booked. But sometimes it’s 2 AM and you can’t get ahold of the person who’s supposed to be there to open up a lot because they’ve slept through their alarm, but we’ve got work to do and we’ve secured the location and the permit. In cases like this, there really is no option besides cutting a lock and letting the trucks in. The reimbursement of a broken lock is the least of my worries.
Filmmaker: Damn, the things you all go through just so we can see Chloe and Lucifer just live their best life.
McMullin: Not to kill the magic of TV, but what it really boils down to is some guy sitting at a McDonald’s working on his computer trying to make your favorite scenes happen. Don’t get me wrong: it might be a pain sometimes, but ultimately, I’ll sit down and watch a scene play out and think about how fun it is to see that location come to life.
Filmmaker: You’re kind of like a Cinderella story: a young guy from a small town in Illinois who moved to LA with no film experience outside of acting classes and driving rental equipment, who landed a Ryan Murphy show and this pop-culture phenomenon about a crime-solving devil that Netflix has renewed twice!
McMullin: It’s funny. When I was going to high school and college, it’s not like I knew I wanted to be a location manager. I didn’t even know that I wanted to do acting until my sophomore year in college, I was [studying] computer science. So, that development of this work in myself came kind of as a surprise. When I came out to LA, I wanted to find something that engages the parts of me that I enjoy. I used my desire within the creativity of acting and the technical problem-solving aspect of computer programming and utilized it in the work that I’m doing.
The way I landed Lucifer was a roundabout way. I was working at a rental house and happened to work with this guy on a production. A couple years later I was sitting down to have lunch; he remembered me and told me he was leaving the show and asked if I was available. I left my other job during my lunch break to interview for Lucifer [laughs]. The rental company route is a weird way to go about it, but it was how I got the experience and knowledge that was useful for me. A lot of camera operators start in rental houses where they can learn all of the different cameras available and see the different lenses, so that when they go to assist the camera person or the DP they already know more or less what skills they’re bringing to the table despite being new or less experienced. So, for me, that was, that was doing tents, tables and chairs, as silly as it sounds, and knowing that equipment and how to use it, set it up and have it be useful and work. And then also air conditioning. I worked a little bit about three months for an air conditioning company doing the same thing—those are both things that location professionals use all the time. It’s helpful to have some detailed knowledge of the tools you use going into it, [whether as] a location or camera worker.