11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Location Scouts
When regular people watch movies, they might focus on the plot, the dramatic dialogue, or the eye-popping sets. But when location scouts—the people whose job it is to find perfect filming sites—sit down for a film, all they see are logistics. Where did they shoot that? Who gave them access to that part of town? How did they shut down Times Square for that entirely empty shot in Vanilla Sky (2001)?
A location scout might spend an entire film typing out notes on their phone, only later realizing that the movie ended and they missed most of the actual plot. Mental Floss chatted with a couple of these professionals to learn more about their job—like just how many times they have to watch a film before they can enjoy it. (At least twice.)
1. THEY MIGHT START OUT IN CRAFT SERVICES.
Location scouts usually start their careers low in the production food chain. Audra Duval, a scout based in New York, has worked on film and TV projects such as The Greatest Showman (2017), The Knick, and The Blacklist, but she began her career as a unit production assistant, cleaning toilets and taking out garbage. "You never just jump into [being] a scout, or not that I've ever heard of," she says.
Lori Balton—who is based in Los Angeles and has been scouting for 30 years on dozens of major productions including A Wrinkle in Time (2018), The Young Pope, and Inception (2010)—began in craft services, cutting slices of cheesecake and pouring cups of coffee for members of the crew. "At the time I had a masters degree, so it was a humbling experience to be told how well I could cut cheesecake. You learn to smile, be grateful, and ask if they would like a cup of joe," she says.
2. THEY HELP EACH OTHER OUT.
Once they work their way up the ladder, location scouts become part of a tight-knit group with its own resources. They join large group texts or private Google Groups just for location scouts. Duval says that when people get stuck, they send out specific requests: "'Hey guys, this is what we're looking for. Does anyone know where this is or a good area for me to start looking in?’"
And while they can tap fellow scouts, as well as friends, they also have access to location-scouting databases. The New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, maintains an online location library of possibilities, while the database Easy Locations, run by an independent producer, covers the LA area. Other websites, like LocationsHub.com (in which property owners share details about sites they have to offer) as well as real estate sites like StreetEasy, can also come in handy.
"A lot of the times it's cold scouting, where you just walk into a building by yourself and start knocking on random people's doors," Duval says. "Or you think of a place that you've filmed before, or some of your friends have filmed before, and just kind of go through the networking or resources that we have."
3. THEY PRACTICALLY LIVE IN THEIR CARS.
Scouting assignments come from a project’s director and production designer, who usually have an idea for what they want a location to look like based on what's written into the script—say, a condo in Queens that looks like it’s actually in Detroit. On bigger productions, they may even send over a very rough animation of what the set should end up looking like, called a previs. Scouts will start out by Googling the areas and looking at real estate websites from home, and then begin driving around. They may have months to explore if they're working on a movie, or just a few hours before shooting begins if it's a television show.
Either way, scouts pack their cars full of gear to help them take detailed notes and photographs, which then get relayed to the locations department. Duval always carries a notebook, phone, phone chargers, extra batteries for her phone, computers, a camera, and hard drives. "[It's] basically everything that I could live in my car with," she says. Balton carries multiple DSLR cameras and a tripod, which helps when shooting dark interiors by keeping everything stable and reducing blur.
4. THEY HAVE TO BE CREATIVE, BUT ALSO REALISTIC.
Once a scout is in the field, they try to balance what the director and production designer have asked for with what's actually feasible. "Most scouts cast a pretty wide net looks-wise," Duval says.
That's because locations can often appear ideal but fall through logistically. There could be a sound issue—maybe airplanes frequently fly overhead. There could be a lighting issue: Maybe an environment looks completely different at night than during the day. There could be a transportation issue—maybe an elevator is out and the camera crew can’t lug equipment up 10 flights of stairs. That's why scouts always prepare a list of backup locations.
“You never know if you've found the perfect location, because so many people need to weigh in on it, for a wide variety of reasons,” Balton says. “But I do get a feeling of ‘this is perfect!' frequently. And almost as frequently I am incorrect and one of my lesser choices gets chosen.”
For example, while scouting the movie Noah (2014) for Darren Aronofsky, Balton was traveling through Iceland looking for landscapes that appeared prehistoric. But setting up a cast and crew in the middle of Iceland isn’t practical. “You need to be based around a city, even if it's a small town movie, especially for a big feature,” she told Condé Nast Traveler. "You need to have the big hotels that can accommodate you, the production houses, the rental cars. It's a difficult thing.” The cast ended up filming mostly in the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is near Reykjavik—as well as in several spots in New York City.
5. PERIOD PIECES CAN BE A CHALLENGE.
While working on The Greatest Showman, which was set in the early 20th century, Duval dealt with a clash between architecture and fashion. “We had this great location, but the actress had to wear a hoop dress,” she says. “In the early 1900s they had tiny door frames because people were smaller. But this woman was in this huge dress and she couldn’t fit through the door.”
In the end, the wardrobe department had to get her a different dress. “You have to think about those tiny logistical things when you’re scouting,” Duval says.
6. THEY’RE PUBLIC RECORDS SLEUTHS.
In order to help “clear” a location for filming, scouts must collect contact information for property owners or managers, who need to sign contracts with the crew. Sometimes one person owns a building, while another owns the parking lot. To sort out who owns what, scouts search public record databases—such as ACRIS, the New York City Register’s system—which list owners of lots, blocks, and individual buildings. Local historic societies can also be useful in tracking down the necessary information. Duval says she'll also spend time researching records when she's working on period pieces and needs to know more about a certain time in history, and she'll sometimes contact local tax assessors for more information about specific properties. "I get into such deep holes of Google, it's crazy."
7. THEY DO A LOT OF WAITING.
After finding their ideal locations and figuring out who owns them, scouts have to get in touch with that individual. Residential property owners are usually at work during the day, so scouts “flyer” their doors. They leave a piece of paper that explains the project they’re working on and says they’re interested in the property. Then, they wait patiently for the owners to call them back. “We know we’re inconveniencing people in their everyday lives; we're not trying to be jerks,” Duval says.
8. NOT EVERYONE LOVES THEM.
Location scouts have to be especially diplomatic because they're the first people the outside world comes into contact with from the set. They have to build relationships with property owners, even ones who aren’t so friendly. Certain blocks in New York are notorious for having unfriendly residents, so scouts tend to avoid them. In addition, the New York mayor’s office regularly releases a list of “hot zones” where crews aren’t allowed to shoot that month because filming has been active there recently and the residents need a break from the cameras.
It's a similar situation in Los Angeles. Productions who want to film in the city must go through FilmLA, which is affiliated with the city government. Before being awarded a permit, FilmLA surveys residents and business owners to find out if there are any objections to the filming taking place [PDF]. If there are serious concerns, they won't grant a permit.
Of course, property owners who do allow in film crews are usually compensated for their time and trouble—perhaps $2500 for a one-day commercial shoot, and up to $10,000 for a movie, according to one location manager.
9. THEY DON’T OFTEN TRAVEL FAR.
Duval says she got into the field thinking she was going to travel a lot, but quickly realized how local the job is. Scouts in New York are limited to a 30-mile radius from Manhattan, which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. More specifically, it's 30 miles from Columbus Circle as the crow flies. Once production moves outside of “the zone,” as they call it, crew members have to start being paid more (a union rule). In Los Angeles, this 30-mile radius is often called the “studio zone” and it begins at the intersection of West Beverly and North La Cienega Boulevards.
Some location scouts with big studios, however, such as Balton, are sent to check out faraway locations. But that's not always as glamorous as it sounds. “Trust me, like anything else, international travel gets old really fast,” she says. “There is something indescribably wonderful about sleeping in your own bed. On a good many films, I virtually travel the world, and then the budget reality hits and we end up on a stage in Georgia.”
10. THEY LEARN THE STRANGEST THINGS.
Scouts don’t only look at apartments and office buildings; they’re also tasked with finding bridges, tunnels, and marble quarries. Before they know it, they’re well-versed in dimensional stone, panes of glass, and sconces.
“I’m a nerd at heart and love that my job takes me to unusual places where I learn fascinating, albeit generally useless, information,” Balton says. “When I scouted steam trains [in the UK] for [Tim Burton's upcoming live-action remake of] Dumbo, I learned that the train geeks refer to themselves as foamers, because they are literally rabid about anything to do with trains. ... Each job involves learning a new language, depending on what I’m looking for.”
11. THEY NEVER STOP SCOUTING.
Everyday hobbies take on new meaning when you're a location scout. Watching a movie becomes a different activity altogether: “If I know a friend or a friend-of-a-friend worked on it, I’ll text them, ‘hey, where did you shoot that?’” Duval says. Sometimes, it turns out to be a location she already knows, but one the production designer dressed up to look totally unrecognizable. This often happens with period pieces; for The Greatest Showman, the crew turned a little science center in Prospect Park into a 1900s-era hospital.
When scouts go out to eat at a cool restaurant, they grab a business card to reference later. But it’s funny, Duval says, because she can scout 20 bars in a week and then go blank when it comes to picking one to drink at Friday night. “I do that every year for my birthday,” she says. “It all merges in your brain.”