Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scouting: It's a Dangerous Dirty Business.

I've mentioned before that I constantly have people saying "Oh, you scout locations for movies? I've got a beautiful townhouse on the Upper West Side." And my reaction is to politely let them know that I'd love to have a few pictures for my files, but not every movie wants a beautiful townhouse. Lots of scripts have gritty crappy locations in them.

I think I've also mentioned that I've been on movies where you show up at a location and the crew revolts because they think the location is too dangerous and they want more security. Nobody seemed to give a shit that I went to 10 similarly dangerous places when I was scouting by myself!

Remember how I described shooting 'pans'; 4 or 5 shots that get stitched together to show 100º or so of geography? I remember once, I was shooting a couple of pans on Houston Street and one guy was walking in the same direction as I was panning around. I didn't realize it at the time, but every shot I took had him dead center of the frame. Somewhere in there, he noticed me. The next thing I know, he's charging me across 6 lanes of traffic screaming, "You tell that bitch I ain't been to see Nora for three weeks. You just keep on followin' me around and see how long you last, asshole. Yeah! You just see what that gets you."

Long ago, when Homeland Security sounded like something from Nazi Germany (still does, actually), you could still get permission to scout (and shoot) the towers for different bridges in town. I've been to the tops of the towers on both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. You get there by walking up the curved cables (with an escort from the DOT) that make the distinctive outline of the bridges . You're wearing a harness that clips to safety lines and you need to unclip and move the harness every time you get to one of the uprights holding the safety line in place. I was inching my way up and holding on for dear life the entire way. The guy escorting me moved with as much hesitation as someone getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Have I mentioned that I'm scared of heights? Oh, and even though the director had demanded seeing photos of these as possible locations, his reaction when he saw the shots was, "Are you out of your fucking mind? It'd be way to dangerous to take a camera crew up there."

I have a friend who was scouting apartments years ago. He was in his 20's at the time and although I'm not much of a judge of such things, I'll admit he was always a good looking guy. Anyway, he showed up for one appointment and a woman in her 70's opened the an utterly sheer negligee. He spent 10 minutes shooting the apartment as quickly as he could and dodging her attempts at groping him.

GF has quite a few war stories. She was once cold scouting in Westchester County for a house. This is where you just go door to door ringing bells and telling your spiel over and over to see what you can see. One guy answered the door with one hand conspicuously held behind his back. At one point he turned enough for her to see he was holding a gun. She cut things short and went to another neighborhood.

She once had a Rotweiller jump onto the hood of her car as she pulled into a driveway who then proceded to bark maniacally and try to eat the windshield. While scouting farms in northern Minnesota, she pulled up to a barn only to see something like 200 cats come streaming out and attack the car like a giant catnip toy.

And then there was the time she was scouting a bar in a fairly rural area. It was about 10:00 A.M. when she got there and the place was empty except for the bartender. While she was still explaining to the bartender why she was there, a guy walked in holding his profusely bleeding arm. As if it was a normal occurance, he asked the bartender for a towel because he'd been in a knife fight. The next day, she was reading the newspaper and saw that while she was there, some other lovely doings had been going on upstairs where the owner and his family lived. It seems that his wife and son decided it would be a good idea to garrotte him in bed. This was discovered later in the day when blood started dripping through the ceiling.

Another guy I know was grabbed by the cops for shooting pictures of a vacant lot in the Bronx. Apparently, the NYPD was planning to use the lot the next day for a mobile command post for some scheduled event. Even though they were able to establish his legitimacy with a couple of phone calls, policy stated that they had to hold him until the FBI could talk to him. The FBI had better things to do that day, so he sat in a holding cell for 15 hours.

Oh, and the dirty part? Once we were shooting at a plantation in South Carolina. The Director wanted to know what the view of the house looked like from out in the river. I asked the Producer if I could hire somebody with a boat so I could get the shots. He said we'd hire a boat if they actually decided they wanted the shot for the movie, but that I should just walk out into the river as far as I could go and get the shot from there. About ten yards out from shore, the bottom turned to really soft, dark, stinky mud. I quickly sank below the surface and spent what seemed like an hour struggling to drag myself out and back to shore. I was coated with the dark, stinky mud which stubbornly clung to me while two cackling P.A.'s tried to hose it off of me.

At least the Production sprang for a new camera.


MWT said...

Heh, on that last one it sounds like you got sucked into oyster poo. ;) It's the basic component of all river bottoms along the coastal southeast. Was the river somewhere near the coast?

Nathan said...

Yup. Wadmalaw Island, a little ways south of Charleston.

Tania said...

Thanks to you, I can't watch movies in quite the same way. We watched Mamma Mia! last night (Dark Knight was packed) and I kept thinking about the location manager finding these funky locations in Greece. And thinking you needed a working holiday in the Greek Isles.

Nathan said...

Frankly, I'd probably be useless as a Location Manager anywhere other than the U.S. and Canada. Even if language weren't an issue, understanding local custom is a huge part of the job. I might be able to 'direct' a local Location Manager, but there's no way I'd be able to make the deals, calm down freaked out property owners or to know when to just tell someone to get a life and leave me the hell alone.

Tania said...

Go ahead, let reality ruin the romance for me.

Ok, how about you should have a lovely holiday in the Greek Isles, no work involved?

Nathan said...

That works for me.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... is the advent of the big-budget CGI blockbuster impacting your profession at all?

Nathan said...

I don't see that being a problem anytime in the foreseeable future.

Shooting in real places looks the most...real. That's what Directors will continue to want until something else looks realer.

The movie I'm prepping now will shoot all of its interiors in NY and two days of Exteriors in Washington D.C.

We'll also build one apartment in a studio, but that's because there are about 10 days of shooting there. It's just easier for something like that to have a set with walls that can be moved, etc.

Anonymous said...

OK, we can add "location manager" to the list of jobs I'm way too much of a wuss to do.

Jim Wright said...

I think there's a whole blog post/rant in that paragraph about the guy that got arrested for taking pictures of the vacant lot - and had to wait 15 hours to speak to the FBI.

Cool post, Nathan, thanks