Monday, March 1, 2010

Location Managers' Horror Stories, Part 1 (I Hope)


Today, I'm inaugurating what I hope will be a regular feature. 

Every Location Manager has horror stories.  With most locations, you find a place; you make a deal; you throw around stupid amounts of money; you shoot there; you're done.  Everybody's happy.  I've dealt with property owners who were fantastic and became friends.  I've dealt with some who were perfectly nice, but couldn't care less about anything as long as they were paid and the place was reasonably put back together when we were done. I've worked with plenty of locations owned by people I wouldn't have anything to do with in day to day life. (I'm not about to walk away from some amazingly unique location just because the owner has a shrine to Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney in their dining room  -- I just won't spend a lot of time talking politics with them if I can avoid it.)  These are all perfectly acceptable scenarios.

But there are also the ones who are a little... high maintenance.  The Homeowners From Hell.  Those people so fucking awful you wish you had never rung their doorbell.  The ones who make you have dreams of calling the studio attorney to check whether or not there's anything in the Location Agreement specifically prohibiting you from shooting them in the kneecaps or beating them about the head and shoulders with a blunt object.

Yeah, if you're a Location Manager you've met these people.  And, for the most part, you have to keep smiling and kissing their asses until you can be done with them. Now don't get me wrong...I'll accept that dealing with these monsters comes with the job, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

This is an open invitation to any and all Location Managers and Scouts to tell your horror story.  It can be about horrible property owners.  It can be about a horrible crew.  It can be about the forces of nature, government or any other entity conspiring against you personally. Really...whatever made your day (or week, or month or life) suck so bad you seriously considered switching to a career "driving the big rigs".  Tell your story here.  Just write it up and email it to me and I'll post it on the blog.  Or, if you've got your own blog and want to post it there, let me know and I'll post a link. (Click on my profile and there's an email link over on the left side).  Just let me know if you'd like to be kept anonymous or if you'd like attribution or something in between.

Here...I'll start us off!

This looks like a perfectly lovely home, doesn't it?  What director could ask for a better representation of tranquil middle American suburbia.  It just screams "Happy Family".  Well, I thought so too.

(GoogleStreet image of a real place somewhere in North America that still gives me nightmares)

I was to discover, however, that this poltergeist-house lurked beneath that benign exterior.  Not the house, itself...the house behaved just fine.  The homeowners, however turned out to be another story.

When we were scouting for this house, we had all of the usual specifics about the look and feel it needed to exude.  In this case, it had to have an attached garage.  It had to have a large-ish backyard with a tree suitable for a really cool treehouse.  It had to be on a quiet street filled with other really cheerful looking family homes. It had to be idyllic. There were a number of other details on the wishlist for a house that would fit the script.

It also had the unusual requirement that we'd need it for a long time since almost half of the movie would take place there.  In fact, the shooting schedule called for us to be shooting there for a solid month.  And the Production Designer told us that unless some miracle of Location Scouting occurred, we should count on needing a month to prep the house before shooting there and, oh, what the hell, we might as well get it for a month afterward to wrap and restore the place.  That's a pretty tall order.

Finding the right house took a little doing.  The first time we thought we had a good candidate, we went to look at it with the director.  He and the designer wandered around and then while we were looking at the backyard, I noticed the next door neighbor sitting on his back porch, staring at us malevolently. I walked over to the fence and introduced myself and quickly decided the neighbor had been one of the influences for Deliverance's writers and we all got back in the van and left.

Hero House Search: Take Two.

A couple of days later, one of our scouts called to say she'd found a perfect house.  The house was beautiful and located at the end of a cul-de-sac.  The homeowners were a young couple with a pair of  young (but not too young) kids.  And they hadn't moved in yet!  In fact, as our scout had driven onto the block, a moving truck was just pulling into the driveway and she had managed to work some magic and the homeowner was interested in working with us and they'd held up the mover from doing anything.

We mobilized the troops and while I went and met the homeowner, the rest of my department fanned out and met every single homeowner on the block.  Everyone was just lovely and said they'd be thrilled to have us shoot there!

I made a tentative deal with the homeowner and we got the director and other Masters of the Universe over there and everyone loved the place.  Yay! We had our primary location for the movie and everything was going to be magical unicorns and cinnamon-scented bunny farts!

We signed contracts with everyone on the block.  We were very upfront with everyone that different homeowners were getting different payments depending on their level of involvement.  The houses at the farthest end of the block were getting nominal nuisance fees.  The homes nearest us got more since we'd be putting lights in their houses for some night shots and there was a range of fees including permission to have extras coming in or out of peoples' front doors in the background and things like that.  Oh, and since the movie takes place in 4 days of screentime, we'd be landscaping everyone's front yards for the duration so it wouldn't look like any time had elapsed.

The owners of our hero-house got:

-A flat weekly fee for the use of the house (with provisions for more money if we took longer than planned).
-A housing allowance that was sufficient for either two connecting rooms in a really nice hotel (on par with the type of hotel where all of us were staying), or to rent a really, really, REALLY nice place for the duration. (Actually, they could have rented that really nice place and still pocketed about half of the housing allowance).
-Per Diem for each of the four family members (I think we used the IRS scale for the highest rate an employee can receive on the road without it being taxable income).

In addition to that, we paid the mover to put all of their stuff in storage and then to bring it back at the end of our shoot.

It was a good deal. There was so much happiness oozing from the pores of everyone involved that instances of road rage in our general vicinities suddenly nose-dived.  Flowers bloomed weeks early.  If you were really quiet, you could hear celestial choirs following each of us wherever we went.

The problems started almost immediately.

I knew when we shot there, we'd have the honeywagon with us, but I figured during prep, the crew could just use the bathrooms in the house. Hey, the house had 3 and a half baths and the prep crew would rarely be more than nine or ten people at any one time.  The homeowner was creeped out by the thought of strangers doing unmentionable things in their, hello Port-O-Potties in the driveway. (Port-O-Potties are certainly a fact of life for us more often than we'd like and there are some that are less nasty than others, but nobody who has to bypass perfectly functional indoor plumbing on the way to one of them can be classified as a happy camper.)

Once the prep crew settled in, I really should have been able to move the homeowners to the back burner of each day's agenda for a while.  They had other ideas.  They were my new BFF's. I honestly can't remember what the conversations were about, but I remember the husband or the wife (or both) calling me at least 4 or 5 times every week during the prep.  The P.A. I had babysitting the house during prep called me a few times a week to utter what would become two of the most hated words in the English language; "They're BACK!"

Early on, they had asked whether or not they'd be able to come watch us shooting some scenes, and I explained, quite reasonably, that there would only be room for them on days we were shooting exteriors.  On the first day we shot exteriors, Mom & Dad & the two little ones showed up shortly after crew call.  And parked in the driveway.  I explained that their car hadn't been cast in the movie and could they please move it somewhere else.  They moved it into the next door neighbor's driveway.  I made a unilateral artistic decision and thought, "Fuck it.  This must be the scene when the neighbor's friends who drive a Beemer are visiting."  During the next two hours, the homeowners' parents showed up...both sets.  And a few siblings with families in tow.  And a couple of coworkers. And some random people they may have been in line with at the supermarket one time.  And they brought picnics.  And they brought beer.

And no matter where they decided to congregate, it was in the shot.  Or where a piece of invariably large and heavy equipment had to go.  By the end of the day, we convinced them that they were welcome to visit again, but they couldn't bring any more than 2 friends or relatives at a time.

The visits were now under control.  The daily phone calls to "just chat" continued.

A few days into shooting there, we started hearing rumblings from neighbors who wanted to renegotiate what we were paying them.  It turned out that one of the next door neighbors had been bragging to anyone who would listen about the fee he was getting.  We added a rider to his agreement that stipulated what he would have to pay us if we heard of any further incidents of him discussing money with anyone. Another problem quashed.

There were three rooms in the house that were off limits to the crew. We didn't need them for anything and we sealed them off so we'd know there were these three little rooms that wouldn't require any thought or expenses when it came time to restoring the house.  On the second to last day of shooting there, the electricians had to run a cable through one of those rooms.  For some reason, none of the 7 other ways to get a cable to where we were shooting would suffice.  And with the cable running through that room, the door wouldn't close.  We were (of course), in a hurry, so one of the grips helpfully whipped out one of his Tools of Mass Destruction and lopped off a few feet of carpet to make more room under the door.  Ah well.  (I have a vague memory of the homeowner calling to say "Hi" while the grips were redecorating.)

Eventually, we were finished shooting there and moved on to other locations.  It was time to restore the house.  We did a walkthrough with the homeowners to decide what needed to be done.  From our point of view, if a room had been wallpapered, we'd be happy to put in whatever wallpaper they wanted as long as the new stuff was comparable in quality and price.  We couldn't care less what colors they wanted rooms painted -- paint is paint; just tell us what colors you want.  They decided they wanted their decorator to restore the house.

Fine by us.  We negotiated a figure for a lump sum buyout.  The buyout included continued rental of the house for a period of time while their decorator would be getting the house ready for the family to move in.  Our crew took a week doing things like tearing out rugs we had put in, patching nail holes and putting up primer coat. The last thing we did before turning the house over to their decorator was hire a professional cleaning company to come in to eradicate every footprint, fingerprint, blot, spec of dust, smudge, smear or imperfection.

I got a call from the owner of the cleaning company about 2 hours into the morning.  The homeowner was there and she was yelling at the housecleaners and they were leaving. When one of the Assistant Location Managers arrived to find out what was going on, she found Mrs. Homeowner on the phone with a friend, mid-conversation.  As A.L.M. walks into the house, she hears Mrs. Homeowner saying, "I don't know what I was thinking.  I could have been killed talking to that woman that way.  She was a negro!"

While A.L.M. was explaining that the cleaning company works for us, not for them and that if she had problems, she could tell us about it, I was on the phone to Mr. Homeowner telling him to get batshit-crazy Mrs. Homeowner out of the house and that technically, under the agreement, we still had exclusive use of the premises and the two of them were no longer welcome there until we turned it over to their decorator.  He started telling me that he had gotten an estimate from a painter (an exorbitant estimate), to repaint the exterior of the house and I explained that we weren't paying to have his 20-year-old paint job redone and he said we had exacerbated the wear on the exterior paint job and I explained that we hadn't exacerbated shit around his peeling, moldy eaves that were a good 20 feet above where anyone in our crew had ever ventured.

Eventually, I showed up at his office with a check -- a check for a fraction of what he was still asking for.  I told him that he could have the check in exchange for signing the form saying that we had met all of our obligations and done and paid everything we said we would and the gravy train had pulled into the station and don't ever, ever, ever call us or write to us ever, ever again.  Or, I could keep the check and he was welcome to sue the studio for the next 50 years.

He took the check and signed the paper.

There was one bright spot during all of this.  The Director of Photography realized that he would want to put some lights in the yard of the house behind ours for a night shot.  The backyards were absolutely humongous and nobody had ever thought we'd need anything from that neighbor.  I went over and knocked on the door and was greeted by a seriously older woman who wouldn't unchain the door to talk to me. She said she and her husband were in poor health and she didn't even want to think about getting involved with us.  Being diligent (or obnoxiously pushy), I wrote up a quick letter saying that we wouldn't need to bother them -- that the lights would be fairly far from their house and aimed away from their house and wouldn't they please consider our request.  I signed the letter and dropped it through their mail slot and crossed my fingers.

She called me ten minutes later.  She wanted to know if I was related to _____________ Gendzier.  I told her he was my grandfather.  So she started rattling off a list of my extended family tree (including people I had never met in person) and telling me they had all known each other years ago and had corresponded off and on, but all lost touch years ago.  She said it would be fine to put our lights in their back yard.  She gave me a key to their house and told me to feel free to camp out in their kitchen when I needed a place to hide out.  She had my family over for lunch when my parents visited.  I think she offered me a spare bedroom if I was ever too tired to drive back to the hotel.

That part almost made up for having to deal with Satan's Spawn.  Almost.

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