Scout and About: On the Job with Georgia's Locations Scouts
Location scouts don’t just get in their car and drive around anymore. “I used to carry a bunch of maps with me,” says Tony Holley, a Georgia native who has been doing the job locally for years. “Big map books, various city maps. I don't do that anymore. The internet has been a huge windfall for all that.”
Holley is now also a location manager, his most recent credits being the Netflix series Stranger Things and Ang Lee’s upcoming film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Since his start in the field things have gotten easier thanks to online tools like Google Earth. “But getting past the research part of it,” he adds, “you do get in a car and go knock on doors.”
For a freelancer like Holley, the first step in a Hollywood project is scouting on spec. He receives either a screenplay or a list of locations and tries to find what a production is looking for and sell them on shooting here. Sometimes, as in the case of HBO’s The Leftovers, they pass and shoot in Texas instead. Other times, as in the case of Billy Lynn, Georgia can only accommodate part of the picture.
“It was never on Lee's mind to try and do Iraq here in Georgia,” Holley says of the decision to film war scenes in Morocco. “That was always another country. But the show Constantine, when they shot their first season here, they did a scene that was in Darfur and shot that in Georgia. You can make it work.”
Studios primarily look at the state to save money through tax incentives, though there’s no denying Georgia’s appeal for its topographical diversity, which can look like a lot of other places. “We have all four seasons that are fairly distinct, and we have a wide range of geography from plains to mountains to farmland to cities to small towns and most everything in between.” Holley says. “That helps.”
Holley has turned away business if he believes it just can’t be done, such as a request for a 1950s Los Angeles setting. But another thing that has helped with location shooting in recent years is digital effects that can transform, say, Peachtree Street into Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. “It's an easier workaround compared to what it was ten or 20 years ago,” Holley adds.
Tony Holley on location
"‘How about this? No? Okay, back in the van.’ ‘How about this? No? Okay, here we go.’"
Ryan Schaetzle, a location manager and scout who has been based in Atlanta for about ten years, confesses the job takes more time than it seems. “If you figure there are 30 locations on a movie,” he explains, “I'm showing hundreds of places in person to the director, the producer, the designer, the gaffer, the key grip—everybody needs to see every place we're going to film. It's a lot of driving around in the van and saying, ‘How about this? No? Okay, back in the van.’ ‘How about this? No? Okay, here we go.’”
For the upcoming Georgia-lensed comedy Bastards, Schaetzle estimates they looked at 50 potential houses in person, and ended up shooting three houses on the same street to look like one.
And then there are certain standbys, such as Atlanta’s Grady High School, which is doubling for Peter Parker’s Queens-set school in Spider-Man: Homecoming, for which Schaetzle worked as a scout. The location has been seen in many movies and TV series in the past, including MTV’s Teen Wolf.
But favorite spots aren’t necessarily the best spots. “There are places that are film friendly that we go back to,” Schaetzle admits. “But you can have the greatest go-to, and the director looks at it and says, ‘Nah. What else you got?’ And it goes right out the window. What the location manager wants and what the production designer wants and what the director wants are not always the same.”
Schaetzle also claims some directors don’t want the same locations seen in countless other movies. But Holley doesn’t believe recycling matters. “I don't think that's in the collective consciousness of [the audience],” he argues. “There aren't too many schools that we can shoot at, because they're usually occupied by kids, and if they're empty, a lot of them are in really bad shape.”
Productions have a limited number of options for schools and hospitals and specific types of architecture or landscapes. “We all sort of play in the same well with certain locations,” Holley adds. “There's a reason why we all go to the Georgia Archives Building [seen in Ant-Man and Anchorman 2], for example.”
Here in Atlanta, however, the city’s rapid development is causing some film friendly sites to disappear. The Georgia Archives is set for demolition in December, and Bellwood Quarry, which has been used in everything from The Walking Dead to The Hunger Games movies, will soon be transformed into a public park. “We were the last show to ever shoot there,” reveals Holley, on his use of the location for Stranger Things. He says it’s a bummer to lose Bellwood. “It’s unfortunate, but you move on.”
As a long-time Georgia resident, Holley takes some of these issues personally. “That’s just me, because I love the diversity of the city’s architecture,” he explains, regarding his disappointment with the fate of the Georgia Archives. “That’s what hurts me; not so much that it’s a cool location we’re losing. We might lose the Central Library before long. That’s a travesty, too.”
Holley recognizes that nobody really likes these buildings' “bombastic brutalism” aesthetic. “People don’t know who the hell Marcel Breuer is,” he says of the Central Library’s famed modernist architect. “Atlanta’s always had a problem with that. We don’t keep our history alive. We tear it down and build something new.”
For the industry, though, new is often great, as a lot of what scouts are after on a regular basis, going door to door, are fresh, never-seen locations. If nobody is home when they knock, they leave business cards and flyers, and if that doesn’t work they’ll look up ownership information through property records and then cold call.
One homeowner who wishes to remain anonymous (let’s call him “Hank”) admits the first time his place was scouted he thought the note on his door seemed “sketchy.” But he called the number anyway and soon enough saw his house filled with crew for a big action movie, set in Miami but filming in downtown Atlanta. That was just at the pre-production planning stage. Unfortunately, the interior scenes that were to be shot in Hank’s home were cut shortly before filming was to happen. “Unfortunately” because Hollywood pays good money for the use of properties such as his, even if just for one day.
Hank’s residence was recently looked at for a star-studded comedy. Again unfortunately, the location did not end up being used, this time because the production decided his kitchen was all wrong. Twice now Hank has given his time and has been inconvenienced without compensation. He’s also been informed of all the disruptive alterations that could be made to the decor of his place. And yet he’s still interested in offering his home as a location.
There’s the excitement of having your living room appear on the big screen, of course. But mostly, says Hank, it’s because of the money. “It would be great to have this little bonus income for what seemingly would only be a limited amount of time,” he explains.
What Hank could do if he doesn’t want to leave it up to chance is register his home with a location services company like Film Friendly GA, which handles a database of properties available for any kind of production. Wanda Morganstern, a former commercial real estate broker, started FFG three years ago while doing some acting work on the side and realizing there was a need. “Whenever I got on set I looked at it as a piece of real estate,” she explains.
There’s also Lisa Collomb, whose South Florida-based All-Star Locations handles many listings in Georgia. But Hollywood doesn’t typically use services like hers over a location manager such as Holley or Schaetzle “unless they’re in a pinch,” she says. “That happens a lot with television shoots.”
Wanda Morganstern on the set of the new Georgia-lensed television series Dead Silent
"They call me in the 11th hour looking for something they haven’t been able to get.”
“They call me in the 11th hour looking for something they haven’t been able to get,” adds Morganstern, who recently set up locations for The Walking Dead and The Detour. “There was a situation where a scout could not find a specific requirement,” she says of the latter series. “He needed a garage with lots of cars. I made a phone call and was able to get them into a private garage that has 30 of probably the most spectacular cars in Atlanta under one roof.”
Morganstern says she’s been in Atlanta commercial real estate for so long that she’s developed a very broad network, and location scouts and managers have come to realize that. Now, it’s not just in desperate times that they come to her. “Sometimes they'll do it on the front end if it's kind of a quirky location,” she says.
There are advantages of going through someone like Morganstern or Collomb, especially in a time crunch. They’ve done the work finding the locations, photographing the interiors in detail and scoping out the area for other expected needs. Both companies accept submissions from property owners like Hank on their website and then represent them for productions seeking quick and easy options. “They want their properties shot in,” Morganstern says of her readymade clients. “They've already agreed to it.”
Other places in Collomb’s library have been scouted by her personally with demand and variety in mind. “My eye is trained,” she affirms. “I see the potential for all aspects. A house could be good for a music video because it's high end and over the top. For telenovelas, they almost always use pool areas and decks, and they sometimes use equestrian properties with horses and pasture lands.”
Then there are the essentials that Collomb and other scouts and managers look for with any location. The big one is a need for a lot of accessible parking nearby. A limited amount of noise on the street is another, especially for exterior shoots. They also look for cooperative neighbors.
Homeowners in turn may have their own preferences that might not be compatible. Some turn away a movie if they don’t like the content, for instance. Hank actually ignored one flyer on his door for a project that looked “too religious.” Others demand more money. “They've heard what their neighbor got,” Collomb notes, maintaining that different sorts of projects have different budget levels.
“It's gotten significantly more expensive over the last five years to shoot here,” Holley admits. Indeed, location asking prices are rising based on increases in both production and demand.
Schaetzle claims that while prices have definitely gone up, scouting in Georgia has also gotten “a little easier and friendlier.” For now, locals are pretty tolerant. “It's still for the most part like, ‘Oh cool, movies,’” he says. “But I'm sure there are people who are like, ‘Oh god, not another movie.’ There are some exceptions where people give you a go away price.”
Once the production figures out where a scene is going to be filmed, someone has to talk to the city, the police, the ambulance, the fire department, the permit office, local businesses, parking lots, etc. And that can take many weeks. “We're not in charge of all that. We're responsible for it. There's a big difference,” notes Schaetzle, who also stresses that safety is a huge component. “You might need to get a structural engineer in somewhere to make sure a roof's not going to fall or that those rusty stairs are going to hold, and if not, then you bring in someone to weld or put in safety stairs. That's up to us to notice, flag and tell the studio.”
It’s also the location manager’s job to figure out where the production base camp, crew vehicles and catering will be set up, where the equipment trucks will be parked and where people can go to the bathroom, as well as keeping everyone comfortable depending on weather. “Once you’ve got places to park and eat and poop,” says Holley, “you’re generally ready for the day.”
During filming, the location manager is in charge of creating a perimeter and protecting it. Schaetzle calls it “the bubble.” He provides a work space, and the more flexibility he can offer, the happier the crew will be. “Let's say we're filming in downtown Atlanta,” Schaetzle explains. “Downtown Atlanta is going on around us.” There’s an obligation not to disturb the daily grind of the city.
The same goes for residential neighborhoods, where Holley points out that donations are made to the homeowner association if there is one. “Everybody gets a little something, because it’s often disruptive, what we do,” he says. In turn, his department is tasked with keeping dogs and yard equipment quiet. “That’s my department, keeping the peace.”
Schaetzle says that some of the trickiest shoots are those where the city is playing itself. “When you embrace Atlanta, it certainly makes things easier in some respects and harder in some respects,” he says, noting the desire to involve landmarks that are unique to the city's identity. “It can be logistically a lot of work.” Schaetzle recalls how the film What to Expect When You’re Expecting wanted to depict Piedmont Park’s movie nights. “It's awesome that it's set in Atlanta, but to shoot in Piedmont Park for several nights in a row and have trucks in the parking lot can be a challenge.”
It’s not just what’s outside the workspace that matters, either. “When we're in that bubble,” Schaetzle continues, “there's real life and real businesses going on. I have to make sure we're not trampling anybody's rights or livelihood. If there's a sandwich shop and we're killing their business, I'll go in and ask what's fair, if we should buy out their food for the day.”
Location managers sometimes have to monitor the production to make sure they’re being careful, too. “There's always an assurance that we'll do our best to prevent it and an insurance to hold us to it,” Schaetzle says of potential damages. “Any location manager that burns a location won't be shooting there again and won't be working long. I go to a great length to ‘baby-proof’ a house,” for example.
“The contract said our house would actually be in better condition than they found it,” confirms Hank. And there really is a duty to take care of the site.
“We're there representing the property owner,” Morganstern says of FFG’s role. “The scout and location manager represent production.” Morganstern appoints a site representative to every property during the shoot, and makes a point of employing people who know how sets work and are not just housesitting. She plucks many of them from Atlanta producer Linda Burns’ PA Academy, a workshop she herself attended three years ago, wanting to learn more about the production side of the business to compliment her real estate knowledge.
In the early days of FFG, Morganstern was gaining PA experience on a television commercial shooting at a location she didn’t represent. During the day, a toilet overflowed, and the producer just said to put an out of order sign on the door. “That was not acceptable to me,” Morganstern says. “I plunged the toilet. I got towels to clean the water off the floor. That made an impression on me. I knew then my job was to protect the property. I treat them like they're my own.”
WLisa Collomb (far left) with husband Pete Gandolfo and Serena Williams during a celebrity shoot in Florida
Adds Collomb, “We've got to keep the homeowner happy, and also at an arm's length away so they don't impede or interfere with the actual operation of the shoot. I’m not going to tell them they have to leave, but they can't be in the way of production.”
Collomb has seen it all when it comes to residents. “Sometimes you have a husband who likes the shoot because he likes the money and his wife doesn't like the inconvenience,” she says. “Sometimes they both love it and are very overzealous and want to be a part of it. That happens on music videos. They invite friends over and try to make a party out of it. No, it's a place of business.”
After filming is done on a location, the job of the manager or service is far from over. “We also deal with damage control in the end,” says Collomb. “I have to go back and take photos and submit them to production, get quotes for repairs, and they pay the bill or it goes through insurance.” At that stage, she considers herself “a bouncing ball” between the two clients.
Location managers troubleshoot beforehand to prevent an accident from happening, too. Collomb makes videos of the location to protect both the homeowner and the production, because sometimes owners will try to put a claim on something preexisting, and sometimes the crew busts something and doesn’t realize it.
“Our reputation runs on both sides of the aisle,” Holley says. “I care far more about my clients than I do my employers at the end of the day. I want the people who hired me to hire me again, but I need the locations to welcome me and everyone else who does what I do. That’s what’s important.”