On The Road With A Scout
Scouting can mean days and weeks on the road, so your car becomes a home away from home. Location manager Doug Dresser keeps his trunk loaded up: a toolkit, safety goggles and a dust mask — you never know when a wind storm is going to come up — an extra pair of socks, bright orange safety cones, tent stakes and poles, duct tape, an umbrella, a poncho.
But the most important item in his trunk is a camera.
"When you're scouting, when you have to get the shot — dust mask, goggles, I'm in! I'll do anything for the shot," Dresser says.
Today he's checking out six L.A. sites, and as always he'll take tons of photos to show the director and production designer. One location has a big open space: "You can build sets in here," Dresser notes. "We could pull our movie trucks right up here"
But the smell is just too much — the building is a defunct dairy near L.A.'s Chinatown, now a huge warehouse with the distinct aroma of sour milk. It's not right for the project Dresser is scouting: a Screen Gems fantasy adventure that's in its very early stages, and whose title he's not at liberty to share. (The outline, though: teenagers, abandoned buildings, creepy situations.)
Done with the dairy, Dresser moves on.
"We read the script, we break it down and it's a blank canvas," he says. "You're always on a hunt for that perfect location."
Perfect is the next place Doug scouts: Linda Vista Community Hospital. It's been rented out to filmmakers for more than 20 years, and it always looks different. (Witness its various guises in movies from Pearl Harbor to Outbreak to L.A. Confidential to Conspiracy Theory.)
He takes me to the basement, into the hospital's former morgue. It's cold and dark, with paint peeling off the walls — a pretty dreadful place.
"It's a glamorous profession," Dresser says.
Half-true enough. On any given day, Dresser could spend time in multimillion-dollar mansions and then in the dirtiest, most flea-ridden alley you've ever seen in your life.
"To do our job, to be a location scout, you have to love both equally," he says.
That same day, Dresser scouted an abandoned, boarded-up library filled with cobwebs; the old Alexandria Hotel, built in the early 1900s and once home to big Oscar-night dinner parties; and an outdoor expanse underneath the Sixth Street Bridge. That last one is among the most-filmed locations in Los Angeles.
"It looks like any industrial downtown," Dresser says. "It's graphic; you got parking and trucks underneath it. It's kind of beautiful architecturally, and it fills in for Any City, USA."
'Like Throwing A Full-Blown Wedding Every Day'
After a location has been scouted and approved, the location manager has to deal with other filming preparations: permits, extra police, tents for hair and makeup, food — everything.
"The recurring dream any location manager has," Dresser says — and by "dream" he clearly means "nightmare" — "is that you show up and the gates are locked and no one's there."
Movie folk — including actor Matt Damon and director Cameron Crowe, who were filming inside — swarmed a corner restaurant in the L.A. neighborhood of Los Feliz in late January. They were working on the movie We Bought a Zoo, based on a true story by Benjamin Mee.
At a small corner restaurant back in Los Feliz, shooting has begun for the Matt Damon movie We Bought a Zoo. Location manager Chris Baugh, who was working before on the zoo construction at the ranch, comes to Los Feliz to solve a few problems on the neighborhood set. One question comes from the best boy grip, who wants to know where on the location he can park his car.
It's little things like that that fill up a location manager's day. Baugh says it's like throwing a full-blown wedding for 200 people — in a different place every day for 50 days. Except that at these weddings, commandos drop onto the roof some days, or a machine gun fight begins. And then there's a tidal wave.
When problems crop up, Baugh says, the cry goes up: " 'Get me location, get me locations, where the hell is locations?' And you have to solve everything."
Director Cameron Crowe says it's all worth it, if it helps an actor like Damon.
"What was great was being able to bring him to these places and say, 'This is what we found.' And he immediately said, 'I feel the movie here. I can play this character,' " Crowe says.
For Crowe, the long, hard work of location scouting — and set designing, lighting, cinematography, performing, directing, all of it — is most successful when it disappears.
"The movie should make it all feel invisible," he says. "The movie should make it feel like you're just viewing somebody living a life. To be living a life on screen, they have to feel like that's their house, this is where they were born. [They have to be] comfortable enough to make you believe it."
And so location, location, location: It's the first step in getting us to suspend disbelief for a few hours, and enter other lives.