The true life of a location scout

Few careers seem more tailor-made to travel-lovers than that of a location scout – but is finding the next Oscar-worthy location as glamorous as it seems?

Few careers seem more tailor-made to travel-lovers than that of a location scout – the person responsible for finding just the right setting for a photography shoot, commercial, television show or film.

The job often requires a lot of time on the road, a keen eye to pinpoint exactly what setting would be ideal for a given scene and a love of exploration that’s already familiar to avid travellers.

Those in the industry, though, caution that the job is not always as glamorous as it sounds. Nor is it necessarily a guaranteed ticket to exotic travel. Many scouts become the location manager after finding the right setting, handling the logistics, legalities and communication required to use the location.

The job is, however, a chance to delve into a place – whether a local neighbourhood or a far-flung locale – and see every corner through a filmmaker’s lens.

“I don't see places any more. I see locations. You see the whole city through the eyes of ‘what can I shoot here’, not just ‘oh that’s cool’,” said Kate Levinson, film scout and owner of Chicago-based Kate Levinson Locations. “The weirdest thing about the job is what a creep you become. I’m looking in people’s windows all the time. If I could have a super power, it would be X-ray vision.”

In a sense, location scouts and managers are equal parts researcher and magician. When they get a script or a project, they don’t just hit the road or look through their database of already scoped-out locations. They usually have to use some imagination, particularly when budget or time constraints require many projects to shoot relatively close to home.

For example, Levinson scouted for a Lexus commercial in 2013 and was told to find a setting that looked like the beaches of Cape Cod, Massachusetts… near Chicago, more than 1,000 miles away. For a commercial for the energy drink Relentless, location scout Ben Carter was asked to make a location in central London look like Barcelona. (Instead, he found a gritty, graffiti-covered section of motorway; the producer was thrilled, despite it not being the original request.)

Of course, some scouts are sent around the world to find the right locations. But it takes time to get to that level. The location managers that travel all over the world are usually very seasoned,” said Nancy Haecker, the president of Location Managers Guild of America. Haecker has scouted and location-managed for films including Sean Penn’s Oscar-nominated 2007 film Into the Wild, which was shot in locations including Washington, Oregon and Alaska, and 2014’s Wild, starring Gaby Hoffman and Reese Witherspoon and filmed in Oregon. “It’s not an entry-level position.”

But for those who can move up in the ranks, the job can have its perks.

New Zealand-based Jared Connon might be one of the world’s most-loved location managers, particularly by New Zealanders. He was the scout and manager for all three Lord of the Rings films and for The Hobbit trilogy. (Scouting for The Hobbit alone, he said, took the better part of four years). And even 20 years of film location work hasn’t made him weary of the job. “I always tell people, I feel like I’m a paid tourist. I can cruise around at my own leisure, make up my own agenda and itinerary, and spend time wandering around with a camera, getting to know people and taking beautiful shots,” he said.

One of the biggest advantages of being a location scout isn’t just seeing new destinations. For some in the industry, it’s getting to find and access off-limits or unknown places.

For Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film Wuthering Heights, UK-based scout Tom Howard needed to find a setting that was true to the brooding, 19th-century atmosphere of the film and book. The two narrowed it down to England’s Yorkshire Dales. But then the search really began. “I drove every road, every track. I walked every footpath, looking for the Wuthering Heights farm and mansion,” Howard said.

It took six weeks to find the farm. It was a mile from the nearest paved road, at the end of a valley called Swaledale, and had been abandoned for 17 years. There was no electricity, no running water – and no resident. By asking around pubs in town, they tracked down the owner, who lived in York.

To use the site, they then had to get the surveyor there, rebuild parts of the building, remove asbestos and build a road just to get trucks to the property. But the result, Howard said, was perfect: “it looks like a farm on the edge of the world, which it was.”

The feeling of being on a treasure hunt and clinching it with the perfect location is one that other scouts echoed. I’ll walk into something and go, ‘This is it’,” said Haecker. “It’s all of it together: the character of the place, the action, you have to be able to get there, you have to be able to afford it, the neighbours have to be okay with it.”

Above all, though, say location scouts and managers, one of the best parts of the job is its variety.

“I have filmed across Europe. I’ve filmed in the States. I’ve had dinner with billionaires in Istanbul, woken up the next morning and shot dawn rising while you hear the call to Mecca in the background – and then three months later, I’m having the best curry I’ve ever had in the tiniest, grottiest East London flat filled with kids and a lovely family who say ‘Stay and have dinner with us,’” Carter said. “The variety is hard to beat. And the characters you meet on the way are phenomenal.”