Odd Jobs: What It’s Like to Work as a Location Scout

What’s a typical day like for a location scout? 

On a typical day I’d arrive at the office around 8 a.m. and meet with my Location Manager. The first thing we need to do is a script breakdown—this tells us what locations in the story we need to find, and how long we might need at that location. For a TV show, we generally find the most ‘important’ location (where most of the scenes take place), and start there.

The next step is hitting up the database! When we scout a location for the first time, we make a ‘file’, which has all the photos, addresses, and contact information of the property owners. Before I hit the road, I would usually spend a morning going through our old files to see if we already have something that could work. After I make a short list, I call up the contact and see if they’re still interested in being considered for filming, and to check their availability. If that’s all good, we send an email to the city film office to check if we’re all clear to film on their end as well. Only after we have the ‘all clear’ do we show the options to the creative team (the director, producers, executive producers, production designer, etc).

After I’ve searched the data base and done some research, then I get to hit the road. This is the part where you literally drive around and look at things. Each script and director will have a pretty specific idea of what they want aesthetically (is this a house for a successful lawyer, or a single parent down on their luck? Are they in Seattle or New York City?)

After I’m finished scouting for the day, I’ll go home and organize the photos into files to show my Location Manager in the morning. 

What makes a home a good candidate for filming?

Accessibility and space are important to have for filming locations—if you live in Vancouver you have definitely seen all of the trucks, tents, and pylons which can take up over a block of parking. If you can find a parking lot that’s five to 10 minutes away, you’re usually good to go.

The building itself that you film in usually needs to be a decent size. Typical crew can be more than 100 people, and when you’re indoors with all the lights, camera equipment, and monitors, having extra space always makes life a lot easier. 

Sound is another big one! The sound equipment they use on sets can pick up almost anything, so if a plane is flying over during a scene, they usually stop and wait for it to pass. So train tracks and places near the airport are often no-go’s.

Are people typically excited to have their home in a film or does it take some convincing?

Some people, if they haven’t had any experience with the industry, get very excited! Along with the glitz and glamour, it’s also a pretty good paycheque. These people are usually really easy to work with and enjoy the excitement of the whole process.

Some people yell at you as soon as they hear the words “locations scout.”

If people are hesitant, I wouldn’t usually try to convince them unless they have a REALLY good property.

How do you convince someone to let them use their house for filming?

If convincing is required, I would generally I lead with compliments: people are proud of their homes! Flattery really does get you everywhere.

Although half the time I was looking for locations described as ‘downtown drug den’, which makes compliments awkward. At one home that was particularly run down, I knocked on the door and gave the homeowner my classic line “I think your home would be a great fit!” and they immediately called me out, saying “it’s because my house looks like a shit hole, isn’t it?”

In these situations I follow up with all the perks—you get paid, they put you and your family up in a hotel if we need the location for more than a day, you get a per diem. Basically try to sell them on a mini-vacation!

What’s the biggest challenge in location scouting?

The biggest challenge of this job is when you’re working with producers from out of town who don’t know the city, or if there are writers working down in L.A. who have no idea what Vancouver or B.C. look like. Vancouver can play a lot of different places, but when the location is as specific as EXTERIOR: COALDALE, NEVADA (google it) and it’s May in Vancouver, it’s hard not to laugh. 

It can also be hard if you’re working for someone that is TOO committed to their ‘vision.’ I spent over a week trying to find something that could be an isolated gas station because the director just kept saying ‘no’ to everything. After all that they ended up cutting the scene anyway. 

What was your proudest moment on the job?

The best moments of this job are when you find new locations that haven’t been filmed before, especially if it’s a really unique space. It sounds boring to say “I found a really cool office’, but on my very first show as a Scout I found a really cool office, and they picked it for filming! At the time, this was the very first time I had any kind of impact on the some of the creative aspects of a show. It felt big after a year or two of standing in the rain as a production assistant. 

What’s the best part of being a location scout?

You get to go to a lot of places most people don’t: rooftops, mansions, penthouse apartments, closed down prisons and hospitals. Sometimes people have surprising things in their homes – one place I scouted was actually a small tech company making robots. Another property was a hobby farm and I saw a goat give birth, while being attacked by a heritage turkey. You meet so many interesting people, and I’ve explored so much of the lower mainland. Every day is different! 

What would surprise people most about location scouting?

How willing people are to let a stranger walk into their home and take photos. Some homeowners just carry on with whatever chore they were in the middle of when I knocked on the door and let me just wander around their home by myself. 

The thing about the film industry is that everyone there thinks that what they’re doing is the most important thing. I am going to make the same argument about locations, but there would literally be no tv shows or movies without locations. The Locations team takes care of ALL the logistics of filming at a location—Location Scouting is just the beginning of the entire process. So much paperwork, logistics, and coordination have to take place before the crew even shows up to the location, and the actually filming is a whole other situation! 

The Assistant Location Managers and the production assistants are the first on set and the last to leave. They take care of everything set and logistics related. They stand in one spot for 15 hours just to make sure nobody steals the generators, they keep the set quiet, they move endless sheets of plywood so that crew and equipment don’t ruin lawns, and then we come back the next day and make sure everything is put back where it needs to be!

The Location Department is the unsung hero of every production.

Has it changed the way you watch movies or TV? 

It’s getting a bit better since I haven’t been scouting for a while, but there are certain locations that show up in almost everything filmed in B.C.—like the Riverview Hospital campus—that I always spot immediately. If there’s a scene set in a hospital, 99 percent of the time it’s at Riverview. I can’t watch those scenes without thinking about the many, many hours I’ve spent there, or the 40 other people on the other side of the camera.

I’m sure I can be really annoying to watch stuff with. I guess most people don’t need the running commentary of “It’s supposed to be LA, but the trees in the background totally give it away!” when they’re just trying to watch the X Files

Want more hot gossip from inside Vancouver’s film industry? Look out for our Film Issue, coming this March to newsstands.