5 Tricks You Learn Finding Background Locations For Movies
Movies and TV shows are nothing but filthy lies. But while you're actively aware that actors are playing fake people and that talking raccoons don't exist, most of the time you're not aware of the wizardry that goes into faking a movie's locations. For example, a movie that takes place in three different countries might shoot all of those scenes in Vancouver.
But then you've got shows like Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul. Both of them take place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and by God, they really are filmed there. But that presents a whole other list of weird challenges that have to be solved by people like Alex Gianopoulos, a location scout who helped turn a fairly obscure city into the fictional meth capital of the USA.
One Small City Has To Stand In For The Whole World
First, when I say that we shot Breaking Bad in and around Albuquerque, I mean we shot everything there -- including the stuff that was supposed to be happening thousands of miles away. Remember how the final season had scenes set in snow-covered New Hampshire? Those were filmed at New Mexico's famous ski resorts. Yeah, New Mexico has skiing. The fact that you probably didn't know is why it worked so well.
There are eight rattlesnakes just off-screen.
That was the least of my challenges. Between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, I also had to find stand-ins for Philadelphia ...
"I found a place, but we're going to need 6,000 lbs of cheese steak."
... a Chicago suburb ...
There are eight drunken Phillies and Bears fans off-screen in those respective shots.
... and Hanover, Germany.
Those are all a short hop from our studio, but they look like completely different cities. That wasn't easy -- Albuquerque largely lacks dirty alleys like the one above because of the way it's laid out, so you have to find the one special one and make it count.
Sometimes, you have to give your location a little help. I scouted for another show which was filmed in Albuquerque but set in Palm Springs, and every scene required palm trees in the background, lest viewers forget where the characters were. ABQ isn't exactly overflowing with palms, so we had to lug huge trees around with us from set to set.
But it's trains that are my true nemesis. Remember the big train robbery in season five of Breaking Bad? There's one privately-owned stretch of rail near Albuquerque. Only one. When I showed the location to the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, he asked to see others. My response was "How can we make this work?" Luckily, he loved it and pitched us the whole heist while we were there scouting it, even before he wrote it.
Obviously that scene worked out, but sometimes they don't, which is why Breaking Bad didn't end with its planned showdown on a secret Nazi moon base. In another, 100 percent less made up example, a movie I worked on wanted a stand-in for the Garden of Eden in the middle of an Albuquerque winter. I did what I could, but they had to shoot elsewhere when the desert decided to snow.
On the other end of the difficulty scale, the car wash from Breaking Bad is in the neighborhood where I grew up. So to any aspiring location scouts reading this: Always take a moment to consider if your local mall would look good hosting a dramatic conversation or a high-stakes shootout.
Or even a zombie apocalypse.
Corporations Aren't Crazy About Putting Their Brands In A Show About Meth
Product placement isn't always about money. Real brands make a story feel real -- everyone's been to Denny's, so they know what the atmosphere there is like. And because it's a real place, there could be a meth king sitting next to the one you're in right now.
"I am the one who orders Moons Over My Hammy."
But many corporations balk at what we want to shoot there, or at the thought of generally being associated with the meth trade. Lawyers are usually the last line of approval, and their final say can happen about a week before a shoot is scheduled, because they have lots of law-talking stuff to do. A late "no" can send us scrambling for a last-minute alternative (my job involves a lot of scrambling, as you'll see).
One pivotal fifth season scene involved Walter and Skylar confronting Hank and Marie in an Italian restaurant. Vince saw it as being in an Olive Garden, the ultimate in suburban banality, to contrast with the dark conversation about drugs and blackmail. But they gave us a curt "no" when they saw the script, possibly because enough unhappy double dates have already occurred in Olive Gardens. We revised the scene, but still couldn't get a yes. We then switched to Chili's, but they also backed out, presumably as part of their long-standing corporate rule that nothing memorable should ever happen in a Chili's. So like many tense couples who couldn't land a table at their preferred restaurant, we ended up in a generic local Mexican place.
The scene in which the staff sings "Happy Birthday" to Skylar while wearing a sombrero was ultimately cut for time.
We ran into the same problem when trying to shoot the final meeting between Walt and Lydia, the corrupt businesswoman helping him move his meth. We wanted it to be in a Starbucks, which would have fit Lydia's personality, but they turned us down, because for some reason they frown on making it look like Starbucks is a really easy place to slip someone poison. We ended up in a local place with a Starbucks vibe called The Grove.
And now their ricin latte is more popular than ever.
Movies with more destruction than most wars, like Man Of Steel, can land major chains like IHOP because hey, it's a free reminder that IHOP exists and is an okay place to stop off at after a movie. But neo-Nazis, meth, and piles of dead bodies aren't the best subject matter for a lot of companies to associate with, no matter how popular the show. But come on, doesn't knowing that Walter White once ate at Denny's make you want to go there a little bit more?
But it's not only businesses who aren't crazy about getting into showbiz ...
Convincing Homeowners To Put A Fake Meth Lab In Their House Is Tricky
This might come as a surprise, but not everyone is willing to accept moderate sums of money to have a "pretend meth lab" in their house for a television show that "Totally exists, you have to believe me, please don't call the police." This was especially true in New Mexico, where show business was still a novelty and homeowners weren't familiar with the idea of turning their property into a set. So for the season five plotline wherein Walt and friends hop from house to house making meth under the cover of a pest control business, I had to learn how to become a backwards door-to-door salesman.
Telling people I'm there for a show gets me in the door. The money involved convinces some owners, and the popularity of Breaking Bad gets others excited. If someone still isn't sure, I'll tell them their house is beautiful and explain how it's exactly what we're looking for. People are flattered when we tell them we want a house that looks upper-class, especially if it actually isn't.
Unfortunately, the name of the show also turned some people off. Many homeowners were okay with having a fake pest control company in their house, but as soon as I mentioned a drug lab, I was shown the door. Ultimately, Breaking Bad's popularity worked in our favor, but there were days when we'd scout entire neighborhoods and be told "no" by everyone the moment we mentioned meth. Finding someone to let us film Ted, Skylar's boss, having a near-fatal accident by slamming into a table was tricky too. I guess no one wants to be known as the owner of a house where you can accidentally cripple yourself.
We also lost houses when people who weren't familiar with the show agreed, only to later learn that it was about a violent meth kingpin. Churches were for some reason especially opposed to inviting us into their places of solemn worship to film profane conversations about drugs and violence. We couldn't even get a church parking lot for a planned scene where Hank and his police partner Gomez meet up to chat -- one agreed, then backed out a few days before shooting and sent us into a scramble for a non-denominational parking lot. So many churches said no to us that eventually we stopped asking.
And yes, all of this eventually has to get written into the show. In fact ...
The Whole Plot Can Revolve Around What Locations We Find
To introduce Breaking Bad's neo-Nazis (who showed up to be the main bad guys near the end of the series' run), Vince asked me to find, and I quote, "a bad guy hideout that looked Breaking Bad-y." We looked at abandoned motels and a creepy brick factory, but finally, while looking for something totally different, I came across an abandoned lumberyard.
When looking it over, some of the writers found an abandoned pit and just about lost their minds. Their original plan was for a captured Jesse Pinkman to get chained up in one of the buildings, but the writers giddily decided to stick Jesse in that pit to be tortured instead. It gave the bad guys more menace and cruelty than your standard thuggish neo-Nazis.
"So what was this pit originally used for?"
"You really don't want to know, Aaron."
I'm currently working on a Matthew McConaughey movie called Gold. The director wasn't thrilled with one of the locations we found, but then he spotted a woman tending her horses and it inspired him to add a completely new and important scene. And that's how a good location scout can turn a drama about searching for gold into an inspirational family horse-racing movie. Okay, not really, but I don't want to spoil the scene we did add.
Your Location Could Get Destroyed Between Episodes
Let's say I overcome all of the above obstacles to find the perfect place, but it's more than 30 miles away from the studio. It's now completely worthless unless it's an emergency -- that distance brings us into conflict with approximately 5,000 rules regulating how far we can drag unionized crew members without paying them a lot more.
Sometimes, finding that perfect location is tough. For the episode in which a German fast food executive / secret meth distributor commits suicide, we had to find a building that said "large European corporation" -- something that doesn't really exist in the American Southwest. We eventually filmed at a brand-new high school, literally the one place that met both our requirements and constraints. No one ever guessed it was a school, but it's obvious now that I've told you, right?
And now those students are going to feel like they work at a fancy corporation.
Obviously, a location has to be secured, because that suicide scene would be a lot less dramatic if a couple of students looking to get high in a stall wandered into the background. But there are times when you can't get permission to, say, block off an entire section of highway because the highway patrol just knows that you only need, like, 45 seconds worth of footage. Budget's a factor too -- we can't afford to book an entire hotel simply because we want to shoot there. Big-budget movies can get around this by heading to an entirely different country. Skyfall, for example, kept losing out on pre-credits chase locations in South Africa and India before they finally settled on a backup site in Turkey. But in television I can't up and say, "Hey, what if we packed up and headed to Vermont?"
My absolute worst nightmare came true when we were preparing for Breaking Bad's fourth season. We spent a lot of time at Gus Fring's chicken farm in the third, and as it was a prominent business, we took it for granted that no one was going to abruptly demolish it. Spoiler alert: The owners decided to abruptly demolish it.
No warning. I thought we were hermanos.
I called them about securing a new contract, only to be informed that the buildings were being torn down the next day. We had huge plans for that farm, and we may never know how differently the show would've played out if the chicken business had been making them better money. Instead, I grabbed a producer, a cameraman, and some contracts that would allow us to shoot establishing shots. Then I convinced the demolition company to tear it down from a certain angle so that our crew and his crew could do their jobs simultaneously. We got what we needed for the first few episodes, then transferred all the farm equipment to another location.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why the part of this shot that's just out of frame is nothing but rubble:
And chicken corpses strewn as far as the eye can see.
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