Winter 2020

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

NYC location managers do more than scouting and securing permits: They also iron out the logistics while keeping city leaders and residents happy

By Ann Farmer

Photo: Wenjie Dong

One of Michael Kriaris' trickiest tasks as a location manager on The Big Short was to find the right place in Manhattan to safely stage the suicide of a man stepping off the roof of a building. "We wanted a very high building with a great view," he says, and ample space to orchestrate the stunt.

His team searched—initially concentrating on modern office buildings—but had trouble finding one that made it logistically feasible. So they surveyed the 40-story, 1914 Municipal Building that flanks lower Manhattan's panoramic skyline. What clinched it, though, was its ornate Renaissance-revival architecture that features a cascade of roof setbacks, enabling the stuntman to effectively drop off one roof area onto cushioned pads concealed on a lower level.

"It was a good shot," Kriaris recalls.

Finding suitable and memorable locations for film and TV shoots can be one of the most satisfying responsibilities of DGA location managers. In New York City, in particular, there are countless enticing possibilities that make the pursuit fun. Contributing to the look of a film or series, however, is only part of the location manager's job. During most of the production, they are busy facilitating and coordinating the logistics surrounding every scene, which makes it possible to shoot in such a dense, diverse and complex metropolis.

"Our job sort of begins when we find the location; it doesn't end there," says New York-based location manager Ellen Athena Catsikeas, running down some of her functions: She must attain the necessary permits from city agencies for street closures and shooting in public places. She handles the legal contracts and certificates of insurance for each location used. She works on schedules alongside the 1st AD. She coordinates with every department—from hair & makeup to electrical—about their setups. "I'm working with fire marshals, the FDNY or the special effects bomb squad if we have scenes that involve fire or gunshots," she adds. Once the shooting ends, she ensures that locations get restored and repaired if necessary. "And I could go on and on," she says. "It is all about logistics."

Even during scouting, the location manager needs to think about much more than matching a location with a visual concept. "It's recognizing what it means to get one hundred people and equipment into a space and how to support that without putting too much pressure on the location," says Kriaris. "Is there an establishing shot from the street that will need a camera crane? Will the grips be able to beam extra light into second-floor windows? Is there valuable artwork requiring removal by a professional art handler? So it doesn't just involve a day of prep," says Kriaris. "It requires pre-prep."

New York City is currently booming with film and TV production. Ever since 2004, when the state began issuing tax credits for eligible productions, the number of film and television projects has shot up. To meet the demand, soundstages have proliferated. But there never seems to be enough of them. Further complicating things, productions have to steer clear of hot zones—those oft-used blocks or neighborhoods that the NYC Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, which coordinates film and TV production in the five boroughs, periodically places off-limits to ease the pressure on them.

From top: For The Bourne Ultimatum, a crew perches on a NYC rooftop, while, down below, Matt Damon crouches amidst a car pileup; a defunct children's psychiatric facility provides the setting for Orange Is the New Black. (Photos: (Top-Bottom) Blogspot (2); Jojo Whilden/Netflix)

Lauri Pitkus, for instance, was recently searching for locations for the upcoming HBO series The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman as a therapist whose privileged life unravels. Pitkus read the novel and thought, "Okay, I know what that looks like." For the home of the wealthy, powerful father, played by Donald Sutherland, Pitkus envisioned an Upper East Side doorman building with good bones and vistas. "Nothing says that like standing on your terrace overlooking Central Park with a completely unobstructed view of the reservoir and the city," she says.

The only problem: The city was a hive of production. Seventy-five projects were in the works, she was told, and her favored apartment was in a designated hot zone. Pitkus, however, conjectured that if she devised a strategy for maintaining a nominal presence and successfully pitched it to the community board, building association and Mayor's Office, she might be able to shoehorn the production in.

New York location managers must work extra hard to ensure that residents embrace filming in their neighborhoods by reducing, whenever possible, the inconveniences caused by the phalanx of equipment vehicles and star campers that can limit parking. Closing down streets also affects local businesses that depend on foot traffic. Location managers will compensate them when appropriate and initiate other goodwill measures. "You do not want them to feel wronged in any way and you want to be able to return to those neighborhoods," says Catsikeas.

Kriaris says he works the entire block ahead of time, communicating with neighbors and listening to their concerns. "You aren't working in a vacuum," he says, noting that the people who suffer most are often in the apartment below. "Maybe you want to send them out for dinner or get them a hotel for the night," he says. "Not just slapping up flyers saying we're going to be here on Tuesday."

In addition, when big stars are involved, the paparazzi often materialize, ruffling residents who zealously protect their privacy. While scouting for The Undoing, Pitkus learned that JPMorgan Chase's chairman lived on the same floor on which an apartment she had her eye on was situated. She immediately dropped that thought. "As soon as they said Jamie Dimon, I knew there was no way they would allow filming."

To lock down the hot zone apartment that she, the designer and director desired, Pitkus took major steps to mitigate their footprint. She secured space next door for crew catering. She leased the top floors to fashion green rooms for the actors, thus eliminating a slew of star trailers and reasons for gawkers to hang out. By also delaying the shooting schedule until after Memorial Day weekend—when many Upper East Siders leave town—she was able to finesse all the necessary approvals. "That kind of thing is a home run," she notes.

Finding locations is a group effort. Location managers will sift through their mental and hard files. Their scouts comb through neighborhoods, knocking on doors. Pitkus sometimes scopes things out with the real estate site StreetEasy. Kriaris says interior design magazines can be a good resource. "It's been my experience," he adds, "that the best locations are found when you are looking for something else. And you bank those."

He particularly loves the early stage, when he's riding around with the director and/or production designer looking at prospects and bouncing ideas off one another. "I've always felt that a lot of films are made in the scout van," he says, "because that's when all the discussing happens."

Since its five boroughs support a vast range of historical and architectural looks, New York City is often used as a proxy for other places. Period pieces, in particular, require a location manager's gimlet eye. "You go on a block," says Kriaris, "and every storefront, every doorway—you're changing window treatments, pulling air conditioners."

At the same time, the character of the city is changing. Small businesses have folded under the economic muscle of franchises, and turn-of-the-century tenement buildings have morphed into glass towers, making it more challenging to secure a block with sufficient continuity. "It's a smaller and smaller pool that we're swimming in," says Kriaris.

As a result, more location managers are discovering the outer reaches. For the film The Goldfinch, for instance, Pitkus found a house in Rye, N.Y., that easily passed as the address of a Park Avenue doyenne. She similarly swayed Steven Spielberg and producers of The Post to make White Plains their location hub (and a viable stand-in for Washington, D.C.). For the pilot of Orange Is the New Black, she staked out a decommissioned children's psychiatric facility in Rockland County, N.Y., to serve as the women's prison. She had to call in plumbers and painters. But she negotiated a contract with the state that enabled the production to return every season.

"Honestly, it's probably the best deal I've ever made," says Pitkus, who employs a host of strategies for luring location owners to the table. "Sometimes they need their roof fixed and it turns out to be an advantageous relationship for both parties."

From top: Lauri Pitkus, far right, with her crew mates on location for the HBO series The Undoing; the steps of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church act as a scene setter for The Big Short; for The Goldfinch, a house in Rye, N.Y., passed as the address of a Park Avenue doyenne. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Of Lauri Pitkus; (Middle) Everett; (Bottom) Macall Polay/Warner Bros.)

Similarly, when Aaron Kaufman, the director of Urge with Pierce Brosnan, asked Catsikeas to procure a diner in a very last-minute change of venue, she launched into Greek to convince the Greek owner to say yes. "You have to use what you think will get you in the door," she says, describing how she rushed over to snap photos and noticed that Mamma Mia, featuring Brosnan, was playing on the hanging TV. She slyly dropped his name. "They were ecstatic and gave us a discount."

For the extremely low-budget film To Dust, Catsikeas ransacked Staten Island to meet its extensive location requirements. The quirky, potentially ticklish film featured Matthew Broderick as a professor who delves into the biology of decomposition to help a grieving Hasidic widower cope with his wife's death. Locations included a hospital, funeral home, synagogue, cemetery and a wooded area to dig a (taxidermied) pig's grave. A boy scout camp obliged them on that one. "We were very happy that we got a lot of locations to accept what we were trying to do," says Catsikeas. "Because of the sensitive nature, getting an Orthodox cemetery to be onboard was really rewarding."

Stunts complicate things even further. After Catsikeas secured a yacht for one involving a stuntwoman jumping off the railing into the East River (and a similar take with the actor jumping onto a padded landing), she next had to arrange for a water quality test and a survey of the river bottom to check for obstacles.

Pitkus still vividly recalls a car chase scene for which she worked with her DGA team to secure the location on The Bourne Ultimatum. It started at Port Authority, jumped to midtown and ended at the South Street Seaport. She saw to it that all the cars placed in the street were wired together and couldn't curb jump. She also made sure the entire shooting sphere got locked down and no one walked out of a building while the cameras were rolling. She additionally found a parking garage in Yonkers that allowed them to toss a car over the side. "I like being involved in the puzzle of how to make things work," she says.

Even when the locations seem securely in place, things happen. "There's crazy stuff," says Kriaris, recalling how one apartment owner had second thoughts about being separated from his belongings. Rather than disappoint the director, who had his mind set on that specific apartment, Kriaris leased the one upstairs, which encompassed the same floor plan. He moved those people and their furniture out and moved the downstairs homeowner and his furniture in. "That way he was in his apartment but he wasn't."

Altogether, location managing in NYC adds up to a lot of work. "It's one of the most challenging positions to be in when working in New York City," says Catsikeas. "But it's part of what makes the job thrilling. To work out all the things that you need to get done and with the vision of the director. The challenges are rewarding when you pull off something amazing."

Chameleonic Chicago

DGA location managers laud the city's diverse looks while embracing its rough edges

By Brian Tallerico

Kwame Amoaku, Director of the Chicago Film Office. (Photo: City of Chicago)

Chicago is the best place to tell an American story," says Nick Rafferty, location manager on Widows, Candyman and the now-filming fourth season of Fargo, set in the '50s Midwest. "The challenges that the city faces—from the economic and racial disparities to the socio-political divide—is manifested in this city's politics, culture and even in its violence. When it comes to telling a really interesting story about this period in the U.S., Chicago is the truest and most authentic place to tell those stories."

As more and more filmmakers agree with Rafferty, contributing to a growing surge of film and television production in the Windy City, location managers are finding ways to do things differently than their counterparts in the rest of the country. More and more producers are telling their stories in Chicago due to tax breaks in the state and the systems put in place thanks to the consistency of production from a trio of Dick Wolf shows—Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D. and Chicago Med—as well as local mainstay Empire, in its sixth and final season, that film a combined 84 episodes a year in the city.

Any boom in production comes with its own benefits and challenges, but the Chicago Film Office has made the city logistically easier to work in than most in the country.

"Our process is streamlined," says Natasha Parker, location manager on The Chi. "If we need a block cleared or a city electrician, we go straight to the Film Office. They will assist you with anything that you need. The services from the Chicago and Illinois Film Office have been impeccable. They are literally the liaison between us and any problem we may run into."

The newly appointed head of that Chicago Film Office, Kwame Amoaku, an experienced location manager and DGA member, praises the structure and range of the city. "The geography of Chicago is a lot more manageable than Los Angeles," he says. "It's not as sprawling. Everything is more compact. It makes it less difficult to find things."

It's not just the support structure that makes productions flow as easily as they do in Chicago, it's the different backdrops available. "We have a great deal of versatility in the types of locations we have in a small geographical area," Amoaku adds. "You don't have to travel outside of the zone to get extremely different looks."

Chicago's location managers lean on each other to get through what Amoaku calls the "Game of Thrones winter." Mono Wilborn, a longtime Chicago veteran and location manager on Chicago Fire, says, "We have a community and we share our resources. We make it a little easier on ourselves to get into places because we all know we're going to treat that location as if it's yours even though it's someone else's."

For Wilborn, maintaining this boom in Chicago and the professional attitude that makes people want to shoot there depends on teaching. "Location managers who are bringing up production assistants need to train them properly," he says. "We've run into shows with less experienced managers, with PAs and staff who aren't properly trained, because so much growth is happening so fast. We have to do our due diligence on training people properly."

Part of this comes from Chicago location managers being a part of the DGA. "I feel very connected to problem-solving with the 1st assistant director and production manager," says Rafferty. "I feel like the three of us find that creative and logistical balance. We are part of the director's team."

Every major city has its issues, but Parker has spent a great deal of time in some of Chicago's more dangerous areas while working on The Chi and Chi-Raq, and she knows how to make those backdrops work. "Even though we have our challenges with violence, everybody's not like that in Chicago," she says. "It's about working with the neighborhood and making them feel a part of the process. We don't have 'no shoot zones.' It's about having a police presence and letting neighbors become a part by inviting them to become extras. When we direct scout, we will have leaflets about being a part and participating. It's about partnership. And that's not just for our urban, challenged neighborhoods—it's for every neighborhood. You have to have a partnership for it to be successful. We are guests in their homes."

As more and more production pours into Chicago, the city's profile and its creative voices will only grow. As Rafferty notes, people don't just come to Chicago for the tax breaks, and they certainly don't come for the endless winter. "When filmmakers come to Chicago, it's a deliberate choice," he says. "They're coming here because the city is a character."

The Industry / Technology

Articles on creative issues and new technology in features, television and new media.

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