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Locations, Locations, Locations

Although many TV series rarely venture beyond their Hollywood soundstages, these shows rely on very different locales to make their series shine.

By Brigitte Marie Clifton

Treme's LaDonna
Treme’s LaDonna (Khandi Alexander) in front
of her bar in Central City
Photo by: HBO/Skip Bolen

New Orleans Lends Authenticity to Treme
Although New Orleans has served as a colorful backdrop for many productions, the results have often felt inauthentic. But authenticity was paramount to Treme creators David Simon and Eric Overmyer in telling the story of how some New Orleanians held on to their traditions and rebuilt their lives after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failure in 2005. Locations, in this case, were the story.

Named for the Faubourg Trem, the historic neighborhood where jazz was born, the acclaimed HBO series is set throughout New Orleans. Even four years after the storm, shooting in the real places so utterly transformed in Katrina’s aftermath was a delicate dance, with the pain still very fresh for the area’s residents and the scars readily evident on neighborhoods working to restore their proud structures.

Treme’s storyline begins only a month after the storm and moves forward in time. Depicting those early days when neighborhoods were still muddied and abandoned proved surprisingly difficult. Locations supervisor and New Orleanian Virginia McCollam was “hard pressed to find a full block where no one had returned to live.” After two or three empty homes in a row, she would find “a rose garden in front of a freshly-painted clapboard home. While it made the location search more difficult, it was uplifting for me,” she says.

9th Ward ritual

9th Ward ritual for a fallen warrior in Treme
Photo by: HBO/Paul Schiraldi

So, for early episodes, the locations crew had to recreate the devastation with street debris, mud, silt and fire damage. The production worked carefully with residents to lessen the emotional impact and inconvenience of the experience, and in the end, the honesty of the depiction of New Orleans won the residents over: The city departments and the New Orleans Office of Film and Video were very helpful in smoothing the way, McCollam reports.

With 20-30 locations required for each episode, her team had to work fast to find locations that communicated the city, script and mood of each scene. She credits their success to the culture of the city and her two locations teams, made up of hard-working and resourceful professionals with great local outreach, everyone seemed to know someone who could help.

Some location finds were sheer luck. McCollam describes driving around with her team after a bar location had fallen through when they came across a “strange house, a raised cottage with the door to the basement missing.” They discovered an old speak-easy “with exquisite textures and wonderful architectural detail just there, just waiting like someone put down their glass and walked out and never came back.” That interior was used as the very first shot of the pilot.

Respect for people and places was a recurring concern illustrated best, perhaps, by a scene in an early episode shot in the 9th Ward, a neighborhood particularly devastated by the levee break where “you see a lot of front stairs that end in thin air,” says McCollam. After the Mardi Gras Indian chief character, Albert Lambreaux, discovers a lost tribe member’s body under a boat in the backyard of the victim’s own home, the tribe holds a ceremony for him in front of the house. A tour bus comes by, camera flashes going off behind its tinted windows as indistinguishable tourists “document” the ritual. McCollam was utterly aware of the difficult line between “bearing witness to a devastating event and rubbernecking,” she says. To get permission to shoot the scene, the location team tracked down the homeowner who now lived in a room across the river where he kept two suitcases packed ready to go back home when he could.

It is this unpacking that Treme seeks to exemplify in its meticulously-researched locations throughout New Orleans. If a real business was to be used as a shooting location, much research went into confirming that it was, indeed, open at that point in the timeline of the show. Although only those intimate with New Orleans in the months after Katrina may notice such “seemingly insignificant markers,” McCollam says those types of accuracies were intrinsic to capturing the true feel of the city and its story. “The characters, the story and the location all need to make sense to each other, and then hopefully translate to the viewer in Iowa.”

Refreshing the Big Apple for White Collar

White Collars' Neal Caffrey
New York City is the backdrop for reformed
thief-turned-FBI-associate Neal Caffrey
(Matt Bomer) in the sophisticated
series, White Collar

With a stylish series set in slick, upper-crust locales, one would think the location managers for USA Network’s hit White Collar would have it made. But even the iconic Big Apple has its shooting challenges.

The first obstacle for location manager Tyson Bidner was the show’s premise. “When we were just starting last season, we were an FBI heist show shooting in old money New York City mansions and beach houses right after the Bernie Madoff situation,” he points out. “So people were more resistant to opening their homes to a film crew.” Now in its second season, however, more New Yorkers are familiar with the bright, feel-good tone of this crime-fighting series, and access has become a little easier.

The second challenge is not relying on the same New York City corners and interiors viewers have seen so often. “People have been shooting in New York for 100 years,” says Bidner. “When you find something that’s new and exciting, you want to break the mold and bring in that location.”

With typically only six days between receiving the script to shooting, Bidner has accumulated a library of photos and notes on possible locations. One such venue ended up on this season’s opener, the landmark Wiliamsburgh Savings Bank Tower in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with its barrel vault ceiling and patterned marble floors, turned out to be ideal for the fictitious Midtown Mutual Bank. Bidner was familiar with the building because he’d been to flea markets in the area on Sundays and had filed away images and mental notes.

Williamburgh Savings Bank Tower

Scouting the historic Willianburgh Savings Bank Tower in Fort Greene, Brooklyn which doubled for the Midtown Mutual Bank in an episode of White Collar
Photo by: Michael Grosky

Many finds are word of mouth, says Bidner, as “this job allows you to be in places I wouldn’t be able to get to on my own.” Access to elite penthouses and mansions is part of the job. The skyscraper interior with a view of Lower Manhattan that served as an interrogation room in this season’s opener was actually a high-security federal office building on Broadway.

Another special-access location for a first season chase scene was Rockefeller Center’s rooftop gardens. “These were the private gardens of company executives for many years,” says Bidner, “and we got access. It was a phenomenal location with this very different perspective of the city that people had not seen before.”

For future episodes, Bidner has his eye on the High Line, a park area above the train tracks that have recently been opened up for use. “We’ve been tripping on top of each other to get to film there,” he says of himself and his fellow NYC location managers.

Beyond giving viewers new perspectives on the city, Bidner enjoys shooting in New York because of its classic appeal and the variety of old and new architecture and mix of business, retail and living space. Of course, the city is known for its film-friendliness, too. “The city has [production] streamlined, and they make it easy and hassle-free,” he says. And New Yorkers are accustomed to film crews. “They complain about us taking their parking, but nothing impresses them. Don’t try to stop them on their way to work, because they’re not going to stop and watch the production; they’re just going to keep on going.”

Portland Offers Versatility to Leverage

Timothy Hutton and Christian Kane

Leverage’s Timothy Hutton and Christian Kane on a Portland rooftop.
Photo by: Erik Heinila

After a successful first season, TNT’s Leverage moved its production from LA to Portland, Oregon in 2009, partly because of production incentives as well as the help offered by the Portland Mayor’s Office and state and local government, says Electric Entertainment’s Rachel Olschan. But what has kept the show in Portland for its third season is the city’s charm and versatility.

“Portland is a small town at heart, with everything that a big city has to offer,” she says. Unlike New Orleans for Treme and New York City for White Collar, Portland is less a character in Leverage and more of a driver for all the locations called for by the script. Because of its chameleon-like diversity, the city has doubled for places in Massachusetts, Nebraska, Tennessee, West Virginia, Washington, D.C. and even London and Ukraine.

“We have been fortunate that we’ve been able to come up with the various looks required for the show,” says locations manager Don Baldwin. In addition to the talents of art director, Bekka Melino, and set decorator, Jenelle Giordano, “who provide a lot of the details that help sell a particular location as being somewhere other than Portland,” he cites the “array of architectural styles” and accessibility granted by government officials as essential tools in creating the necessary looks. The City of Portland Mayor’s Office has dedicated a full-time film and video liaison, Michael Fine, to help productions with coordination and permitting, which has proved indispensable.

Timothy Hutton on location

Leverage star Timothy Hutton on location on the Portland waterfront doubling for Boston Harbor.
Photo by: Erik Heinila

“We were a little apprehensive last season when we got the script for ‘The Zanzibar Marketplace Job’ and all of the locations were in Eastern Europe,” Baldwin admits, “but it worked out well.” Sometimes the challenge for transporting a scene to another state or country lies not in what is within the frame, but what is left out. “When we were doubling Nebraska,” says Baldwn, “it was important to avoid seeing hills or mountains.”

But the variety of locations available in Portland gives him plenty to work with. “In some cases, the writers have written specifically for locations we found or have adapted scenes or action to accommodate what is available.” For example, the prison scene for this season’s opener was a facility built several years ago by Multnomah County but never put into operation for budgetary reasons. It was a location too good to pass up, so Baldwin and the writers made use of it. When the script called for a high-tech office building for the fictional Dubertech Corporate Headquarters, Baldwin discovered the performing arts center at Clackamas Community College was ideal.

The show’s producers have been very happy with the crew available in Portland, as well. And as far as logistical support, the city is “big enough to have the services we need, but small enough that we can maintain close relationships with both locations and vendors,” Baldwin reports.

Cop partners walking throgh Deep Ellum

The Good Guys’ cop partners Dan Stark (Bradley Whitford) and Jack Bailey (Colin Hanks) walking through Deep Ellum, a neighborhood to the southeast of downtown Dallas which shows off the city backdrop.

Serendipity in Dallas for The Good Guys
Production stories are often wrought with catastrophe, particularly when it comes to location shoots where the environment is not usually under the filmmakers’ control. But sometimes things come together in ways that make the production and the location almost seem to belong together. Such is the case with The Good Guys, the new FOX police comedy with a retro vibe, and its Dallas setting. Although the show was originally written for Los Angeles, writer and creator Matt Nix (Burn Notice) and production designer/co-producer Craig Siebels found themselves scouting for a more financially-feasible home city prior to production.

“We wanted the benefit of being able to shoot in a city where the story is set,” explains Siebels, “not pretending it was shot somewhere else.” It needed to be a metropolitan city with an international airport because “the show is about little crimes that turn into big crimes.” Dallas was a quick favorite. Driving along the south side of the city, Siebels found an area where the metropolitan skyline was an easy backdrop for several small locations. “We could be on the front steps of the drycleaner where our story begins, and the city of Dallas fills our frame in the background,” he recalls. “Some of the other cities we looked at had those same impressive cityscapes, but you couldn’t see the skyline from the ground.” Dallas’s Hall of State building doubles for the partners’ police station.

Less often discussed when filmmakers take advantage of locations with tax incentives is the city’s available crew base. “Finding the crew base is sometimes the most challenging part of finding a location,” says Siebels. When production started in Dallas, one film had just wrapped, and The Good Guys was the only show in town, so there was plenty of crew available. “Now there are two more shows shooting here, and that’s a little scary. We’re really hoping that experienced crew that may have moved away are moving back, or people who are not finding work in LA now will move to Dallas because there’s definitely going to be more work in this town.”

Texas Star Ferris wheel

The Texas Star Ferris wheel at Fair Park is often seen in the background of The Good Guys.

Thematically and logistically, Dallas was a good fit for The Good Guys, but the clincher was Fair Park. Siebels wanted to find a home base that could also act as a “Hollywood backlot” for little scenes and pickups. The Dallas Film Commission was instrumental in securing the 220-acre city-owned park that houses the State Fair every year beginning in July. “The building we’re using for catering is their creative arts building, and the place where we store our picture cars is the swine building: In two months, it will be filled with pigs,” says Siebels. But for the original 13 episodes of the series, the park and five of the fair buildings belonged to the show.

When FOX’s extension of the season to 20 episodes didn’t leave enough time to shoot seven more shows before Fair Park became unavailable, the production wrapped episode 13, broke down and cleaned up, and took a six-week hiatus before resuming from new headquarters in downtown warehouses two miles away.

Some say Dallas works for the show’s retro feel because areas of the city still hold on to that ’70s look. The environs also make it possible to keep 15-20 locations per episode within a 30-mile radius whether the script calls for an urban or rural setting. When an episode had the heroes trapped in the back of a semi and hauled seven hours away for a rural shoot-out, nearby Ovilla, after a difficult search, served as the country setting.

With the help of the Dallas Film Commission and an “incredibly welcoming” city where permitting is often quick and congenial and real cops are not only friendly and helpful to the production but have even suggested shooting locations, Siebels says he hopes to keep Dallas neighborhoods and residents happy with The Good Guys’ presence because “we hope to continue here for years if we can.”

Hawaii Five-O characters at the beach

Scott Caan, Daniel Dae Kim, Alex O’Loughlin and Grace Park on a sun-drenched Hawaiian beach
for Hawaii Five-O premiering on CBS this fall.
Photo by: Mario Perez/CBS; ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Paradise Goes Contemporary for New Hawaii Five-0
For its fall line up, CBS has reimagined the iconic Hawaii Five-0 that aired from 1968-80 and pioneered location shooting for episodic television. Locations are once again integral to the look and feel of the new show which executive producer Peter M. Lenkov in Honolulu says is “visually definitely more contemporary; it’s fast, bold, sexy, compelling, all in the heart of paradise.”

Lenkov explains that “the writers are committed to telling stories within the environment of ‘real’ Hawaii∑whether it’s showcasing the picturesque and iconic locales of Oahu or a window into the underbelly of paradise that also does exist here, like any other metropolitan city. Hawaii is by no means a backdrop, rather an intricate tapestry of each character and the stories they tell.”

At press time, production had just gotten underway so much of the location shooting for the season remained. But Lenkov already gives kudos to “dedicated support from the City and County of Honolulu, the state offices, the CVBs (Convention and Visitors Bureaus) and the film commissioner∑you can imagine the excitement and endless potential to showcase far more than a soundstage, if anything, we have the most stunning, authentic, dynamic set imaginable: Hawaii!”

Alex O'Loughlin and Scott Caan

Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan, backed by island palms, star in a new take on the classic Hawaii Five-O.
Photo by: Mario Perez/CBS; ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the pilot, the Kualoa Ranch, which he says is a favorite of nearly every film and TV project in Hawaii, served as a Korean War zone. Its “majestic valley is so diverse,” he says. “I am quite certain we will return to Kualoa, although with a completely new context.” Honolulu Harbor served as an industrial port where villains came up against the Five-0 squad; the opening sequence spotlights “endless beauty shots of the west side of Oahu, stunning, absolutely stunning.”

While he admits to still be “discovering the production potential of Hawaii,” he reports that “Barber’s Point never ceases to amaze me. The military history, architecture, artifacts and airfields produce such a natural commanding environment so conducive to scenes” in the series.

Acording to Lenkov, location scouting and managing “go hand in hand while running back to back for each episode. The breakdown is about 40 percent for scouting and 60 percent for managing. Scripts are delivered on average five to eight days before production begins; each episode is shot in approximately eight days under the direction of varying directors, ADs and production designers. It’s a continuous and challenging process: Location stewardship makes all the difference.”

For a “destination show” like Hawaii Five-0, “it’s imperative to have a locally-based, creative and experienced location manager and team who know Hawaii, from the nooks and crannies to the golden ticket,” he points out. “It’s also about nurturing location relationships from previous scenes [and] episodes.”

December 7, 2012