‘We made the Maldives from a hotel in Heathrow airport’: Hollywood location scouts reveal their secrets

Estimated read time 13 min read

The script called for a tree: a magical kind that looked like no tree on Earth. It would need to look like it had been standing for thousands of years. It would need to be in a wood full of dark twisty branches and dense canopies. It would need to seem like the place that a hardened nobleman might escape to for a moment of quiet. And Robert Boake knew just the one.

Boake had been working as a location scout in Northern Ireland for a few years, when in 2008 a producer sent him the script for the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. The producer “got me in my car exploring Ireland”, Boake explains, his excitement clear over the phone. “He said: ‘Go anywhere you want, and find me cool stuff and send it back to me.’ It was an unbelievable time of exploring and getting lost and photographing castles. There’s such an array of different looks. You’ve got Georgian stuff, Victorian stuff. You’ve got cliffs, you’ve got forests, you’ve got big open plains, big grasslands.”

Then there is the magical tree. Boake had come across it on a private estate outside Belfast while scouting for a different project (he won’t confirm the location, given the huge interest it has generated). In the series, the tree stands in a “Godswood” – a small wooded area described by George RR Martin as “a dark primal place” that “smelled of moist earth and decay”. “I stumbled upon this multi-limbed, beautiful tree,” Boake says. “The forest canopy was so thick it completely enclosed the space, making it feel really special. It felt so private and serene.” He thought: “Oh my God, that could be the Godswood.”

Tree of life … Games of Thrones’ Godswood, which is near Belfast.View image in fullscreen

Many components make up a film: a script, actors, costumes and a score, to name a few. Then there’s the biggest background player of them all, hiding in plain sight: the location. Classics such as Roman Holiday, Tokyo Story and Notting Hill have anchored place to film in the public imagination (others, such as Casablanca and An American in Paris, were actually filmed in Hollywood studios). Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy inspired thousands to jet off to New Zealand. Even the most unremarkable or unlovely scenes – depressing office, grotty toilet, dingy sex dungeon – have to be shot somewhere. (And even the most CGIed productions, or studio shoots, have to be inspired by real-world locales.) In every instance, there has been someone whose job it is to find that somewhere, jet-setting across continents or hopping on and off helicopters or taking to the streets and knocking on doors. That is the work of the location scout.

In recent years, however, spectacular locations have not only become a mainstay in major films, but also on TV. There’s the lush highlands and sandy deserts in Game of Thrones and House of the Dragon; the gilded beaches of The White Lotus; the many moneyed locales in Succession. In 2022, the battle between HBO’s House of the Dragon and Prime Video’s The Rings of Power – which both return this summer – seemed in part a race between who could produce the most expensive-looking series. “When I started in the industry [in the 2000s], scouting was very much just a secondary job,” says location manager Tom Howard. “It was a bit like: ‘Oh, you know, you’ve got to go off and find this thing. Can you do it in two days?” That changed when streaming companies got involved, ploughing millions into projects and making television a grander affair. “They upped the game,” Howard says.

How do people like Boake and Howard – whose job it is to find those forests, beaches and castles – do it? And is it the most delightful gig in the world? Speaking to scouts across the UK, I soon discover the work is more complicated and contested than one might think.

The highs of being a scout are high. For the James Bond film Spectre, Emma Pill spent weeks travelling across “pretty much every single mountaintop building” in Switzerland, France and Italy. Eventually she came across an architectural drawing of a soon-to-be-opened structure in Austria – the Ice Q restaurant – that would become the medical clinic where James Bond meets love interest Madeleine Swann. Georgette Turner searched for beaches across Europe for the live action Little Mermaid film. Emma Plimmer took Tom Cruise into Fawley power station in Hampshire; he would make a gravity-defying leap from it in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. Angus Ledgerwood helped negotiate with St Paul’s Cathedral to shut the venue down for an unprecedented four days so they could film Netflix drama The Diplomat (the longest it’s been closed for a filming project, he says).

Harriet Lawrence’s biography mentions her experience finding “the moon on Earth, the Maldives in Heathrow” (budget constraints means a scout’s job often involves “doubling” – seeing what place can stand in for another). How did she do it? “The moon ended up being a chalk quarry on the South Downs,” she says. “The Maldives was a hotel in Heathrow that had a swimming pool with palm trees all round it. With a bit of help from the lighting department, to give some scorching sunshine, we managed to cheat that one.” She is currently looking for a tree of her own, for an adaptation of a children’s book “where The One Tree is key to everything”. “My sister, who’s a forester, looks at me and goes: ‘You actually get paid to just go and photograph trees?’” she says cheerfully. “And I’m like: ‘Yeah, at the moment I do.’”

Spectre locationView image in fullscreen

The job not only calls for photography skills, knowledge of architectural periods and a remarkable mental roster of houses, woods, beaches and more (Lawrence, a colleague tells me, can identify a UK stately home just from a photo of its facade), but also a near-superhuman ability to juggle the ever-changing dynamics of a film set. Many scouts in the UK also work as location managers, meaning they don’t just look for picture-perfect destinations, but also manage the logistics of filming: securing permissions, organising parking, power sources and soothing disgruntled neighbours, to name a few. “When I got into it, people would go: ‘Oh, you’re the location department: you’ve got the worst hours and you’ve got the worst job,” says Tom Howard.

What may seem like a glamorous, high-flying job from the outside struggles with sufficient recognition from the inside. Some location managers tell me that their work is not widely recognised within the industry; that an endeavour as crucial to the look of a film as props, makeup and art design is still seen as a logistical add-on alongside toilets and catering. In the hierarchy of film credits, locations are often credited near the very end. Lauren York, CEO of UK Locations in Leeds, was struck by how location managers are usually “one of the first few people” to be brought on to a project, but unlike colleagues in casting and makeup, don’t get recognised in mainstream awards ceremonies. Struck by the “unfairness” of the situation, she set up a petition in 2022 to introduce a Bafta for locations, and it got more than 1,500 signatures in a month. The petition is peppered with comments saying, “About time!” The work can be exciting, but it can also be gruelling and thankless. And I soon discover that even the fun part – finding the actual place – can be extremely difficult.

It is one thing for scouts to tell me about their work, but to really understand it, I’m hoping to shadow a scout in person. It proves hard to pin one down. People are working on secretive projects, or they’re on the move, or they’re in between jobs and can’t confirm what comes next. I figure my best chance is with Salt, a location and production company with offices in London. I first speak to managing director Eugene Strange in early March. He’s at Heathrow airport, on his way to the Oscars for his work on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, feeling nervous and excited. When we catch up a few weeks later, Strange hopes to do some work in London very soon. “But I also might be in Dakota.”

“Dakota … America?”

“Yes.” Or possibly Bulgaria.

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Weeks pass, during which I witness first-hand the unpredictability of a location scout’s whereabouts. It seems like it’s not going to happen – Bulgaria calls – but then I get some texts: I’m not going to Bulgaria until Wednesday now. Let’s meet at Paddington Basin at 11.30 on Monday.

It’s a bright sunny morning in Paddington, west London, and we’re by the canal, watching office workers stroll by and houseboats bob about. Strange is scouting for a film set in what looks like a dystopian militarised future: all shiny brutalist blocks, splashes of reds and blues among swathes of grey. Today he’s looking for a backdrop to a scene that will feature an elongated, raised concrete slab, the kind that could slice a landscape in two in a wide shot. He’s here to scope out one such elevated concrete block: the Westway, a raised carriageway that stretches across west London. But the area here is too busy, making it difficult for filming. “You look around and you’ve got businesses, shops and people,” he says. We head to a quiet car park below, the Westway still looming overhead, and Strange goes into the reception of the building to explain that he’s a location scout. Otherwise, people can get freaked out about a lone man walking up and down their property, snapping photos on their phone from all imaginable angles.

Strange has been working on locations for more than 20 years, and it shows. He crosses roads, strides along tunnels and takes hidden and wayward turns with eagerness and confidence: “You have to be intrepid,” he says. Strange is a longstanding collaborator of Glazer’s. He helped find the Glasgow estate that was home to the director’s weirdly sublime television advertisement for Sony Bravia in 2006. They worked together for 2013’s Under the Skin, and began research on The Zone of Interest in 2018. The making of that film speaks to how locations can reinforce and even shape the artistic direction of a project. True to Glazer’s hope for the film not to feel locked in the 1940s – as he told the Observer, ‘This is not a film about the past. It’s trying to be about now” – Strange searched for places that were older but well-preserved, that “didn’t have this smoky, classic ‘period’ look to them”. One of the film’s most powerful moments – in which a scene of Rudolf Höss retching in a Nazi government building, which time-jumps to show modern-day Auschwitz, its employees vacuuming the hall – came out of locations negotiations, and was partly born out of necessity; the camp only allows crews in to film documentaries.

Today, in the car park, Strange is quietly hopeful. Although space is tighter down here – it would be harder to get that wide shot he’s after – he finds promise in the emptiness of the space, the eye-catching concrete accents, the newness of the structure. We walk up and down the basin, seeing if the Westway hangs over any other pedestrianised areas. When that proves unpromising, we hop in his car. It hits me that we’ve spent nearly two hours looking at a five-metre stretch of a dual carriageway: this job calls for sizeable reserves of patience.

Will location managers be given a starring role on the awards stage any time soon? Lauren York is still in negotiations with Bafta, but does not expect a quick win; a similar campaign launched by casting directors succeeded only after nine years. “I’m not giving up,” she says resolutely. Meanwhile, the future of the industry looks uncertain. The very phenomenon that has brought locations to the forefront of many productions is now coming to an end: the streaming bubble has burst. A recent Variety article declared that “Peak TV, after a decade-long run, is dead”. A survey of film and TV workers in February this year by the union Bectu found that 68% of people were not currently working, with 88% concerned about their financial security. “A huge amount of people have left,” location manager Georgette Turner tells me, “they’re calling it ‘survive 25’ because there’s nothing going on.” This insecurity is affecting the diversity of an industry that already struggles with adequate representation: a report by Channel 4 this May found that working-class representation in UK film and TV is at its lowest in a decade. There is also the threat of artificial intelligence. AI is already being used to help location scouts find destinations, but there are fears it could be used to digitally recreate sets and replace their work entirely. “I worry that the magic of the film industry will be lost if we stick to green screens and digital recreations,” says scout Ledgerwood. “The reality is there will be people who digitally create a film,” he says, “but there will also be productions where people just want to see real people and traditional film-making.”

The Zone of Interest’s chilling lake, as found by location scout Eugene StrangeView image in fullscreen

After all, there are so many vibrant and varied landscapes and looks to be found in the UK. Some scouts are loth to divulge too many secrets, but I learn a few. Liverpool is a common double for New York: the historic liner between the two cities led to many architectural similarities. Manchester is useful for police dramas and big redbrick warehouses for action sequences; Yorkshire’s manor houses attract period dramas. The wide-open quarries of the Peak District are great for doubling as anywhere. An off-the-cuff question about where one might go for, say, a “1950s kitchen” gets the impressively instant reply: “North Watford.” (Why? “Because I’ve done exactly that.”) London is more difficult: there are grumbles about parking, council permissions and general bureaucracy.

Back on the capital’s sunny streets, Strange and I are in his car, hard at work finding places that would suit a shiny robotic future. We’re chasing the trail of the Westway, looking for places where a film crew could get a ground-level shot of the raised carriageway. We pull into a large sports arena underneath the carriageway; funnily enough, a film crew is on the football field. It’s sprawling here, which means it’s easier to get the wide-angle shot Strange is looking for. But, as we stride through the grounds, exploring hidden corners and meandering walkways, flitting between rainbow graffiti and waist-high weeds, it is clear that the scene here doesn’t entirely match what Strange is seeking. It seems more like a city in decay than a highly efficient sci-fi dystopia. “You haven’t seen me really nail it today,” he says. Strange’s search for the perfect concrete slab continues – who knows where it will take him?

Source: theguardian.com

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