Scouting By Foot Effective For “(500) Days Of Summer”
Fox Searchlight Pictures
From the Bradbury Building to Grand Central Market to Angel’s Knoll, “(500) Days of Summer” can be seen as a location calling card for the city of Los Angeles. The wealth of sites was so impressive, that Location Manager Michael Chickey was recently bestowed the “Locations Professional of the Year – Features” honor at the 2009 COLA Awards.
After graduating San Francisco State with a major in Film Studies, Chickey was enticed by the idea of becoming a location scout.
"I thought it would be cool to be the guy looking for tropical waterfalls or desert beaches for movies set in the South Pacific, or up in the mountains with snow," said Chickey.
Although still longing to location scout in the South Pacific, Chickey specializes in Los Angeles and California. His begins his process by meeting with the Production Designer of the film, and if available, the director. Additionally, he will make several passes of the script himself.
"I usually try to read the script once, just to absorb it, and see if I like it without thinking much about the locations," said Chickey. "Naturally, if something pops up at me I’ll jot it down. Usually a few things come to mind after the first read. Then, I’ll go back and break it down per location. I’ll make lists of each location’s need. Each location has it’s own requirement based on aspects of what takes place there."
Because the locations tend to be no more than a simple sentence such as "Interior, house, Malibu," Chickey must also get a sense of the characters’ personalities.
"The greedy lawyer guy is going to have a big, fat, overbearing apartment," said Chickey." There usually aren’t many descriptions about the locations, so you need to read more into it."
Once Chickey acquires a list of locations and discusses them with the production designer, the next step is acquiring them by any means possible: through the aid of film commissions, working with realtors, through a personal directory, even by foot.
"I usually work more closely with the film commissions when we’re going outside of Los Angeles," said Chickey. Currently I’m working with Sheri Davis from Inland Empire and Pauline East from Antelope Valley because I’m scouting for a barren, down-on-it’s-luck sub-division of a stalled construction site adjacent to the desert. When you’re downtown, there is no film commission per say. Downtown is a lot of shoe leather. If I’m scouting for a house near Hancock Park, I like to take my bike out and knock on doors and leave letters to see if they’re interested. Yesterday I spent the whole day in the home office, I didn’t leave once." "(500) Days of Summer" is an example of a film that required a lot of downtown locations. Director Marc Webb and Production Designer Laura Fox had a working relationship that made finding and presenting locations an easier experience for Chickey.
"The director and the production designer not only worked together for years and had a really good working relationship, but the director really knew what look he wanted, so he didn’t vacillate at all," said Chickey. "When I brought him stuff he either liked it or he didn’t."
Having a clear vision of the types of locations the director preferred made selecting locations easier. "Getting good options that you can either afford or shoot at during the week, that’s where it gets tricky," said Chickey.
One tricky location that Chickey was able to acquire was the Grand Central Market area.
"We shot all over 4th and Main for a couple of days, and on a low budget movie that’s really tough," said Chickey. "That’s a block that you stay away from even in a medium budget TV show because it’s generally tough to film there. Richard Winn, who works for Gilmore Associates, made it work for us because they were so responsive to the script."
Chickey was also able to work with major business such as Amtrak and Ikea to allow filming on trains and in the showroom floors, respectively.
"Ikea was not challenging at all, they were so easy to work with," said Chickey. "We just had to shoot there on a Saturday night."
Certain locations that were found fit perfectly into the script, despite the lack of location detail, such as the park bench Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sits in to view his favorite architectural structures in Downtown Los Angeles.
"It was scripted as ‘Tom’s favorite place,’" said Chickey. Los Angeles is pretty flat, so there are only a certain number of places to go to for that sort of look. When I first read the script the Bradbury Building was the location that came to mind for me to stage that scene. When I first moved to LA I stumbled across that building and just through it would be a good place to stage the scene where he goes to sit on a bench and reflect on architecture."
Webb liked the idea of the Bradbury Building and this location appears in the film at the end of the movie. The site utilized for the downtown vista is called Angel’s Knoll.
Chickey feels that one of the biggest challenges for locations scouts in California today is finding locations that are willing to allow shooting.
"Only ten percent of any corporation will allow a film company to shoot on one of their properties," said Chickley."If your script calls for a lot of office buildings or business parks, hospitals, factories, freight container yards – big businesses don’t necessarily need our money, or care about allowing us access. I try to appeal to their altruistic side, telling them that they are doing it as a service to the local economy. They’re not doing it because they need to, they are doing it because they ought to."
The other big challenge for a location manager is the increasing complexity of obtaining permits, security, and other business elements necessary for utilizing a location.
"That’s another reason why I chose location management; job security," joked Chickey."An old boss of mine worked on ‘Tango and Cash,’ a big action 80’s movie, by herself. ‘Lethal Weapon’ had two or three people. Now, on ‘The Italian Job,’ I was one of fifteen people in the locations department. There’s more and more minutia, more red tape, more municipal hoops. There are over 80 different municipal divisions in the county of Los Angeles, and they all have different rules, regulations and requirements for filming."
Although a production like "(500) Days of Summer" does not require fifteen employees in the location department, Chickey does like to have at least two assistants.
"You need boots on the ground, because while I’m bouncing around looking at locations, you need somebody dedicated to taking care of the regulations," said Chickey. "I like to have two keys, and I will leap-frog them on different locations. We’ll have on set assistants handling preliminary stuff for future locations."
For more information about Michael Chickey, visit: www.michaelchickey.com