11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Location Scouts

Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

When regular people watch movies, they might focus on the plot, the dramatic dialogue, or the eye-popping sets. But when location scouts—the people whose job it is to find perfect filming sites—sit down for a film, all they see are logistics. Where did they shoot that? Who gave them access to that part of town? How did they shut down Times Square for that entirely empty shot in Vanilla Sky (2001)?

A location scout might spend an entire film typing out notes on their phone, only later realizing that the movie ended and they missed most of the actual plot. Mental Floss chatted with a couple of these professionals to learn more about their job—like just how many times they have to watch a film before they can enjoy it. (At least twice.)

1. THEY MIGHT START OUT IN CRAFT SERVICES.

Location scouts usually start their careers low in the production food chain. Audra Duval, a scout based in New York, has worked on film and TV projects such as The Greatest Showman (2017), The Knick, and The Blacklist, but she began her career as a unit production assistant, cleaning toilets and taking out garbage. "You never just jump into [being] a scout, or not that I've ever heard of," she says.

Lori Balton—who is based in Los Angeles and has been scouting for 30 years on dozens of major productions including A Wrinkle in Time (2018), The Young Pope, and Inception (2010)—began in craft services, cutting slices of cheesecake and pouring cups of coffee for members of the crew. "At the time I had a masters degree, so it was a humbling experience to be told how well I could cut cheesecake. You learn to smile, be grateful, and ask if they would like a cup of joe," she says.

2. THEY HELP EACH OTHER OUT.

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Once they work their way up the ladder, location scouts become part of a tight-knit group with its own resources. They join large group texts or private Google Groups just for location scouts. Duval says that when people get stuck, they send out specific requests: "'Hey guys, this is what we're looking for. Does anyone know where this is or a good area for me to start looking in?’"

And while they can tap fellow scouts, as well as friends, they also have access to location-scouting databases. The New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, maintains an online location library of possibilities, while the database Easy Locations, run by an independent producer, covers the LA area. Other websites, like LocationsHub.com (in which property owners share details about sites they have to offer) as well as real estate sites like StreetEasy, can also come in handy.

"A lot of the times it's cold scouting, where you just walk into a building by yourself and start knocking on random people's doors," Duval says. "Or you think of a place that you've filmed before, or some of your friends have filmed before, and just kind of go through the networking or resources that we have."

3. THEY PRACTICALLY LIVE IN THEIR CARS.

Scouting assignments come from a project’s director and production designer, who usually have an idea for what they want a location to look like based on what's written into the script—say, a condo in Queens that looks like it’s actually in Detroit. On bigger productions, they may even send over a very rough animation of what the set should end up looking like, called a previs. Scouts will start out by Googling the areas and looking at real estate websites from home, and then begin driving around. They may have months to explore if they're working on a movie, or just a few hours before shooting begins if it's a television show.

Either way, scouts pack their cars full of gear to help them take detailed notes and photographs, which then get relayed to the locations department. Duval always carries a notebook, phone, phone chargers, extra batteries for her phone, computers, a camera, and hard drives. "[It's] basically everything that I could live in my car with," she says. Balton carries multiple DSLR cameras and a tripod, which helps when shooting dark interiors by keeping everything stable and reducing blur.

4. THEY HAVE TO BE CREATIVE, BUT ALSO REALISTIC.

Bertrand Guay, AFP/Getty Images

Once a scout is in the field, they try to balance what the director and production designer have asked for with what's actually feasible. "Most scouts cast a pretty wide net looks-wise," Duval says.

That's because locations can often appear ideal but fall through logistically. There could be a sound issue—maybe airplanes frequently fly overhead. There could be a lighting issue: Maybe an environment looks completely different at night than during the day. There could be a transportation issue—maybe an elevator is out and the camera crew can’t lug equipment up 10 flights of stairs. That's why scouts always prepare a list of backup locations.

“You never know if you've found the perfect location, because so many people need to weigh in on it, for a wide variety of reasons,” Balton says. “But I do get a feeling of ‘this is perfect!' frequently. And almost as frequently I am incorrect and one of my lesser choices gets chosen.”

For example, while scouting the movie Noah (2014) for Darren Aronofsky, Balton was traveling through Iceland looking for landscapes that appeared prehistoric. But setting up a cast and crew in the middle of Iceland isn’t practical. “You need to be based around a city, even if it's a small town movie, especially for a big feature,” she told Condé Nast Traveler. "You need to have the big hotels that can accommodate you, the production houses, the rental cars. It's a difficult thing.” The cast ended up filming mostly in the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is near Reykjavik—as well as in several spots in New York City.

5. PERIOD PIECES CAN BE A CHALLENGE.

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While working on The Greatest Showman, which was set in the early 20th century, Duval dealt with a clash between architecture and fashion. “We had this great location, but the actress had to wear a hoop dress,” she says. “In the early 1900s they had tiny door frames because people were smaller. But this woman was in this huge dress and she couldn’t fit through the door.”

In the end, the wardrobe department had to get her a different dress. “You have to think about those tiny logistical things when you’re scouting,” Duval says.

6. THEY’RE PUBLIC RECORDS SLEUTHS.

In order to help “clear” a location for filming, scouts must collect contact information for property owners or managers, who need to sign contracts with the crew. Sometimes one person owns a building, while another owns the parking lot. To sort out who owns what, scouts search public record databases—such as ACRIS, the New York City Register’s system—which list owners of lots, blocks, and individual buildings. Local historic societies can also be useful in tracking down the necessary information. Duval says she'll also spend time researching records when she's working on period pieces and needs to know more about a certain time in history, and she'll sometimes contact local tax assessors for more information about specific properties. "I get into such deep holes of Google, it's crazy."

7. THEY DO A LOT OF WAITING.

After finding their ideal locations and figuring out who owns them, scouts have to get in touch with that individual. Residential property owners are usually at work during the day, so scouts “flyer” their doors. They leave a piece of paper that explains the project they’re working on and says they’re interested in the property. Then, they wait patiently for the owners to call them back. “We know we’re inconveniencing people in their everyday lives; we're not trying to be jerks,” Duval says.

8. NOT EVERYONE LOVES THEM.

Location scouts have to be especially diplomatic because they're the first people the outside world comes into contact with from the set. They have to build relationships with property owners, even ones who aren’t so friendly. Certain blocks in New York are notorious for having unfriendly residents, so scouts tend to avoid them. In addition, the New York mayor’s office regularly releases a list of “hot zones” where crews aren’t allowed to shoot that month because filming has been active there recently and the residents need a break from the cameras.

It's a similar situation in Los Angeles. Productions who want to film in the city must go through FilmLA, which is affiliated with the city government. Before being awarded a permit, FilmLA surveys residents and business owners to find out if there are any objections to the filming taking place [PDF]. If there are serious concerns, they won't grant a permit.

Of course, property owners who do allow in film crews are usually compensated for their time and trouble—perhaps $2500 for a one-day commercial shoot, and up to $10,000 for a movie, according to one location manager.

9. THEY DON’T OFTEN TRAVEL FAR.

iStock

Duval says she got into the field thinking she was going to travel a lot, but quickly realized how local the job is. Scouts in New York are limited to a 30-mile radius from Manhattan, which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. More specifically, it's 30 miles from Columbus Circle as the crow flies. Once production moves outside of “the zone,” as they call it, crew members have to start being paid more (a union rule). In Los Angeles, this 30-mile radius is often called the “studio zone” and it begins at the intersection of West Beverly and North La Cienega Boulevards.

Some location scouts with big studios, however, such as Balton, are sent to check out faraway locations. But that's not always as glamorous as it sounds. “Trust me, like anything else, international travel gets old really fast,” she says. “There is something indescribably wonderful about sleeping in your own bed. On a good many films, I virtually travel the world, and then the budget reality hits and we end up on a stage in Georgia.”

10. THEY LEARN THE STRANGEST THINGS.

Scouts don’t only look at apartments and office buildings; they’re also tasked with finding bridges, tunnels, and marble quarries. Before they know it, they’re well-versed in dimensional stone, panes of glass, and sconces.

“I’m a nerd at heart and love that my job takes me to unusual places where I learn fascinating, albeit generally useless, information,” Balton says. “When I scouted steam trains [in the UK] for [Tim Burton's upcoming live-action remake of] Dumbo, I learned that the train geeks refer to themselves as foamers, because they are literally rabid about anything to do with trains. ... Each job involves learning a new language, depending on what I’m looking for.”

11. THEY NEVER STOP SCOUTING.

Everyday hobbies take on new meaning when you're a location scout. Watching a movie becomes a different activity altogether: “If I know a friend or a friend-of-a-friend worked on it, I’ll text them, ‘hey, where did you shoot that?’” Duval says. Sometimes, it turns out to be a location she already knows, but one the production designer dressed up to look totally unrecognizable. This often happens with period pieces; for The Greatest Showman, the crew turned a little science center in Prospect Park into a 1900s-era hospital.

When scouts go out to eat at a cool restaurant, they grab a business card to reference later. But it’s funny, Duval says, because she can scout 20 bars in a week and then go blank when it comes to picking one to drink at Friday night. “I do that every year for my birthday,” she says. “It all merges in your brain.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”