Flexible Filmography

I’m in the strange (and semi-sleepless) situation of having our apartment rented out for the day while a Ewan McGregor film is produced in our building. The industry of urban film location scouts seems particularly fascinating to me, I have to say; you put out some flyers in a certain neighborhood, say, asking for something really quite specific (in our case, south-facing windows on the fourth floor or higher) and I suppose you then just hope that someone in a specific building will respond or perhaps you just deal with what you get (and I wonder if there are films out there whose screenplays, or whole characters, were actually adapted based on location availability). But the idea that, out there somewhere, there is a little black book, or a huge three-ring binder, a whole mythic cabinet, full of hand-me-down insights about buildings and rooms and rooftops and halls and stairwells scattered throughout the city is amazing to me, a collection of first-hand urban research that architects would do very well to access and study. Advanced film location as an esoteric science of the city. Architects could rent these binders by the hour, interviewing film set installation professionals about the lived reality and emotional impact, the narrative demands and implications, of increasingly precise spatial parameters. Rooms with wall-to-wall carpet on the Upper West Side, with east-facing windows, are apparently perfect for divorcee clients… Meanwhile, location scouts drive lonely around the city, maps in hand, looking up through odd-angled windows at barely glimpsable pieces of punched tin ceilings, imagining the internal lives of yet-to-be-acted future characters. Taking notes. Filing photographs. Assembling a dossier on this unpredictable constellation of rooms, charting the human impact of the city to a degree that no other industry can ever quite have.

(Note: This is actually the first blog post I’ve written entirely on an iPhone, out for breakfast, typing very slowly with one finger… a method that seems to require more practice!)

9 thoughts on “Flexible Filmography”

  1. These binders do indeed exist. I've leafed through a vast collection of them in London (they are housed at the Tea Building in Shoreditch) while scouting for two films there. Utterly fascinating.

  2. My father is a Production Designer and I can tell you firsthand that the lengths he has to go to in order to find locations or build sets to perfectly suit what the director wants is ridiculous. I've seen the man work some of the longest hours possible and still have to wake up at 4 for a call time at some warehouse, or abandoned complex, or ghetto apartment. Naturally littered around the house are incredible stack and piles of different locations scouted and as a kid I loved looking through them. Ironically enough, his set designs and books and pictures, are what originally got me interested in Architecture. Now I'm in school for it and I couldn't be more thankful to him for having shown me his research. All I can say is the next time anyone watches a movie, really pay attention to the sets and locations, a lot of time and effort went into making that visual possible for you. Thanks.

  3. I do often see the same location used for different films – especially period films. I expect the buildings from some eras are more difficult to find than others.

    It must be exciting to see the interior of your apartment as an 'extra' though! I wonder if they'll change it much and your recognise it.

  4. As a filmmaker, I can tell you that I've definitely made significant changes to a script, or to a shotlist, based solely on location availability. I'm sure as the budget increases, however, location scouting bends more and more to the will of the director, and not the other way around.

  5. Geoff, hope you got a huge insurance rider (and fee) from the production company. As an art director, I never worked on a location where there wasn't damage of some sort after the filming wrapped. renting your house/apartment to a film crew is also a great way to piss off your neighbors

    those binders exist in most major filming centers and are fairly easy to access, just walk into the local film commission office.

    A location scout is one of the worst jobs on the set, longest hours, greatest stress. you really DON'T want that job.

  6. Jon Ronson on the Kubrick archive

    But this attention to detail becomes so amazingly evident and seemingly all-consuming in the later boxes, I begin to wonder whether it was worth it. In one portable cabin, for example, there are hundreds and hundreds of boxes related to Eyes Wide Shut, marked EWS – Portman Square, EWS – Kensington & Chelsea, etc, etc. I choose the one marked EWS – Islington because that's where I live. Inside are hundreds of photographs of doorways. The doorway of my local video shop, Century Video, is here, as is the doorway of my dry cleaner's, Spots Suede Services on Upper Street. Then, as I continue to flick through the photographs, I find, to my astonishment, pictures of the doorways of the houses in my own street. Handwritten at the top of these photographs are the words, "Hooker doorway?"

    "Huh," I think. So somebody within the Kubrick organisation (it was, in fact, his nephew) once walked up my street, on Kubrick's orders, hoping to find a suitable doorway for a hooker in Eyes Wide Shut. It is both an extremely interesting find and a bit of a kick in the teeth.

  7. I've been meaning to reply to these comments for weeks now; sorry to be absent from the thread, but these are amazing to read. I love that Kubrick anecdote.

    Dylan, I would love to see your father's notebooks, as well; you should figure out a way to put them online somehow, whether through a blog or even just a Flickr account. Fascinating stuff!

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