Hollywood Jobs: Leslie Thorson, Location Manager

When you’re scouting, if you see something you like, you just knock on someone’s door and say, “Hey your house is cool, let me come inside and take a bunch of pictures!” Are people in LA really that trusting?  I would probably report you to the FBI or something.
You know, I’m surprised more people don’t ask me for ID, come to think of it.  One time I scouted house in Simi Valley. We were looking for a very type of family home, something Mid-west/mid-America looking.  I ended up in Simi Valley, knocking on this woman’s door. She was very suspicious, and wanted to see my ID. So I showed her my driver’s license and my union card.  She ended up being lovely, actually.

There’s some houses we stay away from, ones that are excessively gated, or have a lot of security or big huge hedges. We avoid anything too uninviting.  Unless we’re going for something a mad recluse would live in.  Obviously people who live like that value their privacy more than our little location fees.

Are you typically just working on one film at a time?  Or do you juggle multiple shoots at once?
Yes, only one film at a time!  I can’t imagine doing more.  The hours, the amount of commitment.  You have to be be part of that process being to end.  “Production owns my soul,” I always say.

How would you describe what your job means to you?
Essentially we are the bridge between real world and production world.  Remember, this is a real location where real people have lives.  And they aren’t always that interested in what we do.  We have to turn that location into a movie set.  We have to protect the crew.  They are there to work, to do a hard job. The Location Director’s job is to create a safe environment.

That’s what makes the location job unique.  We are the one department on a film shoot that has to deal with “real” people. All the other departments deal with vendors, suppliers who serve production, who are used to dealing with “film people”. We deal with regular people: Property owners, city officials, police, business owners, people like that.

Years ago, my mother lived in a house outside of Houston that was used for the beginning of the 1973 movie “The Thief Who Came To Dinner.”  To this day, she is still gets excited as a teenager about the fact that her kitchen is in a movie with Steve McQueen.  “Oh Steve McQueen touched my stove!” Oh Steve McQueen stood next to where I used to wash the potatoes!!” In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s more excited about the Steve McQueen than anything I’ve ever done, come to think of it.
Yes, some people really do get excited about being part of something like that.

I think I’m not alone in saying that the location work in LA Confidential is nothing short of amazing. Major critics have pointed out that the locations are as important as the characters as in the film.
The irony is, that’s one of my most miserable experiences!! [laughing] Which goes to show you – a movie that is lots and lots of fun can be forgettable in the long run.  You just never know.

You’re kidding.
We were very shorthanded and had a lot of detailed work to do.  I was exhausted.    We had a great art department, who did a lot of research on every little detail.   We had a category called “Anachronism Removal.”  Our job was to remove anything that wasn’t true to the time period.  We had a truck that drove around with us to change out streetlights because the signals were different back then.   They didn’t have red curbs back then or double yellow traffic lines on the street.  And the city wouldn’t let us paint over things like that.  So we had to cover them.  We had to put down special tape and then paint the tape to match the street. And there was lots and lots of traffic control issues.  Every location had to be gone over with a fine toothed comb to see what had to be changed. Little things that you don’t always think of had to be corrected.  Security bars had to come off, because people didn’t have them on their homes and businesses back then.

Every time I drive by the Formosa Cafe, I’m amazed at how perfectly that location works in a period film like that.  I mean, there’s a Payless Shoes Store on that same block. I can’t imagine how you managed to get every detail so precise and still make it look perfect for the time period.
There’s a scene in that movie where Bud [Russell Crowe] pulls the Christmas lights and decorations off of the roof. That’s in North Long Beach.  I looked for a long time to find some post-war homes with no trees.  A lot of neighborhoods in LA have that post war housing, but a lot of the homes have been modified. They’ve added second stories, garages…things like that.  Plus, the trees are too big. The trees that would have been planted back then wouldn’t be that big yet.  So obviously we couldn’t have that.  I scouted a long time to find the perfect location, where the neighbors were cooperative, that didn’t have those huge trees and where we could shoot at night.That film had a lot of night shooting.  It was very grueling.

So you can’t just take some cool pictures and go “Here you go, Curtis Hanson! Have fun! I’ll be at the beach, dude!” ?
Oh no.  We’re there first and last throughout the entire production.  We are there for 16-17 hour days during shooting. We always have somebody on set.  We have to be there, all the time.  We can’t run the risk that something changes and we can’t adapt.  90% of the work is done ahead of time, sure.  But things come up. You have to be prepared for the unexpected at a moment’s notice. You have to be able to think of everything.

This job seems like it’s for someone who can look at the most beautiful, peaceful place in the world, and imagine all the horrible things that could happen.  Like if you went to Shangri La, you’d be like “Oh crap, there’s not enough power outlets.” You’re always living in a “Worst Case Scenario” type of mode, no?
I think that I’ve had to develop those skills over the years.  I worked in retail when I was younger.  When you work in retail, the customer is always right, but at some point you can step away and say “talk to my manager” or something.  That is not an option at all in Location.  You can’t ask the director or producer to step in for you. You have to solve all those problems on your own.

So if I’m some wealthy Beverly Hills housewife letting you film in some mansion one of my ex-husbands paid for, and you damage my imported Italian marble kitchen floor, you’re the one I get to yell at? You don’t send him some lackey or something?
Nope, it’s all me, or someone else on my team.  And anything gets damaged, we fix. We often do a video tape inventory before we shoot to be on the safe side, especially for the most pristine and/or expensive locations.

You just worked for Tom Hanks on his new movie Larry Crowne. What was that like?
Tom is really wonderful.  He will go and talk to the homeowners, like. “Hey this is a great house; you have great kids!” things like that.  That’s a big help sometimes.  Also, Tom works very fast.  We finished ahead of schedule. That was a fun film to work on.

The trailer is out now; there’s a lot of really hilarious looking shots with Tom driving around on a scooter.  I just saw a clip of him, with Julia Roberts driving next to him.
That was shot in Pasadena, actually, off of Orange Grove. We shot a lot of running scooter shots for that film.  Most of those were done in the Valley.

I always say that no matter how much you love your job, there’s always some aspect of it that is a major pain.  It’s the one thing about our jobs  we wish we could eliminate, because it’s such a major UGH.  For me, it’s proofreading.  I think it’s the Devil’s work.  So, what’s the “Ugh Factor” for you?
I don’t like doing budget revisions.  But I’m good at them.  I think the thing we wish we didn’t have to deal with is security.  It’s an insurance thing; we have to have security on all our shoots. They are there to make sure nothing happens. But it’s kind of a pain, with all the scheduling of personnel it requires.  Usually what we try to pick security company that we can trust that  has a security gaffer that does the scheduling for us.  As long as nothing goes missing and it’s all good.   Oh and I should probably tell you about the Port-A-Potty situation.

Oh no.  Do you really have to?
Yes.  Port-a-Potties are a special dread.   Over the years, crews have demanded flushable toilets. Not even for the construction crew can we get away with anything less.  They have to have water tanks, sinks to wash your hands, flush, etc.  But not everybody knows how to use them properly.  And sometimes there are  problems.

And they become YOUR problems, too?
Yes, it sure does.

I have a lot of friends that think if you’re working on a movie, you have all those famous people around and all  you have to do is get close to them them and get them to give you your “big break”.  Isn’t that how Hollywood works? What about me? I wrote this really cool script Tom Hanks would be awesome in…see, it involves him and a monkey and something with a spaceship, maybe. I haven’t worked that part out yet.  Can you just give him my script and tell him to make me famous?  Thanks.
Ha! Many of us have dreams and plans.  We’re screenwriters or budding producers or directors. We have aspirations, just like everyone else. But we can’t just voice them like that. We can’t push our way in. We’re there to do a job and be professional.  We can’t just sidle up to the stars and give them scripts or things like that  That’s just a major etiquette violation. It’s a good thing to be friends with your actors, sure.  If you develop a rapport, so much the better.   But if anybody gets the idea that you are even slightly “stalkerish,” you’ll find yourself working less and less (if at all) next time.

If there is someone out there either in film school or perhaps entertaining a career change and thinks that Port-A-Potty thing isn’t completely terrifying, what advice would  you like to give them?
It helps if you are balanced in your left and right brain.  There’s the artistic and logistic aspect to this job.  Plus, you need good people skills.  It helps if you like people and you like dealing with people.  That’s what you’re going to be dealing with the most.  And there’s egos….people who get paid a lot more than you do.  You have to treat them with all the delicacy at your command.  At the same time, you have these people who’s property you’ve rented, and you’re responsible to them.  You have to work really hard.  It can be long hours.

Also, you have to remember, you’re a behind the scenes person. Yes, you do speak to the director, the production manager.  But you’re looking for something that involves a lot of time shooting, being on set, around actors, you wont like it.

There are lots of jobs in Hollywood where if you scream and rant rave it gets you more, it does.  But not in Locations.  You have to be self-effacing, ego-free.  Don’t get your panties in a wad. You can’t get overly sensitive when you’re not invited to watch dailies or meetings that you should really be in on.  Even when they’re making big decisions or changes that you really need to give them input on.  You just have to go with it.

So if you like to scream and call people idiots, this really isn’t the profession for you?
Exactly. The location person never gets to throw a tantrum.  In the location department, if you scream, you’ll never get hired.

Share This Post:
    • ryan

      Great Article as always, Rebecca

    • Woodcider

      Excellent article! There so many names that scroll thru the credits, and you wonder what in the world do they do? This is a great series and I look forward to more.

    • Mockingbird

      Great article. It takes so many people to make the TV and movies we enjoy, and we never hear about most of them. So looking forward to this series.

    • CM Eastman

      Nicely done Leslie. Good to know one of our own gets to share what we really do in helping define the look of a project. Kudos.

    • Marino Pascal

      That was a fun interview. Thanks!

    • Vet Guy

      Outstanding and with insight from the writer and more importantly from Ms Thorson. Well done!