Location wranglers prove proxy moxie

Finding essential places requires an open mind

It’s one of the great puzzles of production: How do location managers capture and believably convey one locale when shooting in another?

Sometimes that “other” can be a seemingly impossible stretch: Morocco subbing for New Mexico in “The Hills Have Eyes” or Romania’s Carpathian Mountains standing in for the hills of North Carolina in “Cold Mountain” or the posh L.A. suburb of San Marino masquerading as pre-World War II Japan in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

“I think of myself as a visual treasure hunter, trying to find that perfect location,” says Kayla Thames-Berge, current prexy of the Location Managers Guild of America.

Is it credible? Thames-Berge must ask that question of a specific location, as well as: Can we shoot it from angles that are believable? Is it logistically possible? And is it affordable?

The vision of the director and production designer is often what launches vet location manager Mike Fantasia in a certain direction.

In Los Angeles, he found locations for 12 out of the 15 cities needed for Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can.” For “Munich,” Budapest had to match eight other cities including New York, Paris and Rome, while Malta worked as Israel and other Mideast locales. “Because moves are expensive, you try to find hubs,” Fantasia says. “Malta and Budapest presented a whole series of locations.”

As Fantasia explains, although the production team on “Memoirs of a Geisha” scouted Japan, it became clear that shooting there would be unfeasible for numerous reasons. He describes the film’s California locations, like San Marino’s Japanese Garden on the grounds of the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, as a skeleton upon which Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre added layers to re-create Japan.

” ‘Memoirs of a Geisha,’ successfully transported you to a bygone time and place,” says Lori Balton, who served as a location scout on the pic.

Sometimes scouting gets otherworldly or at least convoluted: On “Superman Returns,” Balton had to match another planet; “The Island” had her looking for futuristic Los Angeles in Detroit; for “Dreamgirls,” she sought out Los Angeles spots to stand in for Detroit in the 1960s; an Altadena, Calif., manse oozing Southern charm became a key location for “Ghosts of Mississippi.”

“I’m not really looking for a thing,” Balton explains. “I’m looking for something that evokes; I’m looking for a feeling.”

That evocation of a bygone place was essential to helmer-thesp Andy Garcia’s “The Lost City,” set in Havana during the 1959 Cuban revolution. “Our script had very specific things I needed for the story: I needed a palace to attack, sugar cane and tobacco fields, pristine beaches, a club with art deco elements, and sub-tropical foliage and atmosphere,” Garcia explains.

Garcia opted to shoot in the Dominican Republic, where he could realistically duplicate Cuba’s island life and brilliant light. But the Dominican Republic not only had to stand in for Cuba but also Miami and New York.

“You have to know where to get the bang for the buck. You adapt, and sometimes the solutions are more interesting than the original idea,” Garcia asserts.

The key is to remain open-minded when researching locations, finding those essential pieces that will realize a filmmaker’s vision.

“Cheating another country is like cheating another city,” says Fantasia, adding, “that’s what location managers do — cheat.”

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