And while the advancement of digital scouting and managing has ultimately been beneficial, it can test the limit of an already hardworking location team.
Location Manager Brian O’Neill (The Wedding Ringer) is a leader in his field. He’s currently working on the period film The Revenant, directed by Oscar-winner Alejandro González Iñárritu and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy. He was also nominated for a COLA Award for Location Professional and Location Team of the Year (Features) on the thriller The Perfect Guy. I caught up with O’Neill on location in Simi Valley to chat about the job of scouting and managing in California, and how new technology is changing the game for location professionals.
O’Neill got his start in the location business while living in New York City. “The short story is I met a guy at a bar,” O’Neill recalls. “The long story is I was trying to find my way into the film business through a friend of a friend’s cousin. I met a location manager at a bar in New York and he basically asked me if I wanted to scout, [which led to] ‘Alright, you start Monday.’ He sent me up to Harlem and I went door to door scouting for a 1940s New York period film, not having a clue what to do.” O’Neill soon found his way and now works and travels from his home base in California. “My wife is expecting our first child in a couple of months, and being on the road is going to be more difficult,” he says. “This is Hollywood, this is the epicenter of filmmaking. We should make the majority of the films here and, of course, there is always going to be a specific location we need to go to film [outside California].”
On The Perfect Guy, Director David M. Rosenthal wanted the city of Los Angeles to create a noir vibe, but finding the house where the majority of the film would be shot became a challenge of trial and error. “The main house is basically another character in the story,” O’Neill explains. “[Rosenthal] had this idea of the main character being trapped in a fishbowl. She was always vulnerable to the stalker in the movie. That made me suggest and lean towards a modern house where you have walls of glass. As it turned out, we found a mid-century modern house in Nichols Canyon in the Hollywood Hills.” The production also tackled a big car-crash sequence that ran incredibly smoothly at Griffith Park. “We had to close some roads up there, which gave us the flexibility and the freedom to [achieve] the stunt that the director envisioned. Griffith Park is great because it’s so affordable. L.A. Parks and Recreation are always so supportive of the film industry. They let us remove some fallen dead trees and change the landscape a bit to get the shot and to safely let a stuntman drive a car off of a cliff.”
O’Neill’s job on The Revenant created a different set of challenges, due to the film’s period setting. The story takes place in 1810–1820, so the production needed open land without power lines or cell phone towers — but this locale can create a communication problem. “I’ve been dealing with trying to find the Internet in the middle of this ranch in the middle of nowhere,” O’Neill admits. “Cell phone and Internet access has been the biggest bane of my existence. When I started, there was no Wi-Fi and the Internet was in its infancy; cell phones were still a dollar a minute. Now every trailer needs to have a hardwire line so the producers, director and actors could stream video. It’s really become a whole separate job in and of itself. We have to bring in mobiles of everything. It’s more of an art than a science. It’s tricky to bring a signal where there is no signal. Those who employ us really don’t care about how we do it. ‘Just get it done.’”
While the technology boom has spawned smartphones and Google Earth to make our lives easier, O’Neill remembers the day when you had to hop into your car and drive out to a location to photograph it. “When scouts were shooting on film, there was a scouting process,” he notes. “You go out all day with your camera and your film and then you go to the lab, [and producers and directors] knew they weren’t seeing anything till the next morning…. We spent all night taping photos together and putting folders together to get the 9 a.m. presentation ready. Now, when you’re out scouting they want to see pictures by 7 p.m. or 5 p.m. [that day] or sometimes even sooner. They want us to get to a location and take photos with our iPhones and email or text it to them immediately. That’s great in some ways, and in some ways it’s diluting the craft of scouting and location managing.”
Despite the adjustments to modern-day methods, one thing always stays the same in location game: the importance of having great people to aid the process. “I’m nothing without the team,” O’Neill says. “In some respects I’m the quarterback that just keeps them moving. They’re the ones actually doing the work. They’re there early in the morning, parking the trucks and then cleaning the set at the end of the night. On [The Prefect Guy] everyone was so fantastic, so much so that in the middle of this movie I left for a few days to go get married. I took a week of production off and left my guys with the hope that they would pull it through and, of course, they did. I have to give kudos to Patrick Mignano [American Sniper], a former winner of this award who stepped in for the week I was gone.”
The entertainment business is a crazy industry, and location professionals have always had very demanding jobs, so it’s impressive to see how veterans like O’Neill can keep their sanity. “Who says I’m keeping it?” he jokes. “Who says I still have it? Just ask my team. I personally have tried to find things away from work [to relieve stress]. A number of years ago I got into doing triathlons and marathons. That’s my time in the day. Even when I’m exhausted I get up and get out there, if even for a short run or bike. That’s my time to forget about the job and the stress. I can just focus on myself. And a little whiskey here and there doesn’t hurt.”