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It's a Living : THEIR MOTTO: Location Is Everything

January 02, 1994|LIBBY SLATE | Libby Slate is a frequent contributor to TV Times and Calendar

When is a hospital not a hospital?

When it's being used as a filming location for a TV show, of course. Then it might easily be transformed into a television station, as happened on an episode of ABC's "Matlock." Or, on Fox's "Melrose Place," it may become a marriage counselor's office or a hotel.

Part of a kitchen at Queen of Angels has even been turned into a permanent morgue set, with the appropriate doors, stainless-steel walls and gurneys. "We get a lot of demand for morgues; people die all the time on TV," notes Scott Osberg, executive vice president of Real to Reel, an agency that finds and represents hospitals as well as mansions, middle-class homes, warehouses and other location sites.

Finding the right building or area in which to film not only enhances a production's quality, but also can save producers thousands of dollars in set construction or rental fees. In prime-time television, that mission falls to program location managers and to such agencies as Osberg's.

The daytime soaps leave their studios rarely, but for a recent Catalina shoot for CBS' "The Bold and the Beautiful" the producers and director did the location scouting. It's a job that requires an artistic bent coupled with puzzle-solving abilities.

"Say someone asks for a police station," says Jim McCabe, location manager for most of ABC's recent "Columbo" films, one of which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. "Your initial response is to find a look-alike, not a real one--a real police station is not dramatic at all. You also need to ask: Is it in a big city? A small city? Is it upscale?"

Location managers are under the gun to find sites quickly. For each episode or TV movie, they receive a script and breakdown of the "practicals," industry jargon for non-studio locations. After consulting with the project's producer, director and production designer, they visit prospective sites and/or contact location agencies, in either case returning with photographs to be approved by that creative team.

Various factors determine which candidates are selected. Among them: asking price and filming suitability. Are the doors wide enough for the equipment? Can scenes be shot from more than one angle? Is the neighborhood noisy?

The style of the show is also considered. For "Columbo," McCabe says, star and executive producer Peter Falk "likes a certain look. Expensive. Columbo likes to cross swords with powerful, vain people. So Peter likes certain features about his locations: long hallways, big rooms and vistas, to give a big feel to it."

Similarly, NBC's new action-adventure series "Viper," which premieres Sunday, has posed a stylistic challenge for location manager Tony Saenz. The futuristic show stars Dorian Harewood as the disabled Julian Wilkes, who transforms a roadster into the high-tech, crime-fighting Viper. James McCaffrey plays Joe Astor, a former criminal reprogrammed to drive the vehicle. The show's producers favor what Saenz calls a "design" look, rather than nondescript settings.

The mezzanine of downtown Los Angeles' posh Rex restaurant, for instance, became a villain's office, while the classic Art Deco Bullock's-Wilshire building turned into a bad guy's lab. Rather than just an ordinary apartment for McCaffrey, Saenz found a streamlined Art Deco building in Silver Lake; Harewood lives in Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pasadena.

Saenz, who has two assistants because the show also does second-unit stunt filming, is most proud of the vacant building he spotted while driving through downtown Los Angeles. The former Sun Chemical building, which had never been tapped for location use, now functions inexpensively as the show's main set, the Metro Garage (initially called the Project Garage).

After places are chosen, location managers become more involved in the filming and scheduling, and take care of such business as obtaining contracts, filming permits and signed consents from residents and office-building tenants. They also arrange for cast and crew parking and hire police and fire personnel. When filming gets under way, they try to be on the set when the crew arrives and leaves, remaining throughout the day for difficult situations.

On neighborhood shoots, Saenz says, "We're the first people (residents) see. We have to have the wisdom of Solomon to try to keep everyone happy. And if the crew says something to the neighbors and a war starts, then we have to be Henry Kissinger."

Occasionally, a script will contain a scene impossible to film. By and large, Saenz says, "The writers' imaginations are big. Their job is to be creative. Mine is to make whatever they've written happen on camera."

"Viper" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC, then moves to its regular times lot, Fridays at 8 p.m. "Columbo" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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