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Around the Valley

Location Scout Seeks Out Magical in the Mundane

August 12, 2000|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLENDALE — The frozen-food section of a local grocery store isn't exactly the first place that leaps to mind when it comes to artistic inspiration.

But amid the Haagen-Dazs and TV dinners at Jons Supermarket on Glenoaks Boulevard, Tim Hillman is taking his best shot.

He aims his Pentax 35-millimeter camera at the drab linoleum aisle shadowed on either side by massive glass display coolers.

Reeling off a few frames at the intended target, Hillman snaps away from every corner of the store before pausing briefly to capture the image of smoked meats dangling from above the deli counter.

If all goes as planned, the store and its freezer aisle will provide the ideal backdrop for a three-minute scene in an upcoming New Line Cinema drama starring Al Pacino. Then again, maybe not.

Filmmakers can be as finicky as they are creative. And when scouting a location, experience teaches it pays to cover all your bases.

"The director is looking for that one shot," said Hillman, who will visit 15 or more grocery stores before making a final selection for the three-minute scene. "I try and shoot everything because the director can see things other people can't."

Hillman, 44, knows all about it. For the past decade, he has been a Hollywood location manager and scout for such films as "Scream 2," "Feeling Minnesota," and 1999's "Magnolia."

For every hour of images that flicker across the silver screen, it's a good bet Hillman and his assistants have spent hundreds of hours on the ground working to make it all come together.

Keeping His Eyes Wide Open

A native of Sandwich, Mass., Hillman often can be found in his Blue Ford Explorer with his essentials: a camera, cellular phone, day planner and the first weathered Thomas Guide he bought when he moved to Los Angeles in 1990.

To choose the 18 to 50 locations for a typical feature film, creative thinking is required as a matter of course, he says. And as he cruises local streets and freeways--his eyes are always peeled for the next cinematographic gem.

"In Los Angeles, it's very, very hard to find a spot that hasn't been filmed at least once," Hillman says. That means taking the standard location and turning it into something completely different.

In the 1996 film "Most Wanted," for example, Hillman needed to come up with the location for a library.

After scouting the downtown Central Library, the main library at USC, and the Pasadena library, he said a light went off in his head.

"I just looked at the rooms and eliminated the books and thought of other spaces those books could be in," said Hillman. "The first thing I thought of was the old ticketing area at Union Station." The crew filled the area with books and presto, they had a library.

Later, for the same film, Hillman needed water-filled tunnels for a scene depicting the sewers underneath the streets of Los Angeles.

During a trip to the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Center in Van Nuys for its Japanese Garden, he noticed tunnels that were perfect for the sewer scene.

Indeed, a star can be born in the most ordinary locations.

Want the feel of New England with Cape Cod-style houses and deciduous trees without jumping on a plane? Plenty of houses in neighborhoods south of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City fit the bill.

A cheap alternative to transplanting cast and crew to the Serengeti? Put a few huts and lions among the tall grasses and trees in the sandy flood-control basin at Hansen Dam in Lake View Terrace.

In fact, before filming begins on his latest project, Hillman will have scouted hundreds of potential sites across the Valley and Los Angeles, working 12 to 14 hours a day, shooting 12 to 14 rolls of film.

The images are collected and assembled in a book of photos that, depending on the number of locations, can be up to 15-20 pages thick.

And that's just for starters.

Hillman helps coordinate the "field trips" to set locations with the director, the set designer and others, including grips and electricians.

When filming finally begins, he goes from being a location scout to a location manager--getting permits from local police, fire, traffic and parking officials; crafting a budget for each film site; and making sure the necessities are there for the crew, including phone lines, catering, parking and restrooms.

Delicate Negotiations

For one film's opening sequence, in which the film crew set a small blaze in San Bernardino National Forest near Big Bear, Hillman had to appear at a special hearing before the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

"I've been in a maximum-security prison, a nuclear power plant, the bowels of a ship, the back of a strip club and in gorgeous mansions and churches all over the country," says Hillman.

Since 1990, he has worked on more than 30 projects, including feature films, movies of the week, television series and pilots. Most of his work is done in the Los Angeles area, but he has gone as far afield as Georgia, Minnesota, Iowa, Tennessee and Texas.

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