ON-LOCATION IN LOUISIANA
TRUE DETECTIVE Assistant Location Manager, Mark Welch, talks about the challenges of filming on-location in the wilds of Southern Louisiana.
Did you have any idea how good this show was going to be when you were working on it?
As with all projects you work on, you wonder, “Will this be as good as it's reading?” Or will it be better than it's reading?” For this particular project, we got all the episodes up at the beginning and I did feel this was going to be real good. It was well written and obviously there was tremendous talent attached to it. So in the beginning, there was a bunch of hype and you're excited, then you just get into work mode and it's a ball that just does not stop rolling once it starts. It just becomes a job.
You touched on something there that I was wondering: you said you actually got all the scripts at once, in the beginning. So was it approached like an 8- hour feature, basically?
Yes. There was a complete 8-episode script and for the most part it was all scouted before we started shooting. Of course, there were lots of script changes throughout that included shifts in locations and that had us scrambling a bit during the shooting. But yes, it was shot as a feature. One director, one 1st AD, we had two second AD's who did odd/even episodes. Normally on an episodic you have multiple directors and two teams of AD's and locations doing odd/even episodes. Once we got rolling, it was the production designer (Alex Digerlando) and the scouts that would go out and pick the locations. There were many times when we were tech scouting the day before, before or after call time. A lot of running and gunning.
How many weeks did you get to prep? And was it shot in order?
For the most part we shot it in order and we had much more prep than normal. We had two location scouts on for almost six months before I even started the project. And I started about 4-6 weeks out. By the time we started shooting, I’d say we probably had the first two months of principal photography laid out and ready.
Where exactly is the setting for the series?
The fictional towns are Erath and Pelican Island, there really aren't any real specific locales, per se. Just kind of general southern Louisiana. The CID headquarters is supposed to be in Lafayette, but it's actually just over the border of Orleans Parish in a commercial/industrial complex in Elmwood, LA.
Wait, is it the place just north of the Huey P Long Bridge?
Yeah. That’s the one.
I knew it! I scouted that place as a stage and office for 12 Years a Slave. When I saw it in True Detective, I was like, could it be the same?
Yes, it was indeed the same. But they used it as their production office and stage and we used the whole thing for sets. The office part of the complex is our CID headquarters and interrogation room and the warehouse portion of it is where we built interior cover sets like the mobile phone store and a couple bedroom sets. So when it rained or we had bad weather, we shot there. We called it “the stage” but we really didn’t have a stage. We were on location all the time.
So where else did you shoot?
We filmed the show in areas within a 45-mile radius of New Orleans. And for those vast swampy exteriors we went quite a ways out of the city, mainly south. That neighborhood you see right after the opening scene of the series with the dead body in the cane field? That was about 30-40 minutes south of New Orleans. It's just a little fishing community. Driving through it, you just say, "wow, this is a really weird spot" and like, these people must be crazy to live here but the people that do in fact live there, well it's just a way of life for generation and generations, and they are some of the greatest people you'll ever meet. Very true folks, dedicated to their way of life. We also shot a lot in the Bonne Carre Spillway. We did a lot of driving shots there; we built that burned down church in there, too. Many of those distant shots of the refineries are shot down in the Spillway. Can’t get too close to the refineries, though. Homeland Security is all over the place and they don’t care what or who you are.
The overall aesthetic is one of desolation and desperation. Are the areas outside New Orleans as vast and stark as we see on screen?
Yes, it is as vast and desolate as it seems. Perhaps a little exaggerated but it’s the overall general feel of the area and the landscape.
The opening scene had cane fields on fire and the dead body of Dora Lange up against that lone tree out in that cane field. It’s such a memorable and compelling scene. Where did you shoot that and what was going on?
That scene was actually shot at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, LA. Burning the cane fields is a common occurrence down here. After harvest, they burn the fields to the ground, back to dirt and start again the next season. We had to buy a plot of cane and told them not to cut it. Then we had their head groundskeeper help us to burn for the scene. We controlled it.
Once principal photography started, how many shooting days were there?
Can't remember the exact number but we started at the end of January and ended in mid- July. We had a hiatus for a week in mid-March. So it was a long, six month shoot. Lots of twelve, fourteen, and sixteen hour days.
Let's talk logistics. About this particular show but also in general about what it means to shoot during the different seasons in a place like Louisiana. From January to July, how did it change for production?
January- Feb, it's cold here. At each location, we have to provide heaters and warming tents. There’s also lots of rain during those months and many of our locations were in fields and swamps. And since everywhere is you go is pretty much below sea level, well, you can imagine... Because of all the mud, we had to build lots of access roads and put track or steel plating down just to get our equipment trucks and picture cars into some of our locations. The Revival Tent location and The Ranch locations were shot during those cold rainy months. The Revival Tent was shot in a field that had cows in it. We had to relocate about 150-180 heads of cattle, then we erected this large huge tent and we probably had a week of rain before that. So we had about four tractors standing by to pull out every vehicle that was in there just setting the tent up. That was a place we had to put in steel plating in order to cross a culvert that was full of water. When the company came to shoot, it was a muddy mess and we tore it up. Probably one hundred extras. I remember watching a couple of extras just break down on sixteen- hour day, their cars stuck in the mud. There was a grown man just about brought to tears saying' "I just want to go home." March and April the weather is absolutely perfect. Then it hits you. About mid-May. The heat and humidity can become unbearable. The bugs are bad and in the remote areas where we were shooting in, which was quite a bit, we were dealing with not only bugs, but poisonous snakes, water moccasins and alligators. There were multiple locations where we had animal wranglers removing all kinds of things. The critters were definitely a big factor.
Which locations did you have to pull alligators out of?
The alligators were at the LeDoux meth shack location. We also had some alligators at the final location. Snakes too. Snakes and alligators kind of go hand in hand. You gotta remember it's all swamp down here.
Please tell me that LeDoux Meth Shack was built and did not actually exist in real life. That was one creepy location.
It was built. And we shot in on one of those extremely hot, humid days. Everyone on the crew of was wearing bug netting, head-to-toe.
Any other locations particularly memorable or challenging?
Well they all are in their own right. But the housing project stands out.
I'm so glad you brought that up. That was the location of the much talked about "six minute one shot" that went house to house in an incredibly intense and violent scene in episode 5. Can you talk about that?
The It was in a housing project in Westwego, which is on the West Bank, across the Mississippi from New Orleans. The Westwego Housing Authority worked with us and in the end, we only had to relocate the residents of the three houses, but really, the whole complex got involved. We asked people to leave porch lights on, have extras on their doorsteps and we opened it up to allow some of the folks to be extras in the scene, which a lot of them did. The Housing Authority didn’t allow us to pay anyone, officially. But let’s just say everyone in the complex came out okay. Anyway, we shot the scene over the course of two nights. As you probably know, it was shot with a steady cam—one man with a camera strapped to his chest, following the actors as they move through the entire scene. At the end of the scene, the actors have to climb a fence and if you remember, the camera captures this all in one incredibly smooth motion. The camera operator stepped on to a crane that lifted him over the fence, into another Parrish, mind you, and continued running with actors across lawns and into Hart’s car. First night, we just stuck to running the six-minute shot, probably did it ten to twelve times. Then on the second night, went back for coverage. We had lots of cops, lots of road closures, lots of cooperation from lots of people to accomplish this shot.
Mark, thanks for talking to me about your work on True Detective. I hope you’re keeping busy down there in New Orleans.
Yes, we’re keeping real busy with production down here. Non-stop.
TRUE DETECTIVE - Is Location the most mysterious character of all?
Thinking about True Detective has just about hit obsession level for me. I find myself drifting off into that strange world when in line at the grocery store or cleaning the bathroom. I’ve called on friends and family (and strangers, too) to discuss their theories and ideas about the Yellow King. If they haven’t yet seen the show, I implore them to do so. I just can’t stop dissecting Hart and Cohle—their inner lives, their quirks, the things they say versus the things they do.
But as much as I want to solve the puzzle of these two men and the murder of Dora Lange, I am as eager to find out where this show is going. Literally. Where will they take us next? The location(s) in True Detective have struck me as just as intriguing a character as Hart and Cohle. Drive ten miles in any direction out of New Orleans and what we see on screen in TD is what you actually get—miles of stark flatness, sugar cane and swamp, oil refineries and clapboard churches, abject poverty, roadside booze joints and clumps of live oak trees in the most curious places. As someone who lived in that place (or very nearby it in New Orleans proper), I took to wandering quite a bit both for work and for pleasure. The southern Louisiana landscape is so utterly unlike anyplace I had ever been, a unique part of America that is as incomparable as it is incomprehensible, to an outsider, at least. Who are the people living in this desolate, often desperate landscape, and what are they made of? After two years there, I still couldn’t put my finger on it. This, I know, is part of the reason that I love True Detective so much. Its “place” is as mystifying as the plot itself. Episode 6 is tonight. Ironically, there was a time when I couldn't wait to get out. Now, I can't wait to be transported back…at least for a little while.
A few shots from my wandering in Louisiana (click on image to see all).
EVERYWHERE IS HERE
A Profile of one of New York's Top Scouts 2/10/14
Zoran Blazevic may be in the heart of Brooklyn, but his mind is in another place—a major city that is two hundred miles south. “See these?” he says with an accent thick with Croatia’s interior. He hands me his Blackberry and I scroll down, studying a variety of colorful row houses and buildings. “They are in Baltimore but I will find them here.”
Blazevic shifts his rental car into gear and we weave through a dense grid of streets slowing down in front of a long row of two-family houses in Crown Heights. “This is her first choice so far,” he says, referring to the movie’s production designer, who has seen pictures already. He’s working on a film with Forest Whitaker Jennifer Hudson that is based on Langston Hughe’s gospel musical retelling of the Bible’s nativity story.
“But it is only my second day scouting. I can find better,” he says.
It is a confidence exuded not out of arrogance, but out of a pure, hard-earned knowledge gained over two decades of combing the five boroughs for everywhere but here. If you can imagine a place, any place in the world, Blazevic will find it in the five boroughs.
Ever since Mr. Blazevic moved to New York City in 1991 (from what was then still Yugoslavia), he’s made a career out of finding unique venues for movies and television shows. He’s scouted an impressively diverse number of places —from crack dens to penthouses, underground tunnels to elevated roadways, ballrooms to beaches—and he is a first call for many top production designers and location managers when it comes to needing that hard to find gem. His reputation stems from his vast knowledge of the city and its incredibly malleable look. “I’ve been hired to find Pacific Palisades, Hollywood, Roman piazzas, Malian deserts, South America,” he says and waves his hand in the air. “Everywhere. It is here.”
We get back into the car and we’re off again. “Let’s go over to this other street. In my mind, it’s good but it might be too up,” he says. Within minutes we are parked alongside a line of limestone, two-story row houses on a street that would be quiet if not for nearby Flatbush Avenue and it’s constant whoosh of traffic a block away. He dials a number and speaks with someone he spoke with only once two years ago. “I scouted it for Pan Am,” he says, waiting for an answer. The woman on the phone remembers him and of course he can go in and take updated pictures of her home. Her son is there, she says, he’ll let us in. Thirty seconds later we’re led inside by a teenage boy and Blazevic the scout, starts clicking pictures of the wood-paneled interior that opens up into a kitchen and a spacious living room. It is quiet except for his buzzing lens and gurgling tank of fish. When I ask him later if it’s always so easy to get into people’s houses, he says “surprisingly, yes.” Perhaps it has something to do with the illusion of Hollywood, some romantic idea of being in the movies, of being famous. Or maybe it’s just about the money offered if your place is chosen. Either way, when the proverbial “Hollywood comes knocking” people most often respond positively and immediately. When we step back outside, he says he likes the reverse, the other side of the street, that is, which has a completely different look— brick rows, with red metal awnings. “It’s different. It’s says something about the people who live here.” To Blazevic, everyone is a character, no matter where they live, and he is sure to take note. There is great potential all around us, he says—some movie director, at some point, may have this exact vision. And Zoran will know where to find it.
He leaves a few more business flyers inside neighboring mailboxes, just in case he needs a back up, and we get back into the car, off to another street on the south side of Prospect Park that might work, then to a coffee shop for some caffeine.
While warming up with a cup of coffee at a popular but non-descript corporate coffee house on Bedford Avenue, I ask him if there’s one location that’s left a lasting impression on him. He does not hesitate in his response. “ I was in the penthouse apartment of Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi billionaire arms dealer. It was in the Olympic Tower in midtown Manhattan. I did not know at the time it was his place but I remember thinking, whoever lives here sure left in a hurry.” He goes on to describe a palatial duplex apartment, over ten thousand square feet with views to Connecticut and the Atlantic Ocean, an indoor swimming pool, pure gold doorknobs and half-emptied closets and men’s clothing strewn everywhere. “It really is incredible, this city,” Blazevic says, staring past my shoulder, into the great beyond of Brooklyn, perhaps thinking about the next place, or doing what he does reflexively—mentally filing through all the places he’s seen. Or maybe he was imagining what he has not yet scouted, an entire new and unique world waiting to be discovered down a thousand side streets and behind the millions of doors of strangers.
“Come on, let’s go,” he says and we’re out the door and back in the car. If there’s one thing about Blazevic, he’s always on the move, in search of one thing or another. And today, he’s got to get back to Baltimore.
WHAT IT'S LIKE 2/6/14
Ah, the smells of production on a cold winter morning: freeze, diesel, bacon, coffee. And the sights and sounds: vapory conversations, collective smiles when a hot plate of food is handed through the sliding glass window of a catering truck, the clanking of mobile heaters, hamper wheels crackling over ice and salt, a generator buzzing. Desperate glances at the long line of campers--those lucky bastards. Then there's the rest of us standing out in the deep freeze, mostly comparing our cold weather gear. From layered cotton to Everest expedition quality stuff. And in between set-ups, we find a warm place, maybe in the holding area or the back of a grip truck or the honey wagon or a nearby deli. But really, the teamsters and their warm vans are the saviors. And the wardrobe people and their truck full of warm clothes, that they'll let you borrow if you ask, cuz they're not about to let you freeze. And the craft service people providing a hot pot of soup at just the right time. They are among the unsung heroes of production, especially during winter shoots…and we need saviors on days like today.
SNOW? SHOOT! (1/25/14)
My feeling is, if it's going to be cold, it might as well snow. As long as I'm not on a job when it does. Although it rarely works out that way. I'm a freelancer and I work when the work comes and despite the bitter temperatures, I am thankful when I'm earning a paycheck in the slow winter months of movie production. Snow can cause lots of logistical issues for a production during principal photography, even if the scenes in the movie call for it. Many years ago, I worked as a location assistant on a Paul Newman movie called Nobody's Fool. Most of the story was scripted for a sleepy upstate town in winter. We expected snow. We wanted snow. And boy, did we get it in bounds. Mother Nature dumped several inches of it every night for almost a month. This was great for building up my shoulders and arms because there was rarely a day that I wasn't hauling around 30lb bags of salt everywhere I went. Of course, the snow was also great for the overall look and feel of the movie. But because nothing can be used as/is on a major motion picture, our special effects guys had to add and remove snow as needed for the perfect look. No biggie, that's what the special effects guys were hired to do anyway. It was off-camera where the real challenges came. With so much snow coming down so consistently, we put the local snow plow guys on-call 24 hours a day. We had them on a hefty retainer and with that, we expected them to make us their first priority, ahead of the parking lots for the local shopping centers and schools (which created a minor scandal in that small town), and to clear the streets we needed for filming, but more importantly, to clear the streets and parking areas so that our dozens of equipment trucks and campers could park. If the trucks can't park and the crew can't get there, we can't shoot. Off camera snow became just as important as on camera snow. In the case of Changing Lanes, a story set in New York City in the early spring, we were shooting in the dead of winter. Principal photography took place December through February.Production was taking a risk: winters in the Northeast can be brutal. We did our due diligence, put private snow plows on retainer (to plow city the streets we needed, when we needed it. It required special permissions from the City but that was the least of our worries. Our parking coordinator prepared his guys, the ones with the orange cones on top of their cars and in their trunks at the ready. The big one came in the form of a Nor'easter and dumped over a foot of snow on New Years Eve. Our first day of shooting (after a two week hiatus) was on Jan 2 and it was an exterior in TriBeca. Guess where we, the location department and set dressers, spent New Years day overcoming our hangovers? On two square blocks of TriBeca removing every speck of snow from the streets and sidewalks, windows, doorways, steps and tree limbs. And while we knocked on doors and made nice with every apartment owner in sight, asking permission to put set dressers with blowtorches on their window sills, the parking guys had the job of literally shoveling out about one hundred cars whose owners argued that regardless of our permit that required them to move, an NYC snow emergency trumped it. We got it done and when the crew showed up the next day, with trucks parked and the hero location spotless and ready, they couldn't believe their eyes. Some called it surreal. While the rest of the city was still choked and paralyzed with snow, our little section of TriBeca was completely snow- free. And that is what is called "movie magic."
WORLDS COLLIDE 1/18/14
A venue booking snafu had "Inside Stories" and "Bare" coming together on stage at Sidewalk Cafe on Friday night (1/17/14). And what a show it was. I'd like to thank Jefferson Bites and his crew for graciously sharing the stage with us and adding some serious sass to the evening. Our shows are so different but the hybrid, at least for that one enchanted evening (it was Jefferson's birthday after all), somehow worked. How fortuitous to have the chance to meet so many veterans of the storytelling scene in NYC. The stories from both shows were thoughtful, hilarious, outrageous...truly, a memorable evening.