Written by James Peak on May 27, 2010. Posted in Interviews

Why Lori Loves California

Lori Balton’s address book is a who’s who of Hollywood production designers, producers, and directors. Amongst others she has location scouted for Spielberg, Scorsese, Bay, Redford, Mann, Darabont, Pakula and Tony Scott, on films including Charlie Wilson’s War, Memoirs of a Geisha, Seabiscuit, The Insider, 3:10 to Yuma, Dreamgirls, The Aviator and Heat. Recently she has been scouting for next year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in Hawaii.
Lori ‘s first love is California, and she is legendary in the trade as the go-to gal for discovering quirky locations within spitting distance of Hollywood. This speciality began to develop nearly 20 years ago, when she realised she needed to reinvent her career so it was compatible with the demands of motherhood:

“I have a rule to never be away for more than two weeks, as your kids change so much, so quickly. I didn’t want to miss that. So, although I have worked in loads of places, I have always focused on California.”

Lori insists that if you are filmmaking in California, you have nearly everything in-state.

“As well as everything you’d expect, there's a lot you wouldn’t, and this is where California can’t be beat. There are so many weird and wonderful places out there. Modern metropolises and small delta towns, splendidly weird locations like the goldrush-era town of Columbia, the bizarre obelisks of the Trona Pinnacles, and the salt-ravaged evaporating wetlands of the Salton Sea. Parts of California are achingly neglected and that often works on screen.”

Lori remembers working on Rob Reiner’s Ghosts of Mississippi. She had searched high and low for an elegantly-tumbledown southern
property, and was about to head down to Louisiana:

“I was driving through Sierra Madre at speed, when out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the most incredible property. I hit the brakes and knew that I'd found it. The exteriors of this dilapidated farmstead screamed deep south, and when Rob got to see it he elected to use the interiors as well, because it was just so southern, right there in California.”

Lori is also a big fan of The Quality Café in LA, which has become a very popular location used in Training Day, Old School, Se7en, Ghost World and Catch Me If You Can.

“It was this incredible old-fashioned diner just west of downtown LA. High ceilings, great light, and no trendiness or pretence about it at all. A beautiful, 40s/50s period working class café with this amazing patina of age, like a memory. It gets so much film work now that the owner had to close it as a café and just keeps it as a film location.”

Lori has a particular fondness for old, dilapidated locations. She remembers the Salton Sea, in the middle of the southern Californian desert, very fondly:

“It is a lake below sea level, a bird sanctuary and a very special place. It’s a kind of combo of utter peace and serenity and meth-labs. When I was working on Lemony Snicket I took a series of photos of Salton Sea that focussed on the parched, cracked dryness of the shore; the beautiful birds, the dead fish, the amazing light... whatever I could capture to evoke the mood of the place. Those textures became a real part of production designer Rick Heinrichs’ vision for the film, even though we didn’t shoot anywhere near it. Sometimes scouts contribute in ways we don’t understand at the time.”

Lori continues listing her favourite peculiar locations:

“Gosh, wow, then there is Salvation Mountain, a 150-foot tall paean to the Love of God, made from donated paint and local adobe clay. And Bombay Beach, a faded old holiday town right on the San Andreas fault, whose remains are gradually sinking into the Salton Sea. It’s just such a sad and beautiful place.”

Lori has developed such an expertise that she now has a working relationship with TV personality Huell Hauser, the presenter of California’s Gold:

"Huell is an amazing character. We have a mutual love of scouting, and rummaging around for little-known landmarks and oddities. We now tip each other off about brilliant places. He helped me find an old racetrack in Hemet, and I advised him on Japanese Gardens throughout the state, which I’d been scoping out for Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Lori’s all-time favourite memory of location scouting is when she managed to balance motherhood and the job:

“When my kid was in 4th grade, studying the state, my scouting coincided with her spring break. I hired her on a dollar a day to hand me fresh rolls of film. We drove the whole of California scouting county fairgrounds for Seabiscuit. It was a great trip, a rural idyll, which I was so lucky to share with my daughter.”

However, Lori’s job is not all bright sunshine and fresh air:

“People always tell me I have a glamorous job, but you have to go where the script dictates. That can mean grungy alleys, stepping over used condoms and dead rats. I carry mace, but in 20 years I only was threatened once, in an expensive neighborhood. I was using a long lens and this guy got out of his car and went berserk - maybe he thought I was paparazzi? I have never had a problem in the edgier communities. I have found people are happy and proud to show you their neighbourhood.”

What makes her good at what she does? Half the job, Lori opines, is finding great locations, but there are other factors involved:

“Trying to impart the feeling of the place, and getting others as excited as I am about them, in my photos. Detail shots interspersed with pans. If it’s, say, a jungle, what do the particular flowers and insects look like? How does sunlight change the environment? Those details are what translates locations to my clients, supplementing panoramas.”

Lori is trying to pass on her love of scouting to the next generation through her work with the Location Managers’ Guild of America (LMGA), of which she is currently President.

“It’s important for the LMGA to raise the awareness of what a Location Manager is, to get recognition for our craft. We have a variety of education and outreach programmes. When I was a kid I had no idea what I wanted to do, and the craft of location scouting is quite hidden, so I show kids that what we do is a great job, working with art and architecture, interesting people, and travel. What’s not to like?”

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