Interview: Angels & Demons and Secretariat Location Manager
2009 and 2010 have been insanely busy years for Location Manager and Scout Chris Baugh. He has worked on the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost film Paul, horse-racing drama Secretariat in Kentucky, The Other Guys in Las Vegas and monster-budget Angels & Demons, starring Tom Hanks, in LA and Italy. But in 1995 it was all different and he was regularly being thrown off movie lots by the very same guys he now works with:
“I'm a fourth-generation LA man, but I didn’t have the advantage of nepotism. I knew nobody in films! I used to sneak on to sets and got to know that you could always make friends with the LM as they are the first point of contact for the public. I got to know some great managers who are now friends and colleagues just by talking and being helpful. Tim Hillman threw me off my first set - a Dana Carvey movie called Clean Slate - and John Panzarella did the same."
Chris got his start on independent films when he was hired for The Doom Generation in 1995. After this experience he knew he wanted to be a Location Manager and so he wrote 300 speculative letters to get himself known in Hollywood:
“I got a tiny 2% response rate, but I developed those relationships until one of the guys, John Panzaerlla, hired me. We went on to do The Italian Job remake and I was fortunate to win a CoLA award (California on Location Award) in 2002 for the work that went into the armoured truck sequence on Hollywood Boulevard. Then it was the big league for me!”
Earlier this year Chris spent time in Kentucky working on Walt Disney and Mayhem’s true-life drama Secretariat, starring Diane Lane as a housewife who takes over a horse-racing stable and becomes the first Triple Crown winner for 25 years.
“I worked on Cameron Crowe’s Kentucky-set Elizabethtown in 2005 and learnt a lot about the state then. They needed someone with local knowledge. Kentucky, as well as being the centre of horse-racing in the US, is like a piece of living American history. There is so much natural beauty in the state it’s untrue.”
Chris scouted and location managed the film, negotiating with the famous Churchill Downs racecourse for an extended stay.
“We did lots of filming and Churchill Downs were incredibly helpful giving us full access, even though the course is home to some incredibly valuable stallions and was in the middle of the racing season. We were very demanding and it can’t be easy having a big crew in your territory for a long time, but David Sweazy, the General Manager, was amazing to us.”
When Chris found the track, he was amazed that so little needed changing to transport the locations back to the 1970s.
“There really wasn’t too much to change - just a bit of advertising and score boards. The architecture hasn’t changed. In fact, this was the case nearly everywhere in Kentucky. We used a lot of beautiful old farms for the film, with that classic Southern grand feel that has done so much to evoke the film.”
Chris found that negotiating for location use in Kentucky was very different to anywhere else he has worked in the US. He was keen to get access to the celebrated Darby Dan Farm, a blue-blood horse farm with outstanding pedigree in the racing and social worlds of Kentucky. Chris was sure the owner would not be interested in Hollywood money for its own sake:
“Obviously they don’t advertise and you need a proper social introduction to mix with this level of Kentucky society. We had to take the cultural structures there very seriously. We needed a proper introduction to the owner through trusted friends and then we had to meet formally and discuss the story and what we wanted to do. Luckily, after going through this very old-fashioned and genteel process, Darby Dan loved the story and we were made very welcome.”
One location from this shoot, a 300-year old cemetery in the small town of Pisgah, near Lexington, remains very special for Chris:
“We were so lucky to film at a place nearly as old as the United States. It was an incredibly atmospheric graveyard, with a background of rolling green hills. I scouted it and felt this was the place for the emotive scenes we needed. It had a special feel about the place and it worked beautifully.”
Chris also worked on Columbia Pictures’ The Other Guys, starring Will Ferrell, Eva Mendes and Mark Wahlberg, in Las Vegas:
“Oh wow! Yeh, The Strip! We actually got permission to close down the Strip! We diverted all traffic in the middle of the day! It’s amazing we got permission, but there is a new regime that is supporting film in Nevada that has made the place much easier to access. It goes to show just how the recent state incentive wars are helping crews. Everyone is so incredibly helpful now, whereas a few years ago that simply wouldn’t have been the case.”
One of the biggest gigs Chris has worked on recently was Ron Howard’s Dan Brown blockbuster adaptation Angels & Demons, a contract that lasted a full year. Because of subject matter that attracted the displeasure of the Roman Catholic Church, only two weeks of the shoot was actually spent in Italy. Instead the crew reconstructed a 20-acre set in LA at Hollywood Park racetrack - supposedly the largest set ever built - for the lion’s share of the movie:
“Alan Cameron, the Production Designer, made a three-quarter scale of much of Rome. It looked frighteningly like the real thing. We had a 300ft green screen so we could interchange different pieces of the various buildings and switch it for Piazza Navona, of a background of fountains.”
For the parts the set wouldn’t reach, Chris was tasked with building a database of every single piece of LA and surrounds that could be filmed to pass for modern-day Rome. The film is full of very short, fast cut scenes that needed Italian architecture in their backgrounds and they all needed to be within spitting distance of the massive set:
“I scouted for six solid months for all kinds of Italian architecture so we could shoot the short, frenetic scenes we needed in LA. I looked literally everywhere. I found little pieces of scenes at UCLA, Royce Hall concert hall, Long Beach and European St on the backlot of Universal, as well as tons of other places. If it looked at all Italian we grabbed it for the library and when we came to film we got away with a lot. I now have this ultimate database of Italian architecture in LA, if anyone’s interested. You can pay me in Euros.”
Images courtesy of the Kentucky Film Office & the Nevada Film Office.
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