Arts + Culture

The Crazy Adventures of a Location Scout

Go behind the scenes with the author as she explains how she finds the right spot for the shoot.

BY August 3, 2018


It’s a deliciously peaceful late April morning down by the Naples Pier. With the tourist season just ended, only a handful of beach chairs dot the sand. Most of the occupants seem to be sleeping off the season’s last charity gala. A couple hundred yards north, a film crew is setting up some sort of shoot, but locals tend to be pretty blasé about travel videos and catalog shoots. Minor interest is sparked when a giant camera crane is rolled into place at the water’s edge, but not sufficient to exert actual forward motion. That is, until the naked mermaid appears. OK, she’s fully human (no tail) and she isn’t technically naked, but you’d have to get close to see that modesty is preserved with skin-tone bikini bottoms.

Coincidentally, every male lounger on the beach has a sudden urge to walk off last night’s indulgences: chin up, chest out, stomach sucked in.

With a few traffic cones and gentle encouragement from the location crew, those fluffed-up onlookers are discreetly routed around the set and soon settle back in place like a flock of gulls briefly disturbed by a beachcomber. Phase I of this commercial for a luxe skin cream goes off without a hitch.

To set up this beach shoot, the out-of-town producer called the Collier County Film Office, applied for permits and parking space, supplied proof of insurance, and arranged for local off-duty police and EMT support. Phase II gets trickier. To film the underwater sequence, the photographer needs a deep-dive swimming pool. They’ve identified the potential facilities, but to get detailed photos and logistical information on each one and determine possible usage issues, they call a local location scout. Me.

A location scout helps producers find settings for their movies, videos, ads, catalogs and promotional materials. For the pool segment, the Greater Naples YMCA is a near-perfect fit, but there is the “naked” mermaid consideration. It’s a family facility, and bodysuit notwithstanding, the shoot must be timed well away from children’s classes. Also, members can’t be inconvenienced. Creative scheduling by the amazing YMCA team meets all criteria, and voila! A flawless shoot and a generous donation to the Y.

Sometimes a scouting job is as straightforward and easy as vetting a list of swimming pools. Usually it’s not. There’s the certified haunted building that the owner refuses to approach after dark to host a paranormal video shoot, or the movie-perfect island lodge that’s not usable because the owner tends to show up at random times in his underwear. The first one was flexible: The owner simply sent a fearless friend. The second one? Not a chance. There’s always a story behind the story. Read on!

The Key West Cottage Conundrum

Sometimes we scouts nail it the first time; sometimes we don’t. Having the concept totally locked in, scripts and storyboards vetted, and shoot dates inked before scouting starts is pretty much fantasyland. Still, after two decades of running my own ad agency, I’ve honed my skill for interpreting verbal concepts. So when the phone request comes for a charming Key West-style house in Naples, I think sherbet colors, gingerbread detailing and picket fences. Sanibel and Captiva islands and Fort Myers Beach come most readily to mind, but Old Naples’ historic district is still graced with a number of picturesque and colorful vintage cottages. I contact some owners, Realtors and vacation rental agents and ascertain some interest (location fees can be lucrative). I shoot exteriors, interiors and tiny gardens, and I post a delightful selection of photos and location details on a password-protected gallery for client review. Then I wait for the applause. The sound of NO applause is deafening; my finds are way too small, way too colorful and, well, way too vintage.

Stumped but not defeated, I’m contemplating Plan B when an email pops in from one of my Realtor contacts. “It’s not very colorful, and definitely not small,” he says, “but here’s one of my listings that you might want to see.” The instant I click on the link, I totally get it: Rather than a tiny sherbet-hued cottage, its architectural detailing reflects Key West’s most elegant historic inns. The owners are enthusiastic, new photos are posted, and the applause comes.

The Marina Misinterpretation

Then there was the famous-name fashion catalog to be shot around Naples. One scene required a marina with a wooden dock. There’s no storyboard from the client, but the producer has done the next best thing, grabbing some regional reference shots off the internet. It’s Friday and they need selections on Monday, not usually my favorite assignment. But actually, exploring picturesque marinas and doing a bit of grouper sandwich testing (the crew will have to eat, you know) in the kind of perfect winter weather that drives our snow-bound northern friends crazy isn’t a bad way to work through a weekend, especially with your best guy along. We make friends with dockmasters and property owners (“permission” is key in a scout’s vocabulary). We shoot various angles of the producer’s internet selects and fill in with some great discoveries of our own.

On Sunday night I post my impressive photo gallery for review, featuring a dozen locations and details about permissions, lighting angles and GPS coordinates. On Monday I get a big thumbs up from the production team, and they pass their favorites on to the client. On Tuesday the client says: “Why all the dark wood? We need a whitewashed New England look.”

The shoot is just days away, but I’m on it. I know the captain of a romantic sailboat-for-hire that’s docked at a historic island marina on Captiva Island with weathered, whitewashed New England-style boardwalk and pilings. Bonus: We get the dock and the boat!

The Avalon Astonishment

Miami-based producer says: “Hey, Magic Worker (awww, he means me!). Can you scout for us up in Central Florida? We need a big lake with a beach and a swimming dock for our marine product commercial. We have to avoid palm trees and other tropical foliage, and I know you don’t have anything like that over there on the West Coast.”


I say: “Oh, yes we do! Let me show you the beautiful 60-acre freshwater Lake Avalon in Sugden Regional Park. It has a wide crescent beach, not one but two fishing piers, and picnic gazebos on the sand. And let me introduce you to the real Magic Worker, Park Manager Mike Toolan, who facilitates the Flyboard World Cup Championships and the other water activities there. He’ll make sure your shoot runs smooth as glass.” Done and done.

The Yogurt-with-Chicken Caper

Competing successfully against other destinations for a production is more than having perfect beaches, architecture and streetscapes. It’s about simplifying permits, supplying reliable support resources—and, occasionally, if you’re Collier County Film Commissioner Maggie McCarty, even providing a good-looking trained chicken. The storyboard, she says, showed a modern suburban kitchen. A hand reaches into the refrigerator to grab a yogurt. As the fridge door closes, a chicken strolls nonchalantly by. Message: dairy products so fresh it’s like you’re right there on the farm. The producer had everything but the chicken.

“I called the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS),” McCarty said. “They connected me with an Immokalee 4-H Club. We got our chicken.”

The New York TV Studio Seduction

There’s always The One That Got Away. It happens when the client is considering several destinations around the region or the world, or a producer is pitching on-spec and doesn’t get the account. And then there are advertisers who just plain change their minds. Like the New York-based company exec who wanted a New York talk show-style TV studio setup to tape a New York talk show-style interview. They even provided a picture of an actual New York TV interview set. After considering several locations through scouts around the U.S., the seductive power of the Big Apple was too great. The report is that they ended up shooting in … did you guess? A New York TV studio.

The Gronk and Big Papi Reunification

Now, what New England-savvy sports fan wouldn’t love to have Patriots/Super Bowl star Rob Gronkowski or Red Sox/World Series star David Ortiz film a music video at their home? How about both at the same time? Dunkin’ Donuts, reprising their wildly popular summer video starring “Gronk and Big Papi,” needs a waterfront mansion with a great pool and water views, within driving distance of Fenway South, JetBlue Park’s Red Sox spring training stadium. The upside: We have the entire coastline to work with, including Fort Myers’ Caloosahatchee River waterfront. The downside? As the location scout, I’m not authorized to reveal any names. It’s difficult to present private home options to the client until I clear the possibility with the owners, and even tougher to convince owners to host a relatively big cast and crew without knowing the details. It’s a real balancing act. Thankfully, the owners trust my instincts on this one. We’re able to provide great options and ultimately make the perfect connection. Fans can check out “Gronk and Big Papi’s Dunkin’ Paradise music video” on YouTube.

The No-Animals-Harmed Mortification

Maybe you spotted Reggie, the homeowners’ sweet-faced family bulldog, in the Dunkin’ video. When David Ortiz and the dog bonded, a decision was made to introduce him into a scene. Which meant a call to the folks responsible for that “No Animals Were Harmed” line we see when film credits roll. If the yogurt company’s friendly chicken had been in a movie instead of a commercial or print ad, the chicken would have had its own personal advocate, an American Humane Association Certified Animal Safety Representative, on the set. The AHA website claims to protect the rights of all creatures, from ants to zebras (Seriously? Ants?), including any pets impulsively recruited for a scene. The kindly and diligent AHA representative who made sure Reggie was well-treated ended up bumping his own head and making a trip to the emergency room. The mortification of that, he confesses, hurt significantly more than the stitches.

The Teeming Swamp Horrification

The setting for the client’s proposed indie film is a chilling adventure in the deepest, darkest places in the Everglades. A certain number of people go in, and only some of them come out. It’s a page-turning script. This time, I’m working with Commissioner McCarty to prepare a multifaceted itinerary for the advance team’s visit, which is called a tech scout. We’ve highlighted and numbered each scene and prepared alternative location options for each one. Maggie has produced maps and GPS coordinates wherever roads exist. We have arranged airboat passage through the narrow tunnels, twisted waterways and mangrove islands in the River of Grass, personally guided by a prominent member of the Seminole tribe. Swamp buggies, operated by native Gladesmen, will transport us through uncharted wilderness where GPS is useless. Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park Manager Renee Rau is showing us a rarely seen, overgrown stretch of the original Tamiami Trail for one scene. For another scene, world-renowned ghost orchid biologist Mike Owen has agreed to lead our photographer through the gnarled roots and thick hanging vines of a shadowy cypress swamp where the rare white orchid is currently blooming. My best find is a privately owned hunter’s camp way under the radar, surrounded by a spooky-looking lake said to be teeming with alligators.

We’re guaranteed to get muddy on this scout, and, yes, there will be mosquitoes. I’m proud to be appropriately khakied, accessorized with both the high-powered liquid repellent and one of those ultrasonic belt clip gadgets. The team leader, the gorgeous, sophisticated New York producer who is my client, arrives in fashionable black spandex leggings, accessorized with couture scarf, sunglasses and earrings. I wonder how she’ll look by the end of the day. As it turns out, she’s not the one drawn like a magnet to the shadowy unknown just beyond camp for one more scouting shot. The mystery lies on the other side of a rickety old footbridge floating just inches above the still, dark water. Who’d have predicted that a foot-size chunk of rotten boards would give way into a mucky mud hole, into which a certain appropriately shod foot would disappear as a dozen prehistoric reptiles rise from their shallow lair, contemplating, no doubt, how a properly accessorized, Naples-based location scout might taste. Truthfully, they didn’t seem particularly interested, but I didn’t wait to find out.

Disappointingly, that film is on hold. During the talent-booking process in 2015, the Florida Legislature removed its favorable tax incentives for movie productions. This promising film, at least one HBO series, and several other major productions were either postponed or moved to Georgia and other states that appreciate movie business and heavily promote their incentives.

The Gladesmen

“Thanks (and no thanks) to the Florida Legislature, we may no longer be candidates for blockbuster movies,” McCarty says. “But for print ads, brochures, catalogs, travel documentaries and special media niches not dependent on incentives, we’re still a producer’s dream. Where else can Animal Planet or the Discovery Channel find vast cypress swamps and stunning estuaries like we have?” Where, indeed. And who else but a couple of native-born Gladesmen, who own or lease thousands of acres deep in the Big Cypress Swamp, stand ready with authentic homemade airboats and pole boats, and the local knowledge to get you in there and (this is key) back out again?

In the past year alone, the team of Capt. Jack M. Shealy and Capt. Steve Markley have quietly hosted National Geographic, Lionsgate Films, Animal Planet, USA Today, Run Riot Films and an assortment of independent documentary producers.

“We’re real Florida, not Disney,” Shealy says. “You want to lasso a live 20-foot python in the wild? We can set it up.” The Shealy-Markley team is no rogue outfit. They’re licensed and permitted on government lands; they help with search and rescue missions; they know where all the secrets lie and, most likely, where more than a few bodies are buried. They play by the rules and charge a fair scouting fee. They have a project now in negotiations that is both ambitious and game-changing. I’m excited. The impact of this clean industry to all of Southwest Florida is felt not just in world visibility and increased tourism, but also in local hotel, restaurant, retail and support service revenues. Win-win.

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