Movers & Shakers
Paul Wilson's Got The Look
by Michele Elyzabeth
The film and television industries could not exist solely with the actors who portray our heroes. As Hilary Clinton put it so well, "it takes a village." Among the team of people who help make it happen, there is a gamut of professionals which are seldom recognized for their contribution and yet play an important role in the equation. The perfect example is the job of the Location Manager. Every show or film has one, but contrary to what we may think, it is not as easy as one might imagine. Their prime concern is to find the right look required by the director and set designer. He is the guy who will validate our dream, even if he has to fake it. It involves negotiating with location owners, and covering a number of issues, such as the cost and terms of the hired crew, vehicle access, parking, noise reduction, and required permits. Once filming has started, Location Managers are in charge of managing all aspects of shooting in each location, as well as making sure that every location is handed back to its owners in a satisfactory condition after the shoot and that also means dealing with insurance. LATF met with Paul Wilson, the location manager of the #1 TV show CSI. He shared with us some of his experience.
ME: How did you become a location manager?
Wilson: I actually studied acting and then started working as a production assistant, just on a low budget feature. I worked for a producer on two different shows and he said, "Do you want to do locations on the next one?" I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said "Sure." I kind of learned how to do it from him on that show, where they would just tell me where to go and I'd go photograph places and make deals with people.
ME: How do you choose your location?
Wilson: We read the script and go through the places we need and to talk to the director about what it is he wants, and just kind of go out and find places. There are services that represent houses and — I actually find it's just easy to drive around and knock on doors if I know a neighborhood that has a certain style of house — that kind of thing.
ME: Typically on a show such as CSI. How many locations do you have to get?
Wilson: It varies, but anywhere from 3 to 7 per episode.
ME: How long does it take you to do that?
Wilson: We have usually about 6 days; so for each episode. It's very fast.
ME: So for 6 days, you go from one place to another, deciding what is going to be the look?
Wilson: Yeah. We'll spend one day going out and finding places, photographing them, and then the last five days usually I'm in a van with the director and the producer and production designer and director of photography and we drive around and we look at different locations and we all decide together what they want to use.
ME: Is there a specific area in Los Angeles that you usually deal with? Or do you go to Pasadena and Santa Monica and all over the place?
Wilson: Yeah, on this show, we don't go to the west side very much; we try and stay in the valley, but we'll go to Pasadena and we go to Santa Clarita a lot because it's set in Las Vegas. Santa Clarita — a lot of the areas look like Las Vegas looks.
ME: What does it take to become one of the top guys in your business?
Wilson: It's mostly just hard work and being a nice guy to everybody. So then when somebody goes onto the next show, if they like you, they hire you back again. I got this show from a production manager who was the production manager on "My So-Called Life." I was an assistant on that, and then I worked for him on a TV pilot that never got on the air. So he called me when this show started.
ME: Any desire to do anything else?
Wilson: Not really. Sometimes I like to perform comedy.
ME: So you still have the bug.
Wilson: Yes, but I'd like to make money, so.
ME: You could do maybe both while you go on a hiatus. How long have you been doing this now?
Wilson: Since 1991. And I got into the union in 1994 on My So-Called Life.
ME: Can you tell me an anecdote that has happened on any of the shows? Have you ever been let down?
Wilson: A few times — it actually happens a lot because we have so little time to find locations; like sometimes we'll go to a location on somebody's word that maybe we can use, maybe we can't. And then sometimes we lose it and have to find something else. It actually just happened yesterday. There is a business park and we wanted to use it because it had a roll up warehouse door. The business owner really wanted us to film there, but the property management company just took it over, so two people I talked to at their office said they'd want us to film there. And then the last person called me back and said, "No, they couldn't get it done." They said 'because we wanted music this Friday.' And I had sent them all the paperwork, or sent them all the information last Friday, but she didn't get it until yesterday, and said that wasn't enough time for her to get everything done. So this morning we went out and found another place that looks similar and the guy wanted us there and it worked out fine.
ME: So you saved the day and are still on schedule.
Wilson: We're always trying to find a back-up location. There's another one that I don't know if it's that funny, but there was an episode where 5 monks were killed in a temple, and there's a temple in North Hollywood on Cold Water Canyon. Wat Thai Temple. And they're very film friendly, generally. So I went and talked to somebody there and I had a translator from the temple and I told her exactly what we wanted to do — that 5 monks would be shot and killed in the temple. And she said it was fine, and for a couple of days we started planning this, and somebody called me who wasn't part of the temple, but was a member and they had sent him the script and he said 'you can't do this in the temple — we're not going to let you do this.' And I don't think she understood English very well, and was just happy to be helpful. And so we ended up having to — they still let us film outside, where we didn't have any violence or anything —and then we built the interior temple on stage.
ME: Is this a lucrative profession?
Wilson: Yes, it is.
Me: How many people are in the union?
Wilson: I don't know; probably a few hundred location managers.
ME: Still not that many.
Wilson: No.
ME: It's a rather restricted profession.
Wilson: Yeah.
ME: How do you get in it though?
Wilson: Just getting to know somebody, or — I mean most of the people that I know — I've actually gotten like four people into the union that just were looking for a job and they were smart and thought quickly on their feet. And I think all four of them are still working on other shows now, so…
ME: What quality would you say you have to have to do this show?
Wilson: Well, skill in photography and knowledge of the city or the ability to find things fairly quickly and a lot of charm. You have to talk people into letting you do things that they maybe don't want you to.
ME: I would imagine that people do want to let you do whatever.
Wilson: A lot of people — it seems like there would be more. I'm surprised at the number of people who don't want filming or who are just worried about it. And a lot of it is because a lot of film companies — I don't know about now, but I know in the past — would go in and film some place and do damage and leave and never take care of it.
ME: But you are protected. You carry insurance.
Wilson: Yeah. And if somebody's nervous, I usually offer them a security deposit or something to make sure that we're going to get it back. And the crew I'm working with is unbelievable. They're really great; we hardly ever damage anything, and if we do, we'll repair it immediately.
ME: Do you have assistants?
Wilson: Yes, I have three assistants.
ME: And what are their jobs?
Wilson: They're mostly out scouting for things, and then while we're on the location, they're there, taking care of the neighbors, or the home owner, or the business owner — making sure that our company can do everything they want, and that everybody around us is not too disrupted by it, because it's like a huge circus.
ME: At the end of the day, is this a profession that you would recommend to people, if they have the perfect qualities?
Wilson: Yes, and it can be very stressful, but I like it a lot.
ME: What are the pros and cons?
Wilson: I don't know that I can think of any cons other than it is a stressful job; you have to get more than you often can. You have money restrictions and time restrictions and scheduling restrictions — all these things that you have to kind of work together to make whatever location you end up at work.
ME: Long hours?
Wilson: Long hours, which I never minded.
ME: And how much time do you have off the year when you're on a series?
Wilson: This, I'm usually on ten months, and have a two months hiatus, which is great — so for the past eight years — I've been on this for 14 years, so the past 8…I bought a house in upstate New York, because I couldn't afford one on the west side, which is where I want to live. And I have family in New York. So every hiatus I drive out there and drive back, which is really fun. That's the other thing — I love driving and finding new places.
ME: That's a good thing.
Wilson: (laughs) It's my job. So I try and take a different route across the country every year; it's pretty fun.
ME: When we look at these shows and see all these different types of places, you wonder: What does it take to find all of these places?
Wilson: Yeah, it's fun. And I've found places where just randomly found the most bizarre things. We were looking for a bombing suspect who was supposed to live in the middle of nowhere; and I was out in Santa Clarita and just took the side road, and went over a hill and it's just desert and there was a trailer and an above ground pool and a bunch of cars and a little garage. And the guy who lived there let us film. Everyone asked, how did you find this?! You would be surprised what you can accomplish with kindness and a little charm.