Location pro Alison Taylor explores a brave new world
by Nancy Mills
Movie photos by Atsushi Nishijima. ©2017 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
What happens when one of the most beloved children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, crosses paths with California’s new tax incentives? Then add another ingredient—director Ava DuVernay, the first woman of color to direct a $100 million-plus budget film, who was determined to hire a highly diverse crew. It’s a Hollywood tsunami. Life behind the camera may never be the same again.
“As a black female, I’m very excited to be part of a team that’s so multicultural and gender-inclusive,” Wrinkle’s supervising location manager Alison Taylor, LMGI says. “I’ve been doing this job for over 23 years, and to be on a set where there are a bunch of people of color and women was fantastic. It’s pretty much been a white man’s world that I’ve operated in most of my career.”
Taylor won the California On Location Award’s (COLA) “Location Manager of the Year – Studio Feature Film” a few months ago for her work on A Wrinkle in Time. She credits DuVernay’s determination for the big change. “Ava came in and said, ‘This is going to be a very inclusive production,’” she says. “The crew of A Wrinkle in Time looked like Los Angeles. It was great to see women in all different departments, especially operating cameras.”
In this current #MeToo female empowerment moment, many key jobs on Wrinkle were held by women. Jennifer Lee wrote the screenplay. Naomi Shohan served as production designer. Catherine Hand produced.
The movie itself is about teenager Meg Murry (Storm Reid), who discovers a time warp. She and her younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and their pal Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller) embark on a search through time and space for her missing scientist father (Chris Pine). Three magical beings guide them: Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling).
“When I started with Ava, she wanted to make sure we had a diverse cast in front of the camera and a diverse crew behind the camera,” executive producer Doug Merrifield says. “Knowing that Ava rebooted the movie to be in contemporary urban Los Angeles, I needed somebody who was familiar with working there. Alison just ticked off all those boxes. She is very quick on her feet. She could always handle last-minute shooting changes. She’s really good at rolling with the punches.”
Taylor, whose recent films include Straight Outta Compton and The Purge: Election Year, says, “My department has always had black folks, Latinos and women. White people are usually in the minority. I’m usually the only department to have a team that looks like mine.”
“We had a great experience (with diversity),” Merrifield says. “If you’re used to working with similar people, it forces you to get out of your comfort zone. For this movie, we used all ethnicities and genders. Having a crew that’s more reflective of today’s society just takes a few more phone calls to find qualified people out there. They’re just waiting for the opportunity to get a step up and advance in their careers. It was really a positive experience and something I’ll be carrying forward.”
“The first day I walked into the production office, I sensed there was something different,” Wrinkle location scout Lori Balton, LMGI says. “Eventually, I realized that there were people of color and women everywhere. I hope that’s a change that will continue. Typically, I’m the only female in the scout van.”
A Wrinkle in Time is the first big-budget film to take advantage of California’s Film & Television Tax Credit Program, Executive Director of the California Film Commission Amy Lemisch says. “Our previous iteration didn’t allow budgets over $75 million, but our goal was to attract some of the biggest budget films back to California. We want them because they have such a big spending footprint. Since the program was revised, we’ve had about eight of them. We’ve definitely seen a turn for the better.” Lemisch noted that the current tax incentives will expire in June 2020, but legislation is pending to renew them for another five years. “The other great thing about A Wrinkle in Time (which received an $18.1 million tax credit) is that it filmed outside the (30-mile) zone, all the way up to Humboldt County. We don’t often get a large movie to go that far.”
Without the California incentives, Taylor might have been out of a job. “The incentives were a very big deal,” she says. “When I started on Wrinkle, I was hired just as a scout. Lori was scouting in Northern California, and there was another scout in Atlanta. If we didn’t get the (tax incentive) money, the company was prepared to open production offices in Atlanta. They were double-prepping. They were hoping to shoot in California, but we would have gotten on planes and gone to Atlanta a day after the announcement if they hadn’t given us the tax incentive. They might not have kept me. When we got the tax incentive, they offered me the location manager position.”
Wrinkle provided a new kind of challenge for Taylor. “Most of my projects have had a lot more locations,” she says, “and within that large number, certain ones have to be right. You get a little more latitude on others—on TV, you compromise a lot. On Wrinkle, we had to get everything right because we really wanted to make Ava happy. We didn’t have a lot of locations, but each one was very specific and not one of them was easy. Each had a series of hoops we had to jump through. It was crazy!
“It took a lot of negotiation with the L.A. School District (in order to film at Crenshaw High School when school was in session). For the Camazotz suburbs, we had to make arrangements with the military and go through all those layers. When we were shooting the Camazotz forest in Humboldt County, Film Commissioner Cassandra Hesseltine was super-helpful. But we were in a city park and a state park, so we were dealing with rangers and the state of California.”
Through it all, Taylor collaborated closely with Shohan. Early on, the production designer spent a lot of time with the director, and, according to Taylor, “Naomi had a good understanding of what Ava wanted. We had to go through a lot of options to get the ones that really worked.”
“There was no compromise on anything,” Shohan adds. “That’s why it was difficult. During the first few weeks (of pre-production), we put up a presentation for the studio with a lot of illustrations and references to the planets (a key part of L’Engle’s story). Ava, the DP, the visual effects director and I threw around a lot of ideas and images.” Taylor and Shohan, who had worked together on the 2001 Training Day, slid into a comfortable arrangement. “This was a nice reunion,” Shohan says. “Location managers either find you great locations or they don’t. Alison finds you great locations.”
Among those they sought were the Murry house, Meg’s attic bedroom, a school, the planets, a grassy field, a frozen lake and a neighborhood with identical houses. “At the beginning of every film, I spend weeks and weeks in a car with the location manager,” Shohan says. “You can just be losing your mind if you’re with people who are lumps. Or it can be wonderful. We had a blast. Alison is so much fun. We talked about what we wanted creatively, what we wanted politically and what we wanted creatively and politically in our own lives. We drove hundreds of miles to some pretty far-flung places trying to figure out what to do, and the conversation was always lively and pithy. We formed a really wonderful friendship.”
Wrinkle is Taylor’s biggest job to date, and it came with an opportunity to learn something new. “This was a big visual effects movie,” she says. “I have worked with some visual effects, but I had to learn a lot about what corrections can be made with visual effects and what the location has to be. For instance, the forest comes to life. There’s a three-part process. It’s the location itself, and then there are the art department’s pieces. They might have a fake rock, and then visual effects builds on that. They’re creating the rest of the environment and movement. I learned that they can get rid of things behind a tree but not what’s in front of it. I worked a lot with Rich McBride, the visual effects supervisor, who was very clear in explaining what they needed.”
Taylor had a bigger location budget than she usually does. “That allowed me to do my job the right way,” she says. “I could have the right resources, including additional people in the department to expand our scout and money to pay for extra things you sometimes have to have. We did some work out at Venice Beach, shooting by the water for a couple days with a bunch of extras and a bunch of restrooms. We had to build a pathway from the parking lot to the beach—a walkway that got pieced together to roll equipment. Those things are very expensive.”
KALM Brittany Petros, LMGI has vivid memories of the shoot, which was depicting Red’s Beach. “It’s in the other world,” she says. “It’s this big, beautiful, gorgeous beach, and everybody is laughing and playing and having fun. Then the kids start getting sucked in, and they realize they’re on one of the bad planets.” The production found itself on Venice Beach because, Petros explains, “All the other beaches were booked for other shows. Will Rogers or Malibu would have been good, but by the time we knew when the scene would be on the schedule, Venice was the only beach available. It was a heavily populated scene with a lot of equipment and set dressing. With cast and crew, we probably had 500 people, including 100 children, so we had to have a school room built. We didn’t want them to walk too far, so we had to bring in plywood, AC and a big circus tent for them.
“Since Venice Beach is public, we couldn’t rent out all the parking lots. We rented four different parking lots and had to coordinate them for breakfast, lunch, background parking, some for crew, and base camp. It was a lot of logistics.”
Also complicating matters was the 5K run scheduled for one of the prep days. Adequate space for restrooms was another challenge. “Normally, we’d have multiple sets of trailer porta potties and pump them in the morning or at night,” Petros says. “Instead, we had 2 four-bangers, and we pumped them every hour. One of the lifeguards said in his 30 years of lifeguarding, he’d never seen anything as close to this big happen on the beach in Venice. It was a lot of hoops to jump through, but people were very helpful.”
Talking about working for Taylor, she says, “What I love about her is that if you need help, she’s there to help you. But if you don’t, she’ll stay away, trusting she hired the right people. Some managers want so much information, they slow you down because they’re just on you. Or there are managers who won’t give you help. Alison wasn’t wasting my time filling her in with things she didn’t need to be involved in. I appreciated her trusting me.”
ALM Velvet Graves, LMGI adds, “I feel so grateful to even know Alison. She encourages people and brings out the best in them. She builds her team. She doesn’t tear them down. She’s approachable. With her, there are no guessing games. There were times when she could have easily exploded, but she approaches things in the right way. She takes things head-on and deals with them. I learned from that. If you don’t deal with it, it’s always sitting there. If you address it, it disappears.”
Graves spent much of her time on what she calls “the haunted house” location in the West Adams District. “It was a very dilapidated house that needed a lot of love,” she says. “It looked spooky. Its foundation was falling apart. The set decorators did a phenomenal job. Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling shot there.” This location kept Graves busy. “We were there three different times, and I dealt with the neighborhood,” she says. “It’s heavily lived-in—a lot of homes tight together. I’d get signatures and arrange placement of our equipment. I got to know hundreds of people.”
She also worked on the Murry house location. “We moved the homeowners out for three months,” she says. “Then they completely cleared the house and dressed it.” Finding that house was one of Taylor’s biggest concerns. “Ava wanted a traditional neighborhood that had been one thing, became another thing and was going back to being fancy,” Shohan explains. “We were looking at an upper middle-class neighborhood that became all black and was now gentrifying. We wanted that urban pattern. Then the house needed to have a sense of welcome and embrace in terms of its character. ‘What do you want it to say about the family?’ Once we defined the area, it was like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how many houses we saw,” Taylor says. “Ava had a very specific look in mind. Also, there was a certain geography that had to happen with some of the scenes. When someone is walking through the house, they can see the outdoors through certain windows. From the top of the staircase, they could look down and see the front door. We finally found the house in the West Adams District, which is where Ava wanted the Murrys to be living.”
DuVernay went along on a number of the scouts. “The location team took lots of pictures and showed them to Naomi, who filtered them,” Taylor says. “Then she and I would go scout and filter even further. The ones that got checkmarks from Naomi are the ones we wanted to show Ava in person. She was tireless on the scouts. If she didn’t like any of the locations, we’d go back to the drawing board.”
Once they settled on the house, they then had to find a location for Meg’s bedroom. “The book and the movie both start with the line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night,’” Taylor says. “Meg is upstairs in her bedroom, but the house we chose did not have a suitable bedroom. So we did a lot of searching.”
In the book, Meg’s bedroom is in the attic. “Ava wanted that attic look,” Merrifield says. “We found another house in the West Adams District that had the classic roofline and triangular windows.”
“The Murry house was a huge set,” KALM Pedro Mata, LMGI says. For his work on the film, Mata recently won COLA’s Assistant Location Manager of the Year. “It was almost like a whole block because of the lighting they did,” he says, “lighting from the street before and the street after. There was rain. That was a big, big thing to arrange.” An optimist, Mata doesn’t see problems as problems. “I call them challenges,” he says. “We are on the street filming with people all the time. Lots of things are going on. If we tackle all the challenges while we’re prepping, there are no problems on film days. It’s like the circus is coming to town, but actually it’s coming to one house or one street.”
Mata, who has worked with Taylor for 15 years, holds her in high regard. “Alison is awesome,” he says. “She’s very assertive and knows what she wants. And she’s very supportive when you need the help. She’s very clear and serious. You see how happy she is when you get something, especially when it was challenging.”
For producer Jim Whitaker, the Humboldt County sequences were the toughest moments to capture. “Patrick’s Point State Park and Sequoia Park in Eureka were the most physically difficult locations in terms of what the actors were doing,” he says. “It was also challenging to find a way to get cameras into a place that matched the action.” Hard work paid off. “We got incredible shots with a Spidercam running down a gully,” he says. “You’re traveling through and following these kids running away from the monster that’s following them. That was logistically challenging.”
“They did a lot of stuff on this film that no one has really done before,” Northern California (NORCAL) ALM Patti Stammer, LMGI says. “It was amazing to watch the kids running up and down these steep gullies with a Spidercam coming through the trees watching them.” Stammer joined the production after Balton scouted NORCAL locations, searching for a place that could be the forests of Camazotz. “My brief was looking for interesting natural environments,” Balton says. “I looked at the quality of the trees, the density, the texture of the bark, the spacing of the trees and other vegetation. It depends on what the director wants—claustrophobia or depth of field.”
Once DuVernay chose the locations, Stammer says, “Alison called me and said, ‘I need somebody to fix anything that goes wrong.’ In fact, very few things went wrong. We were in Patrick’s Point and Sequoia Park at the same time. They have slightly different vegetation. I made a list of all the greens native to these two forests and went up with a botanist from a timber company called Green Diamond to fill up their truck with bushes, leaves and small trees—anything they needed. I also had to find places to park 15 giant trucks, which came from LA but were going on to the next location. I talked to all the neighbors to make sure having their street blocked off for a month would not irritate them. Luckily, Humboldt County is one of those places where people still really think filming is fun. They were absolutely delighted this was happening.” Because of her work in some of the most scenic areas of California, Stammer has become a redwood forest expert. “Our forests are the ones trying to kill the (Wrinkle) children,” she says. “They’re treacherous. There was a lot of running through them and dodging trees.”
Filming in the forest had its challenges, but at least the production team knew where the forests were. Finding a location for the Camazotz suburbs was perhaps the location team’s most frustrating experience. They were trying to match the book’s very specific description of this area: “The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small rectangular lot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door.”
“When Meg, her little brother and Calvin show up in the suburbs, everything is eerily exactly the same,” Taylor says. “We had to find the right neighborhood where all the houses were exactly the same. It took months. We searched from Oxnard to Long Beach to Hemet. We went everywhere. Some things were close but not quite there. Finally, Pedro Mata found the perfect location. It was a private residential area for military families in San Pedro. That was a big YES moment for me. I’m glad we found it, but it was hard to film. By the time we finally found it, we didn’t have much time left. Thank goodness for the military liaison, Develyn Watson, who helped push it through.”
“It took three months to discover it,” Mata says. “We looked and looked and looked at the whole Southland. I’d find some stuff and get permission to scout it, but military properties were not easy to get into.” He discovered the ultimate location on Google Earth. “I told Alison, ‘It looks good from above,’” he says. “But when I saw it, families had made changes so their homes would be more individual. Every military family had their own theme. They rearranged the greenery or put their own ornaments up. We had to take their ornaments out.”
With a lot of negotiating, Taylor finally got permission to film there. All progressed smoothly, Mata says, “Until we changed the filming date. There were some scheduling problems with the actors, and we wanted to move filming forward from February/March to November. There was a lot to coordinate and work out. Dev helped make it happen. We shot for about a week, following a week or two to prep.”
Another area of worry was finding locations for the planets the children visit during the search for their father. L’Engle didn’t write highly specific descriptions of the ice planet Ixchel or the lush planet Uriel. They were just way stations on the journey to the evil planet Camazotz. “We had a lot more latitude to figure out what felt right emotionally,” Shohan says, “taking just a few cues from the book. We spent a lot of time looking at images, asking ourselves, ‘What would strike a note with Ava?’ It was a long process. We pre-envisioned what they had to be, but they had to be on Earth, and that was tough. I think people will be really satisfied with the locations, and they’ll be surprised with the creatures in the same way. We spent a long time figuring it out. They’ll recognize the locations but say, ‘Oh, I didn’t visualize it completely but now I see what it is.’ For me, it was delightful to create a universe.”
In the end, some locations were impossible to find in California, so they were built at the Santa Clarita Studios, north of Los Angeles. “We looked for a frozen lake that’s on the planet Ixchel,” Taylor explains. “Meg wakes up on top of the lake. Because of climate change, we couldn’t guarantee any California lakes would be frozen, so we built it in the studio.”
For a few other locations, the cast and crew had to go to the Southern Hemisphere for a few weeks near the end of production. “We needed a long, grassy slope,” Shohan says. “That sounds not too hard to find in California, but the state was in a drought. We found some hills with long grass that looked beautiful, but if you stood in them, the grass didn’t move. It was dead. Ultimately, there was no solution that wouldn’t have been a CGI solution, so we ended up filming it in New Zealand.”
“We were shooting in the dead of winter in California,” Whitaker adds. “When the script called for a place 20,000 times as vibrant and exuberant as Earth, I said, ‘Let’s go to New Zealand.’” He was intimately familiar with the country because he had recently shot Pete’s Dragon there. “On Uriel, Meg is running down this hill, and there’s a blue lake. We shot that at Lake Tekapo in the Mount Cook region.”
Taylor and her team did not go to New Zealand. Instead, local LM Clayton Tikao, who had worked on Pete’s Dragon, took over location responsibilities. Ultimately, it was important to everyone that the movie absolutely capture the spirit of the book. “But we went to great lengths to challenge some of the ideas that had been seen before,” Whitaker says. “L’Engle’s book is so well known that over the years, people copied the ideas. So we pushed hard to find new and interesting ways to evoke its spirit. When people see the film, they’ll feel the book.”
One of Taylor’s happiest moments on Wrinkle was finally being able to use a location not far from where she lives. “It’s a palm tree-lined walkway that I’ve been in love with for years,” she says. “I’ve been dying to put it in a movie. We got a wonderful drone shot above the palm trees, where you see kids walking. I was so happy with that. It was major for me.”
Taylor started her career as an event planner in Indiana before discovering location work. She recently completed The First Purge and is about to start work on season three of Insecure. What happens after that? “I’m very excited about this time,” she says. “It’s a time where I’m seeing film crews being multi-cultural. They’re inclusive across the board—gender-inclusive, men, women, gays, straights, black folks, Latinos, Indian folks, Asians. I went from Ava DuVernay to Issa Rae and Melina Matsoukas (an executive producer on Rae’s series Insecure) to Gerard McMurray (the young African-American director of The First Purge).”
After completing season two of Insecure as supervising location manager, Taylor is being promoted to creative consultant. She will not be doing day-to-day location work and instead will work directly with the executive producers.
“Part of me loves doing locations,” Taylor says. “Part of me is interested in seeing how Insecure goes. I’ve never worked in any sort of producer/consultant capacity. Maybe not having to completely stress over the permits wouldn’t be a bad thing.” She laughs. “Maybe I’ll be able to transition into some sort of other capacity. I’m excited for my future but I’m not necessarily sure what it is.”
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Cassandra Hesseltine Sets a High Bar for Film Commissioners
by Alison Taylor
I was introduced to Cassandra while working on A Wrinkle in Time. I will never forget it. Our lead location scout, Lori Balton, LMGI, was returning from a scout with the cinematographer in Humboldt County.
Balton reported, “Our ‘simple, little’ DP scout for A Wrinkle in Time wouldn’t have happened without the capable assistance of Cassandra Hesseltine. These things have a way of growing, and it was helpful knowing she had our collective back, from finding perfect local stand-ins clothed in the proper wardrobe, to meeting us and dropping us off at the airport, to organizing our picnic lunch … she is wonderfully detail-oriented. In what can be a hard-edged, fast-paced business, she is a breath of fresh air. She truly cared about the success of our movie, and made us look good once again! The Humboldt Film Commission is the embodiment of making on-location filming a win-win experience for all concerned.”
In her role as Film Commissioner, Cassandra always works on behalf of the production. I know this firsthand based on our incredibly smooth experience filming the amazing redwoods in Sequoia Park and the lush forest at Patrick’s Point State Park for Wrinkle. Thanks to Cassandra’s advance planning and lobbying on our behalf with city and state officials, she literally made the permit process a walk in the park!
Hesseltine adds, “Setting aside that it is a great story and this version was making history with Ava DuVernay’s vision, I loved working with Wrinkle for a few reasons—that they were inclusive from start to finish when it came to involving my office. Being a part of the process made it easier to help put out fires and problem solve. I also loved how the location department hired and mentored a handful of my locals. The work experience Alison and her team gave them was priceless. Overall, if I could describe my experience in one word, it would have to be … respected.”
She attended Humboldt State University majoring in psychology with an emphasis in theater as therapy. After working with at-risk youth, helping them find their voice through theater, Hesseltine produced indie movies and television shows. After 10 years of working on productions that were primarily away from her home and family, she was asked to be the interim Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commissioner. Hesseltine took that opportunity to implement a detailed tracking system for the new film commissioner. The Board was so impressed that they offered her the position! “It was really a lovely surprise,” Hesseltine says, “that is when I discovered how much I loved helping productions. Plus, I got to stay in the community and be with my family, so I had the best of both worlds.”
Seven years later, she is not only the Humboldt-Del Norte Film Commissioner, but also in her second term as President of Film Liaisons in California Statewide (FLICS)—a nonprofit organization comprised of 41 film commission/liaison members throughout the state of California—promotes filming and assists productions with locations, permits, resources and local knowledge.
“I don’t see a problem as a problem or an accomplishment as an accomplishment; I see them as part of the job,” says Hesseltine. “Each production has different needs. Some are basic, but often there are random needs and even after seven years as the Film Commissioner I think, ‘Oh my gosh! Why don’t I have that list or that resource ready for them?’ I feel like I’m always ready to learn. I love putting out fires; I love solving problems.” Cassandra Hesseltine thrives on helping productions be successful while helping her community enjoy the positive impact of filming. A “win-win” indeed!
The Air Force Elevates A Wrinkle in Time
by Dyana Carmella
When the fantastical Wrinkle required a neighborhood of cookie-cutter houses, the US Air Force flew to the rescue. The Air Force Entertainment Liaison Office handles entertainment projects while protecting the Air Force brand in television, films, video games and web content. Deputy Director and Secretary of Public Affairs Develyn J. Watson provides continuity between active duty military personnel and entertainment companies.
Specifications for DOD filming differ from private properties. “The minimum requirements are that the production has funding and distribution. Then we determine if the project has an Air Force depiction,” Watson explains. “We review a script in its entirety or, if unscripted, we look at a treatment to see how the Air Force brand will be utilized. Once we make the initial determination, we make a recommendation to DOD at the Pentagon whether to provide support.”
Production wanted to shoot a section of military housing. Watson says, “They wanted uniformity among the structures. Because most of the homes are exactly alike, production was able to achieve that look.” Watson found the project to be exciting, as well as exhausting. “This was the first time our office had filmed on this property,” she says. “Typically, we work on active duty bases where we can ‘direct’ compliance once we have film approval. Working with the residents required patience and compromise. The sheer amount of [production] people caused a bit of angst among the residents. We had to work daily to engender trust and cooperation.”
Watson enjoyed working with location manager Alison Taylor, LMGI. “We went to the same college back in the day,” says Watson. She also appreciated the diversity of the production. “[DuVernay] spent time with the residents, which made a more pleasant experience,” Watson recalls. “From the tech scout to filming, she was accessible. There were a high number of people of color and women in roles usually dominated by white men. This was the first time I worked with a group of people like me.”
DOD doesn’t offer perks to the film industry, but they don’t charge a location fee or require permits. They typically provide secure locations free from unwelcomed press and gawkers. Additionally, productions can have access to a range of jets and planes, anything from C-17s and F-16s to F-35s and F-22s. “You can’t borrow a plane because you think it’s pretty,” Watson explains. “The first question I always ask is, ‘What is the Air Force depiction?’ And we need to see a full script.” If a production wants to utilize a plane in flight, the Liaison Office pairs the shooting days with a training mission, which lowers the cost. However, to direct a flight for filming purposes, the Office sets the standard price placed by the government.
“As far as locations, the USAF is located throughout the world,” says Watson. “If there is a base where you want to film, we can help. We are more than locations; we are your partners in a successful production. A small group of military professionals and civilians, we can provide you with subject matter experts, [and] can help add realism and production value, helping you navigate the bureaucracy of filming on DOD property. Further, our advice is at no cost to the production.
“This was the first time I worked with a group of people like me.”
Reprinted with permission from the California On Location Awards 2017 magazine www.californiaonlocationawards.com