Q&A with John Hutchinson and Les Fincher
40° 42′ 46″ N/ 74° 0′ 21″ W
Co-editor Stevie Nelson is in a New York state of mind with John Hutchinson and Les Fincher. The two have been friends and colleagues for many years. Between them, they have covered every inch of the city that never sleeps! John Hutchinson was the LMGIís first New York member and Les Fincher joined the Guild this past year, currently holding a seat on the LMGI Board of Directors.
Stevie: ARE YOU BOTH NATIVE NEW YORKERS? HOW DID YOU MEET?
JOHN HUTCHINSON: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, educated in the New York City public schools. I’ve known Les for at least 20 years. I don’t remember how we met but I do remember when I first became aware of him. I was doing my first commercial at HSI, and I saw a stack of location folders with his name and number stamped on them. The photography was impressive. I asked the production manager about him, and she said he was one of the best. We have worked together for years, on commercials and print jobs.
LES FINCHER: I was born in Dallas, Texas, but have called New York City my home for 41 years. I was a founding member of NY-based ALSAM (The Association of Location Scouts and Managers) and I meet John professionally when he joined ALSAM in the mid-’90s. John has a serious independent vision with drive and discipline. John takes every photo with a logical studied approach.
Stevie: YOU SHARE TEACHING IN COMMON. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING IN LOCATIONS? HOW DID YOU START & WHAT DO YOU PRIMARILY WORK ON?
JH: I’ve been working exclusively in locations for about 25 years. After college, I taught 10-14 year olds English, history, math, mythology and soccer in an alternative school. After three years, I took a break and enrolled in graduate school in English at NYU, driving a yellow cab at night. I was looking for another flexible way to pay the bills when a college friend got me some low-budget PA gigs on music videos and industrials. I finally gave up my cab license when I started working with a NY production service company that did Japanese commercials in North America. I quickly went from PA to PM. In addition to production managing, I scouted locations. It didn’t take me long to realize I’d rather be out on the streets instead of in the office. After grad school, I worked for three years on Japanese shoots from NYC to Missouri to the Bahamas. From there, I got involved with an Amsterdam-based production service company for European commercials (and sometimes features) shot outside of Europe. At first, I did all their NY jobs and eventually became their worldwide location manager. I studied Spanish, French, Italian and Japanese, and though I was not fluent in them, I somehow communicated with people, working comfortably in foreign cultures. I eventually got international work with American production companies, working in Australia, China, Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Grenada, Vietnam, Tunisia, Thailand and Haiti. Over the course of my career, I’ve been very fortunate to be able to scout and manage in 52 countries. In recent years, my work has focused more on the US, and has expanded beyond commercials into print. I’m based in Manhattan, as well as the Hudson Valley, and I split my time working in NYC and exploring the wide variety of amazing locations that lie just north of the city.
LF: After graduation from the journalism school at the University of Texas at Austin, I attended grad school at Texas A&M-Commerce (ETSU). As a GA, I was invited by Life magazine cover photographer Philippe Halsman to come to New York for a master’s photo class presented in his historic studio. The following year, I accepted a teaching position at the New School/Parsons School of Design. After working as a still photographer on three feature films and trying to find my way as a “photographer,” I was asked by a director to shoot with a Polaroid, a pre-selected location for a commercial. I approached the project as a photojournalist, telling the story of the location. Soon after, I was asked to actually scout the locations. Not being a native New Yorker, I functioned as a professional tourist, exploring my hometown for work. This was during the heyday of television commercials, sorta like after the last scene in Mad Men where the show ends on the classic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial in 1971. Don Draper’s vision was “on location” (respect to the real team at McCann-Erickson). My jobs have taken me all over the country as the eyes of the project. Over the years, I have worked as location manager/scout on thousands of television commercials, photography projects and four features.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU THINK IS THE PRIMARY DRAW FOR FILMING IN & AROUND NYC & ITS SURROUNDING AREAS IN GENERAL? WHAT KIND OF ìLOOKSî ARE THERE? WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL FAVORITES & WHY?
JH: People come because it’s unique—and it’s also anywhere. When I first started in commercials for foreign clients, it was all about iconic NY locations. We shot the NY skyline from every possible direction. Almost every job had to have the Chrysler building, Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State, Times Square or Central Park. As I moved into American commercials, people asked for almost anything, from Upper East Side posh to Norman Rockwell main streets, from Williamsburg funky to magnificent country estates. We have a huge variety of locations in the five boroughs of NYC, and then when you add in the outer areas of New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island and the Hudson Valley, the possibilities are endless. We’ve shot Iraqi desert at a NJ quarry, Hong Kong and India across the street from each other on the Lower East Side and China in Staten Island. With NY’s incentives, it’s not unheard of to hear of a feature shooting Staten Island for Ohio. My favorite looks are period Americana, like diners, barber shops, bowling alleys, old theaters. I recently scouted dozens of classic theaters in NY, NJ and D.C. for the David Letterman/Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Another favorite look has always been gritty industrial, though that’s getting harder to find in the NY area, with our endless real estate boom.
LF: New York has cinematic energy everywhere you look. The primary draw for filming in the New York area is the amazing creative talent pool, professional union crews, combined with a pro filming government in New York and New Jersey. All set in a visually historic urban landscape of iconic landmarks known worldwide with farmland, mountains and beaches nearby. With multiple new glass buildings also creating an “any town” look. Location scouting gives me incredible access such as filming on the gargoyles of the Chrysler Building with Gordon Willis. Or flying with famed helicopter pilot, Al Cerullo, hovering so close to the tip of the Chrysler Building, I could almost reach out and touch it. The skyline’s massive buildings create visual canyons of light and shadow. The night lights sparkle against the dark sky palette for superheroes. Unique rooftop and skyline shots are achievable from buildings like the “Top of the Rock” Rockefeller Center or the former heliport on 200 Park Avenue with close-up views of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. A perfect penthouse location for 360-degree views of uptown and downtown is the NoMo-SoHo Hotel. The hotel offers other interior visuals, a welcoming staff with great food.
Stevie: WHAT TYPES OF PRODUCTIONS FILM IN THE CITY? DOES NEW YORK OFFER ANY INCENTIVES TO FILMMAKERS?
JH: New York is the second biggest production center in the country; every conceivable type of production shoots here daily. Over the years, I’ve worked here on commercials, photo shoots, Hollywood films, European indies, TV series, music videos, PSAs, industrials and documentaries. New York State offers a 30 percent incentive to productions filmed in NYC, Long Island, Westchester and Rockland counties. If a company films in a county north of Rockland and Westchester, the incentive increases to 40 percent. Nearby New Jersey, a very important location for many NY-based productions, recently began offering a 30 percent incentive as well. The NJ incentive increases to 35 percent for more southern counties, beyond the NY studio zone.
LF: The booming growth for New York film and television production has definitely been enhanced by incentives. This year, the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment lists over 45 television shows and 30 feature films in production, along with popular daytime, late-night, news and talk shows.
Stevie: WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE IN YOUR JOB AND FILMING IN NY SPECIFICALLY?
JH: Time! When I started in commercials, there was a reasonable prep time, and more scouting days per project. There was usually enough time for scouting and permitting. When agencies got used to viewing locations online, everything changed. First came the location service websites, where clients could instantly see hundreds of locations without spending a penny. And now, increasingly the first call on a job is for a “file pull,” regardless of how obscure the request may be. Clients don’t want to spend the time and money for scouting. They often seem to think everything that exists has already been scouted, and they can see it in a file pull today, and be shooting there by Friday. As agency turnaround times shorten, municipalities have simultaneously increased the time required for permit applications. Instead of focusing on getting the “right” location, I’m often more concerned about getting a permit approved in a ridiculously short amount of time. The main challenge to filming in New York is that it’s too popular. There are too many productions fighting over the most photogenic neighborhoods, and in response, the permit office created the dreaded hotspot list. Updated every month or so, it shows the hiatus areas where permits will not be granted. The current list has 36 areas where I cannot get a permit. Although the list changes, there are neighborhoods that seem to be permanently “hot.” This is a challenge mainly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The further one travels from those boroughs, the easier filming becomes.
LF: As John mentioned, having enough time to properly do the job is an enormous factor. Far too often, commercials book jobs with a limited turnaround. I am very fortunate that fellow scouts share information on our Google Group. Sharing has enabled job efficiency 100 percent. I am happy to have been a founding member of ALSAM, where from the beginning, we pledged to help each other. The New York and New Jersey Film Commissions are incredibly helpful in supplying regulations and contacts for projects outside the city. In the five boroughs of New York City, the Mayor’s Office online permit process has the overwhelming challenge of processing permits in 48 hours, factoring in a wide range of events, construction, road repair and the 3 million people each workday on the 13-mile-long and 3½-mile-wide Manhattan island. The classic confusing parking regulations and traffic are always part of the detailed process.
Recently, I was managing a Tiffany commercial at the flagship store on Fifth Avenue during the UN General Assembly week. During that week, no filming is permitted in midtown due to the high concentration of world leaders in the area. I had to interface with the Secret Service, NYPD Presidential Security Unit, Mayor’s Office and the Movie and Television police unit. During our prep, the president was next door making my job extra challenging. Having backup plans for backup plans was the key to successfully pulling off the shoot.
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITES OR MOST MEMORABLE FILMING
JH: The first was a series of 90-second commercials for Credit Suisse, intended for cinemas. I literally flew around the world. I first scouted Jordan, then Shanghai, Hanoi, Saigon and New Zealand. We flew to the agency’s headquarters in Zurich for a meeting to decide where to shoot each spot. The agency and director disagreed on the Asian spot. They wanted Shanghai, but the director pitched Saigon, and with my photos he convinced them. We were the first production with an American director and crew to shoot in Vietnam since the war. I flew to Hanoi to negotiate for permission from the Ministry of Culture, then flew to Saigon to deal with the permit folks there. One of our major scenes took place at the former home of the South Vietnamese VP, now a school. We distressed the building to look war ravaged, and then turned it into a five-star hotel. We flew the flags of various countries. It was the first time the American flag flew in Saigon since the end of the war. There were a lot of politics to contend with, but I fell in love with Vietnam, and will never forget that job.
My other favorite was a Peter Stuyvesant cigarette commercial I did in Havana at the height of the US embargo. My clients were Dutch and German, but the crew, talent and camera equipment all came from Los Angeles and Miami. I had to fly to Havana (via Mexico) and convince the managers at ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos), in effect the government production company, that I was on the level and that I didn’t secretly have a budget of a million dollars. They had never worked with an American before, and they didn’t know what a commercial was. Eventually, we made a production deal to shoot five days in Havana. I hit the streets of Havana with my translator, an alcoholic taxi driver/former secret policeman in an East German Trabant automobile. We scouted streets, theaters, bars, apartments, restaurants, barber shops, and every night, dance clubs till the wee hours. When I wasn’t scouting, I was casting at the world-famous Tropicana Cabaret, looking for the three most beautiful dancers in Cuba. The Cubans were amazing, highly trained in film at schools in Moscow and Bombay. They maintained pre-revolution Mole-Richardson lights and Chapman dollies in perfect condition. Our wrap dinner was at one of Hemingway’s favorites, La Terraza de Cojimar, where he docked his boat Pilar. It was an unforgettable job.
LF: I have a few. For Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film with Jay-Z, I secured an art gallery for six intimate performances with 230 people in one day. The gallery was converted into an actual speaker within the walls with dynamic sound. The Mayor’s Office was fearful of potential growth of the exterior crowd via social media exposure during the day. I secured a team of 16 police officers and a fire department safety captain. We timed the entry of invited guests each hour as the crowd and paparazzi grew outside. The positive atmosphere of the performance carried outside. Everyone was happy and amazed by the experience. While filming, Jay-Z left the venue to drive away on camera as the crowd was smiling. While on the feature The Pilot filming in Florida, I flew in a two-seater stunt Pitts Special biplane. The pilot gave me a parachute and said if “I say jump, I am not kidding.” We flew aerobatic maneuvers loops, hammerheads, barrel rolls, spins and nosedives. I had a new respect for strong stomachs. On a car commercial in Manhattan, I sat in the passenger seat of the process trailer while the formidable Joe Pytka and his camera assistant filmed the moving picture car, strapped to the front platform. We shot night shots on the highway, city streets and driving car beauty shots. I was numb in the heated cab of the truck, Joe was fearless with only a down jacket. It was 19º.
On another car job, on a mountain road in Upstate NY, I was riding with the state trooper doing a rolling break as our precision driver sped way ahead of us with on camera. To catch up, we casually drove 110 MPH on the controlled road as the trooper hummed “On the Road Again.”
Stevie: WHAT ARE YOUR TOOLS OF THE TRADE?
JH: My primary work camera is a Nikon D7100. My workhorse lens is a Nikkor 18mm-200mm, and I also use a Nikkor 10mm-24mm for low-light interiors. I’m kind of old school, and still like to use a Gitzo Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod when shooting darker locations. My 2004 Nissan Pathfinder gets me around the city, and off road when I’m scouting upstate or further afield. I also keep a Citi Bike key in my pocket for when it’s easier to bounce around Manhattan on a bicycle. I use a MacBook pro, several G-Technology external drives and an iPhone SE. Rounding out the essential scouting tools are a pair of Merrell waterproof hiking shoes and a big golf umbrella for shooting in the rain.
LF: Whatever the job needs, be it long lenses to GoPros. iPhone scout photos are becoming very efficient and excellent quality. The iPhone and a smaller mirrorless camera have returned my vision to my Leica street photography days with joy. I have a job website, lesfincher.com, and use filmreadyservices.com production app as fingertip production for all aspects of production and management.
Stevie: WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT THE JOB?
JH: I got a lot of satisfaction from teaching. I loved the kids but after a while I felt trapped, knowing where I was going to be, day after day, year after year. In locations, I love the constant sense of adventure—new people and places, different worlds. On any one day, I might scout a Bronx botanica, a tattoo parlor and a prison. Or a decommissioned nuclear plant, a dairy farm and a morgue. No matter how long I do this, I’m always surprised, constantly amazed. It never gets boring.
LF: Like John, I find that with location scouting there is never a dull moment. I am a visually curious person. I enjoy speaking to people and learning new things.
Stevie: WHAT ONE PIECE OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE YOUR YOUNGER SELF OR SOMEONE JUST STARTING OUT IN THIS PROFESSION?
JH: Trust your instincts, your own aesthetic. After years of nervously interpreting storyboards and treatments, taking briefings from sometimes inarticulate directors, and nonsensical requests from creative directors, I came to a kind of calm place: I know what they’re looking for (even when they can’t quite express it). I get what they’re talking about and know what it is they’ll like when they see it. Trust yourself—don’t take it all too seriously and enjoy the scenery.
LF: Take accounting!
Stevie: WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO JOIN THE LMGI & HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A MEMBER?
JH: I was VP on the ALSAM Council that negotiated with the Teamsters for taking on the commercial scouts, as they did in LA. I co-wrote the ALSAM constitution with ALSAM President Peter Garruba. I was the first person east of the Mississippi to join the LMGI (then the Location Managers Guild of America), as soon as I heard about it in 2003 or 2004. I appreciate the Guild’s efforts to foster a sense of community among location folk worldwide, and to promote recognition of our craft. With the demise of the one-hour lab, we no longer saw colleagues at the end of the scouting day, and a solitary job got lonelier. Whatever brings us together is a good thing, and the LMGI does so much to keep us connected.
LF: John introduced me to the LMGI. I thought it was a great idea. This past year, my colleague Josh Karan was the LMGI Trailblazer Award recipient. I was asked to make a film commemorating Josh and the road to unionization via ALSAM scouts for the 5th Annual LMGI Awards. During the production of the film, I applied to join the LMGI. Encouraged by the positive energy and the professional mission of the Guild, I ran and was elected as a Board member for 2018.
Les and John’s Private Tour
JH: The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is a “secret” place I always love to visit, and share with visitors. St. Patrick’s is NYC’s world-famous church, but St. John’s, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral, is a magical, awe-inspiring work of art. It was begun in 1892, and is still unfinished. It is being continually built by hand by master stone masons, using medieval methods. It’s a wonderful place for worship, meditation or concerts, like Paul Winter’s Annual Winter Solstice Celebration. The scale of the place is breathtaking. I recommend it to any NYC visitor as a peaceful alternative to manic Times Square, and the city’s many other busy attractions.
LF: NY has so much to offer! Museum fans should visit the Metropolitan Museum (surrounded by Central Park), the Guggenheim, Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum, the City Museum of New York, the Jewish Museum and the Irish Historical Society, all within a mile on Fifth Avenue. The WTC Memorial is a respectful unique visual that should not be missed, as is the nearby Oculus, a state-of-the-art ribbed structure designed by Santiago Calatrava. Walking through the Oculus west, you emerge in another large atrium on the Hudson River, where you can see the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. The best visual value in New York City is the free Staten Island ferry. It sails from the lower tip of Manhattan revealing a dynamic site of the Financial District and a face-to-face view of the Statue of Liberty. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is another visual treat. On the Brooklyn side, you are on cobblestone streets of Dumbo. Check out Jane’s Carousel and the views of the Manhattan Bridge as well. A midtown lap offers Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Museum of Modern Art and NY Library/Bryant Park.
JH: Dual Specialty Store, an Indian market, down below street level on First Avenue, around the corner from “Curry Row.” It’s an incredibly well-organized store, and the owners are always helpful and friendly. They have 400 herbs and spices from around the world, as well as more than 400 beers. They make their own spice blends, like garam masala, and whenever I’m trying out a new recipe, I check in with them, confident they’ll have any ingredient I might need, no matter how obscure.
LF: The massive B&H Camera Store is always an entertaining informative hands-on camera/video store for the photographer and filmmaker.
JH: Veselka, a 24-hour Ukrainian diner in the East Village. Veselka has been serving up delicious pierogies, borscht, mushroom barley soup, etc., since 1954. Most of the Polish and Ukrainian places in the neighborhood have become trendy sushi bars or Starbucks, but somehow Veselka keeps going, evolving with the times.
LF: For a fun cultural experience, visit the Eataly at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, across from the Flatiron Building. A vibrant Italian marketplace, it features cafes, restaurants and a cooking school.
PLACE TO SEE BY NIGHT:
JH: Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn Bridge Park, south of the bridge.
LF: My favorite summer visual is to take a sunset harbor cruise on the Shearwater, an 85-foot sailboat. From the North Harbor near WTC, you get a peaceful water view of the Statue of Liberty at sunset as the city lights glow.
BEST DAY TRIP:
JH: Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Kerhonkson, NY. The former site of two mountain resorts, Minnewaska is now 22,000 acres of forest, lakes, waterfalls, 35 miles of carriage trails and 50 miles of footpaths. Check out the views of the Catskills from the Cliff House area, above aquamarine Lake Minnewaska.
LF: Without driving, you can take a ferry to Governors Island and step into another world being rediscovered. The ex-military towns are charming and full of arts events and there is a new “Glamping” safari tent experience on the island.
JH: The East Village (EV) remains my favorite NY neighborhood. The East Coast home of hippies, and later, the birthplace of punk, the EV is still the funkiest place in town. The neighborhood is home to countless cool shops, dive bars, alternative theaters and ethnic restaurants from everywhere in the world. I like to walk around early on a Sunday morning, and watch old Ukrainian ladies sweeping the sidewalks in front of their tenements before church. I get a cup of coffee from one of the many tiny coffee shops near my apartment, stroll through the Farmers Market on Avenue A, and sit down on a bench in quiet, historic Tompkins Square Park, home to the homeless, Hare Krishnas, street musicians, chess players and kids playing B-ball. No matter how much it changes, the East Village still feels like home.
LF: Historic Flatiron District for the 1890s low buildings and preserved architecture, good food and entertainment.
FAVORITE LOCAL ARTIST:
JH: The graffiti artists of Bushwick, whose canvas is industrial Brooklyn.
LF: The 94-year-old legendary photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank. It is great to see Mr. Frank and his wife June Leaf, out in their neighborhood downtown.
JH: My favorite old school New York bar is the Old Town. If you’re lucky enough to get there early, get a booth, order one of the city’s best burgers, and enjoy the classic atmosphere. The Old Town opened in 1892, and all the original details are still there: tin ceiling, mahogany bar, the oldest dumbwaiter in NY, as well as original 1910 Hinsdale urinals—the oldest and largest urinals in the city!
LF: There are many film-friendly rooftop bars in NYC that offer grand views, along with libations; Bar 65, at 30 Rock. The Press Lounge in Hell’s Kitchen. The James in Tribeca. The Standard and Le Bain in the Meatpacking District. The Gramercy Tavern is a favorite place to experience the finest service, and dining experience in the Flatiron/Gramercy Park area.
BEST PLACE TO HEAR MUSIC:
JH: My favorite place to hear music is at NY’s iconic jazz club, the Village Vanguard, which has occupied the same intimate basement space since 1934. Seating only 120, it has great acoustics, without a bad seat in the house. Some of the greats who’ve played there: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Mingus and Wynton Marsalis.
LF: It depends on what you are in the mood for. When I go to Carnegie Hall, The Metropolitan Opera and other classic venues I consciously try to listen to the acoustics.
BEST VANTAGE POINT/SCENIC VIEW:
JH: Gantry State Park, Long Island City.
LF: The classic postcard shots are from the Brooklyn Promenade, the Brooklyn Bridge, Fifth Avenue at Madison Square Park, Grand Army Plaza and Central Park. And the oldest human-made thing in New York City is Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park 1450 BC, which came to New York in 1881.