An exclusive interview reprinted from BasicShadowhuntersStuff.com
Behind all the action, emotion and spectacle that is Shadowhunters, a dedicated team of unsung heroes are responsible for making sure that every detail we see on-screen rings true to the story and allows the audience to truly get lost in another world. We were lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Location Manager, John Rakich, about how he and his team help create the magic and mystery of the Shadow World.
So much has to happen behind the scenes for the audience to get the spectacular final product that is Shadowhunters. For those that don’t know, can you explain a little bit about what it is you do as location manager and location scout?
Of course, well, locations is one of those credits you might see at the end of a show or movie that you may skip past, since it’s a part of a production that most people are usually not aware of. The job of the locations department on any production is to find practical locations in which to film a scene or scenes of a project and to then deal with the logistics around them. That sounds all very technical, so please let me break it down a little more.
Anytime you see a scene on a street, a house, a restaurant or a lake by the woods – anything that isn’t a set built on a studio – that, by definition, would be a location. It’s the job of the location manager to look for possible options that fit the parameters of what is being asked for in the script, in conjunction with the ideas of the producers, production designers and directors. It might sound easy to some, but it can be pretty complicated and tricky sometimes, especially trying to find something to match someone else’s vision.
Now, I don’t do this alone, it’s not a one-man department and I couldn’t do the job without the rest of the people I work alongside with. From the assistant location manager to the on-set location production assistants, it is a team effort and I’m glad I have them working with me.
How did you come to be involved with Shadowhunters? Have you worked with anyone on this crew before?
I was called in to interview for the first season just out of the blue; yes. I must confess I am one of the few people who have been around from the start of the series. I guess, since I keep getting asked to come back, they must like what I do.
Coincidentally, I had worked as one of the main location scouts for the original feature film version [of The Mortal Instruments], so I had a prior relationship with Constantin Films (who hold the rights to the book series) on some other feature films they had done here in Toronto.
I’ve been working in film and television production for some time, most of us who work here in Toronto know one another and have worked together at some point or another, kind of like a very, large, loose, extended dysfunctional family.
Entrance to the Seelie realm. Photo credit: John Rakich.
Being a fantasy show, specifically an urban fantasy, visualizing some of these locations can take a lot of imagination. Do you find that difficult sometimes? Where do you pull your inspiration from?
Understanding that we shoot the show in Toronto, but it takes place in New York City, I like to try and base the look of possible location choices as much as I can on the genuine, real world when I can. I have personally spent a lot of time in New York City, so I have a decent amount of knowledge from where to draw on for inspiration – especially if the script gives a good description of where in the city they think they’d like the scene or location to exist. In the case of places I may not have experienced, I do my fair share of research too.
It can be a little difficult when what is written doesn’t really exist, but you do what you can to be as creative as possible in finding something that might work, or at least initiate a conversation into what can be done to find something that would work just as well. Luckily, we have a very skilled writers’ room that makes it easy to try to find what they have written on the page.
For some of the locations we are asked to find that appear in the book or are in the realms of places like Idris, I will get inspiration sometimes from the well-worn set of The Mortal Instruments books in my office. Those can provide a starting point for a discussion about what we’re looking for, of course, in conjunction with directions from the showrunners, executive producers and production designer as well.
Episode 2×20 script breakdown. Photo credit: John Rakich.
How far in advance are you usually given a script to work with and what does the process look like once you do? Do you get much guidance from the director?
Being the head of a department, I get scripts and outlines as soon as they are ready to be distributed. We usually get an episodic outline a few weeks beforehand to start off with getting a sense of what the writers and writers’ room might have in mind for where the story is going and what might be needed for it. A little while after, we would get a limited release draft script that further fleshes out the story and then eventually what becomes the actual working production draft, the real first script for the episode.
The process for me, once I get the outline, is to go through it to create a breakdown of what the locations mentioned are. The breakdown then distinguishes between what are existing sets that we have in studio, what might be a location we’ve already been to and finally what looks like might be a new location (either a build in our studio or a practical location) for that script.
From there, we can start to compile a list of what might be needed and start thinking of what that might be location-wise. Then I have a discussion with the production designer to see if we’re on the same page concept/idea-wise, which then helps us narrow down what to try to find and where to direct the resources of the locations department. Once a few location ideas have been scouted and photographed, the production designer and I first whittle it down to what we think are the best choices. These are presented to Matt Hastings to look over as an executive producer, to choose which locations we will then take that episode’s director to look at in person to give us some guidance on what they like and don’t like, and eventually decide on which location we’ll be going ahead with.
In episodic television like Shadowhunters, with the compressed amount of time we have to prep each episode, a lot of the preliminary work is done before the director arrives. For an eight-day episode (which is how long it takes to film an episode of the show), we have only eight days beforehand to get ready and there are a lot of moving pieces, meetings and decisions that have to be made. So being as prepared as early as possible is key.
As location manager, you are working with many public departments and people in the community you are filming in. Does that kind of coordination present a challenge? Do you find that the locations you work with are usually enthusiastic about having the production there?
Coordination does present a challenge since the locations department on a show is like the bridge between the two worlds of production and the public – or better yet – the desires and needs of production, and the expectations and rules of the public, or the local government or municipality. Keep in mind that Toronto is a city that has experienced a lot of filming over the years, so there are mechanisms in place to accommodate filming.
Now, sometimes that balancing act between the needs of the show and the reality of what we can or cannot obtain permission for can create some interesting situations which require a little bit of a balancing act between both worlds. On average, most places and people are quite receptive to allowing us to come film, and usually the expectations of the show aren’t too out of the ordinary.
Of course, there’s the odd time there are some circumstances where we need to do a little massaging to make it all work out, but that is part of the challenge of what we do.
What are some key things that are important in any location? Is there something about locations for Shadowhunters that makes them particularly challenging?
Well, logistics are always an important consideration, it could be the greatest looking place in the world, but if we can’t get a crew and the necessary gear to it, it’s no good to anyone. For those who haven’t had the pleasure to witness one, an average film crew is like moving a small army from place to place; roughly 75-100 people with up to 20 trucks that need to be parked nearby, plus finding space to feed them, park them and even where to bring in extra bathrooms are all part of the puzzle.
That is just to get a location ready. There’s still dealing with the logistics of the actual filming that needs to happen. Like where we’d like to stage the scene, where the equipment and crew can go, where we’d like to be able to light from or control traffic. It’s all these little moving pieces that must be planned out for each day to be successful.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but I wouldn’t say that Shadowhunters is any more challenging than any other show I’ve worked on.
Lake Lyn. Photo credit: John Rakich.
When looking for locations in Toronto to pass as NYC are you considering the VFX aspect from the get-go, or are you usually looking for complete areas you can use without visual effects? Can you talk a bit about how you collaborate with Folks VFX and the other crew departments?
It’s not always a main concern, since Toronto has a very general look that works well to play as many different looks from around the world – especially New York City. Most collaborations come as a result of first finding the right location and then seeing what might need to be done via VFX to enhance a practical (or even studio) location by either covering up signs or inserting set extensions to help make the location look just right.
From the writers’ room, the showrunners and executive producers, the art department, set dressers, props, costumes, hair, makeup, prosthetics, cinematography, camera, grip, lighting, special effects, stunts, visual effects and transportation; it’s all one giant team effort where we all work together and where everyone’s contribution helps make what you get to watch and enjoy on the screen.
When we all do our jobs right, you shouldn’t be able to tell what is what and just believe the illusion, especially with some of the amazing work that the gang at Folks VFX have done. Just wait until you see what they’ve whipped up for next season!
What have been some of your favorite locations finds so far? Any particular stories or discoveries you’ve made looking for just the right place?
They’ve all been quite fun; from a vampire-infested pizza parlor, to a demonic nightclub, to antique store battles to a parked tanker vessel. The location that we used for the Brocelind Forest was a fun one. It took us a while to find the right look of woods, rocks and water to be able to put that iconic book scene in the right setting.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of when we can bring the scenes from the show outside into the world, it just adds an element of infinite space that you can’t capture inside a studio.
The street battle in Episode 2×20 is a favorite of mine – just being able to see the Shadowhunters in full-blown action battling demons (even though they were cloaked from mundane sight) on the daytime streets of Manhattan. Filming that was fun. Being able to get a drone camera flying around the buildings downtown for the demon POV really made the scene that much cooler on-screen.
Shooting episode 2×20. Photo credit: John Rakich.
It’s fascinating to know more about the unsung heroes of the Shadowhunters crew such as yourself, who help bring all of the magic to our screens. What has the most enjoyable thing about working on Shadowhunters been for you?
That’s easy to answer. After three seasons, it’s really been being able to witness firsthand the incredible dedication of the fanbase and how much it as grown between seasons.
I’ve been lucky to have been present at every Comic Con panel the show has been at, starting with being in the basement of the New York Comic Con in 2015, and seeing it move from larger venue to larger venue; the Hammerstein Ballroom in 2016 to the Hilton ballroom at San Diego, then filling the theatre of Madison Square Garden this year. It’s a really cool feeling to see how much our work means to you, the fans.
I mean, if it wasn’t for all you fans watching the show, participating on social media and just being totally engaged in what we are doing, we wouldn’t be able to have as much fun working on the show, so thank you all for that.
So, please don’t stop. Keep watching, keep streaming (if you watch the show on Netflix), keep interacting on Instagram and Twitter, so that Freeform sees all that strong, dedicated fandom and keeps choosing to make more seasons.
Shadowhunters is available for streaming via Freeform for U.S. residents and internationally on Netflix. Shadowhunters returns with Season 3 on March 20th, 2018.