“I’m retired now. After 39 years in the business—36 as a Hollywood Teamster location manager—I have to say, I don’t miss it one little bit.” – John Panzarella
My final show was Vice, the biographical dramedy, starring Christian Bale as former US Vice President Dick Cheney, which finished in January 2018. My work partner, Leslie Thorson/LMGI, and I probably location managed more days in the city of Los Angeles on feature films than anyone. On Vice, we had the wonderful opportunity to find seven countries and six states for a story that spanned six decades, in and around the zone, with a production team that had little experience working in Los Angeles and a relatively short prep schedule. It fell on us, with a stellar supporting cast of location scouts, to find all these elements and pull them together efficiently. Fortunately, we had a spectacular production designer (Patrice Vermette) and director (Adam McKay) who picked locations at a success rate I’d never seen before. With few exceptions, they picked the first locations we looked at. One day in the scout van, Adam said, “I don’t want you to think I’m a pushover, picking locations so quickly … you’re just that good at finding the right ones.”
It didn’t always happen that way. Often, we worked with directors who’d want to see 50, even 100 houses … before eventually picking one of the first ones we’d shown. That was one of the things we had to be prepared for … that, and change. Constant changes, whether with the schedule, the script or casting issues … if you’re not equipped to deal with the inevitability of change, you don’t want to be a location manager!
I, however, was probably born to be one … receiving early training from my father without either of us knowing the job of location manager existed. I remember him sitting me down to listen to the soundtrack of West Side Story and bidding me to visualize the scenes. I particularly remember the song about Officer Krupke. I think those exercises went a long way toward helping me know what to do when I read a script and how to go about finding the locations that were called for. My father and I used to go out and drive around, looking at period houses and neighborhoods with an eye to what comprised superior craftsmanship and architectural style; at an early age, I was already “scouting locations” without being aware of it. He also took me into Manhattan when I was 8 for the premiere of The Longest Day, and I’ve been in love with movies ever since (I still have the program!). My cultural education continued under the tutelage of an older cousin, who took me to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Many concerts later, I left New York for California, a surfer bound for the Pacific Ocean, trading the Fillmore East for Winterland. The first time I smelled eucalyptus and redwoods, I knew I’d made the right (only) choice for my new life. I enrolled at UC Santa Cruz and immersed myself in film studies.
After Santa Cruz, I moved to Los Angeles in search of film work. It didn’t take long for me to find it. My earliest jobs were nonunion, and not in locations … at least not officially. I worked as a production assistant, as a set builder (on The Beastmaster—indisputably a classic!), transportation coordinator (on Alligator), even as an electrician on something or other. I even had a job throwing tumbleweeds at Neil Young all day long during additional photography for Human Highway. My fellow PAs and I were paid very little, but were given motorhomes to drive. Naturally, we partied like rock stars. This madness went on for a couple of years, until I was finally able to get a job on a union show.
That show was The Man With Two Brains. I was hired as one of many production assistants. For some reason, the UPM didn’t want to hire a DGA trainee, and when the DGA rep came around asking us what our positions were, we were instructed to say we were location assistants. Of course, back in those days, there was only one location manager, even on a big feature film, with NO assistants. Fortunately for me, Fred Baron (credited as “location coordinator”) took a liking to me, and I learned a lot about how to be a location assistant without technically being one. After that, I spent some time as a location sitter (what’s now known as a site rep) and occasional scout for Cast Locations, a successful location service company still thriving in Los Angeles.
One day I got an opportunity to scout for bars for a commercial, and came back with 11 options for the producer client. He was so impressed that when his girlfriend, a television producer, needed an additional location manager for double-ups, he recommended me. Andrée Juviler, the location manager, accommodated the suggestion, making it possible for me to step into location managing without ever having been a “real” assistant.
Early in my career, I had the great good fortune to work with two production designers who had been active in the classic days of the studio system. One of them was Ted Haworth, whose credits are particularly mind blowing—he worked on Some Like It Hot, Marty, Jeremiah Johnson, Strangers on a Train—even directing the 2nd unit—the credits go on and on. The other was Bill Creber, the youngest production designer ever to be nominated for an Academy Award. Creber and Haworth taught me my craft; how to see cinematically, and how to translate that vision to production designers, directors and producers.
Both of these mentors further spurred my interest in architecture, opening my eyes to the incredible diversity of residential styles in Los Angeles. At some point, I acquired David Gebhard and Robert Winter’s invaluable An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles. For years, I insisted that scouts acquaint themselves with this resource, particularly if the locations they were seeking needed to be a specific style. From those early days of “scouting” robber baron mansions near the Rockaway Hunting Club on New York’s Long Island with my father, to visiting New York City and seeing the American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim Museum and more, my appreciation for architecture continued unabated. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to apply that appreciation to my scouting. I’ve been pleased and proud to have shot some of the great architectural residences of Los Angeles over the years. For example, the Ennis House worked in Grand Canyon for the home of the producer in the story (inspired by Joel Silver) in place of the “modern concrete bunker” in the script, because of Joel Silver’s passion for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein Residence, one of the great pieces of modern architecture, was a location in Bandits. Neutra’s Lovell Health House, one of the most classic examples of international design in the world, had a starring role in LA Confidential. Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22, also known as the Stahl House, was used in Nurse Betty. And even though it’s only a brief glimpse, a Paul R. Williams house in Los Feliz was used in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. I’ve done my best to avoid the McMansions of the world. Even a seemingly mundane character deserves some defining touch of style. Call it coincidence, or perhaps synchronicity, but it was Ted Haworth who designed The Longest Day, the movie that my father took me to see so many years ago, and that sparked my interest in working in film; and it was at a tribute to Bill Creber that I met my wife, production designer Caty Maxey.
I am fortunate in that every film I’ve worked on has had some redeeming feature: a great script, a new logistical challenge to work out, an interesting location or a talented crew. Some were brutal to work on—LA Confidential comes to mind. It was a modestly budgeted film, but no one believed it after Kim Basinger and Kevin Spacey were cast. Director Curtis Hanson had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish, as did cinematographer Dante Spinotti and production designer Jeannine Oppewall, but it was a running battle getting approval from the producers to get them what they needed. The Location Department for an all-location movie with a plethora of night filming consisted of me, Leslie, Stephen Fischer, Ken Hunter and the occasional day player if we were lucky. The excellence of the finished product helped eased the pain … along with an unusually long stretch of time off to recover.
Some productions required amazing feats of complex coordination. For The Italian Job, we shut down Hollywood Boulevard for multiple days. We had helicopters flying along the rooftops and a hundred concert security staffers controlling pedestrian traffic. Adding to this, for a couple of days, we closed off the freeway exit to control traffic on Highland Avenue too. We sent Mini Coopers into Metro stations and other places they weren’t meant to go. We flew a helicopter down Lower Grand. For Jason Bourne, we closed a portion of the Las Vegas Strip for eight nights, with the help of about 70-plus police officers … each night! On In Time, we closed down major sections of downtown Los Angeles, including the 2nd Street tunnel, 4th and 6th Street bridges, 7th Street and Lower Grand in one gloriously crazy day.
Thankfully, other productions were like scenic road trips that I was lucky enough to be paid for … like Bandits, which started in Oregon and made its way down the California coast to Marin, Sonoma, Napa, San Mateo, Monterey and Solano counties before eventually ending up in Los Angeles. The movie should be seen for the locations alone!
Leslie and I were proud to win a California On Location Award (COLA) for this film.
Elizabethtown, another underappreciated movie, was my first of many productions with production designer Clay Griffith and director Cameron Crowe. It was the beginning of a long friendship … a friendship with a soundtrack. It was during this experience that I was dubbed “the doctor.” This came up in a scouting van when Cameron was lamenting that Rolling Stone had lost his list of “Top 50 Albums” and he had to recreate it. He started naming the ones he remembered, and I was happy to suggest additions. Impressed by my somewhat encyclopedic knowledge, Don Lee, the executive producer, said, “Wow, you’re like a doctor of music!” and I was “the doctor” from that moment on. There were many idyllic moments as we traveled across country from Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Nebraska, before ending in California. I was glad to join up with Cameron and Clay again in Hawaii for Aloha. Sadly, the UPM wouldn’t let me bring Leslie … she had to work remotely from Los Angeles.
Always, there was the fun of meeting new people, seeing new places and then down the road, seeing many of them again over the years. I’ve worked with some legendary directors (Larry Kasdan, Blake Edwards, Barry Levinson, Curtis Hanson, Mike Nichols, Nancy Meyers, Cameron Crowe, the Coen brothers, Adam McKay), many masterful cinematographers and production designers … an endless roll of credits due. Since meeting LMGI Co-founder/and location scout extraordinaire Lori Balton decades ago, I’ve had the pleasure of bringing her onto several projects over the years.
I have to say that my closest ties over all my years in the business (aside from Los Angeles parking magnate Harry Lumer) have been to the production designers I’ve worked with repeatedly, and of course, the revolving door of assistants. Many of them have since gone on to become outstanding location managers themselves.
Fortunately, Leslie chose to stick with me and was there almost every step of the way for 25 years; it seems neither of us was particularly inclined to work with anyone else. The hours of driving around and consulting with designers such as Dean Tavoularis, Jon Hutman, Jeannine Oppewall, Clay Griffith, Charles Breen, Victor Kempster and Patrice Vermette have been a large part of what has made the last 40 years so much fun. I owe them all a debt of gratitude.
As for the rest of my team, it was always a joy working things out with varying configurations of new and returning people. The creative process of being part of a team has always appealed to me, and I greatly appreciate what everyone has brought to the table over the years. I even got to work with my son, JT Panzarella, despite having discouraged him from getting into the business, and was gratified that he became such a good key assistant location manager. I loved them all, and I thank them all.
I have loved working in film. I have loved being a location manager. But as I said before, I don’t miss it. Why would I when I’ve wrung a lifetime of pleasure out of a career I never dreamed of having? Now I love my life even more. I get to spend every day with my fabulous wife Caty and our “best dogs” Lou and Judy … sure do miss Sam, though.