Making the Impossible Possible
by Shaun O’Banion
Shawn Ryan (The Shield) had been a fan of the original series and approached Moritz about developing a new series with Sony Pictures Television for the now action-oriented CBS network. They brought in Justin Lin (director of four films in the Fast & Furious franchise) to direct the pilot and produce with them and, very quickly, along with producer Paul F. Bernard and his partner, began figuring out new and exciting ways to blow up the City of Angels.
The new series, led by actor Shemar Moore, premiered in November of 2017 and ended its first season as one of the top five most-watched shows. According to Nielsen ratings, it averaged about 6.2 million viewers per week and held CBS firmly in the top five for Thursday-night viewership overall. It was also one of the network’s top streamers on its digital platforms CBS.com and CBS All Access. It was quickly picked up for a second season.
Aviv Surkin, LMGI had grown up around the business. His father had been a special effects artist at Universal for more than 20 years before starting his own special effects company. But despite being exposed to filmmaking from childhood, the bug to work in the industry didn’t really strike until Surkin was in college. “I realized that this was something I really wanted to do, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” says Surkin. He did know that following his father into the effects trade wasn’t for him. Nonetheless, he moved out of his parents’ house and “into a shitty apartment in Hollywood where I basically lived on Top Ramen for two years,” he says.
Soon, he began to find work as a PA for Hallmark movies and moved up quickly from day-player positions to key set PA. It was Hallmark (known for their aggressively nonunion productions) that would change the course of his career—twice.
While working on a TV movie in Sacramento, California, the producer gathered all the PAs together in a room. They were about two weeks from shooting and, with the group assembled, he announced that the location manager had quit the show.
“He looked around the room and said, ’who wants to be the new location manager?’” remembered Surkin. Nobody in the room raised a hand. Then, after a moment, Surkin raised his hand and asked, “If I do it, will I get paid more?” The answer was yes. “We were making, like, 50 bucks a day, so more money sounded good,” says Surkin. The producer handed him a Bankers Box full of paperwork and said, “Here you go, we shoot in two weeks.”
Surkin was now the location manager, his life changed by Hallmark for the first time.
“I had no clue what I was doing,” laughs Surkin. “It was definitely ‘fake it till you make it.’ I remember the office was putting together the call sheet for the first day and they asked for the map. I was like, ‘map?’ They said, ‘Yeah, you have to give us a map for base camp, crew parking, all this stuff…’ So I spent the next three or four hours hand-drawing a map of downtown Sacramento. It looked like a 2 year old did it.”
He may not have known about creating the map, but fortunately, a previous experience had illuminated a key part of the job: “I was on this little movie. The company didn’t have a permit and they couldn’t shoot the entire day, so I realized the number one thing was to have a permit,” says Surkin.
Despite his limited understanding of the Location Department when he began, Surkin learned fast and Hallmark kept him on. He even helped the company set up their facility in Simi Valley. One day, after several years with the company, Surkin went into the office to start prepping a new show and found someone sitting at his desk. “I asked who he was,” Surkin says, “and the guy goes, ‘you should probably go talk to the producer.’” In the producer’s office he was told, rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, we forgot to tell you before the break, but you’ve reached our max pay scale and we needed to find someone cheaper.”
So that was it. He packed up his belongings and walked out. Hallmark had altered his course for the second time. “Looking back, getting cut loose like that was the best thing that could have happened to me because it propelled me to the next step which was joining the LMGI.” A friend helped Surkin get into the Guild and then Tristan Daoussis, LMGI and Scott Poole connected him to the team on Fox’s 24 where he got the rest of his union days. Once Surkin had his days, Scott Poole would prove to be a frequent collaborator, and Surkin would often alternate between working with Poole and Keith Bohanan, LMGI. Poole and Bohanan, in turn, would leapfrog shows for producer Paul F. Bernard, depending on their availability.
Bernard and his partner Jim Scura had just wrapped up a series called Angie Tribeca, with Bohanan and were eager to dive into something. They asked their agents to get them “the hardest pilot in L.A.” and quickly found themselves sitting with Justin Lin and Shawn Ryan discussing S.W.A.T. “Careful what you wish for,” laughs Bernard.
With a green light from CBS, Bernard immediately brought in Scott Poole as location manager for the pilot with Surkin as key ALM. “I knew, with Shawn Ryan, Justin Lin and CBS, it was gonna be a huge show, so having Scott and Aviv and their team makes all the difference,” says Bernard. The team likes working for Bernard due to the fact that he keeps the mood of his shows as light as possible.
The pilot, shot in a whirlwind 18 days, was nearly wall-to-wall action. “We killed ourselves,” says Surkin. “It was, without a doubt, the hardest pilot I’ve ever done.” When the show was picked up to series, Poole was unavailable so Bernard brought in Bohanan as supervising location manager… Surkin got the next call. Bohanan took on the herculean task of Season 1 and part of Season 2 before handing the show off to Surkin who stepped up.
“The producer called and said, ‘Keith is here and we’d love to have you with us,’” Surkin says. He initially turned them down. “After the pilot, I said I would never do the series if it got picked up,” he explains. After a lot of thought, Surkin reconsidered and had a serious conversation with his wife. “Of course, she wants the best for our family,” Surkin says, “but she supported me and said, ‘go do it. It’s gonna be a big show.’” Then she quoted the oft-repeated Hollywood phrase, “Go big or go home.” Of course, if ever there was a show that was going to go “big,” it was S.W.A.T., which means that Surkin and the members of his team rarely “go home.”
“I don’t think Aviv and his team ever get a day to relax. It’s pretty much a seven-day-a- week job,” says Bernard. “We talk all week, we talk on the weekends, there’s constant planning.” The reason for all that planning? The showrunners and producers are always trying to push the envelope in terms of action and what is possible on television. “I always say ‘Let’s supersize it,’” says Bernard, “and that’s how everyone on this show thinks. None of us will ever settle.”
“Supersizing” is what everyone in the scout van was thinking as they drove around looking at locations for the Season 1 finale. The writers knew they had to come up with a sequence that was bigger than anything they’d done previously. Not an easy task when the cast and crew pull off at least one massive action sequence, if not more, every single week. They were scouting for a car-chase sequence involving a massive 18-wheeler semi which has been loaded with explosives and the S.W.A.T. team’s MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle—basically a tank on wheels. The scene was initially written to end in an intersection, but that changed when a casual comment was uttered in the van that day:
“Someone said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and then went on to describe a much larger version of the sequence,” says Bohanan. “It became ‘what if it’s a longer car chase where the truck is on one street and the MRAP is on another, tracking them in parallel, and then at the end, the MRAP rams the truck trailer causing a huge explosion … and then what if there’s a helicopter filming it all from above?’”
The phrase, “Wouldn’t it be cool if,” can strike fear into the heart of most producers and members of the Location Department, but by the time they’d reached episode 1.22 on S.W.A.T., it wasn’t fear that struck Bernard, Bohanan or Surkin. It was more a question of logistics versus time; did they have enough time to properly plan and prep such a massive sequence? Fortunately, they tend to scout three to four episodes ahead.
“Every time the writers come up with something like a truck loaded with explosives going off in the middle of the city, you kind of just laugh, like ‘who in the city is going to let us do something like that?’” says Bernard. “But we have the best Location Department in television, so I wasn’t worried.” In the van, Bernard turned to look at Bohanan and Surkin and just smiled.
Surkin practically started making calls right then, Bohanan and Surkin immediately began thinking of logistics. “We knew we would have to shoot on a weekend in order to close the amount of streets we’d need to shoot the chase that leads up to the explosion with helicopters, drones and the Russian Arm,” says Surkin. Initially, they estimated they’d need to lock down a minimum of six blocks on one street and six blocks on a parallel street just for picture, then maybe another four or five blocks beyond that for safety and support, as well as all of the intersecting streets. That alone would be enough to consider, but of course, there was more.
They’d also need to find a nearby base camp location large enough to accommodate a feature film scale crew (the show always carries SFX, stunts and 2nd unit), not to mention locking down a landing pad or another nearby lot for the helicopter. “On S.W.A.T., very often, the key is finding big enough lots for up to three base camps and then looking for locations nearby,” says scout Dominick Clark, LMGI.”
Of course, the Location Department on S.W.A.T., like all Location Departments, is always coming up against creative expectations and the realities of safety and control in a major city. Clark was sent to find a suitable location for the entire sequence they’d be allowed to completely shut down. Safety is always his primary concern. “For this particular sequence, because of the aerial element, it was imperative that we find an area with no live-wires like electrical or telephone poles. It needed to be just a bare intersection. Not an easy thing to find in L.A., as you can imagine,” said Clark. Once he’d found the location with an assist from FilmL.A., KALM Logan White got sent in. According to Bohanan, “He is the neighborhood negotiator.”
Ultimately, the team was able to lock down The Reef LA Mart’s parking lot where the explosion would happen, but the real question was whether the city would allow them to shut down such a large run-up of streets before reaching the lot or if they would have to shoot elsewhere and tie in a different location. “It is very hard to do a show like this in L.A. where we have a lot of driving. That seems to be the biggest challenge. Every episode we get seems to have some sort of car chase. I’ll read it and just be like, ‘Oh, God…’ and we can’t do the car work we do with regular ITC … we have to have complete shut-downs,” says Bernard.
“We had lots of meetings with the city’s permitting agency FilmL.A. to get them on board and, even though we were going to shoot it on a weekend, we really had to get them in sync to get such a large closure,” Surkin says. The team got approved to shoot the run-up to the explosion on both S. Main and S. Broadway.
“I hadn’t done anything as big as the truck sequence in television before and I hadn’t seen anything of that scale in L.A. since we used to shoot big features here,” says Bernard. “I don’t know how Keith and Aviv were able to pull it off, honestly.” In the end, the sequence took several weeks of planning and the permit was 70 pages long! On the day, they did one final tech scout and went into full-on lockdown mode, closing down roughly 18 blocks for the car chase. To manage the closure, they had no less than 25 off-duty LAPD officers and “an army of PAs to lock up pedestrians,” says Surkin.
According to Surkin, they got the announcement that they were being picked up for a second season just after they’d completed the sequence. A well-earned bit of news.
One of the pleasures for the location team on S.W.A.T., both in terms of their personal lives and what they get to feature on the show, is getting to shoot L.A. for L.A.—something rarely done these days. “We strive to shoot iconic Los Angeles, and we love shooting in town. It’s nice to be able to go home at night, but in terms of the show’s narrative, our goal is to do big things in hard places,” says Surkin.
Production designer Andrew Murdock, who has been on since the pilot and who had worked with Justin Lin on Star Trek Beyond, notes, “If you’re going to fly a helicopter and drones, you want those high and wide shots. You want to see that iconic L.A. skyline. We’re always trying to get that authentic urban L.A. texture into the show. That’s my favorite phrase: ‘urban texture,’” laughs Murdock.
For the members of the Location Department, the most popular settings from the show tend to be those that could only be done in Los Angeles; among them, a rooftop chase shot in Venice Beach and another car chase they shot on Vine Street directly in front of the famed Capitol Records Building. The legendary location, originally built in 1956, has been featured in many movies and television shows over the years and clearly hasn’t lost any of its magic.
“Shooting there took two months of planning. We shot on a weekend and we were right in front of the building—I mean, how much more iconic L.A. can you get than that? We had stunt cars sliding all over the place from the freeway down the hill to Hollywood Boulevard. It was crazy standing there, in the middle of a completely locked-up Vine Street. You just look around and go, ‘Man, this is awesome,’” says Surkin.
Now, halfway into Season 2, they often find themselves traveling virtually the entire span of Los Angeles. From their stages in Santa Clarita down to Long Beach, from Downtown to the Westside, the South Bay and beyond, the team is constantly on the lookout for new and exciting locations while also featuring some of the city’s most famous landmarks whenever possible.
“This season is huge,” says Bernard. “I made the mistake of going into the writers room once we got picked up for the second season and telling the writers, ‘go as big as you want and we’ll try to accommodate.’”
On day one of Season 2, the cast and crew found themselves on the helipad of the US Bank Building, the second highest building in L.A. There they were, some 73 floors above the street shooting a sequence in which their lead actor, amid yet another shootout, leaps onto a hovering helicopter for a mano-a-mano fight with the latest bad guy.
“When I hire people and they ask what it’s like on the show,” Surkin says, “I’ll tell them, ‘OK, whatever show you’ve worked on? We’re double,’” but he also admits the stuff they pull off can be “ridiculous fun.” And as on any show, it’s important to keep it friendly with the city and local residents. “We don’t want to piss off the community because we want to be able to come back,” says Surkin.
Bernard, meanwhile, sums up S.W.A.T. this way: “The bar always gets raised.”
Fortunately for the producers, they have an elite team on the show capable of handling anything that gets thrown at them … not the S.W.A.T. team, but the S.W.A.T. location team.
S.W.A.T. Location Department Season 2
Aviv Surkin, LMGI
Key Assistant Location Managers
Dominick Clark, LMGI (scout)
Gavin Glennon (scout)
Shasta Kinney, LMGI
Assistant Location Managers