Foiled by COVID, a period story set in New York
and scouted in Boston, lands in Los Angeles
and into the hands of LM Robert Foulkes…
by Jared Cowan
All photos courtesy Robert Foulkes/LMGI unless otherwise noted
“I got into location managing for the creative aspect of it,” says L.A.-based LM Robert Foulkes/LMGI. “It’s not just about logistics; it’s about diving into the world. I love that we are among the first people hired; it’s just us and a designer and a director. That was the ultimate goal: how rewarding it is to be the one that gets to help decide what the movie looks like.”
In the case of Foulkes’ latest credit on director David O. Russell’s newest film, the WWI and Depression era-set Amsterdam, what the movie would look like depended very much on his ability to match period locations for a story already slated to film in and around Boston playing for New York with those in Los Angeles.
“They had a lot of locations lined up in Massachusetts, which, honestly, a lot of them would have been really authentic, beautiful East Coast locations of the period,” explains Foulkes. Russell’s previous films—The Fighter, American Hustle and Joy —had all been filmed in the area.
Supervising art director Alexander Wei says, “I think from that familiarity came an understanding that there’s a lot of architecture, a lot of buildings, a lot of locations that haven’t been touched in a very long time.” Wei estimates they were about seven weeks out from principal photography when COVID hit. Over the summer of 2020, “We had to retool and figure out what the other options were,” he says.
At the behest of the cast, the shoot relocated to Los Angeles.
Production designer Judy Becker says, “My first thought was ‘Oh, no,’ because I think the exterior light is a dead giveaway that it’s Los Angeles and not the East Coast. I think most people who work in a visual field can see it.”
Nonetheless, Becker immediately reached out to her go-to L.A. location professional, Robert Foulkes.
“They all knew there was a finite number of period neighborhoods or buildings that would work,” shares Foulkes about L.A.’s limited inventory. “It wasn’t constantly like, find more, find more, which happens on some movies and it’s fine if you have the time. This was just getting the decisions made on which ones we wanted to go with,” says Foulkes.
A Passion for Cinema
In talking with Foulkes, you quickly learn that he is a fortuitous combination of location professional and cinephile.
Foulkes first started falling in love with movies of the 1970’s—he says he’s more of a Close Encounters guy than a Star Wars guy—but it was the mid-1980’s when locations made a formidable impression on the L.A. native who was raised in a showbiz family. Foulkes first felt the palpable use of locations with Wim Wenders’ Palme d’Or-winning 1984 road movie Paris, Texas, his favorite film of all time.
Foulkes says, “It’s one of the greatest location movies ever—using locations to tell your story.” The film brought out the locations fan in the cinephile. Fifteen years ago, he went on his own journey tracking down the movie’s L.A. locations.
Throughout his career, a few of his own locations have made indelible impressions on audiences. He’s perhaps most often asked about closing down a major freeway interchange to film the vibrant opening musical number of La La Land.
Foulkes thinks his passion for film is key for directors and designers that keep hiring him. He’s reteamed with directors like Karyn Kusama, Martin McDonagh, Miguel Arteta and Ryan Murphy.
“You get that great feeling when you’re in a car with Martin McDonagh and you reference some movie and he says, ‘Oh, yeah!’ and we can have a conversation,” says Foulkes. “Being able to chat about movies is not a requirement for the job, but it makes it great when you can have those conversations.”
Foulkes has worked two times with the Oscar-winning husband-and-wife team of production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco (Seven Psychopaths, La La Land). His multiple collaborations with the Oscar-nominated Becker (Feud, Ratched) are fueled by a love of cinema.
Wei says Foulkes and Becker will often reference movies, even the most obscure, as a way to communicate the creative needs of a particular show.
“They’re just sort of always talking in what, to some people, might seem like a code. Judy will say, ‘Oh, halfway through on this movie, the camera goes down and we see the ceiling. We need a ceiling like that,’ and Robert will know exactly what she needs,” says Wei, laughing.
“It takes people like Judy—and he also has a great relationship with director Karyn Kusama—to understand the power of having a guy like Robert who is a real filmmaker,” says KALM Alyjoe D. Valdez/LMGI.
“He’ll photograph a location like a director. He’ll put a lens to it and visualize what a shot might be,” says Wei.
Foulkes finds joy in scouring real estate sites or news articles to find something out of the ordinary he can show a production designer or director. He has an immense, personal computer database of locations he’s photographed over three decades.
“I’ve had a lot of location managers who just show me the usual places, which we’ve all seen a million times. So, I’m having to educate them about architecture, and forget about cinema because that’s not even on the plate,” says Becker, who, along with Wasco, successfully sponsored Foulkes’ invitation into the Designers Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) in 2020. “Robert cares about movies and has a knowledge of cinema and a knowledge of architecture. Obviously, he knows L.A. really well, but he cares, he really cares.”
A Closely Guarded Script
Russell’s conspiracy-fraught murder mystery, loosely based on real-life historical intrigue, shot in L.A. from mid-January through mid-March of 2021. It opened in theaters on October 7, 2022. It is now available to stream on multiple platforms.
With friendships forged on the French front lines of WWI, in a Belgian infirmary and during heady post-war bohemian-fueled months in Amsterdam, the three main characters meet up again in 1933 New York and discover the truth behind a disturbing, dark money plot to install a fascist dictator in the White House. Christian Bale, John David Washington and Margot Robbie—with a brief appearance by Taylor Swift—are among the star-studded cast.
The script was kept under tight wraps. At first, even Foulkes wasn’t given a copy.
“I was slipped a script early on from Judy. I was like, ‘I’ve got to read the thing.’ And she realized, ‘Of course you have to read the thing.’ That’s what you would normally do as a location manager!” says Foulkes, laughing at the absurdity.
One of the biggest challenges for Foulkes was sifting through the scout photos from Massachusetts while considering the limitations of period, film-friendly locations in L.A.—while also having to deal with the strict COVID protocols that were now in place.
Wei recalls, “When we started shooting in January of 2021, that’s when COVID was really spiking in L.A. SAG was urging all productions to shut down. We were one of the few, if not the only one, that just stayed the course. There’s one location that we prepped, and we were ready to shoot, but it would have put the whole company out on a street in downtown, in the Arts District, which was just too much exposure for the neighborhood and the crew.”
Those concerns put constraints on production throughout the filming. Though Foulkes says that it’s unfortunate the movie couldn’t have featured more exteriors, he doesn’t think it handicapped the film. The self-contained tone is actually somewhat reconcilable within the context of the story.
“The movie wanted to be kind of interior,” says Foulkes. “It’s about the faces and the characters and the dialog. It had a very controlled vibe to it. This was almost like a play. As you were watching it, it felt like you couldn’t turn the camera anywhere. It was very specific on what you were looking at.”
Ready for Their Close-Ups
Amsterdam largely unfolds in New York City—the home of Broadway—and the setting of the film’s climax is an old, vaudeville theater. A downtown Los Angeles venue, a Pasadena mansion, neighborhoods frozen in time, and recognizable maritime locales like the Queen Mary (doubling as the interior of New York’s famed Waldorf Astoria Hotel) and the S.S. Lane Victory in San Pedro would provide grand backdrops for the film’s settings—and final send-off.
Even the most trained eye is likely to be delighted and surprised by the employment of these and the handful of other oft-shot period locations that make up the visual character of Amsterdam. “We have to do something to amend them somehow,” says Wei, “or shoot them in such a way that it feels fresh, which is a very daunting task.”
Limited as they may be, Los Angeles’ period gems are, and always have been, ready for their close-ups. And doubling locations for other places is a Hollywood staple. Except for an office build and Paramount’s backlot providing exteriors for New York’s Park Avenue and a careening car chase on city streets, Foulkes and his team assembled the film’s world with practical L.A. locations.
Though his assistants were never privy to the script, they managed to stay on top of their game. Except for ALM closer Victor Soriano, Foulkes had previously worked with all the members of his Location Department. “We had already bonded together as a team, so I was happy to have them back on board for this shoot, which actually turned out to be quite ambitious,” he says.
That team included his longtime KALM, Tristan Daoussis/LMGI. With Amsterdam under their belts, Foulkes and Daoussis have, by IMDb’s account, worked together on 13 shows. The two have become not only colleagues, but also great friends.
“He’s got the personality for the job. He’s really good at scouting,” Foulkes says of Daoussis, who handled the Pasadena mansion location, among others, for this project. “He’s an incredible people person. He really gets to know people and care about them. He’ll accumulate friends. He’s still friends with people in Sylva, North Carolina, from Three Billboards.”
Daoussis says that Foulkes always encourages creativity. “He doesn’t just settle for what some others would,” says Daoussis. “With Robert, we’re not just people that go out and scout. He’s super open for us as a team to come up with an idea. I think that’s what kind of keeps us going, too.”
KALM Kevin Danchisko/LMGI wrangled the Paramount lot and the filming at the Queen Mary, and KALM Danny Finn/LMGI was the office coordinator.
Both KALM’s, Valdez and Maria De La Rosa/LMGI, had worked at the Entertainment Industry Development Corp. (EIDC) before it became FilmLA. Valdez is an expert in permitting and De La Rosa has a background in community outreach. Valdez started with Foulkes as KALM on Ratched; De La Rosa’s first gig with Foulkes was on Ford v Ferrari (2019) as a coordinator.
Batman & a Clever KALM Charm Angelino Heights
Toward the end of Ford v Ferrari, Foulkes told De La Rosa that he wanted to make her a key on his next show. She had no prior key experience and assumed that her career path was going to be location coordinating.
“I just had a feeling that her instincts would be great in the field,” says Foulkes. He assigned her to prep locations in Angelino Heights, the historic neighborhood near downtown L.A. known for its picturesque Victorian homes—and the challenges presented to the intrepid filmmakers who dare to venture there.
Film tourism—or film vandalism—has brought heated ire to Angelino Heights. The blockbuster franchise The Fast & the Furious has set up shop in the neighborhood over multiple sequels. As a result, there have been reports of speeding cars blazing through the narrow, hilly streets and burning “donuts”—visible on Google satellite view—into the scorched pavement
“That area really does read well for the Northeast,” says Becker, who had never shot there before, but was quick to see that the neighborhood had the perfect look for the film.
“We actually avoided Angelino Heights at first because it’s well known to be tricky. The rules are hard,” says De La Rosa. Adds Foulkes, “There’s a lot to keep track of, people to keep happy and you have to know where you can and can’t be.”
De La Rosa admits, “I honestly looked to Robert like, ‘How do we do it?”’
Familiar with her prior experience working in field services at the film office and, for a time, gathering signature surveys with Pacific Production Services (PPS), Foulkes knew she would be perfectly suited for the task. She also had a secret weapon that would prove just as valuable: From 2003 to 2007, De La Rosa had actually lived in the neighborhood.
She says, “It gave me an instant respect for everybody. Anytime I spoke to anyone, I said, ‘Hey, so this is what’s happening, and actually, I used to live here.’” Foulkes’ faith in her abilities would pay off.
The production was able to close down the intersection of Kensington Road at Douglas Street, a main thoroughfare connecting Sunset Boulevard to the north with Bellevue Avenue to the south. “No one’s ever been able to do that before or since,” says Valdez.
An apartment interior was set inside an 1888 Victorian on Kensington Road, a particularly sensitive street. The home of the general played by Robert De Niro, a highly decorated Marine who is unknowingly at the center of a Nazi coup attempt, was split into two homes.
The exterior was a corner-situated Victorian that Foulkes had used as Annette Bening’s house in Running with Scissors. It had the terrain where it would be easy to film a character rolling down a hill—a detail important to the director’s vision for a scene that barely made the final cut. It would also provide a wide shot of the neighborhood in a rare daytime exterior.
Wei says the Running with Scissors house lacked an interior staircase for the natural progression of the characters walking in and up a flight of stairs. So, production moved over to the neighborhood’s noted centerpiece, Carroll Avenue, and the interior of the famous red house from the fan-favorite WB series, Charmed.
“I was like, ‘Wow, is this the first time that the Charmed house is being used and you don’t even know it’s the Charmed house?’” says De La Rosa.
Between contract negotiations, prep, shoot and strike, De La Rosa spent almost every day for about a month in Angelino Heights. During that time, she became friendly with an out-of-work single mother whose driveway she had rented for truck parking.
One day, the woman and her 8-year-old son were watching the filming from across the street. De La Rosa happily pointed out the actors on set—Bale amongst them. The woman told her son, ‘That’s Batman.’ Just then, a producer approached De La Rosa and requested that she ask the woman and the boy to move along. De La Rosa informed the producer that it was a public street and because they weren’t interfering, they could stay.
De La Rosa diplomatically suggested that they simply relocate to the other side of the street, and then move again when the crew moved. “Just keep playing that game,” De La Rosa told her. “But don’t go home. It’s your neighborhood. COVID’s the only thing we have to worry about.” De La Rosa then excused herself to check on one of the other houses that production was using.
Later, the woman told De La Rosa that after she had left them, her son had insisted on going home to change into his Batman pajamas. They returned to set, taking up their spot to watch the filming when Bale started walking toward them.
“She figures he’s walking to a hair and makeup person or something. The next think you know, Christian Bale is standing in front of them, introducing himself and asking their names. Then, he kneels down and has a 10-minute conversation with her son!” says De La Rosa.
“That’s one of the best memories about doing this neighborhood on this movie. They were told to go away, and Christian Bale noticed, and Christian Bale made it right.”
Valdez enthusiastically concurs, “It’s these moments where people are like, ‘That was priceless. Come shoot in my neighborhood anytime!’”
Mansions and Troublesome Topiary
Two historic homes were merged to create an old money mansion for a tycoon businessman and his conniving wife—both Nazi sympathizers.
The magnificent wood-paneled interior of the Voze residence was that of the Guasti Villa at the Peace Awareness Labyrinth and Gardens in the Jefferson Park neighborhood. The mansion was built between 1910-1914 for an Italian winemaker. In 1937, revered film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley purchased the Italian Renaissance-style mansion.
The exterior location of the mansion, however, was jeopardized when unexpected set dressing was proposed.
The Tudor-style brick mansion built in 1928 on affluent S. San Rafael Avenue in Pasadena is one of the most filmed houses in the L.A. area. It’s appeared in movies like Stand by Me, Dead Again, Rush Hour, Bowfinger and Bridesmaids—along with scores of ’70s and ’80s television shows. It’s arguably most famous as the exterior of Wayne Manor from the wonderfully campy 1960’s Batman TV series.
Dea Brawley, an L.A.-based location agent who represents the house, says she doesn’t show the San Rafael property that often. She goes off instinct, depending on the people involved and whether the nature of the project is a good fit for the owner. In this case, Brawley says that Foulkes was key. “He’s just lovely to work with. I trust him. To help him, I’d bend over backward,” says Brawley. “He’s smart, he’s kind and he’s thoughtful.”
The house had already been secured for filming when the idea sprouted to install a topiary swastika in the middle of the home’s circular driveway. Brawley says, “When they asked me, my stomach sank to the floor. I didn’t quite know how to make this happen for them. So, I took a long pause, maybe for 12 hours or so, before I even broached the question to the property owner in the most thoughtful manner I could.”
Wei says, “Robert and I spoke about that swastika for weeks on end. It was always evolving. Robert really had to work his magic to get approval for that.”
“There were a lot of back-and-forth emails,” says Foulkes. “I have emails in which the owner wrote back saying, ‘I do not want this.’”
“It’s a big thing, and I don’t know how they convinced the owner,” says Becker. “This is basically a story about the American Nazi movement and bringing that to light and informing people about it.”
“We definitely made it clear the story is completely antifascist and not celebrating this,” says Foulkes. Brawley explained to the property owner the era in which the film took place, saying, “They need to do it because they need to establish the emotional, impactful drama of the story.”
The homeowner eventually agreed, but there was a limited window in which the offensive shrubbery was allowed on the property, and it had to be covered when the camera wasn’t rolling.
“It’s a complicated greens thing to do. It was live brush, but we built it on a plywood base, so we didn’t have to dig into the grass,” says Wei. “There was a short window of time between cutting the brush, assembling it and still having it last for the shoot.”
The result is a haunting, high angle shot void of people with the world’s most reviled hate symbol situated in front of a long-established filming location that is instantly transformed into something a far cry from Wayne Manor.
“It was huge,” recalls Daoussis about the shrubbery drama and the sensitive Pasadena neighborhood as a whole. But he is proud of what they were able to accomplish. “Looking back,” he says, “I’m happy that we did it. It’s kind of like La La Land. At the time you’re going, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into? What are we doing?’ Then, years later, people go, ‘Ohhh, that freeway scene…!’ So, in the end, it’s all worth it.”
To film 1918 Europe, production moved to the San Gabriel Valley. RSI—Lanterman, in Pomona, the site of a former state-run developmental disability center that closed in 2014 after 87 years in operation, is a today a sprawling, 800-plus acre, film-friendly campus just an hour out of Los Angeles.
The facility opened in 1927 as an asylum meant to segregate the “feeble-minded,” a term the state defined as those who were mentally deficient or couldn’t care for themselves. Perhaps most disturbing about the facility’s early history is its dealings in eugenics and sterilization, a subject that is broached in Amsterdam during a scene filmed at the location. In the 1960’s, it reorganized into the Lanterman Developmental Center and refocused its efforts into the research, treatment, rehabilitation and reintegration into society of the developmentally disabled.
“Some buildings had been renovated to some degree over time and some buildings had just clearly been abandoned,” says Wei. “You can definitely find buildings that have never been touched and are pretty accurate to their original time.”
“It’s like you’re on a studio lot, but there’s nobody there to bother you,” says Daoussis.
“It’s pretty creepy,” adds Becker. “There’s these little old playgrounds and a little swimming pool and everything’s deserted.”
In some cases, Foulkes says there’s the potential of sacrificing aesthetic at a one-stop shop, but Amsterdam was able to successfully get six solid looks at Lanterman. They include the French front lines—ilmed during a rare rainy day in Southern California—an office interior, and a few settings that didn’t make it into the film.
Back in Pasadena, the filmmakers were able to transform rooms and corridors at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena into a Belgian hospital and Valerie’s Amsterdam apartment, built in place on the top floor.
The Romanesque-style church was built in 1925. Foulkes says, “That was definitely an example of, you’re looking for a period aesthetic and you’re not going to hospitals for this. You’re creating it somewhere with the correct type of corridors, the correct type of hardware on the doors, and the size of the room and the way the light comes in.”
“Sometimes we’d just find a room that would work for one shot and turn it into something entirely different,” says Wei, referencing a quick shot of a deceased general played by Ed Begley Jr. lying in a pine coffin.
“It was probably my favorite of all the locations,” says Becker. “It had so much we could do there!”
Rallying for the Grand Finale
The film’s dramatic finale, where the evil plot to co-opt a modest veterans’ gala is exposed, is loosely inspired by two dissimilar events both held inside the third iteration of New York’s Madison Square Garden: a 1937 “Boycott Nazi Germany” rally and a 1939 Nazi rally billed as pro-American.
Becker says, “It was envisioned as more of a huge hall, more like a Nazi-looking assembly place, very brutalist, very Albert Speer.” Her East Coast location manager, David Velasco, had already presented the perfect location in the Worcester Memorial Auditorium in Massachusetts.
With the move to L.A., it was now up to Foulkes to match the venue—and meet the expectation. He was given the time to scout what he says were incredible auditoriums throughout California. “The theater was sort of the anchor,” he says. “The idea was if we could find an auditorium that made everyone go ‘Wow, we have to use this one,’ then you could definitely find period houses.”
But nothing ever stuck. L.A.’s Shrine Expo Hall and Variety Arts Center were favorites for a while, says Foulkes, but COVID meant limiting extras. The idea of a large, cavernous space gave way to finding something less massive in downtown L.A.’s historic movie houses. The decision was finally made to use the 1911 Palace Theatre.
Valdez, who managed the Palace with Daoussis, says the max amount of background permitted was about 120. “Looking at those scenes, they did look pretty full of people. I think the Palace gave David flexibility because once you’re in the thing, and the way they had it set up, you could almost do a 360 and you’re still in New York in the ’30s.”
Becker says, “There was less to cover up at the Palace. It looked more period; it didn’t have anything egregious. By egregious, I mean for the story. All of the theaters are beautiful, but the Palace is not so fancy that it feels weird for the scene. It feels a little bit more down to earth.”
“It’s a little more intimate,” says Daoussis. “It does have an older Broadway feel.”
A staircase off the stage right wing that leads into the rafters provided a dynamic, multilevel setting for a climactic chase sequence.
Scenes shot at the Palace featured not only the three leads, but also the remaining star-studded cast, including De Niro, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldaña and Timothy Olyphant.
“It was probably the biggest base camp that I’ve had to deal with,” says Daoussis. Without one central parking lot that could handle the infrastructure, and COVID dictating social distancing, Daoussis had six or seven parking lots being utilized at all times.
The amount of talent and producers on set meant major coordination in the narrow alley behind the Palace, where Escalades were on constant rotation dropping off and picking up at the backstage door. Valdez says that garbage trucks, disgruntled businessowners and the homeless—all who require or desire access to the alley—are standard items to address at a location like the Palace. “But when you have 20 Escalades,” says Valdez, “it just multiplies. Most shoots you’ve got four or five Escalades to deal with. One day on Amsterdam, I counted 25.”
It Is All Worth It
Amsterdam has been honored with a California On Location Award (COLA) nomination for De La Rosa as “Key Assistant Location Manager of the Year in a Feature Film.” Win or lose, it’s an acknowledgment of her tireless work in Angelino Heights.
“Everyone was hoping that would happen for her because Angelino Heights was her baby,” says Foulkes.
Perhaps the greater reward came when De La Rosa learned that the single, out-of-work mom whose son had met Batman in Angelino Heights had, soon after the filming wrapped, started working with a friend who happened to be in locations. The woman eventually earned admission into the union—Teamsters Local 399—and is now working as an ALM.
“I was like, ‘That’s cool!’” exclaims De La Rosa. Presented with the idea that she may have changed this woman’s life, she responds modestly, “I didn’t even think of it that way. Hopefully, we will get to work together!”
The location team on Amsterdam was essential to the creative reimagining of where the story could be told. The success of the filming in Los Angeles is a testament to the resourcefulness of production, steadily moving forward in spite of the pandemic and a major location switch. Having to work within the constraints of a finite list of period 1920’s and 1930’s locations in many sensitive areas, and also managing the logistics required to accommodate the large cast, Valdez and Daoussis admit that Amsterdam was one of the toughest shoots they’ve ever worked on.
Foulkes agrees, “It’s funny, on paper it doesn’t look like this would have been the challenge it was because there are a lot of interiors. But this was a challenging movie. I will look back on it proud of what we pulled off because it was a lot to deal with.”
AMSTERDAM LOCATION DEPARTMENT:
Robert Foulkes/LMGI – LM
Maria De La Rosa/LMGI – KALM
Tristan Daoussis/LMGI – KALM
Alyjoe D. Valdez/LMGI – KALM
Danny Finn/LMGI – KALM
Kevin Danchisko/LMGI – KALM
Victor Soriano – ALM
Selso Ladera – Security Coordinator