When EXPLO guarantees you’ll work alongside professionals in the entertainment industry, we mean it. Last summer, Business of Entertainment students spent the day with visual effects artists at Zero VFX — a leading post-production studio with locations in Boston and Venice Beach. While there, they met with a VFX partner and EXPLO Advisor, Charlie Harrington. A longtime film location scout, Harrington has worked on films from Good Will Hunting and Black Mass to The Last Samurai and Detroit.
Harrington sat down with Business of Entertainment students for a Q+A session about the film and television industry, the perks and perils of location scouting, and preparing for the future of the business. Our interview with him has been condensed and lightly edited. Here are some takeaways:
Breaking Into the Business
There are a number of inroads to the film industry, Harrington says, and where you start isn’t necessarily where you end up.
“I started out directing. I had a company here in Boston and we made a lot of music videos. When we shut down the business a couple of years later, somebody asked me if I wanted to scout locations. I was a good photographer and one of my friends knew it. He was working on a commercial and they needed a scout. So if you’ve got an eye for composition and photography, you’ve got a pretty good start on it.
“I did a lot of TV shows when I was starting in L.A., and those are really difficult because you’re shooting an episode while you’re scouting another episode. It’s like a never-ending cycle. I did comedies and romantic comedies for a few years. But now the last few movies I’ve done are Oscar-quality movies, and I’ve done a bunch of Oscar-nominated movies. I’ve been turning down jobs because I don’t like the script, and I’m at a certain point where I’m able to do that now.”
Brush Up on Those People Skills
While there are certainly careers in the entertainment industry that don’t require a gregarious or outgoing personality, location scouting isn’t one of them. Having good people skills is critical to your success as a scout, Harrington says, if for no other reason than getting people to let you crash a motorcycle on their front porch.
“It helps to be a people person and be able to, I have to talk a lot of people into things. Sometimes the director will say, ‘Oh, the motorcycle's going to crash up on that front lawn and wreck their front porch.’ Then I have to knock on the door and say, ‘Hi! I'm going to smash a motorcycle into your front porch — but I'll rebuild it, and it'll be even better.’ I have to talk them into it, so it helps to have some people skills."
The Art and the Business
Movies may seem like magic, but there’s big business happening behind the scenes.
“I’m often caught in between the artistic people and the money people,” Harrington says. “I’m given a budget at the beginning of each movie and I have to stay within that. Sometimes the set designer might want to do something like take down someone’s fence. If I don’t have it in the budget, I have to go to the producer and say, ‘It’s going to cost $10,000 to take that fence down.’ I have to deal with a lot of dollars and cents.
“The Last Samurai was tricky because we would scout around with helicopters and the director would say, ‘Right there, that’s perfect!’ and we’d land in some farmer’s backyard where I’d have to build roads and bridges just to get there. I’ve built $3 million worth of roads just to get people to the location. It went so far over budget that when it came to the producers and me and other department heads people would say, ‘Oh, he worked on Last Samurai — don’t hire him, he goes way over budget. But then the film came out and it was huge hit. Then everyone was saying, ‘Oh, he worked on Last Samurai, you should hire him!’ It can change like that.”
Get Your Passport Ready
Love to travel? Location scouting might be right up your alley. Harrington’s work has taken him from his homebase of Boston, Massachusetts, to Texas (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) to Venice (Cassanova) to New Zealand (The Last Samurai).
“I don’t mind traveling at all. But traveling internationally is even better. Probably my favorite movie I did was The Last Samurai. It was set in Japan but we made the film in New Zealand. It was about a Japanese village and we built the entire village in the jungle in New Zealand, so I was there for about 14 months. I brought my kids down and put them in school down there — they loved it! We all still have good friends there.”
The Industry is Everywhere — But Atlanta is Where it’s Really At.
When most of us think of movies and filmmaking, we think of Hollywood. But with tax incentives in other cities, advances in post-production technology, and the pull of authenticity in artmaking among filmmakers, young professionals looking to get a foot in the door may have more geographic options than ever before.
“A few years ago I would have said that if you wanted to get into post-production you should go to L.A. Everything else is kind of moving out of L.A. now. There’s 10-times as many movies and TV shows being made in Atlanta right now than there are in L.A. because they have tax incentives. Boston, as well, on a much smaller degree. If Boston brings in $300 or 400 million in in one year, Atlanta last year brought in $6.2 billion making movies. You might want to move to Atlanta if you want to get into the movie business!"
Get Your Hustle On
In the film industry, experience carries as much cache as education, Harrington says. And when you’re just starting out, you’ve got to hustle.
“It’s about keeping your ear close to the ground and finding out what’s coming to film in your town, getting the production office phone number, and just getting in there before someone else gets the job. Stay in touch with the film commission in your state or city. Those are the people that help me facilitate moives. If I need to close down a street and the city doesn’t want me to, I call the film commission and they call in their connections. They know what movies are coming in and out. Be the first person in there to ask for the job.”