Scout's Honor

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"I consider myself a traveling Monty Hall," chuckles Josh Karan. "I get paid for going `site'-seeing and giving out money." The life of this 49-year-old location scout resembles the Let's Make a Deal scenario in another way, too: He's never quite sure how things will turn out. "It's a crapshoot," Karan shrugs. Luckily, he's not limited to what's behind three doors when it comes to securing locations for ad shoots. He is, however, limited to the whims of creatives, producers, and directors, many of whom are often clueless about what a location scout does exactly, Karan insists. And what does a location scout do, exactly? Besides the endless searching, it's about networking, and lots of it. "I think of location scouting as the Houdini craft of the film industry," says Karan. "Everyone has expectations that locations are going to mysteriously appear, but many people don't have the slightest idea how it happens."

At one time, neither did Karan. A 20-year locations veteran, he started out as a scout's "general schlepper" in 1978, when he would often sweat through 16-hour days for as little as $25. After almost three years of paying these dues, he realized that he could officially anoint himself a location scout and jump into a higher tax bracket. Since then, he's become the nominal head of the New York Association of Location Scouts, a 15-year-old membership organization that aims to compensate for the lack of an official scouting union. For many years, the position has been considered a way station between peon and producer, so a union that's specific to location scouting has never been established in New York - or anywhere else for that matter.

Location scouts in Los Angeles were able to unionize only by joining with the Teamsters last year, which was possible in part because of their greater numbers (about 300 scouts in L.A. as opposed to about 100 in New York, according to Karan).

Organized or not, if one thing is true for all location scouts, it's that they should never take things for granted, and must always question the feasibility of a space, Karan asserts. For example, is there construction going on near the shoot? Noise is a no-no. Does it require equipment to be lugged up any stairs? The gaffers won't be happy. But the manageability of a specific location is one thing; hunting down the place and then obtaining a filming permit is quite another. Try finding a massive lawn overrun with dandelions, for example. When Karan was hired for a weed killer spot, tracking down the gardener's nightmare probably took him 300 miles of driving up and down every block of Long Island's Nassau County. "It's a matter of persistence," he shrugs.

With an arsenal of photo files, location listings and 20 years' worth of contacts at his disposal, Karan doesn't always have to be quite so gung-ho. Moreover, sometimes his work is downright Hollywoodish, like the recent Mercedes industrial film he scouted, which starred Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker. Unfortunately, he couldn't officially secure any locations until two days before the shoot, due to the celebs' last-minute scheduling pressures. "I didn't sleep for four days straight," Karan says resignedly. Of course, scouting for commercials is rarely that glamorous; in fact, it can be rather banal. "I once had to find the perfect pothole," Karan confesses, reminiscing about an Avis spot featuring a car taking a plunge during a flood. But this turned out to be easy; Karan had just learned from a road inspector that the Seagate section of Brooklyn was a veritable moonscape of craters.

But Karan is always prepared for the worst. "You never know what you're going to be faced with," he cautions. "I remember the time that I got locked up." But he remembers it only vaguely; in a nutshell, he was accused of soliciting without a permit while scouting in Livingston, N.J. He ended up spending a few hours behind bars, but it was all in a day's work for Karan, who doesn't even recall what commercial he was working on at the time. Location scouts often violate town ordinances that prohibit door-to-door canvassing, he says. In fact, in some towns they're expected to obtain a permit for the privilege of scouting.

Then there was the time when Karan took things for granted himself, assuring the producers of a rooftop party-themed Burger King spot that filming at the oft-used New York Clocktower Building would be no problem. Unbeknownst to Karan, the city engineer who normally permitted rooftop shoots had retired, and the new guy was a stickler for safety. Only when the tonnage of the filled pool they'd be filming was determined and roof support capability was ensured could the tar beach party begin.

As for the city's true picture-postcard gems, like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Times Square, Karan's been there, done that more times than he cares to count. Does he ever grow tired of the old standbys? Actually, no. "I don't find them boring or cliche," he insists. "Generally, it's not the location that makes something pedestrian. It's the way that it's used."

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