Hollywood Jobs: Leslie Thorson, Location Manager

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In our new series Hollywood Jobs, Rebecca Rose will interview people who work in all aspects of the entertainment industry – except performing. Here, you'll meet the people who keep the show going on behind the scenes.

Leslie Thorson is a Key Assistant Location Manager who has worked on over 20 major Hollywood films, including LA Confidential, Something’s Gotta Give and The Italian Job.  Leslie spoke with me from her home in Los Angeles in order to help me understand what it takes to do one of the toughest, if most under-appreciated fields in production.

So Location Management.  That’s just taking pictures of pretty places and finding all the funky looking diners in Hollywood, right? That job sounds awesome. Sign me up.
(Laughing)  I wish!  It’s a little more complicated than that.

What got you into this business in the first place?
Well, I was always interested in film. But I had no idea it was done by real people; I thought it was wizards or elves who were specially born and raised in LA or something. I’d seen 8 ½ and Day for Night,  so you’d think that would have given me more of a grasp.  But  I didn’t realize there were actual behind the scenes jobs.

When I was in college I wanted to act.  I thought film was all about about writers and directors and actors people like that. I tried to get a few acting jobs, until reality intervened and I had to make an actual living.  I worked in retail management, until I just couldn’t take it anymore.  I was  living in Atlanta, GA at the time. I had gone  through a a disastrous marriage.  I had lost everything, and that made me realize I had nothing to lose.  I decided I could do anything. So I tried the acting thing again.  But in that market, at that time, there were calls for only three types of actresses: “Moms,” “Business Women,” and “Supermodels” and I didn’t fit any of those types.   I got jobs as an extra, because that was all I could get.

I was working on this very low budget film, as an extra.  I am using the word “worked” very loosely, because I wasn’t paid.  They proposed to feed me potato chips and Coke, but I didn’t eat food like that.  During the shoot, I saw this big, wonderful table filled with all kinds of food. So I got in the line thinking I could have some.   I was tapped on the shoulder and told “That’s for crew not you.” I thought, “I’m a human being. Ive been stuck here all day for no money and you’re telling me I can't EAT? ” I decided I needed to wise up.  I started looking at these movie making people who were actually fed.  I wanted to know how they had it so good.

Proving once again that all major life decisions revolve around food.
Yup.  I realized the people who got to eat the good food were just regular people. not really more energetic or skilled or talented.  Just regular people doing a regular job.  So I started interviewing them, asking how did you do this, how did you get into it? How can I get in? I was told to ask the director about it. So I did.   On a real feature film that would have gotten me laughed at or shunned completely.  But on a small movie you can do things like that.  After the shoot, I kept track of him and kept calling when I heard he was working on another film.

So you basically stalked him until he relented?  See, my mother was wrong….that never turns out bad.
Yes, finally he said to me “I could use somebody on this film to drive the talent. It’s a bunch of young women.”  See, he wanted to have a woman do it, so there wouldn’t be a lot of flirting and things like that.   That’s how I got hired on Sleepaway Camp 2…AND 3”. It was a two-for-one shoot. They had gotten Bruce Springsteen’s little sister as the villain. [Actually, it was his production manager who hired me. I barely spoke to him after my initial bold call to him.]

Bruce Springsteen’s little sister!!  Wow, big time!
Afterwards, I said “I can do this” and I looked for more work.  People on the set talk to each other about other jobs.  Anyone who is fortunate enough to have something lined up…everyone is extremely anxious to get information about the job from them!

And once you got Sleepaway Camp 2, the work just flowed in, right? Isn’t that how it works? You do something once and then Hollywood just kicks your door down?
Well, I assumed since i got my foot in the door, that’s exactly how it would be.  I was a go-getter, willing to work long hours. I thought I’d get lots of work.  But unfortunately, that’s not the case.   I worked at a temp job filing insurance claims, until I finally got a call from a production company.  They had aspirations to do features, which was what I wanted to get into. I was hired to be their receptionist/producer’s assistant/whatever on a trial basis.  They eventually made me their production manager.  I made a lot of contacts  through them, and was able to go freelance.  But that was doing commercials.   I really wanted features. I was able to try a lot of different jobs at that time too, like wardrobe, script supervising, makeup, art direction, etc. And that time,  I started a little location scouting.

What was that like?
I was poor, with a crap car.  Location scouting involves lots and lots of driving around….my car would break down. I used to say “I found the perfect location! It must be because my car is refusing to move from this spot.” Thankfully clients were good with that.

Then I ran into a friend of mine one day, who was on a feature, and I pushed him to help get me on, too.  He ended up getting me an interview with someone in production.  I really liked doing set dressing and art direction, and I thought that’s what I was interviewing for.  I met with the Location Manager. I had no idea what they really wanted me for.  He said “So you really want to work in the art department?” And I was so excited and said “Yes, of course!”  “Well too bad,” he said. “This is for location,” but he hired me anyway. [I had, after all, done the job before…]

On this job, I got hit by a truck and totaled the car.  The film  I was working on RoboCop 3. So I bought one of the RoboCop cars…

Wait! You got to buy a RoboCop Car!?!  OMG I WANT A ROBOCOP CAR! That is the most awesome thing I have ever heard.
It was a Ford Taurus that didn’t look anything like a Taurus anymore.  It had flat black primer for the exterior. It cost me $500.   I drove that car around for as long I was in Atlanta.

So couldn’t you just do that job in Atlanta forever?  They make movies in a lot more places than LA, right? It seems like you had it pretty made. I mean, you did have a RoboCop car and everything.
I realized if I really wanted to make a go of it in features, not just “Movie of the Week” type things (which was mostly the type of work they had there before they developed their incentive program), I knew I had to move to LA or New York. I knew more Location Managers in LA, and called to find out if they would give me work if I moved, which they said they would. So I moved to LA in 1992 to do it full time.

How early in a production do you enter the project?
It depends.  Sometimes, my partner the Location Manager will call me up and we’ll discuss the project, to see if it’s something we should take on.  We’ll research it together.  Sometimes we’ll put a scout on it, unless Production already hired someone to do some scouting. Sometimes they’ve already done some preliminary work.  But that varies.  Last job, I didn’t scout as much. I did more budgeting and script break down.

What’s the first thing you do once you start working?
The first thing we do is we get the script and read it.  We break it down, working closely with the Production Designer, producer, etc. We spend a lot of time discussing with them.  We’ll do a whole breakdown from the script of everything that appears to be a separate location, and then discuss with them what they want built as a set.  First, we find out what they actually need to have scouted.  Ask about building sets.  Find out what they actually need on location, and then we go scout.

And you do take pictures, right?
Yes, we do.  We have websites, we put the pictures up on a website.  Everything is filtered through the Production Designer.  Once we get feedback, if it’s positive, we take the Production Designer and if he/she likes the location, then or the Director to take them out to look at the location.  Sometimes they like it and sometimes they don’t.

You’re in disgrace if you should take a director to a location that’s unshootable. We have to have an artistic eye as to what will work with the script.  But we always have to be thinking in terms of the logistics, too.  We constantly have to be thinking “Can this work from logistical standpoint?”  For example, we try to avoid shooting in the [Hollywood] Hills.

Yes, the Hills are like the Gates of Mordor to me.  I’m afraid to drive my Corolla up there.
And you can’t make a movie without a huge fleet of trucks and trailers.  It’s nearly  impossible to get all that on those streets without a ton of logistical problems.

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