Interview: Air Miles with Lori Balton

30 Sep 2019 by Hannah Brandler
Credit Christina Gandolfo

Lori Balton is a location scout and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She is a founding member of the Location Managers Guild International, and has worked on films such as Inception, The Lion King and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

What inspired you to become a location scout?

I was working as a location manager for many years, which was a difficult 24/7 job. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought I would focus on the part of the job I truly love. It’s still long hours but my schedule is more flexible and better suited to raising a child.

What locations have you passed off for others?

Argo was shot primarily in Los Angeles [but set in Tehran]. A lot of Europe was doubled in versatile Montreal for Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Perhaps one of my best finds was a southern home for Ghosts of Mississippi – no one believed that we shot so much of that movie in LA.

What’s the most remote location that you’ve used in a film?

I love scouting for plate shots – images that are digitally inserted into the film with visual effects. I scouted some pretty remote locations in the western US for the hyena’s lair and elephant graveyard in The Lion King. For the upcoming film Jungle Cruise, I spent a number of rugged, wonderful weeks scouting the Amazon in Brazil, Peru and Colombia.

What are some of your most rewarding projects?

From great scripts, like Seabiscuit, and the upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon, to collaborating with fun, smart people like Christopher Guest, Ava DuVernay, Cameron Crowe and Alexander Payne. From steam trains for Dumbo to irrigating Vietnamese rice paddies for an upcoming Marvel project.

What are the main criteria when picking a location?

We start with an evocative, visually compelling location that helps the director to tell his or her story. Then there are many variables. Can we get the crew to it? Can we afford it? Can we control it? Issues of safety, noise, logistics, traffic, proximity to hotels and airports, and parking all come into play.

Is it difficult to travel with equipment?

The worst is in a connecting puddle jumper [a small aircraft for short distances] when they make me check in my carry-on even though I know it will fit on the plane. I understand that there are rules but when they make no sense, and other people are boarding with larger pieces of luggage, it’s frustrating.

Does climate affect your choice in locations?

There used to be some seasonal predictability but climate change adds a challenging dimension to filmmaking. Hurricanes, typhoons, tornados, monsoonal rains and extreme temperatures can seriously set back production. All things being equal, film where the crew is safe and comfortable. However, if the locations are unique, we zip up our gear, add or remove layers, and go where the script leads.

How do you ensure safety when scouting locations?

The same year as the Narcos incident [a location scout for the TV series was murdered in Mexico], another scout was murdered in San Francisco. I won’t scout alone in sketchy places, and I always try to be aware of my surroundings. Your vision is limited when your camera is to your eye. Growing up in New York, I tend to walk with purpose, like I belong.

What are the biggest obstacles to finding locations?

A lack of vision on the part of production. I have been very fortunate to work with people who prefer thinking outside the box.

What’s your dream destination?

I’d like to scout Patagonia, the Galapagos, Fiji and the South Pacific, India and more of Africa. The more remote, the less likely I will get sent for work. The exception is plate shots, since the crew is so small and we can really go anywhere. I’d love to be the queen of plate shots and travel far from the beaten path.

What are your indispensable travel gadgets?

Bose noise-reducing headphones, Flight 001’s universal adapter, Evian facial spray and Aesop’s Resurrection Aromatique Hand Balm – an instant vacation for your senses


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