LA Location Scout & Manager Charles Danek

The Producer: Charles, how long have you had your location scouting company? Did you get your start in Los Angeles?

Charles Danek: Yeah, I started in Los Angeles. I started as a producer and it was kind of an accident that I came into this industry. I came here as a singer-songwriter. I was friends with a rock ’n roll photographer who had me helping him with some odd jobs because he knew I needed a little help and that led to being his production assistant. Then there was a job where everyone got bumped up and the main assistant never got permits or insurance. I was able to procure those things in the background so when I came back, they pulled me aside and said “OK, now you’re the producer!” So that was how I started as a producer. I kind of learned the job backwards from there. As a producer I always loved scouting locations - that was always my favorite part of it. 

TP: What is it that you love about scouting locations?

CD: Exploring!  I love nothing more than to just get in my car and see what I can find. To see and discover new places. As I learned to be a producer, I simultaneously was learning to be a location scout and after six or seven years of that, I realized that I love scouting so much more than production, so I switched to doing that full time. It’s advantageous because I can still bring my producer hat to it a little bit. I don’t just find locations that fit the look of a project, but also where to put the trucks, how to negotiate, timing this, and the sensitivity with that - I bring that lens to it as well.

TP: I have to say that as a producer having worked with you before, that’s exactly what I love about working with you is you have that sensibility. You know to ask the right questions when we’re scouting certain locations, so we know which ones will be production-friendly and you seem have a wonderful nose for knowing and asking. It’s always been a great experience working with you and with the producer background it's really been helpful. 

Have you had any highlights or favorite projects? 

CD: There have been a lot of them. I work a lot with Todd Selby and what’s great about scouting for him is that he’s so specific about the artists and the eclectic interiors he likes to scout, it’s a little different. With a lot of companies it’s more straight-forward and by the books, “We’re looking for an All-American house.” But Todd will be like, “Ok I’ve got this friend, Jonny Makeup,  you need to call him and ask him where his friend Sarah took these pictures and then you need to call this other designer Andrew who has a studio” - that’s always a lot of fun. 

TP: Sounds like you have to be a location detective! Todd works in a way that is more organic - not simply checking off the boxes of what a typical ad client might need - those all-American homes or locations- here it’s more about the personality of a space and resident. 

CD: My process with him tends to be more specific, yeah. So my favorite projects — sometimes what makes a favorite project is the way that the team comes together and the synergy of it, but Todd’s are fun because it’s always the quirky places I get to look into. I also scout a lot for Tony D’Orio because his projects and the locations we need are often so much larger than life. Over the top. Shooting at the Ontario airport was really fun - I think the best question anyone’s ever asked me is, “So where do you want the 727?” 

TP: Tell me about how you started your company. You came to the business through a music friend, started in production then discovered you enjoyed exploring and scouting locations best.

How did you formally make the transition from producer to location scout? Did you set up a website right away?

CD: Most of my business has been through referrals and word-of-mouth and becoming a location scout was no different.  They way it worked was, I knew some producers out in New York that I crossed paths with. When the recession hit in ’08- ’09 suddenly there was very little work in LA. And the work that was there was coming in from NY. There wasn’t a lot of money to fly out producers at that time, so I began working with a couple of different producers as sort of a producer/location manager. They were able to produce the job from NY, get everything lined up and then I was their person on the ground, who knew the local ropes and could help out. I realized I loved working with other producers more than producing on my own. It’s more fun, so that’s sort of how it started.  Then I became known as a locations manager and scout here. I think I’m better at locations than I was at producing, so that’s part of it too maybe.

TP: Well it’s nice to hear that you like the collaboration.  That’s one of the aspects of the print world that I enjoy too.  You do end up having these more intimate teams, you collaborate pretty intensely and it’s less about a hierarchy of your roles. 

CD: [With print] you’re always stepping out of it a little bit. You’re right, in film, there’s the executive producer who writes the checks, there’s the producer who negotiates everything then there’s the line producer who makes it all happen. A stills producer - you sort of do all three of those. Locations less so but you might still have your hand in that too sometimes. For instance there was a shoot for Japanese client where I had to find a road that could be anywhere in the world, a road trip concept. So you look for trees that are a little more nondescript and something where it’s not just straight lines, but some curves and hills. Well then came the question of the car. The original art director’s concept was for a 60s Ford Mustang.  Well that’s not going to fly in Japan, because in Japan they don’t have old cars. So it kept going around the world and finally they settled on a BMW 5 series.  This made nobody happy, but that was a car that could exist everywhere. Until I thought, “If I was going to road trip on this old road, what about a Land Rover? Like a Discovery series because that’s a car that can be timeless - it could be old or new, it can exist anywhere in the world.” I’m not the art director, I’m not the art department, but sometimes you do see a location and you sort of fill in those blanks - and then of course… make them feel like it was their idea! 

In this industry you might have a masters degree, but no one will ever ask you to see it. They’ll look at the work you’ve done and the car you drive and go on that to determine your level of compatibility.

TP: Ha, yes! Clients want to be able to say no to certain things etc. So when you formally made that transition from being a producer to a location manager, did you then immediately incorporate and set up a website? Did you start with a big file management system? 

CD: Well because I had scouted most of the locations on my producer website I basically just changed it from “producer” to “locations”. I had to take a few things out that were more studio-oriented, but for the most part it wasn’t that hard. The website is useful as a reference when I’ve been recommended, in that they’ll want to see what I’ve done, but I don’t think it has really generated a whole lot of traffic. Locations is such a personal thing. Even producers I’ve worked with would want a recommendation from out of town or Le Book, but they won’t just start looking for someone, it has to come through some direction. 

So my website has more followed that than the other way around and I’m an LLC. So that limits my liability and it makes payroll easier for myself, so that’s what I do. 

TP: The website shows that you’re legit, but the word of mouth is how work comes down the pipeline.

CD: The website also shows the scale of the productions you’ve worked on. If you say your a location scout and everything’s in the kitchen, well do you know how to work with a hotel? We shot at the W a few months ago… If you can show people production value it allows them to trust you. Because you know in this industry you might have a masters degree but no one will ever ask you to see it.  They’ll look at the work you’ve done and the car you drive and kind of go on that to determine your level of compatibility. 

TP: So we’ve covered how you promote yourself which is not so much, just doing great work?

CD: Also my car!

TP: Yes! Oh your car is beautiful. Do you list your services anywhere?

CD: Photo reps know me, and I’ve gotten some work that way, but no I’m not repped by anybody.

TP: Do you promote yourself on any websites?

CD: I don’t actually, I don’t.

TP: That’s wonderful, that really speaks to your work. When you’re doing location scouting do you do this all single handedly or do you have assistants?

CD: 90% of it. Sometimes I can’t be two places at once so I have shooters I might deploy to go cover something on the other side of town from where I’lll be. I have good relationships with other scouts so we can kind of tag team it. Recently I had a job where I was out of town when it shot, so I scouted everything, got everything permitted and set up base camp but I had another person step in. The reverse has happened too, I got to work with Aerosmith one time, because he was out of town for the shoot so he scouted it all and I got to step in and be the location manager. 

TP: So if you worked with an assistant or if someone was interested in interning with you what would you look for in that individual? 

We were doing an ad where the theme was “A Day at the Lake” - like on a camping trip. There’s a private lake in Pasadena, so we set up a house and we looked like we were in summer in Minnesota, but it was February in LA.

CD: An interest in what it is. Thoroughness. Attention to detail. The hardest part of my job is not actually finding the locations, it’s making sure that at 2 in the morning when you’re finishing up with your submissions that the link for “Universal 718” actually lines up with “Universal 718” - double, triple checking all of that. Thoroughness is really key. Attention to detail. It’s a small mistake to cut and paste the wrong link but a huge one - and don’t ask me how I know this! If you get on the conference call, and everyone is gaga over this one property that you cleared it could turns out that they’re looking at the wrong picture.

TP: That’s where insurance comes in really handy!

CD: Well, I fixed it. It always works out, but yeah just someone that’s really thorough. You know I’ve interned a few people and its fun to bring people on shoots. They [the shoots] are always so different. Some technical shooters, they’ll want sun charts, they’ll want a picture of the floor, a picture of the ceiling a picture of what’s behind them where the camera’s going to be. They’ll want all of that and then you’ll get on the phone with someone like David Kennerly. He's great - he was a White House photographer during the Ford administration, so he’s got all of these Air Force One stories and stuff. I worked on Girl Scouts with him and I’m like, “So do you want to know where the sun is?” He looks at me like I’m from Mars and says, “Dude, the suns gonna be where the suns gonna be. I shoot wars! I don’t care where the sun chart is.” So you can actually get snipped at a little bit for doing the exact thing that the other guy wanted. 

TP: That also speak to you having that production background too, having the attention detail but also as a producer or in any role I think you have to really customize what you do for each individual so one photographer may want the sun path the other really doesn’t want that and I feel thats something we have to do as producers as well is really fine tuning. 

CD: That’s why its good to have repeat clients and I’m lucky that I have them. People want to work with you again and you just get better at it.

TP: What are some of your favorite places in LA?

CD: I can think of some amazing houses, there are places that I love to shoot in Chinatown - that’s a lot of fun, there’s a film liaison there who’s a lot of fun to work with. Downtown. What’s great about LA is that it can really look like anywhere. Someone can say I want Ohio in March and I can find that. Or, we just did a shoot where everything had to look like Asia. They were supposed to go to Asia, they didn’t have the budget for Asia, and it was for the Asia market. There were two scouts on that one and the other guy is showing them places like Asian restaurants, and thats not what Asia looks like. You have find the extreme but modern lines, so that’s fun. 

TP: So the benefits of shooting in LA is the versatility and - 

CD: Yeah, it could look like anywhere, we have Victorians, we have Spanish, we have 50s track homes, we have apartments, we have crazy modern architecture, we have urban landscapes. We were doing an ad where the theme was “A Day at the Lake” - like on a camping trip. There’s a private lake in Pasadena, so we set up a house and we looked like we were in summer in Minnesota, but it was February in LA. It’s like the game you play when you’re a kid where all the tiles are upside down and you turn one over and it would be a turtle and you have to find the other one [TP: Memory!] and you have to remember where you saw that. A lot of my job is like that and I’ll just be out to dinner somewhere I’ve never been and I’ll be like you know what this place is perfect for the next time I’m doing x, y, or z. 

TP: So you have the files that you manage but you also have the files in your brain!

CD: I don’t keep a lot of files! I mean I keep everything but they rarely come in handy. We’ll be shooting a product so I’ll shoot everything looking for niches for product. If I’m scouting 15 places in a day I don’t have time to be thorough and say this is the whole house for every conceivable production. I say, this is where you could put it here and this is where you can put it there, and the next time they’re going to want lifestyle shots -  

TP: Next time it will be a different client with a different need and once again you’ll do a custom job.

CD: It’s like casting. How great would it be - especially in the old days when everything was on paper and you’d have phone books with headshots that you would throw out after every job because the next job things would change. So sometimes I keep them for a quick reference, “oh you want outdoor cafe, well this is one in Los Feliz let me know if you want it,” find out if its still there, more specifically what you’re doing, match up the angle. But its rare that I feel, “Oh I don’t have to work today because I already scouted that” - that almost never happens. 

There’s always that one neighbor who is going to be screaming as soon as you pull up that first truck, you do the best you can. Smile, be professional and don’t let it get to you.

TP: LA is a really film savvy and friendly place.  What are some of the intricacies of Los Angeles being such a savvy location?

CD: Well said, film friendly, film savvy not necessarily the same thing. People come here for the climate and the diversity of locations, but also for the resources in the film industry. We have prop houses, we have talent, that’s all organized and it’s great. But you’re right, everybody knows whats going on. How many times have you been stopped here to be asked why you’re taking pictures? Probably this would be happening even if we were in downtown right now, nobody would care. But you learn with time what the sensitivities are. For instance, we just shot in a well known kind of hipster very trendy restaurant in Venice and I never bothered to talk to the manager, I went straight to their publicist because I know the manager is just going to say no. If I can make the case to the publicist that we’re shooting with this photographer, this is what the market is, this is what its going to look like, this is what its going to bring to your brand, no we’re not going to try to exploit it,, but we’re going to just show this - if you can really just speak their language you can make a lot more headway.

TP: And Charlie I have to say that's going above and beyond what a location scout would be doing. That is amazing. To recognize what you need to do, not only who to go to, PR in this case, but to speak to those points as well. That’s really impressive.

CD: That’s how you navigate this city. Sometimes you’re never going to win. There’s always that one neighbor who is going to be screaming as soon as you pull up that first truck, you do the best you can. Smile, be professional and don’t let it get to you. It can be a little frustrating or despairing just how mean sometimes people can be but you just have to [go with it]. We were shooting in another restaurant where we had everything set up. We get there and have to move all the wine. And the manager says, “No way you’re not moving our wine, we didn’t say you could move our wine.” So in addition to scouting I’m also the location manager so thats my thing to sort out. I have to say, “Look I was here, and I’m sorry that didn’t come up. The shot may have changed, but this is what we really need to do. What are your concerns?” “He was saying he was going to put my wine on the floor.” We don’t have to put it on the floor, let’s find another place for it to be. “Well, we don’t want them shaking it.” That’s okay, I can watch them and make sure that they don’t shake it.

TP: So you’re acting as a liaison, as a location manager you have to be a bit of a diplomat, balancing all sides.

CD: Absolutely. A tricky thing too is that I also feel like I work for the location. 

TP: Because you’re advocating for the location, you want to protect your relationship and maybe work with them again, right?

CD: Yeah, you never want to burn a bridge, so yeah you say, you know, I’m sorry, we didn’t pay to do this. We can do that, but then this is what that’s going to entail. It goes both ways. Like I said before, it usually works out. You usually find solutions. Everyone generally wants the same thing. They just want their say in how it gets done. My friend once told me there’s no such thing as bad news - it’s all just “additional information”.

TP: I like that! Things do have a way of working themselves out.  Do you have any favorite places in LA?  When you’re out on the road, do you have a place you use as a mobile office?

CD: My mobile office is my car. You know with the phone being able to tether now, I will literally be outside of a place I just scouted and load images to the site from the driveway. It will be loading while I’m driving to the next place. Then there’s Starbucks, sometimes I’ll just sit down and get through 50 emails while I have an iced tea. As for my favorite places that I’ve scouted,  it’s so hard to say because to me, I’ve done it for so long I don’t look at it like, “Oh I’d live there,” I look at it like, “Oh, this is so what the they are looking for, this is so the flavor of this ad.” 

TP: So perfect is really when you’re nailing the requirements of your client. 

CD: Yeah, that’s when I get the most excited. There are just so many amazing places in LA.

 TP: What about work-life balance? What do you do when you’re not working?

CD: I’m a full-time dad when I’m not working! I have a 9-year old daughter. My wife is full-time too but she works 9-5 so she’s more traditional. Location scouting is great because I’ll be able to drive her to school, and then I’ll have from 8am until 3pm to go scout. I’ll have all of my appointments set up, know what I need to see, and I’ll get all of that done. I’ll tell my clients “You’ll have things late tonight.” In New York, 6 o’clock is 3 o’clock in LA, so there’s no difference between 6 and midnight anyway. I’ll be with her from 3pm until she goes to bed at 9pm.  I’ll help her practice, do her homework, feed her. She’s a musician. Then when she goes to bed at 9pm, I’ll go through all my file pulls, I’ll load up all my websites, I’ll edit everything and then it’s waiting for the client the next morning at 7am. So it works out really well. The days I’m on-set, things need to be adjusted a little, but for the most part, this job allows me to be an after school dad as well. 

TP: So that’s your work-life balance. You’re doing it better than most people!

CD: Necessity! You know what it’s like as a freelancer, some months you’re just like, “Wow this is amazing,” and some months you’re like, “How is this going to work?” And so you can’t commit to the full-time nanny after school, you have to figure out a way to adapt & adjust. This career has allowed that. 

TP: Do you have any places that you personally like to go to? Places where you find inspiration or where you and your daughter like to visit?

CD: It’s always a good day when you have to scout beaches. There are so many wonderful hidden little beaches in Malibu that I would never have found if I wasn’t a scout. So sometimes I get to take her and that’s fun. I always love it when my scout route takes me by my favorite restaurants that I don’t always get to eat at. My favorite Vietnamese is in Alhambra which is about 25 minutes to an hour away from my house, but I had to scout a football stadium near there last month so, yay! I lucked out. That’s always a lot of fun. I wish I could involve my friends more sometimes. You know clients will be like, “We want real people!” So you bring five real people and you throw in a few models to cover your bases, and they always pick the models. Locations is the same, they’ll say, “We want a real authentic rock ’n roll apartment!” So I go to guitar center and start talking to the guys that work there. I go to their houses, shoot their crappy couch, their Super Nintendo and the feedback is, “This is awful! Why would we ever shoot here?” So I try to engage my friends or other “real people” when I can, but it doesn’t usually work.

TP: Yes, I know how it goes with clients wanting their idea of a location, rather than perhaps the real-life version.  Happens with talent too! But that’s also why it’s probably really interesting for you to work with Todd Selby - because he truly wants to shoot people’s real spaces and show their character through their homes.

CD: He does. He gets his way more because people hire Todd to be Todd. It’s an exception. I usually end up finding what he wants. For example, there’s this place that’s like a motorcycle repair and a coffee place all in one. There are so many quirky things people are doing and the landscape for those locations can change so fast. 

TP: Well we’re thinking of exploring LA a little bit today, are there any iconic places you recommend we go check out? 

CD: For that classic Beverly Hills look with the tall palm trees, try around Maple between Sunset and Santa Monica, or you could take Elevado Avenue up and you can find it there. If you go up Beverly Drive, you’ll see the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. Keep going up Beverly to Coldwater Canyon, take Coldwater and turn right onto Mulholland Drive - there will be a lot of scenic overlooks both of the Valley and of the Hollywood Sign. Go past Laurel Canyon and keep following it down to Outpost. If you go a little past Outpost there’s a pull out there, when you look out you can see all the way from the ocean to downtown, right over the Hollywood Bowl, that’s by Runyon Canyon park, the north entrance. Then head right back toward Outpost, which will take you right out on Hollywood within a block of the Chinese Theater and you’re right on the boulevard. And if you want to have Mexican for lunch, try Paquito Mas on Sunset, bonus - you usually see celebrities there!


TP: As a location manager and scout, with your production background, are there certain vendors in LA that you like to work with? Maybe a certain mobile home company because you know they are very respectful of locations?

CD: Generally the motorhome companies are all great. If they’re doing it, they get it. I’ve worked with Quixote since the beginning and I love them. Location companies, there are a lot of really good ones - I don’t want to leave anyone out but some of my favorites are Image, Universal, East West, All Pictures Media. They’re all great for different things. One will have lots of great restaurants, the other will have great mid-century, it’s fun. 

TP: How would you define a location scout?

CD: People ask me that, and I say you know, every time you open a magazine or see a billboard, someone had to choose that location. It’s a part of the painting that the director or photographer is creating and the he or she may have in his head, but your job is to find where that really exists to make it real. To translate that idea into something that’s an actual place.

TP:  And that’s no small feat!

Thank you so much Charlie!

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Interview of Charles Danek by Annika Howe, Photos by Adrian Alston