I was on the Monday location tour with MovieGod Russ Hamilton, the location manager for Supernatural.
The Monday tour was a little different from the Thursday one; the Thursday tour intersected with the studio tech survey for episode 9.05, the one being directed by Kevin Parks, so they wound up at a location we Monday folk never saw. I envy the Thursday folk, who got to see Kevin, Serge Ladouceur, Jerry Wanek, Jim Michaels, and more talking about how they’d use the location to get the shots they would need for the scenes to be shot there! But even without the tech survey and its location, the tour was a blast, and Russ is always a font of information.
We began with the Coquitlam location in Mundy Park near Spani Pool used for the camp in LARP And The Real Girl, and we all got copies of the layout map showing where all the tents stood in relation to each other.
Russ pulled out the episode script and called for volunteers to reenact a couple of scenes. Our own FarAwayEyes played Boltar the Furious!
Russ talked a lot about what went into the selection of a set location. He laughed that he learned something from every location he used, and cited the choice of Mundy Park as an example. Mundy is in hilly country well above sea level, so â€“ unlike the field famously used for the preacher’s tent in Faith â€“ it has good drainage and wouldn’t turn into a sea of mud when it rained, and rain was inevitable given how many days they would need to spend at that location.
Between planning, set building, shooting, dismantling, and restoring the location, the crew spent a total of three weeks at the park, including four full days simply to build the set. Russ said that striking a set usually takes about half the time required to build it. Once the set is dismantled, the property needs to be restored to its pristine, pre-shooting condition.
Mundy turned out to be a lot easier to work with than the low-lying field in Faith, which became such a mud pit in the downpours that all the cars parked there had to be towed in and out by 4×4’s.
Russ said that by the end of that shoot, the mud was about a foot deep, and they had to use a bobcat to haul all the cars out of the field! He also said that in the scene of the guys using a tractor to pull the truck out of the pond in Route 666, there was another tractor we couldn’t see in the frame actually pulling the tractor Jensen/Dean was driving, because the ground on location was so muddy that the on-camera tractor had no traction and kept slipping!
The Russian House restaurant on Austin Ave. used as the filming location for the LARPing dinner scene was chosen precisely because it was very close to Mundy Park â€“ within a ten minute radius of the park shooting location â€“ and scheduling issues required them to shoot the dinner scene during one of the days they were shooting at the park. We didn’t stop at the Russian House, but passed it on the way.
That illustrated two more keys to locations selected by the show. One is the availability of a LOT of parking nearby for the trucks hauling all the equipment required to dress and shoot a location, including the trailers for the hair and makeup departments and for actors to relax between shots. Russ estimated the company travels with a circus comprised of at least 1,500 linear feet of trucks, not including crew cars and the rented lighting cranes. The circus needs to be close to the shooting location; 12 blocks away would be too far. The second point was the need often to find multiple locations in such close proximity to each other that there would be no need to move the circus to shoot in those places. Moving the circus takes time and time is money, so the more scenes they can shoot in the same vicinity, the better off they are. If a script requires an office building, a street, a park, and a diner, finding one parking spot close to reasonable versions of all of them may be preferable to finding just the perfect office, park, and diner too far apart from each other to shoot using the same circus parking lot.
The crew has eight days to shoot a typical episode of Supernatural, and the production machine can never stop. Every minute of every shooting day is accounted for. During prep, they have three days to put together the shooting schedule, using meetings to figure out how much time will be needed to build sets, what locations will be available on which days, and how to coordinate actor schedules. Russ said they shoot about 8 pages of script per day, less if action scenes are involved; he said scripts generally run 47-54 pages. There are no break days in a television shooting schedule for weather. If it rains too hard, they’ll put up silks â€“ fabric screens in large frames â€“ to block the downpour from the actors, but they’ll keep shooting. If it snows between shooting days at a location, disrupting the continuity of the location’s appearance, Russ’s crew has to melt the snow so the place will look the same.
While Supernatural has only one shooting crew, there are typically ten locations going at any given time, with upcoming ones being prepped while current ones are being used and finished ones are being dismantled. Russ’s location department includes 20-25 people, ranging from scouts with cameras looking for places to meet script needs to people filling out the paperwork for permits and licensing and contacting all the residents who would be affected by the filming to get their permission. If you follow Russ on Twitter and see his production day summary tweets, showing the camera call and wrap times for each day, you should realize there are crew on set at least an hour before call and an hour after wrap making certain that everything is as it should be. Russ is on call at all times while the show is in production. The Creation-organized location tour is not a studio-sponsored event, so Russ and his assistant Andrea had taken vacation time to lead the tours; despite that, Russ spent a fair bit of time on the phone during the tour dealing with unanticipated problems, and even arranged a meet-up along the way with his assistant Allan to sign documents. Russ said production assistants work 75 hours a week.
Men of Letters Door
We continued to the Men of Letters exterior: a doorway set into the hill beneath the Ironworkers Bridge along the Montrose Trail between Bridgeway Street, Skeena Street N, and Fellowes Street.
They knew this would need to be an iconic location because of its importance to the series; the script called for a powerplant or similar industrial-type exterior. In talking it over, the production team noted that locations under bridges often provided great looks, so Russ sent his scounts to take photos under every bridge in the area, and this one was a find – although it looks a lot different in real life!
It also presented a major challenge, because using it requires permits from three separate government jurisdictions! The bridge itself, along with the ground immediately beneath it and 20 feet to either side, belongs to the BC Department of Transportation. The land immediately to the east belongs to the City of Vancouver, while the land immediately to the west belongs to the City of Burnaby. To bring in their trucks and equipment, set up lights, and shoot on the location, they need to coordinate approvals from all three government agencies. In this case, the issue of who controls what actually caused problems during Pac Man Fever, the last time they shot there, because part of the trail leading up to and past the entrance is crumbling and was declared unsafe for vehicles. That’s why the Impala wasn’t parked right outside the MOL door when the brothers said goodbye to Charlie; right on the day, director Robert Singer had to change the way he’d planned to shoot that scene because they weren’t allowed to take the Impala or any other wheeled equipment across the bad stretch of pavement.
That was quite different from the brothers’ first arrival at the MOL door!
Apparently there’s been a bit of a jurisdictional dispute between the BC DOT and the City of Vancouver over which one is responsible for repairing that specific piece of the trail; it hasn’t been fixed yet.
Russ said it takes a day for the art crew to transform the location into the now-iconic MOL door by taking down the front and side railings, putting in the stairs, and putting up the false brick front and metal door over the real graffiti-tagged concrete wall and metal door; it takes them about 4 hours to dismantle it all.
Russ said the real door does lead into a couple of short access corridors in the hill that extend perhaps a total of 20 feet, and are partially rock-walled; he said they would be cool to shoot, but they haven’t actually used them for anything yet. Every aspect of the MOL interior is part of the massive permanent set on one of the Supernatural soundstages. Speaking of the soundstages, Russ said Supernatural now has four; a significant upgrade from their original two! The fourth stage is used purely for prop and costume storage.The costume sale that took place late last season happened because the 25,000 feet of costume storage in stage 4 was full; they needed to make room for new things by selling items they didn’t plan to use again. Some 15,000 feet of stage 4 is prop storage. Two of the other stages are used for shooting, and the third is used for set construction â€“ a never-ending task!
Back to the MOL exterior; the location presents another challenge. The base of the bridge above the door is covered with graffiti. Here’s a surprise: if graffiti at a location is by a known artist, having it appear on-screen requires that the use be cleared with the artist, the same way clearance â€“ and the settlement of licensing fees â€“ would be required for a trademark to appear. This created a problem when the show used the skate park (which I think might have been the Leeside Tunnel skateboard park under the Cassiar St. Connector at the intersection of East Hastings and Highway 1) in The Girl Next Door; the place was heavily tagged, and some of the art was by well-known taggers. Art and names that can’t be cleared are either covered on set â€“ the art department replaces a lot of business signs! â€“ or are taken out and replaced by the VFX team.
By the way: at the VFX NonCon party held at the Stormcrow Tavern on Monday night after the location tour, we learned from Ryan Curtis that about 20% of what the VFX team does is clean up on-set problems or mistakes to take out things that shouldn’t be there or replace things inconsistent with shot continuity. Wow! If you’re ever in Vancouver, plan on visiting the Stormcrow (www.stormcrowtavern.com): it really is the nerdiest bar in town, and after our party, should be sporting a signed photo of Jensen and Jared somewhere among the memorabilia on the walls!
Not-Very-Spoiler 9.03 Location
Okay: the Monday tour took us to one spoiler location used in episode 9.03, the one directed by Kevin Hooks, a veteran director but new addition to the Supernatural family. Ordinarily I’d separate out a spoiler piece, but I don’t think that just the location, with no context, counts as much of one. The location was the underside of yet another bridge: this time, it was one end of the Burrard Street bridge. In real life, the location is used as a camp by homeless people; in the episode, it’s still a homeless camp, but with actors playing the tenants.
The production gave the usual residents coupons for a soup kitchen in town as incentive to move long enough for the shoot to occur. Russ said this bridge set was one of the few times he’d had to refuse to accommodate a director’s request to shoot a location a particular way, because positioning lights on a crane to give Hooks his ideal camera angles would have blinded drivers in one direction on the bridge itself. Hooks adjusted his camera plans, and bridge traffic above the shoot went undisturbed.
We got lunch in a tent beside the homeless camp location, catered by the Guanaco Truck â€“ a Salvadoran food truck owned by the family of Supernatural cameraman JosÃ© Manzano that has often catered for the cast and crew and even appeared in episode 7.18, Party On, Garth. Tasty pupusas! Tweet @guanacotruck or use the Vancouver Street Food app to find the truck if you visit Vancouver.
While we were there, another crew was setting up prep on the same under-bridge location, so we needed to move out in expeditious fashion. This crew was working on Tomorrowland, the new movie featuring George Clooney. Russ told us Tomorrowland has been shooting on the backlot for several weeks already, so if you go see the film, look for familiar places! The backlot being booked for a major motion picture also meant that Supernatural couldn’t be using it during that period, so I’m guessing we won’t see much of the backlot until later in the season.
Speaking of the backlot, its life as a film set is limited. I wrote about its deterioration last year, but that’s not the only issue. Supernatural has put about half a million dollars into the backlot to maintain it and redress it for use, and other companies have also used and invested in it. The big thing is redevelopment in the area. The backlot was farmland long ago, but then became a lumberyard that used a lot of creosote for wood preservation. When the lumberyard closed, it left behind creosote contamination that would cost at least 5 million to mitigate before it could be used for residential construction, and the owner/developer’s ultimate goal is to build condos on the property. However, under local brownfields environmental rules, if the property were used for at least 15 years for a different purpose that allowed gradual amelioration of the creosote residues, no cleanup would be required when the residential development eventually took place. Hey presto, the owner leased the land to Warner Brothers to build the Watchmen set in 2007, and then agreed to continue lease use of the property as a backlot. I don’t know how long before 2007 the lumberyard closed, but when the 15 years of alternate use are up, we can expect the backlot to be bulldozed to make way for condos.
The backlot isn’t the only location facing change. Russ said that Riverview, the closed former mental hospital used in so many episodes as everything from the Asylum in the episode of the same name to the prison in Folsom Prison Blues and more hospitals than I can list off in reasonable time, will eventually be torn down except for one building. Even Bridge Studios, the Burnaby home of Once Upon A Time, Stargate, and many more shows and films, will eventually go; the land is owned by a developer. Hopefully those changes will still be years away.
Richard Roman Enterprises
The global headquarters building of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers on Glenlyon Parkway in Burnaby, very close to the studio, was brilliantly redressed as Dick Roman’s headquarters for The Girl With The Dungeons And Dragons Tattoo, the directorial debut of first assistant director Johnny McCarthy.
Unlike most business locations Supernatural uses, RB stayed open as itself during the shoot: Supernatural had the interior of the building only on the weekend, and from 5 PM to 5 AM each weekday. Every day, they had to convert the place from RB to Dick Roman’s office at the end of the business day in order to shoot, and then remove all signs of filming by 5 AM so the company could resume normal business operations each morning.
That meant that, apart from Sunday â€“ the first and only time the show actually shot on a Sunday! â€“ they had only 10 to 11 hours of shooting each day (well, night!), because they had to budget time to redress the building at both the beginning and the end of their shooting time. They spent five days shooting there.
Felicia Day did the “Walking On Sunshine” elevator scene about 20 times, and ran down the building stairs about 6 or 7 times, according to the woman from RB who had to stay on site throughout the shoot.
She said they also replaced the real front doors with the candy-glass versions they smashed in the stunt of the Winchesters diving through the glass weakened by Bobby’s ghost, and they got the stunt in one take. She was fascinated by the whole process and spoke very highly of the whole crew!
I appreciated the RB building on a whole different level. Oh, it was a majorly visually cool location at which to shoot, but it was a lot more as well. The RB building was designed and purpose-built for the company and won LEED certification (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) in 2012. That means it was built to the highest green building environmental standards and utilizes sustainable practices in its day-to-day operations, minimizing waste and chemical use. RB also operates on-site services for its employees, including a gym. They let the Supernatural crew use their facilities, not that folk had much spare time during the shoot!
Incidentally, the 7.23 scene with the Impala smashing through the Roman Enterprises sign wasn’t shot at RB, but in the Nokia building parking lot right next door to the RB building.
Be advised, the Nokia building is as fenced, gated, and restricted as the RB complex is welcoming; expect building guards to approach if you so much as photograph the building from the sidewalk.
Trestle Bridge, Dean’s Grave, and More
The last formal stop of the day involved a walk though part of Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Park. Andrea noted that because the park is so close to the studio, it’s probably the location most often used when they need a park, a cemetery, or a wooded area.
It’s also a key part of Russ’s history, because the first Supernatural episode he worked on was Hookman, which used the Lulu Island railroad trestle bridge at the eastern end of Fraser Park Drive to great effect. At the time, the show had two separate location teams working on alternate episodes, so Russ wasn’t intimate with all the season one locations. When they hired him to run the location department starting in season two, he insisted there be a single team, so he runs the entire show now.
The trestle bridge seen from different angles was used in other episodes as well, including Fresh Blood and After School Special.
The bridge is a challenge to shoot at night because the area is so tight that they have to light it from across the Fraser River, using spotlights mounted on a 120-foot crane on the Richmond side of the river to direct light onto the Burnaby side. That means the location team needs to get approvals from both cities. Incidentally, they’ve used the Richmond side of the trestle bridge, accessed from River Road, as well as the Burnaby one; you saw it when John said goodbye to the boys in Salvation, giving Dean the real Colt, and again in The End, when Dean and Sam reunited after Dean’s trip into the future.
We walked under the trestle and down the path, taking the first left; when we reached the first meadow on the right, we arrived at Dean’s grave from Lazarus Rising, by the trees and about three-quarters of the way up the hill.
They had wanted to shoot the grave in the larger meadow just beyond the brow of the hill, but that’s a raptor nesting area and they were prohibited from disturbing the birds with lights and noise.
Instead, when Jensen/Dean crawled out of the grave hole â€“ where he was covered with crushed Oreos to get the dirt look! â€“ he stepped up to the top of the hill to look out over the area, and everything he and we saw from there was the creation of the VFX team.
The whole view, including the blasted trees and the vertical crane camera move, was done with graphics in the VFX lab! Unless you knew where to look from Russ and his team, you’d never pick out this particular spot as Dean’s grave. The coffin itself had an open side that Jensen used to slide into the box.
Past Dean’s grave and the raptor nesting area, the path took us to another flat expanse where they’d taken three days to build and one day to dress the Hansel and Gretel house from Bedtime Stories. The campfire scene with Jake and the Yellow-Eyed demon in All Hell Breaks Loose, Part II was set in the same place. This whole area has been used for multiple cemeteries, funeral pyres, and camp scenes throughout the show.
Back on the bus, Russ took us past the studio, which has grown tremendously over the years. The whole area has developed, so some iconic places â€“ like the railroad crossing on Wiggins near the interection with Riverbend used for the auto shop scene at the very end of Fresh Blood â€“ no longer look the way they did when they were used. Because the studio expanded to cover the storage lot they used to have, the picture cars (like taxis) and some large prop pieces, including the heavy wooden base of the water tower/windmill used in multiple episodes, now reside in a fenced lot on Riverbend monitored by security cameras.
There are more locations right in the studio’s neighborhood than you could number. The Boston Pizza right across Marine Drive was the universal Biggerson’s in which Naomi trapped Castiel in The Great Escapist. Some of us got to chat with one of the staff there a few days after the tour, and learned they’d closed the restaurant for four days to redress and shoot there. Apparently most of the staff, given four paid days off, chose to spend part of them watching the fun!
Affordable Auto Parts on Trapp Road, which served as Singer Salvage, is actually a BMW salvage yard. Every time they used it, they had to remove 41 BMW vehicles to have room to replace them with 30 old American cars, enough to hide the BMWs in the rest of the lot! Their picture car wrangler, Jeff, owns a farm in Abbotsford with about 400 cars, the source of most of the vehicles they use on the show.
Russ reported that the show currently owns six Impalas, two of which don’t run at all, including the wrecked hulk from the end of season one. He grumbled a little good-naturedly about the upgrade the hero car got last season because the more powerful engine and new exhaust system make it a lot noisier than it used to be, which causes problems when Russ has to arrange for late night shooting in residential areas!
Bits And Pieces
Throughout the bus tour, Russ fielded questions. I’ve folded his answers into other sections where they fit; this part gathers all the remaining bits in random order.
The toughest location Russ and his team ever had to find was the Winchester house used in Home and What Is And What Should Never Be, precisely because it had to be a very close match for the LA house used in the pilot. Every other script location is relatively general in description: upscale house, abandoned house, modern office building, derelict warehouse, children’s park, shipping dock, residential street, empty highway. The Winchester house was the only one that absolutely had to correspond to a precise existing visual reference. They couldn’t find a perfect match, but they came pretty close, and Jerry Wanek’s art crew did the rest!
Asked about where the potential spinoff series will shoot, Russ said he didn’t know. He did say they’re talking about shooting the episode launching the spinoff, 9.20, half in Vancouver and half in Chicago â€“ so Chicago fans, keep your eyes peeled early next year! If the spinoff series gets picked up, he doesn’t know whether they’d shoot it half-and-half, all in Vancouver, or possibly entirely in Chicago. Stay tuned!
Asked about the difficulties of organizing water scenes or shots, Russ said that they presented special challenges if an actor had to go into the water, because the location crew would have to get the water tested to analyze any bacteria present. If the water quality wasn’t safe, they’d need to come up with a way to get the shot that wouldn’t endanger the actor’s (or stuntman’s) health. Russ said that when they’d used Deer Lake one time, they cheated by having the actor walk into a flooded tank they’d submerged in the lake. Being in the tank rather than the lake itself, the actor wasn’t exposed to the lake water. As an added benefit, the water in the tank was warmer than the lake; something the actor definitely appreciated!
Blood use on set involves at least three different production departments. The special effects people provide the blood mixture, the art department spreads it around, and the paint department cleans it up. And of course, if it’s on peoples’ hands and faces, the makeup crew is dealing with it!
Russ has quite a history in location work. His first job was Timecop, the VanDamme film shot in 1994. He laughed that it was followed by “a string of dogshit movies of the week,” and then by the TV show The Sentinel. He credited actor Richard Burgi on that show with having introduced him to top shelf tequila, so in a way, Russ’s infamous tequila suitcase owes part of its existence to The Sentinel! He said he followed that with some feature films, but really hated them; he prefers working on television shows. He wound up under contract to UPN for several years, working on every show they had shooting up in Vancouver, and then came Supernatural, which he loves. He says it’s different from any other show he’s ever worked on, and its crew retention is unprecedented â€“ he said over 90 percent of the crew has remained the same, and that’s nine years into production!
Kevin Parks started shooting episode 9.05 on Tuesday, 8/27. Russ said that while we were out on our location tour, his scouts were searching for locations for episode 9.07, and he was expecting to find the script for 9.10 waiting when he stopped by the office after the tour. He said getting the scripts so much in advance of shooting was a real blessing, because on a lot of other shows, crews might get scripts within five days of having to start filming them!
Talking about the magnitude of what his crew has to do to get permission to film, especially to do night filming in residential neighborhoods where they have to bring in two massive cranes with brilliant lights that will inevitably bother people, he said that when they were prepping to shoot Skin, his crew had to knock on 2,700 doors to get permission from residents â€“ and they had to do it twice, because the schedule changed! If about 10 percent of the people in a neighborhood say no, Russ said the city probably wouldn’t approve a shooting permit, but so far, Supernatural has never lost a location because the neighbors refused to allow it. Russ sees it as his job to find a way to turn any “no” into a “yes” â€“ to find the way for both the show and the folks outside it to see the shoot as a “win/win” situation. That doesn’t include paying resident bystanders to say yes, however; someone who said they’d say okay only if they got paid would be guilty of extortion, and the local film commissions take that seriously, because the impact on the industry would be crippling. The owners of specific locations the company wants to use do negotiate compensation for the use of their property, but that’s a different case. Russ said he did walk away from the first location they’d intended to use for the woman on fire scene in Simon Said, because the first gas station decided to triple its fee when it came time to actually sign the contract.
Concerning what happens when a script arrives, Russ said the first thing he does is the location breakdown, figuring out how many locations they’re going to need and what kinds of places they are. His scouts bring photos of multiple options for each location â€“ mansion, office building, warehouse, park, whatever. Looking through the photos, the director chooses the ones he or she prefers. All the department heads board the bus for the tech survey. They look at each top choice location, figuring out where the trucks would go, how the cameras would be aimed, and what would need to be done to the location to make it work, including how the location would be dressed with props and greens. (They often use bushes to hide things they don’t want seen, sometimes including the video village where the director watches the monitors to see how the scene looks while they’re shooting.) Once the decisions are made, Russ’s group secures all the necessary permits and negotiates contracts with the property owners. Russ’s goal is always to leave a location better than they found it, so people would be happy to work with the production again. And having spoken to a number of people at past locations, I can attest that he succeeds! People who are willing to work cooperatively with the company can gain extra benefits. For example, if a company or homeowner wanted to change the paint scheme in a room being shot, they could ask the production company to use the new color rather than the original when they restore the room after using it, and get a free paint job as part of the bargain!
Asked about some of the biggest and most expensive problems the show has encountered, Russ told the story of an old mansion on Marine Drive with a brand-new $55,000 hardwood floor that got flooded out when, after Friday filming was complete and the home was being reset, the weight of one of the production trucks parked on the property cracked a very old water main. Russ got the call on Saturday morning. The homeowner had guests coming into town: the studio wound up putting up 15 people in hotels while they got the house repaired, including replacing that very expensive floor!
Asked about the cost of locations, Russ said they once paid $75,000 to use a location he didn’t think worth the price; he didn’t say what that location had been. They paid $12,000 for one day at a certain gas station. Part of the cost of renting a business location is compensating the company for the regular business it would lose during the time it was closed for filming, so the bigger the impact on the company, the bigger the price tag.
Asked about the silliest job he’d encountered on location use, Russ said that “food stylist” took the cake; imagine someone handsomely paid to stack French fries so they would look “just right!”
That was the end of the official tour. On the way back to the hotel, the bus passed a number of past locations, including the 2400 Motel, the City Centre Motel, and the bank they used in Nightshifter, just to mention a few. They’ve shot in so many places in town that you’d be calling them out every few blocks â€“ if you could keep them all straight!
Next year, the tour will be different again. I wonder what we’ll see?