11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Location Scouts

Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images
Guillaume Souvant, AFP/Getty Images

When regular people watch movies, they might focus on the plot, the dramatic dialogue, or the eye-popping sets. But when location scouts—the people whose job it is to find perfect filming sites—sit down for a film, all they see are logistics. Where did they shoot that? Who gave them access to that part of town? How did they shut down Times Square for that entirely empty shot in Vanilla Sky (2001)?

A location scout might spend an entire film typing out notes on their phone, only later realizing that the movie ended and they missed most of the actual plot. Mental Floss chatted with a couple of these professionals to learn more about their job—like just how many times they have to watch a film before they can enjoy it. (At least twice.)

1. THEY MIGHT START OUT IN CRAFT SERVICES.

Location scouts usually start their careers low in the production food chain. Audra Duval, a scout based in New York, has worked on film and TV projects such as The Greatest Showman (2017), The Knick, and The Blacklist, but she began her career as a unit production assistant, cleaning toilets and taking out garbage. "You never just jump into [being] a scout, or not that I've ever heard of," she says.

Lori Balton—who is based in Los Angeles and has been scouting for 30 years on dozens of major productions including A Wrinkle in Time (2018), The Young Pope, and Inception (2010)—began in craft services, cutting slices of cheesecake and pouring cups of coffee for members of the crew. "At the time I had a masters degree, so it was a humbling experience to be told how well I could cut cheesecake. You learn to smile, be grateful, and ask if they would like a cup of joe," she says.

2. THEY HELP EACH OTHER OUT.

Two hands holding up a phone to photograph a colorful building
iStock

Once they work their way up the ladder, location scouts become part of a tight-knit group with its own resources. They join large group texts or private Google Groups just for location scouts. Duval says that when people get stuck, they send out specific requests: "'Hey guys, this is what we're looking for. Does anyone know where this is or a good area for me to start looking in?’"

And while they can tap fellow scouts, as well as friends, they also have access to location-scouting databases. The New York City Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, for example, maintains an online location library of possibilities, while the database Easy Locations, run by an independent producer, covers the LA area. Other websites, like LocationsHub.com (in which property owners share details about sites they have to offer) as well as real estate sites like StreetEasy, can also come in handy.

"A lot of the times it's cold scouting, where you just walk into a building by yourself and start knocking on random people's doors," Duval says. "Or you think of a place that you've filmed before, or some of your friends have filmed before, and just kind of go through the networking or resources that we have."

3. THEY PRACTICALLY LIVE IN THEIR CARS.

Scouting assignments come from a project’s director and production designer, who usually have an idea for what they want a location to look like based on what's written into the script—say, a condo in Queens that looks like it’s actually in Detroit. On bigger productions, they may even send over a very rough animation of what the set should end up looking like, called a previs. Scouts will start out by Googling the areas and looking at real estate websites from home, and then begin driving around. They may have months to explore if they're working on a movie, or just a few hours before shooting begins if it's a television show.

Either way, scouts pack their cars full of gear to help them take detailed notes and photographs, which then get relayed to the locations department. Duval always carries a notebook, phone, phone chargers, extra batteries for her phone, computers, a camera, and hard drives. "[It's] basically everything that I could live in my car with," she says. Balton carries multiple DSLR cameras and a tripod, which helps when shooting dark interiors by keeping everything stable and reducing blur.

4. THEY HAVE TO BE CREATIVE, BUT ALSO REALISTIC.

Ffilming The Invention of Hugo Cabret on street
Bertrand Guay, AFP/Getty Images

Once a scout is in the field, they try to balance what the director and production designer have asked for with what's actually feasible. "Most scouts cast a pretty wide net looks-wise," Duval says.

That's because locations can often appear ideal but fall through logistically. There could be a sound issue—maybe airplanes frequently fly overhead. There could be a lighting issue: Maybe an environment looks completely different at night than during the day. There could be a transportation issue—maybe an elevator is out and the camera crew can’t lug equipment up 10 flights of stairs. That's why scouts always prepare a list of backup locations.

“You never know if you've found the perfect location, because so many people need to weigh in on it, for a wide variety of reasons,” Balton says. “But I do get a feeling of ‘this is perfect!' frequently. And almost as frequently I am incorrect and one of my lesser choices gets chosen.”

For example, while scouting the movie Noah (2014) for Darren Aronofsky, Balton was traveling through Iceland looking for landscapes that appeared prehistoric. But setting up a cast and crew in the middle of Iceland isn’t practical. “You need to be based around a city, even if it's a small town movie, especially for a big feature,” she told Condé Nast Traveler. "You need to have the big hotels that can accommodate you, the production houses, the rental cars. It's a difficult thing.” The cast ended up filming mostly in the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is near Reykjavik—as well as in several spots in New York City.

5. PERIOD PIECES CAN BE A CHALLENGE.

Retro 1940s film noir-type image
iStock

While working on The Greatest Showman, which was set in the early 20th century, Duval dealt with a clash between architecture and fashion. “We had this great location, but the actress had to wear a hoop dress,” she says. “In the early 1900s they had tiny door frames because people were smaller. But this woman was in this huge dress and she couldn’t fit through the door.”

In the end, the wardrobe department had to get her a different dress. “You have to think about those tiny logistical things when you’re scouting,” Duval says.

6. THEY’RE PUBLIC RECORDS SLEUTHS.

In order to help “clear” a location for filming, scouts must collect contact information for property owners or managers, who need to sign contracts with the crew. Sometimes one person owns a building, while another owns the parking lot. To sort out who owns what, scouts search public record databases—such as ACRIS, the New York City Register’s system—which list owners of lots, blocks, and individual buildings. Local historic societies can also be useful in tracking down the necessary information. Duval says she'll also spend time researching records when she's working on period pieces and needs to know more about a certain time in history, and she'll sometimes contact local tax assessors for more information about specific properties. "I get into such deep holes of Google, it's crazy."

7. THEY DO A LOT OF WAITING.

After finding their ideal locations and figuring out who owns them, scouts have to get in touch with that individual. Residential property owners are usually at work during the day, so scouts “flyer” their doors. They leave a piece of paper that explains the project they’re working on and says they’re interested in the property. Then, they wait patiently for the owners to call them back. “We know we’re inconveniencing people in their everyday lives; we're not trying to be jerks,” Duval says.

8. NOT EVERYONE LOVES THEM.

Location scouts have to be especially diplomatic because they're the first people the outside world comes into contact with from the set. They have to build relationships with property owners, even ones who aren’t so friendly. Certain blocks in New York are notorious for having unfriendly residents, so scouts tend to avoid them. In addition, the New York mayor’s office regularly releases a list of “hot zones” where crews aren’t allowed to shoot that month because filming has been active there recently and the residents need a break from the cameras.

It's a similar situation in Los Angeles. Productions who want to film in the city must go through FilmLA, which is affiliated with the city government. Before being awarded a permit, FilmLA surveys residents and business owners to find out if there are any objections to the filming taking place [PDF]. If there are serious concerns, they won't grant a permit.

Of course, property owners who do allow in film crews are usually compensated for their time and trouble—perhaps $2500 for a one-day commercial shoot, and up to $10,000 for a movie, according to one location manager.

9. THEY DON’T OFTEN TRAVEL FAR.

Columbus Circle in Manhattan
iStock

Duval says she got into the field thinking she was going to travel a lot, but quickly realized how local the job is. Scouts in New York are limited to a 30-mile radius from Manhattan, which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. More specifically, it's 30 miles from Columbus Circle as the crow flies. Once production moves outside of “the zone,” as they call it, crew members have to start being paid more (a union rule). In Los Angeles, this 30-mile radius is often called the “studio zone” and it begins at the intersection of West Beverly and North La Cienega Boulevards.

Some location scouts with big studios, however, such as Balton, are sent to check out faraway locations. But that's not always as glamorous as it sounds. “Trust me, like anything else, international travel gets old really fast,” she says. “There is something indescribably wonderful about sleeping in your own bed. On a good many films, I virtually travel the world, and then the budget reality hits and we end up on a stage in Georgia.”

10. THEY LEARN THE STRANGEST THINGS.

Scouts don’t only look at apartments and office buildings; they’re also tasked with finding bridges, tunnels, and marble quarries. Before they know it, they’re well-versed in dimensional stone, panes of glass, and sconces.

“I’m a nerd at heart and love that my job takes me to unusual places where I learn fascinating, albeit generally useless, information,” Balton says. “When I scouted steam trains [in the UK] for [Tim Burton's upcoming live-action remake of] Dumbo, I learned that the train geeks refer to themselves as foamers, because they are literally rabid about anything to do with trains. ... Each job involves learning a new language, depending on what I’m looking for.”

11. THEY NEVER STOP SCOUTING.

Everyday hobbies take on new meaning when you're a location scout. Watching a movie becomes a different activity altogether: “If I know a friend or a friend-of-a-friend worked on it, I’ll text them, ‘hey, where did you shoot that?’” Duval says. Sometimes, it turns out to be a location she already knows, but one the production designer dressed up to look totally unrecognizable. This often happens with period pieces; for The Greatest Showman, the crew turned a little science center in Prospect Park into a 1900s-era hospital.

When scouts go out to eat at a cool restaurant, they grab a business card to reference later. But it’s funny, Duval says, because she can scout 20 bars in a week and then go blank when it comes to picking one to drink at Friday night. “I do that every year for my birthday,” she says. “It all merges in your brain.”

9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

iStock/South_agency
iStock/South_agency

Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
iStock.com/Rawpixel

A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
iStock.com/RyanJLane

Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

iStock.com/shironosov
iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

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