Breaking Bad, the story of Chemistry teacher Walter White turned Meth drug lord, is undoubtedly one of the most addictive TV series rolling on to our screens. The show is created and produced by Vince Gilligan and recently 2.8 million viewers tuned in to watch its 5th series finale.
We interviewed Alex Gianopoulos from the crew of Breaking Bad and got all the inside info:
Explain to our readers briefly what exactly the responsibilities of a location scout are? Essentially you scout out locations, but what else does that involve?
For every location needed in the scripts, the location scout is responsible for providing several options for the director to choose from. But that is just the beginning of the responsibilities of the location department.
For every needed location, the Location Scout (usually the Assistant Location Manager) finds typically a minimum of 5 – 10 options. Before we present them, we have to make sure that the owner is definitely open to filming, and we have to get access to take photos of every essential part of the property (usually panoramic photos). Then we print out the photos or upload them to a website, so we can present them.
The director pick’s his or her favorites, and then we take them to scout them all personally. They finally make a decision based on the locations with the best look, or sometimes it is more based on logistics.
After the locations are picked, we have just a few days to sign them up, notify the neighbors, and acquire the essential permits. Then we are also responsible for finding parking for the crew, and all of the trucks and trailers (aka base camp). Not to mention that we set up the traffic plans and street closures, make crew maps and put up directional signs to get the crew to set. Then we have to help the other departments get access to each location so they can prep, redecorate and rig.
In New Mexico, we have the added responsibility of providing pop-up tents, heaters and a/c units for the crew, and most recently we’ve been given the honor of keeping the toilets clean.
Also, the locations department has to be the first department onset (usually 2 hours before the crew). We have to stand by on the radio for any location problems that come up. We have to stay in touch with the site reps and location owners and watch to make sure that the crew doesn’t destroy the place. Then after wrap, we have to clean up and be the last ones out at the end of the night.
It’s a lot of work, and basically the scouting is just the beginning.
What sort of requests or guidelines are you given, does the director just say “find us a tennis court to shoot on” or what level of specifics are provided to you to ensure you get what is needed?
Do you get the script, in order to have a better idea of what is needed for the location?
It always starts with an outline or an early draft of the script. Then we break down the locations, making note of what is needed and how they are described.
Sometimes there is a lot of description in the script. Like “A park for Mike’s granddaughter that has a swing set, a tree she can climb, and a good place nearby for the DEA to be watching from”.
Sometimes not so many details are provided, like simply find an “auto mechanic shop.”
We then get input from the show’s Production Designer on the look and size of what we are looking for. We see what the episode’s director has in mind, as well as the show’s executive producers. We put all that information together and then we start the search from there.
How is Breaking Bad different from the other shows you have worked on?
For me, it is just a huge help to work on a show that I actually like and watch. In my career, I’ve worked on a lot of garbage and it is much harder to motivate myself when I feel like I’m taking part in something that is essentially going to make the world worse off. When I scout for Breaking Bad, I know I’m working toward something that is beloved and inspires millions, and I take that to heart.
That being said, Breaking Bad is also one of the most challenging shows I’ve ever worked on. It is extremely “location heavy” and sometimes my department is under enormous amounts of pressure to find and set everything up in a very short amount of time.
What sort of budget do you have for each location on Breaking Bad? Is this normal for a TV series to have this kind of budget for locations – or is it more because of the type of show BB is – it’s all about the atmosphere and locations?
The budget is done by the Location Manager and it differs from episode to episode. It reflects not only what we are paying for the actual locations, but also parking, security, gratuities, police support, etc. I can’t specifically tell you how much we pay for locations, but in my opinion, Breaking Bad tends to be very reasonable. A film crew coming to your property can be an ordeal, so we always try to make it worth their while… within reason.
What sort of problems do you run into working on Breaking Bad, this is where you tell us some sort of crazy inside story?
Typically my problems as a location scout go something like this:
In episode 5 of season 5 (or 505), we needed what was described as an “Abandoned Warehouse.” The writers made note that it should look “creepy,” and the scene took place in Houston so it couldn’t look too “New Mexican.” Then I have to chat with the Production Designer to see what his thoughts are, usually regarding the look and size of the warehouse we’re looking for. Then I’m off to see what I can find.
For an “Abandoned Warehouse” I would drive around certain parts of town where there might be a lot of closed industrial factories, I call some commercial realtors to see if they any ideas, and I crawl under a lot of fences to get peeks inside windows.
I brought them back photos of at least 8 different places, but I already knew which was the perfect one. It was a place I found in Season 4 when I was searching for a space to build a “Mexican Super Lab” in. It was the first place that I showed to the director and the producers. Then I got back a note that said something like “Abandoned doesn’t mean empty.”
So then I was on the search for abandoned warehouses with some kind of “stuff” in it, and that looks like it is in Houston. It seemed hopeless for a while, but then I found this amazing old paint factory. It was creepy as hell and full of weird mixers and saws and stuff. I was so excited to show it to them. My boss (the Location Manager) and I brought them to see it and they absolutely loved it… “for something else in the future, maybe.” Apparently it was a great find, but too “superlab-y” and a little too much going on for this scene.
After about 2 weeks of searching, and sending pictures back and forth to Vince, they decided to choose the very first abandoned warehouse that I showed them, the one that was originally was “too empty.”
Whatever, they picked one, at least we can move on… So I thought.
After they chose the warehouse (and after we paid to have it checked for asbestos) the director wanted to go by and plan out his shots. It happened to be a ridiculously windy day, the roof of the warehouse was made of tin, and it was so noisy in there that they decided to nix it. It was the “windy season” and the Assistant Director didn’t want to risk having sound problems. So we were back to square one.
My colleague ended up finding another really cool warehouse downtown… they weren’t into the warehouse itself, but it had a basement that the director liked and we ended up shooting in there. So basically my huge warehouse search ended up being shot in some random basement that we didn’t even scout,
Almost every location chosen (especially on Breaking Bad) has some kind of untold story like this behind it, and a lot of times I do an enormous amount of work for nothing. It can be maddening, so you just can’t take any of this stuff personally. All you can do is smile and say “I’ll keep looking.”
Who do you have to get your locations approved by? What are they like to work with?
I first present photos of locations I find to my boss, the Location Manager. Then we take them to the Production Designer to get his thoughts. He usually nixes a few of them, and then we take it up the ladder to the executive producers and the director of the specific episode. The director is pretty much the decision-maker, but almost everything gets final approval from the show-runner Vince Gilligan.
I can’t think of a better group of bosses that I have ever worked with. I’m also am very good at brown-nosing.
Did you organize the pile of money in the last episode of series 5? How was that brought in, obviously its fake money but was it really a stack that big – they must have had boxes underneath?
No, my job is to organize the place to put the pile of money. It was shot at an indoor storage facility that I found. I was there for a great deal of time getting the location ready to be shot. I had to be there to give the art department access to the storage garage so they could set up the big money pile. Since I was there I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take ballin’ pictures of myself. I’m not sure what was underneath, but it definitely wasn’t solid cash. That fake movie money isn’t cheap, and I think they even rent it.
What tools do you use in your line of work? Do you Google locations a lot or do a lot of driving around bad neighborhoods?
It’s a lot of both. If I’m looking for swimming pools or parking lots, Google Earth is priceless. But when I need something like an “Exterior two-story house, with little to no bushes in front, near the Vamonos Pest location, that matches an interior that was shot across town,” the best way to do it is to drive up and down every street in the vicinity.
But Google earth certainly has made our job easier. Especially when it comes to setting up traffic plans and truck placements.
Breaking Bad has some pretty ghetto locations. Have you been in situations where you didn’t feel safe?
Sometimes I do find myself in some pretty sketchy places, and when scouting I’m almost always alone. In my searches, I also keep finding myself talking to weirdos on the streets while I have an expensive camera hanging around my neck. But over the years I’ve done deals with the rich and the poor, the kind and the corrupt. In the end, I knock on the door of a crack house the same way that I ring the gate of a mansion. Honestly, I sometimes find that the more ghetto area of town is more friendly than the wealthy.
But I do tend to scare myself a lot. Sometimes I drive down mysterious dirt roads alone and can’t get Leatherface out of my head.
What’s a part of your job that would surprise most people?
Most people haven’t ever even heard of the Locations Department. We don’t win Oscars or Emmys, and some people don’t even realize that movies go and shoot at real locations. People are often surprised when I tell them that we didn’t really shoot in Mexico, and I, in turn, am surprised that people ACTUALLY THINK WE WENT TO MEXICO!
When you shoot in the desert for Breaking Bad who do you have to get permission from if anyone? Do you have to pay for that?
Everything is owned by somebody, and it’s my job to find the owner and get the movie proper permission to shoot there. The desert is sometimes owned by the City of Albuquerque, the County of Bernalillo, in the pilot we shot at an Indian reservation called Tohajiilee. If it’s privately owned, I often have to do investigative work and search through public records to find the owners. We pay for the desert locations as we do everywhere else.
Sometimes shows (not Breaking Bad) do try stealing shots at remote locations. On those days the Locations department is usually mysteriously M.I.A.
How did you get your job with Breaking Bad? How did you get into locations scouting?
I started at the bottom about 7 years ago. I was hired for 5 days on a mini-series called The Lost Room as a Locations P.A. (Production Assistant), an entry-level job. My job basically moved A/C units and tents around, pick up trash and help on set. That show ended up keeping me for its entirety and I got more Location P.A. gigs after that.
The pilot for Breaking Bad was actually my first scouting gig. I was kind of thrown into it, and I really had no idea what I was doing. It was this weird little pilot about meth, and I remember I wasn’t allowed to say the word “meth” when I was scouting, so we wouldn’t scare potential locations away. My claim to fame is that I first showed Vince the now-famous Breaking Bad car wash.
After the pilot, Breaking Bad didn’t come back for almost a year. When Season 1 finally came, they hired a new location manager and I was already working on other shows.
In the meantime, I worked for many years with a Location Manager named Christian Diaz de Bedoya on other TV shows. He got hired onto Breaking Bad as Location Manager on Seasons 4 and 5, and when he did he brought me along. Now, I am one of the only members of the current crew that was actually on the pilot.
Give us some examples of what was a stage and what was an actual building or room in Season 4 & 5?
– The interior of Walter White’s house is built on stage, but the front yard and the pool are on location.
– Same with Jessie’s house, Saul’s office, and the Car Wash. They all have interiors built on stage, but the exteriors are on location.
– In season 4 we had the “superlab” onstage, but the laundry itself was on location.
– In season 5 they built the interior of the DEA office on stage.
They also build “simple” sets on stage for just one or two episodes like various motel rooms, Beneke’s hospital room, etc.
Everything else is pretty much on the location: Pollos Hermanos, Mike’s house, Hank and Marie’s house, Denny’s, Vamonos Pest Control, the Nursing Home, the chicken farm, the Mexican hacienda in season 4, the cardboard box factory in season 5, etc etc etc
What is the building used for Pollos Hermanos in reality?
It’s a local New Mexican fast-food chain called Twisters. They have many locations throughout the state that all have a similar look. Anyone from Albuquerque would probably instantly recognize it. The Twisters that we use permanently kept a Pollos Hermanos mural up in their lobby that the art department painted.
Do you ever get many locations for free?
Closing down a business is usually more expensive than shooting says in someone’s house. Sometimes people don’t want any money because they say that they are just happy to help or other various reasons. We usually insist on paying them something.
In your photo, why are Aaron and Bryan dressed as cockroaches?
That was at the wrap party for Season 5. They traditionally dress up for every wrap party. In the past, Bryan dressed like Skylar and Tio, and Aaron has dressed as a chicken before. They were cockroaches because of the whole Vamonos Pest control subplot in Season 5.
Have you ever had problems with neighbors where it has caused you to stop the shoot?
Yes, all the time. We do our best to notify the neighborhood so nobody is surprised or upset when we are there. But it seems like someone is always turning on a leaf blower, or blasting music or their stupid dog won’t shut up. That is when the Locations Department become P.R. people, and we have to try and charm them into stopping. There are always problems on the day, but the better of a job we do in prep the fewer issues we have on set.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
I have to wear many hats in the locations department. I sometimes have to be the mom on set and yell at a crew member for parking in the wrong place, and then switch gears, put on a smile and talk to a neighbor, then the next minute I have to go and have a talk with someone at City Hall, and then go and kick a crew member out of a room they’re not supposed to be in. It can be exhausting, and sometimes I feel like I do more acting than the actors.
If you organize the location, do you need to be there on the days they are shooting to ease the relations with the neighboring businesses/residents?
Absolutely. Breaking Bad has two Key Assistant Location Managers that usually manage the sets, I’m an additional Assistant Location Manager so I’m almost always in prep scouting for the next episode. But someone from locations is always on set, we are the first ones in and the last ones to leave.
How much does a location manager make? Is it worth the shady neighborhood driving? What if you cannot find a location, do you still get paid?
I can safely make more money doing this job than any other job I’ve ever had, but I don’t get 6 figures a year (Location Managers probably do). We usually get paid less than the rest of the union crew, because they get paid hourly, and we are usually on a weekly flat rate. For many people, it’s probably not worth it for the workload and the stress. But I can say from experience that it’s better than working in retail or restaurants any day.
Yes, I still get paid if I can’t find the location, one thing I learned quickly working in the movies is that you don’t do ANY work for free.
Have you ever not been able to find a location?
Yes, sometimes they ask for the impossible. So locations sometimes get changed, written out or built when they can’t be found. For instance, in 502 I needed to find a house for the character Chow. The scene was written in a very specific way and we couldn’t find a house that fit the layout, so they ended up building it on stage.
But I promise you, if it exists, I can find it.
What was the hardest location to secure on Breaking Bad?
The train sequence in 505 was immense; there were so many details to work out.
The jail in 508 was an ordeal, it was a stinky closed jail downtown that we had to de-stink and ventilate.
The Madrigal Warehouse in 504 was a big deal because we were shooting in a giant working food distributor.
But probably the hardest was the chicken farm in Season 4. When Breaking Bad came back for the new season we quickly found out that the chicken farm was about to be demolished and they didn’t want us to come back. Vince and the writers wanted to do 3 or 4 scenes there throughout the season. Somehow we managed to convince them to let us film and we had to pay off the contractor to slowly rip the place down until we finished shooting. The day after we got our last shot they ripped the place down.
What are the main things you look for in a location, things that have to be there in order for you to hire the location?
I look for what we call “production value.” High ceilings are always good, spacious rooms that can fit a film crew. Interesting architecture, colors or decorations are sometimes good. They always hate a “white box” so rooms with some kind of depth or strange shape are usually a plus. Proximity to other locations is a big deal on TV because we usually don’t have the time or budget to move the crew very far. On Breaking Bad I’m often sent to find something that looks “Breaking Bad-y,” which basically means a cool looking piece of crap.
Tell us about yourself, is it your plan to continue being a location scout, you are obviously good at it?
I’m really only as good as my department. We have a very solid locations team on Breaking Bad that I absolutely love working with. But personally, I consider locations a sort of back up a career that takes up all of my time. I like to think of myself as a screenwriter, I have written many shorts and I’m working on a few TV pilots of my own. I would ultimately love to be a show-runner like Vince Gilligan someday and be the one who calls the shots creatively. I also have recently stumbled into acting, and I really wouldn’t mind becoming a handsome movie star either.
The reason I ask is while researching you I found this comic series you created www.tippyandfriends.com is that what you want to do in the future? How is that going?
Yes, thank you for mentioning it. I always wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, long before I ever wanted to work in the movies. I thought I’d give a webcomic a try and now I’ve been making Tippy and Friends daily for over a year. I would love it if it somehow became my job, but that’s probably not very realistic, especially because it’s so incredibly unpopular. I continue to make them in an attempt to stay creative. My life can’t just be about work or I start to go crazy, so forcing myself to come up with comics every day keeps me inspired and sane.
—– More Info About The Series:
In this show, Bryan Cranston (Malcolm In The Middle) plays Walter White – a high school chemistry teacher who early on in Season One gets diagnosed with lung cancer. Walter White then turns to make crystal meth to set up his family for life in preparation for his potential death.
Aaron Paul stars as Jesse Pinkman – Walter’s former student now turned small-time drug dealer, who partners with Walter to make high-quality meth.
Dean Norris also stars as Hank Schrader, Walter’s DEA brother-in-law – just to spice things up. And Anna Gunn plays Skyler White, Walter’s wife who at the time of the diagnosis is pregnant with their second child.
The show is now in its fifth season. Breaking Bad has won many awards including six Emmy Awards, Bryan Cranston winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor for three consecutive years. Overall, the Breaking Bad has over 26 industry awards and has so far been nominated for a further 58 awards.