'New York is Not a City of Alleys': A Film Location Scout's Pet Peeves
Since 2004, Nick Carr has been working as a film location scout in New York City. He travels throughout the city to find rooms and settings and unique places to film scenes in movies and television shows, and he’s been documenting some of this work and his experiences on his website, ScoutingNY. He highlights interesting parts of the city, areas that have been used (and over-used) in film, and some of the ways the built environment of the city has changed over time. Carr took the time to chat with us about his work and how it’s changed the way he looks at the city – on film and on the street.
Would you consider yourself an expert on the city?
No. Expert would be saying a lot for a city like New York City. I would say I’m pretty well versed in the city. I tend to know what I’m exposed to. When I first started location scouting for movies, I might have been to Brooklyn once, I’d never been to Queens, I’d never been to Staten Island and I’d never been to the Bronx. What I’ve become exposed to is what I’ve had to explore due to my job, but when I think about how much left there is to explore, it’s a big city.
When you think about how you experience the city, how is it different from the way most New Yorkers experience it?
One of the reasons that I really like my job is that I almost get to live the many lives of being a New Yorker in a week’s period. If I’m working on a movie and we’re filming on Wall Street, I live the life of a Wall Street guy for about a week. I’m going there every morning to setup all the contracts and everything to do the shoot, I’m eating in those places, I’m seeing the people that go to those jobs every day, I’m in the middle of that world. And the next week I might be shooting in a really low-income section of the Bronx.
One film you mention a lot is Ghostbusters. Could you talk a little bit about that film’s role in how you think about filmmaking and locations?
Ghostbusters is one of the first movies I ever remember seeing when I was a kid. I remember seeing the city and thinking ‘man, does this place actually exist?’ You look at the film and New York just looks like this gritty city where you’ve got to fight to get by. And at the same time you have all these beautiful cultural landmarks, like the New York Public Library and Columbia University. Looking at it now from a filmmaking perspective, I think what’s great about the movie is that it uses New York City as a character. Nothing kills me more than the movie or TV show that comes to town and they want to film in a Queens house and so we show them Queens houses, and they say ‘this doesn’t look right, show us more.’ And we end up filming our Queens house in Brooklyn. What’s great about Ghostbusters is it makes sense. The place they set up shop is this old derelict firehouse when Tribeca was this down and out neighborhood. And the routes they drive through the city, they make sense, the landmarks they go to make sense, the apartment building they choose became a character in the movie. They were treating New York as a real city.
And do most other films not use cities in a realistic way?
Some do and some don’t. I’d say I’ve worked on more films that want to find the imaginary version of New York than the real. The big thing I always get asked to find are dank dilapidated alleys, and New York City has, like, 5 alleys that look like that. Maybe four. You can’t film in three of them. So what it comes down to is there’s one alley left in New York, Cortlandt Alley, that everybody films in because it’s the last place. I try to stress to these directors in a polite way that New York is not a city of alleys. Boston is a city of alleys. Philadelphia has alleys. I don’t know anyone who uses the ‘old alleyway shortcut’ to go home. It doesn’t exist here. But that’s the movie you see. Your impression of New York is that it is the city of alleys, and then directors will come here, they’ve seen movies set in New York and they want their movies to have alleys. And it’s this self-perpetuating fictional version of New York that just kills me because movies are so much more interesting when you show a side of New York that actually exists but isn’t regularly highlighted.
Can it be kind of annoying for neighbors when film crews pile into their neighborhoods to shoot all the time?
If you live in a neighborhood people want to show in film then you are lucky to live in that neighborhood. New York City, I really believe, is the film star of cities in the world. People film in L.A. and Boston and Philly and Dallas and other cities certainly, but the one place you know from the minute the first frame hits the screen is New York. And you want that identity. People will come to New York City regardless of whether or not they make movies here, but the amount of a tourism boost that comes from it is unbelievable. The Sex and the City tours alone – god, any restaurant that Sex and the City put on the map is making money to this day from the fact that it was once on that show. Another one is the American Museum of Natural History. After Night at the Museum came out, their attendance boost was astronomical. So it all will eventually come back to benefit you. If you’re the neighbor who was on the street who was annoyed because of all the trucks and no one paid you directly, it sucks and I totally get that. But I think there’s something comforting about the fact that they are still continuing to want to film in your neighborhood, because the day that they don’t it’s probably going to mean things are a lot worse for you.
How do you feel about the proliferation of the green screen as the film set? Is it the end of the real-life city setting?
That serves its purpose for the type of film that is not aspiring for much. I really do believe people want to see shows set in neighborhoods and cities that they might not necessarily live in. It’s truly an escapist form of entertainment for most mainstream movies and TV shows to go to areas you don’t normally get to got to, and you don’t get that with a green screen. I have not seen any decrease in work going on in New York due to that. I think the movie that can’t afford to shoot in New York is not going to shoot here regardless. When it comes down to it, getting the real thing is just so much easier and so much more rewarding in the final product than it is to fake it.
What’s it like when you go to other cities? Are you looking at and navigating the city the same way as if you were location scouting in New York?
I think I tend to look at cities really intensively, which maybe comes from scouting or maybe comes from just who I am. Working as a location scout, you sort of tend to pick out the things that stand out. And that doesn’t take any real talent, all it takes is you walking down the same street ten times to start realizing what is common in the city and what is unique or what is rare or what you don’t tend to see. And that carries across to other cities. Seeing the property that stands out or the element of the city that stands out, I think, is really just from having exposure to what the city typically offers and the things that make it really special. Whatever city it is, I’m always on the lookout for those things that stand out.