The Complete Guide to Location Scouting: The Manhattan Edition with John Fedynich


It takes a lot more than one might imagine to secure locations and shoot in New York City. Veteran location manager John Fedynich (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2) takes Chris Neumer on his own location scouting expedition and together the two find the perfect Manhattan alley, stumble into some intriguing neighborhoods and deal with unexpected problems. After this article, you’ll never look at that Fifth Avenue setting in the same way again.

by Chris Neumer

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It’s nine o’clock in the morning and though the sun has been up for a number of hours, some bank thermometers are still registering temperatures that are below zero. Complete with a brisk breeze, it is blisteringly and bone-chillingly cold. Even though it’s winter in New York, the cold is the only topic of discussion on the morning shows and talk radio. The wind is knifing through my supposedly wind-proof jacket and causes my eyes to inadvertently tear. It is very, very cold.

This is not good news, for today is the day location manager John Fedynich (pronounced Fed-uh-nitch) and I have chosen to go on a location scout in Manhattan. “Mondays and Tuesdays are the best days to go scouting,” Fedynich told me several times over the phone when we were mapping out our excursion. “Less traffic going into the city, less traffic in the city.” It seemed like good logic at the time.

“Well,” Fedynich smiles when we meet up, eyeballing the crystallizing air streaming out of my nostrils, “You wanted something interesting to learn from. You got it.”

My journey toward enlightenment had started some weeks earlier. Sick and unable to get out of bed, I figured that it was the perfect time to watch the extended editions of Lord of the Rings, back to back to back. At this point in time, there are only a few things that Peter Jackson can’t do; improving my health just so happens to be one of these things. Upon my completion of the epic trilogy, I was still sick and, thus, started watching the behind-the-scenes specials on the making of the films. The documentaries were interesting, but I was particularly fascinated by the segments on the location scouting work. I’d never really thought much about how directors get the shooting locations they wanted/needed and didn’t have much of an idea about how the process worked. Clambering out of bed the next morning, I decided that I was going to change this.

After making a couple of phone calls to a few Manhattan-based producer friends and the New York Film Office, I scored the phone number to Fedynich. He had worked in locations for more than a decade, starting out as a location scout for the television series, Law & Order, and had moved up to the big time, handling the locations for Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, among a host of other large-scale Manhattan projects. I left a very garbled message on Fedynich’s answering machine about wanting to learn more about the scouting process, my desire for him to take me on a location scout and my phone number. It was a shot in the dark and I knew it: I had just called one of the preeminent location managers in our country’s largest city and asked him to take me on a faux location scout. “Maybe I’m still sick,” I rationalized after hanging up the phone and climbing back into bed, expecting nothing.

Two days later, a slightly confused Fedynich called me back. “You want to do what?” he asked me.

“I want to go on a fake location scout with you,” I told him, having perfected my pitch over the course of the last two days. “Just pretend like I’m a director–-I can yell at you if you’d like–-and walk me through the process of location scouting. I’m interested in experiencing what it’s like first hand.”

Fortunately for me, location scouts and location managers haven’t gotten any kind of press recently. Fedynich paused for a second thinking about my question and then said, “Sure.”

Naturally, when he asks me how I want to handle this faux location scout that I am proposing, I have no clue. After some discussion and deliberation, Fedynich tells me to come up with a list of four types of places that I’d like to scout out. My final list is off-the-wall, but not too difficult. Had I known that I could have requested a fire station with a pole on the north side of the building looking out onto a Macy’s store or something equally specific, I would probably have done so, just to throw Fedynich a challenge. As it is, my requests are fairly pedestrian: I want to search for an alley where someone could get robbed, an outdoor basketball court, an exterior to a trendy residence and an exterior to a night club.

Fedynich is way ahead of me and quickly asks, “Does it have to be an actual night club? Or could we just put a line of people in front of some other building and decorate it so that it looks like a night club?” I opt for the latter–it is significantly simpler–and this makes Fedynich happier.

Prior to our actual scout, Fedynich consulted his notes and photos and came up with a number of locations that he thinks would match my needs as a ‘director’. “Normally, we’d walk around in some of these spots,” Fedynich tells me, but this quickly goes out the window when we hear that the wind chill is forty below zero. “Today, you’ll have to appreciate the scenery from the car,” he smiles and then points out the exterior to Peter Parker’s apartment as we drive past the building near Washington Square.

Fedynich and I meet near his northern New Jersey home and strike out towards Manhattan. On the 25-minute ride to the city, Fedynich walks me through the progression of a normal location scout… location scouts that aren’t conducted on the coldest day of the year, that is.

Unlike most of the other behind-the-camera positions, the location scout is one job title that is every bit as self-explanatory as it seems. This is something that absolutely cannot be said about the ‘best boy’, ‘key grip’, ‘foley mixer’, ‘boom operator’ and ‘third assistant director’. However, while the concept of what a location scout does is very basic–they find differing places for movies to shoot–the actual nuts and bolts of the position are much more complicated than they might initially seem.

Working in the capacity of location manager on the yet-to-be-released film, The Pink Panther, Fedynich was in charge of finding a building in Manhattan that had an alley entrance right near a freight elevator that had a set of stairs next to it. He shoots a look at me after he mentions this. “The more specifics the director needs, the harder it becomes for us,” he says matter-of-factly.

Fedynich’s first step was to contact his team of location scouts and pass on the details of what The Pink Panther’s director, Shawn Levy, was looking for. At this point in the process, it’s distinctly possible that Fedynich or one of his scouts will already have a couple of interesting locales in mind that would fit the prescribed billing. “A good knowledge of locations is imperative to a good location scout,” Fedynich says. “It may sound obvious, but it’s so important that it needs to be mentioned.”

Fedynich pushes the directors and production designers for as much detail about the locations they want as possible. When I tell him that I am looking for an alley, he wants to know the look of the alley I’m going for, the length, the back drops that I desire and whether or not I want the alley paved with cobblestone or asphalt. “Cobblestone looks a lot better on film when it’s wet,” he explains.

Having no leads on a building with Levy’s very focused specifics, Fedynich’s scouts hit the pavement, looking for locations that would match the production’s criteria. “It’s not as open-ended as it may seem,” Fedynich tells me of the actual scouting process. “There are certain places that you go when you’re looking for certain things. For lofts, you go to Soho, for upscale brownstones, you go to the Upper West Side and for roof tops with water towers, you go to the Flat Iron District.” Later, I learn that there are roughly four blocks in all of Manhattan that are lined with trees, all of which are located in the Chelsea neighborhood. He doesn’t mention what part of town you go to in order to find a building with an alley entrance near a freight elevator that has a set of stairs next to it.

When the scouts find a location that they think will be suitable, the real work begins. The scouts take copious photos of the building itself, the neighboring buildings and the block in general. With the photography done, the scouts sketch out a rudimentary map of the area and then start chatting with local residents and business owners in order to find out which locations are film friendly.

“The ability to go out and smooth talk the people who own and run the locations is another quality the good location scout has,” Fedynich states. “There are a lot of restrictions that apply to shooting in certain areas and I need to know what these are ahead of time.”

Occasionally, even knowing the location’s restrictions ahead of time won’t help matters. “Oh,” Fedynich sighs. “I’m going to use The Pink Panther as an example here again. We were shooting at Lehman College in the Bronx. We’d scouted the location several times and it wasn’t until we took the director of photography, the gaffer and the head grip there that I learned they wanted to have these unusual lighting positions within the auditorium that we were going to shoot.” These unusual lighting positions would have required that The Pink Panther production hang lights over some of the college’s offices and put cranes out on the main plaza to light the interior of the auditorium.

Fedynich taps his fingers against the steering wheel and continues, “I had to go back and renegotiate my original deal with the college because, when it was signed, I was told, “You can’t put anything in the plaza,’ and at the time, that was fine.” He chuckles and animatedly says, “Now! Now, we really need to put a crane in that position. I had to go back and say, ‘I know we discussed this, but now, in order for us to shoot at this location, we really need to put a crane on the plaza.’”

Once the area is mapped out and the scout determines which buildings are film friendly and which ones are not, Fedynich presents the results to the director. Since he has the benefit of experience on his side, Fedynich often recommends several locations over others, particularly if one location is close to another that the production is going to be using. “You can never underestimate the value of having things in close proximity to each other,” Fedynich says by way of explanation. “If you don’t have to pick up and move your equipment and you can just stay in one place, man…” he shakes his head, “that is a real benefit.”

“Then it’s up to the director to figure out what he wants,” Fedynich says in conclusion. He claps his hands once and smiles, “That’s location scouting.”

There are countless bits of useless trivia that I find fascinating, but, in regard to New York City, there is nothing that amazes me more than the fact that Manhattan does not have any alleys. If you walk up Fifth Avenue after 6:00 PM, you will be hard-pressed not to notice the daily hills of garbage that have been stacked up near the curb. With no alleys in which to conceal dumpsters or garbage cans, the city has no other alternative but to put its trash on the street.

With this fact in mind, Fedynich’s task in locating a dark alley is surprisingly simple: there are probably three of them on the island. He takes me into the Tribeca neighborhood and shows me his personal favorite alley, just off Jay Street. “They were considering using this in Spider-Man 2,” he tells me, “But they would have had to reverse the flow of traffic on the other side of it, which made it really difficult.” We drive by several other alleys, but no others have the same personality as the alley off of Jay.

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