Giving Commercials Their Best Shot
October 26th, 1997 · 5 Comments · News
Giving Commercials Their Best Shot
By DEBRA GALANT – New York Times October 26, 1997
To David Fitzgerald, New Jersey suburbia essentially breaks down into two basic types: Norman Rockwell and Edward Scissorhands.
Montclair and Tenafly are classic Norman Rockwell towns, with stately colonials on shade-dappled yards, places that evoke a memory of a time when childhood was safe and unhurried. Clifton and Cedar Grove will serve as your basic Edward Scissorhands towns, slightly menacing places where 1960’s split-levels gleam unshaded under the midday sun and where the foliage forms perfect geometric shapes.
”Norman Rockwell was always the standard for commercials,” Mr. Fitzgerald, who scouts locations for television, explains. But lately, that has changed. The Edward Scissorhands towns have been more in vogue. Then there are your gritty urban locations: Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken. And your rural ones, places like Oldwick and Lebanon. Of course, you never know about those rural locations. The way new suburbs spring up these days, last year’s great cornfield could be this year’s new Edward Scissorhands town.
Whatever. Wherever. New Jersey can, and does, provide the backdrop for almost any scene a film or television director could want. Last year, 69 feature films, 240 commercials and numerous other film projects were shot on location here, contributing $48.2 million to the state’s economy, according to the New Jersey Motion Picture and Television Commission.
It’s people like David Fitzgerald who find these backdrops. Mr. Fitzgerald, 41, has been scouting locations in the New York area for 15 years. Like many fellow scouts, he fell into his profession accidentally. A painter with a master’s degree in fine arts, Mr. Fitzgerald received a call one day from an old friend who had gone to film school and was now working as a location scout. ”I was working in an art gallery,” Mr. Fitzgerald recalls. ”He was making more money.”
Experienced location scouts command about $500 a day plus expenses. Beginners earn $200 to $300. At least 100 location scouts work steadily in the New York metropolitan area; Mr. Fitzgerald is one of about 30 who concentrate exclusively on commercials.
It doesn’t take a whole lot to get set up in the location scouting business. A sturdy camera, a reliable car, a good set of maps, a beeper, a cellular phone and a few contacts will start you off. But it’s up to the location scout to develop a vast database of houses of every architectural style and feel, with occupants willing to put their lives on hold for a few days — in other words, to create the visual equivalent of a great Rolodex.
And it’s up to the location scout to learn which towns are film-friendly and which aren’t, and to keep up with changes in local ordinances regarding location shooting.
”A lot of the job is clearance,” Mr. Fitzgerald says. ”Who will allow you to film, which locations have been film-friendly in the past.”
Like most scouts working in the area, Mr. Fitzgerald found himself spending a lot of time in Montclair, a town with a strong collection of houses built in the late 19th century. Mr. Fitzgerald, who was brought up in Manhattan and then moved to Brooklyn, grew to like Montclair so much that he decided to move his own family there in 1995. He and his wife, Naomi Rand, a college professor and writer, chose a yellow Victorian built in 1892, with a glassed-in front porch and a 30-by-30-foot living room — with an eye toward show business.
”I thought it would work for commercials,” he says. ”And it does.” The house has provided the setting for four commercials, including a Corestates Bank spot currently being broadcast. To avoid the resentment of other residents on his small private street, he has arranged for the production companies to pay the neighbors for parking in their driveways. And after the latest commercial was filmed, Mr. Fitzgerald bought them each a bottle of wine.
With all their trailers and equipment, their habit of tying up traffic and hogging parking spaces, film crews have a way of wearing out their welcome in even the most film-friendly towns. So places like Tenafly and Montclair, which have provided the scenery for more than their share of commercials and movies, are beginning to become restrictive. After a number of film shoots in one of Montclair’s tonier neighborhoods last year, irate neighbors pressed the town to pass an ordinance limiting production to three days a year at any single location. Anything more — say, the day-after-day production required in shooting a feature film — requires a variance.
When certain towns begin to recede as film towns, others emerge to take their place. Lately, Maplewood has begun to provide some of the Norman Rockwell sets needed by the film business. As word spreads among scouts, Maplewood will begin to get the reputation as a film-friendly town and draw more business, Mr. Fitzgerald explains.
Then there’s the magic circle to consider. If a film is shot within a 25-mile radius of Columbus Circle in Manhattan, the production company doesn’t have to pay for travel time for the union crew. A scout who wants to be asked again is attentive to that geographic requirement.
IT usually doesn’t take much to persuade homeowners to put up with all the chaos involved in a film shoot. For $1,800 to $2,000 a day — not to mention the flattery of having your house chosen to be on television! or in the movies! — most homeowners are quite willing to put up with the cameras, cables and caterers that come with job. Farmers, too, are often eager for both the money and the attention. Although some farmers are ‘’sort of old and crotchety and don’t want to be bothered,” Mr. Fitzgerald says, many enjoy the Hollywood-style intrusion and therefore are called again and again, he says.
Still, part of his job is reminding the property owner what that $2,000 pays for: the right to completely turn your house (or farm or whatever) upside down for a day. ”When they come in, they might move furniture,” Mr. Fitzgerald recently warned a Montclair homeowner, whose house was being considered for a spot featuring a major brand of sports equipment. To make a real location fit the director’s vision, crews may refit light fixtures or replace window treatments. To prepare for a shoot that could scratch a floor, a false floor might be laid down over it. ”It’s sort of like an invading army,” Mr. Fitzgerald says.
That army needs a lot of room, and one of the challenges of Mr. Fitzgerald’s job is to find houses big enough to hold all the crew and equipment, but small enough that they won’t look like mansions: ”big houses that don’t read as wealthy as they are.” Another challenge is to find offices, shopping districts and schools that can accommodate all the disruption that inevitably comes with a film crew.
After all the logistical requirements have been met, Mr. Fitzgerald can consider the artistic side of his job. ”You have to have a sense of what a director will be looking for,” he says. ”To be willing to understand the director’s vision.” And there’s not a lot of time.
Location scouts usually have two or three days to bring back 10 or 15 possible locations for a commercial shoot. That translates into about 20,000 miles a year on Mr. Fitzgerald’s leased 1995 Camry.
On one job last year, for a Three Musketeers candy bar commercial, Mr. Fitzgerald was asked to find an Italian social hall, the kind of place where the Godfather would hang out. The director suggested he watch the movie ”Goodfellas” to get the idea.
”I immediately thought of sort of funky places,” Mr. Fitzgerald says. First, he got the name of an actual Italian social club in Jersey City from the New Jersey Film Commission. He also visited the Elks’ Lodge in Hoboken, as well as the back room of a Hoboken bar with old wooden booths and a tin ceiling. He tried some places in Little Italy in Manhattan, including at least one with Chianti bottles and checkered tablecloths.
But as is so often the case, the director wound up liking a location a little classier than the one he originally described, and the commercial was shot at another Hoboken location provided by Mr. Fitzgerald: the back room of Frankie and Johnny’s, an old-fashioned restaurant and bar with classic turn-of-the-century details.
And then there’s the hard part of the job, informing people that their kitchens won’t be the setting for next spring’s Maxwell House commercial after all. ”Some people take it very personally,” Mr. Fitzgerald says. ”People who haven’t been approached numerous times. They get excited, and they start assuming it’s going to happen.”
In that case, Mr. Fitzgerald tries to let them down easy, just as a director would after auditioning, say, an actress who reads well but is just too short for the job. ”You say: ‘It’s not about your house, but they wanted a bigger space,” he says. Or: ”They wanted whiter walls.”