News Column

A Day in the Life: Reel fun work

July 2, 2013

YellowBrix

July 02--On one production that film scout and location manager P.J. Connolly assisted early in his career, he remembered getting an odd request from the producer. He asked Connolly to show up on location with one or two live trout.

"And I said, 'sure,'" Connolly recalled. "So, I drove down to the Oak Creek Canyon trout farm to buy some fish from them. They told me they needed one or two for the production, but I hedged my bet. I got six of them because I was afraid of them dying."

Connolly checked in with a fish biologist, who loaned him an aerator and a motorcycle battery to help keep the six trout alive in a large cooler. He woke up at 1 a.m. and checked on the fish. One had died. He checked the fish again at 3 a.m. A second one went belly up.

At 5 a.m. he woke to drive out to the location at one of the lakes near Williams, where the film crew was shooting for a savings and loan bank commercial. But the motorcycle battery had run out of juice.

So, he worked to keep the fish alive by aerating it with a hose while holding one end out the window. Two more fish had died during the drive.

"I get there and I have two fish left," Connelly remembered. "And so I've been trying to keep these two fish alive and it gets to be 10 a.m. and finally I ask, 'What are we going to do with the fish?' And the producer comes over and says, 'We don't need them. And I'm only paying you for half a day.'"

'RANGER' SCOUT

Luckily, Connolly's career -- though not without its challenges, has evolved beyond fish wrangling. Connolly has become what is known as a film scout, where he works with movie, TV, commercial productions and print advertising shoots to find places for filming and photographing. He is based in Flagstaff with his company Locations Southwest & Production Services. He scouts throughout the region.

One major Hollywood film that Connolly recently scouted for, "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer, is scheduled for release this week as an anticipated summer holiday blockbuster.

"Lone Ranger" is a Disney film directed by Gore Verbinski of "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise fame. It's a Western adventure movie about the iconic cowboy and his friend Tonto, played by Depp. Connolly worked with Verbinski and his art director for about three months to find locations in Arizona and the Southwest.

In Arizona, some of the scenes in "The Lone Ranger" were filmed in Monument Valley and in Canyon de Chelly. Early in the scouting, Connolly noted that the Verde Canyon Railroad was considered for an elaborate train sequence, as well as locations in Sedona.

Among his other numerous credits, Connolly worked with world-famous tightrope walker Nik Wallenda to stage his walk across the Little Colorado River Gorge -- an event broadcasted live on June 23 on the Discovery Channel. He helped Wallenda find the location and helped the crew with permitting and logistics.

As Connolly explains of his job, "It's not just about going out and finding pretty places. Anyone can find a pretty place." He listed off the multiple considerations that go into film scouting. "Can you get a film permit there? Is the cost of the permit reasonable? Can you get a film crew there? Or is it a five-mile hike? Could the crew damage the environment? Is there lodging near that location? How close is it? And, does the shoot require aerials? If so, can you get helicopter permits?"

Connolly noted that film scouting has required him to dig deep in studying meteorological reports for a location, as well as researching the hydrology of creeks and rivers used in a shoot.

He always does a thorough investigation and ensures that a permit can be secured before he presents the site as an option to the director or art director on a production. "Because there's nothing worse than showing a location to someone and you can't go there," he said.

Along with film scouting, Connolly offers his services as a location manager for film productions. A location manager handles logistics once filming begins. This is work that includes securing portable toilets, renting fences and arranging for garbage collection -- anything that supports the cast and crew during the filming.

EARLY STAGES

Connolly first entered the film business in 1985. He had worked as a teacher both in Tuba City and in Flagstaff. He oversaw outdoor education programs in the schools and also had experience as a Grand Canyon river guide.

Between jobs, he took an opportunity to work as a production assistant on the filming of a TV miniseries called "Dream West," which was being shot in Flagstaff. The miniseries aired in 1986 and was about John C. Fremont, played by Richard Chamberlin.

The film crew invited Connolly to travel to Tucson and help them on other projects. He continued work in film by taking various roles in film productions in Phoenix. In the late 1980s, the Valley became popular for filming movies of the week, commercials and other productions.

"While I was on set, people would ask me about locations all the time," Connolly recalled. "A production manager or producer would ask, 'What do you know about locations in Flagstaff or Sedona?' I knew a lot about locations because I had run all these outdoor education trips. I knew about the Navajo Nation and Dine because I worked as a teacher on the reservation. And I had done a lot of work in the Grand Canyon."

He continued, "One day, a lady that hired me to grip said, 'I want you to scout for me.' That was around 1988. And she shot commercials for international companies. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. So, I just tried to match what she wanted ... It became a learning process, and I'm still learning."

GREAT MOMENTS

Connolly has loved his job working as a film scout and location manager. A big project he worked on in recent years was to scout for the film "John Carter," a major motion picture by Disney that came out last summer.

He scouted for nine months on travels that took him as far west as the Nevada border and as far north as the Idaho border. In the end, several scenes of "John Carter" were shot around Lake Powell, Big Water and Kanab, Utah. He helped with infrastructure and logistics during filming.

Another recent job he received involved him working with famous photographer Annie Leibovitz. The photographer's staff sent him to Scottsdale to scout locations to shoot boxing's greatest, Muhammad Ali, for a series of ads for French designer Louis Vuitton.

In the end, Connolly scouted Ali's Scottsdale residence to help Leibovitz prepare for the shoot.

The ad series came out last June, and Connolly was excited to work with one of the world's greatest fashion photographers shooting one of the world's greatest athletes.

The Flagstaff film scout also assisted director Sean Penn for his film "Into the Wild," and he used his knowledge of the river to help with the scenes filmed along the Colorado.

A little earlier in his career, Connolly provided assistance for the 1994 Robert Zemeckis film "Forrest Gump," which won an Academy Award for Best Picture and a Best Actor Award for Tom Hanks.

Connolly worked with downtown businesses as the crew filmed a scene from the movie on San Francisco Street. He remembered being there on filming day when a special effects crew member needed to constantly rework the "dog doo" that Hanks stepped in. "Each time he fixed it, it looked like he was decorating a cake," Connolly recalled.

NO MOVIE

Although Connolly's credits include big-budget films, notable photographic shoots and more, he also has been involved with scouting for a variety of productions that never have made it to the big screen.

"I have scouted for 'The Monkey Wrench Gang' five times," he said of the 1975 Edward Abbey novel about eco-terrorism. It has yet to make it to the big screen in any incarnation. The last scout he did for the film was with director Catherine Hardwicke and her crew.

"I spent two weeks with them," he said. "With 'Monkey Wrench Gang,' there is a little bit of creative scouting, but it's pretty much showing them where all the things happen in the book. I'd say, 'Here is the train is that they blow up Coalmine Canyon. Here is Glen Canyon and here is Page.'"

Connolly explained that Arizona is fortunate to have so many locations -- such as Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Lake Powell -- that don't have a "double" in another state that film crews can go to. He said Arizona is challenged in that it no longer offers film incentives, while New Mexico and Utah offer attractive ones.

"Still, our landscape is spectacular and we have great weather," he noted. "When you walk through a dealership and you see those books that are trying to sell you on a new vehicle, all those photographic shoots are the same as a feature film. And quite a few of them have been shot in Arizona."

He added, "They need a location, they need lodging, they need logistic support and they need permits. It's just that it's probably a crew of 15 to 30 and not 300. But I still get my day rate."

Learn more about P.J. Connolly and his company at www.locationssouthwest.com.

___

(c)2013 The Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Ariz.)

Visit The Arizona Daily Sun (Flagstaff, Ariz.) at www.azdailysun.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.


For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel