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(Soundbite of music, "Tara's Theme")

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In the old days, movies - even the big epics - were shot on studio back lots. Tara, that iconic plantation in "Gone with the Wind" was made of plywood and papier mache. These days, movie locations are mostly real. And they're found by location scouts who are often the first people hired for a movie.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg met up with some for her annual pre-Oscar series on movie jobs.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Location scout, easy. He, usually they're men, drives around town, spots a house, thinks it could work for the film. And drives home?

Unidentified Man #1: Rolling.

STAMBERG: Well, no.

Unidentified Man #2: Tape One and action.

(Soundbite of a car and gunfire)

STAMBERG: They're filming a car chase in downtown Los Angeles. It's just one location John Panzarella found for the Justin Timberlake movie, "Now."

Mr. JOHN PANZARELLA (Location Manager): In many scripts, you get about 40 locations. In this picture, there are a hundred different locations.

STAMBERG: And John Panzarella had to find them all: bridges, tunnels, office buildings, apartments, beaches. Then once the shooting starts, he has to manage every location.

Mr. PANZARELLA: Setting up parking, making arrangements with all the neighbors, making the deals with the places that we're going to be filming, and sort of babysitting the whole crew to make sure that everybody plays nice together.

STAMBERG: Location managers have to handle the enmity of non-movie makers. Two bridges have been closed for today's shoot. You can imagine how happy that makes L.A. drivers.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #3: Cut.

STAMBERG: Near Hollywood, some streets are closed for the Matt Damon movie, "We Bought a Zoo." Director Cameron Crowe is filming in the neighborhood of Los Feliz, Where Kerry Sutkin lives.

SO to me it looks very exciting, you got a movie shooting down your street.

Ms. KERRY SUTKIN: But the street's been closed for two days. But it's kind of fun. Yesterday, I came in angry. And then Matt Damon kept walking by and then I was happy by the end of the shoot.

STAMBERG: And what about four-legged neighbors? Miles away, on a 450 acre ranch, location manager Chris Baugh is overseeing the creation of the film's zoo.

Mr. CHRIS BAUGH (Location Manager): Tigers are going to be just on the other side of these trees right here. And you can see next door, there's some horses from the ranch next door.

STAMBERG: Very calm right now.

Mr. BAUGH: Well, wait till we bring in the big cats.

STAMBERG: Plus, there'll be lots of other creatures on the film.

Mr. BAUGH: Flamingos, lamas, monkeys, and the bear.

STAMBERG: For a six-week shoot, Chris Baugh will also have to provide facilities for the care, feeding and safety of a tamer group - one hopes - the cast and crew.

What point would you simply say this is just too hard - we've got to build it in a sound stage?

Mr. BAUGH: We're not allowed to say no. We have to make it work, so we find a way.

STAMBERG: Location scout Lori Balton found this ranch. She discovered it first for the film "Sea Biscuit." Lori says a big part of scouting is getting inside the director's head, to find sites that match his or her mental images.

Working with director Michael Bay on "Pearl Harbor" was a challenge.

Ms. LORI BALTON (Location Scout): He said I want something white. It's got to be white, it's got to be white, it's got to be white. Oh, week after week into months we're looking for white, white, white. And finally, I see something black. And I go you know what? This kind of works. I'm going to show it to him. And he looks at it and he looks at me. And he goes this is exactly what I asked you to find - why did it take so frigging long?

STAMBERG: Scouting can mean days and weeks in the car, a kind of home away from home.

Mr. DOUG DRESSER (Location Scout/Location Manager): Ah, let's see. I have a tool kit. Safety goggles, you never know when a wind storm is going to come up. I have an extra pair of socks.

STAMBERG: The most important item in location scout/location manager Doug Dresser's trunk, is a camera. Today, he is checking out six L.A. sites, and will take loads of photos to show the director and production designer.

Mr. DRESSER: Big open space. You can build sets in here. We pull our movie trucks right up here.

STAMBERG: But the smell. It's a defunct dairy near L.A.'s Chinatown; huge warehouse, with the distinct aroma of sour milk. Not right for his film, a fantasy adventure - teenagers, abandoned buildings, creepy - like the next location Doug scouts.

Mr. DRESSER: So we're inside the morgue of the former Linda Vista Hospital. It's a cold and dark basement. Paint peeling off of the walls.

(Soundbite of camera click)

STAMBERG: You hang out in an awful lot of really dreadful places, Doug.

Mr. DRESSER: It's a glamorous profession.

(Soundbite of camera click)

STAMBERG: There is some glamour at a small corner restaurant in Los Feliz today. They're shooting the Matt Damon movie "We Bought a Zoo."

Unidentified Man #4: And Matt should be stepping out at any minute.

Unidentified Man #5: All righty.

STAMBERG: Location manager Chris Baugh has left the zoo construction on the ranch and is here solving problems. This one from the show's - they call movies shows in movieland - the show's best boy grip.

Unidentified Man #6: Hi, can I park my car tonight up on that side walk.

Mr. BAUGH: Yeah, that shouldn't be a problem.

Unidentified Man #6: Okay.

Mr. BAUGH: Thanks for asking.

STAMBERG: Chris says location managing is like throwing a full-blown wedding for 200 people in a different place every day for 50 days. Some days commandos drop on the roof, or a machine gun fight begins, and then there's a tidal wave - fun.

Mr. CAMERON CROWE (Director, "We Bought a Zoo"): And cut. That's a cut. Okay, very nice.

STAMBERG: Inside the restaurant, between takes, Director Cameron Crowe says it's all worth it, if it helps actors like Damon.

Mr. CROWE: What was great was to be able to bring him to these places and say this is what we found. And he immediately said I feel the movie here. I can play this character.

STAMBERG: For Cameron Crowe, the long, hard work of location scouting, and then set designing, lighting, cinematography, performing, directing, all of it is best when it disappears.

Mr. CROWE: The movie should make it all feel invisible. The movie should feel like you're just viewing somebody living a life. To be living a life on screen, they have to feel like that's their house. This is where they were born. Or they're comfortable enough to make you believe it.

STAMBERG: And so location, location, location. The first step in getting us to suspend disbelief for a few hours and enter other lives.

(Soundbite of movie, "Field of Dreams")

Mr. DWIER BROWN (Actor): (as John Kinsella): Is this heaven?

Mr. KEVIN COSTNER (Actor): (as Ray Kinsella): It's Iowa

STAMBERG: In California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music, "Field of Dreams")

MONTAGNE: You too can scout some movie locations yourself, just by going to our website, NPR.org.

And from NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION. I'm Renee Montagne.

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