Every year in central Nebraska USA, from late February to early April, a spectacle of nature occurs. It is happening NOW – as of this post. Earthlings are graced by the presence of four to six hundred THOUSAND Sandhill cranes, as they pause their migration and stop there on their way north. It is nothing short of magical…
As a Location Scout, it isn’t work. For me personally, the trip is a retreat. All devices are turned off, and soon the time seems to slow. Cool, crisp breathable air refreshes the soul. The vast open sky gifts you an aerial canvas of panoramic clouds and top-ten sunsets and sunrises over a braided river. Needless to say, this is a cinematography dream.Certainly if you have the slightest interest in birds, do add this trip to your bucket list. You have no excuse for being too far away. People come from other countries to experience this, yet sadly there are many Nebraskans who have never been… Here are a few pro-tips: Time between sunrise and sunset is spent traveling along the country roads. Pull over to a safe place away from traffic (stay in your car!) and enjoy them as they gather in cut-corn fields, eating and socializing, and flying from field to field. Watch for the crane dance, when they jump and frolic and call.Along the way, stop at the two sanctuary locations. Get educated, meet the incredible volunteers, visit the restroom, buy retail and snacks from the gift shop. You can book crane blind watches here too. Personally, I am partial to the Rowe Sanctuary but the other is The Crane Trust. Many of you know, beyond my personal retreat to see the cranes, I have been developing a screenplay that is set in this place during this time – for many years. As years passed, friends would tell me to write the book version of the story. So I did.Fauna’s Threadthe BOOK is now available on Amazon asPaperback and Kindle.
There is still hope of making a movie or series about it one day, so stay tuned. For now, plan a visit. Just go. Read my book. Then go again. Breathe, see, listen, embrace – enjoy. Stay safe.
Since changing lifestyles is the main theme of the movie Downsizing it is filled with real estate scenes. Colleagues who are Agents and Brokers will recognize many familiar scenarios. From first-time buyers with underwater aspirations to moving, mortgages, and meeting the associated occupations along the way. The word downsizing — is the science-fictional plot and a parallel nod to the wants and needs of an American home. House size is compared with dollar values in a (real) big world versus a very small one. If you haven’t seen Downsizing; here is your SPOILER ALERT!
I was the Location Scout + Manager for filming Downsizing in Omaha, Nebraska. For the past thirty years I have worked on movies, commercials, and all sorts of motion pictures. Commonalities in film locations and real estate are ubiquitous. Coincidentally, I was inspired to obtain a real estate license after working on this movie. From a Filmworker turned Agent I thought it would be fun to share stories from my experience.
Scouting for a movie begins similarly to initial chats with Buyers and Sellers. “Wants? Needs? Budget? Timeline?” The Director (the Buyer) for this project was Alexander Payne. He is hardly a “first-timer” so in theory there might be anxiety about meeting the client, but I had an advantage of previous work-history on the movie Nebraska. I was familiar with his style, interests, and mainly how he trusts the industry pros he hires for his collaborations.
Before any meeting, I read the script and create a list of locations. I do market research prior to any “showings” and before presenting any solid options. Like real estate, the internet changed location scouting. Yes, I do initial searching online and then contact real estate agents, property managers, builders, and homeowners while building a first pass list – still just for me. Although the internet is awesome, as in real estate, there is no replacement for good old-fashioned driving around, seeing places and meeting people—in real life.
I scout every location solo while checking off the creative looks and practical logistics before offering any location as an option to the Director. IF a location is a possibility, I then confirm its availability. Here’s another spoiler alert: there are location owners that have zero interest in letting a movie use their property. I am totally respectful of their choice. So beyond that first big question, the next ones are about calendar, work schedules, neighbors, HOAs, and if my offer will be remotely acceptable.* If all good and the vibe is positive, I can proceed to show the Director what we call Selects. It is at this point, favored locations become Sellers.
There were four house locations scripted as being in Omaha; exteriors and interiors. Plus two modern upscale condos in a big city, at least one massive mansion in Leisureland, and a rustic village in Norway. Early on in pre-production, before any hints of doubling ** and film cities hadn’t yet been selected***, my scouting periscope watched for all possibilities in Nebraska – oh, except the Norwegian fjord.
The Omaha duplex involved a fair amount of action, included exterior shots – front and back, including an alley entrance, and interiors on three floors. I knew this would be the location-to-find challenge of the show. There’s always at least one per movie. I initially scouted about a hundred duplexes. I got it down to about twenty to present as Selects. We physically scouted about ten. “Hold on, Jamie. How do you choose a location?” I find and suggest options based on the script, the Director’s vision, my creativity, and the practicality and safety of the location. For this movie, when I looked at the duplex above (my location-scout photo) I chuckled at all of the windows. I also knew there was a yard sale scene and it might be funny to host it on this slight hill. Alexander agreed.
The scene from the movie. Note the sign; a Moving Sale because of downsizing.
The word McMansion was scripted. Characters Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) go to a showing there. Alexander prefers real locations and real people, so when he needed a Real Estate Agent for a scene, he cast real Omaha agent Linda Andersen from a local broker.
This is the McMansion exterior (establishing shot). Use of the sign was legally cleared by the studio. Cars are called picture vehicles. The car on the left is the Agent’s (in the movie). In real life, it was owned by another Omaha agent who I met while scouting a model home. That model home ended up not being a select but I snapped a photo of the vehicle – and Alexander cast it.
The McMansion interior was a different house. Here’s my scout photo, months prior to filming.
Below is the scene from the movie. There’s real Agent Linda Andersen.
Another scout photo below.
This shot is in the trailer. Audrey loves it. Paul is hesitant. He says,
“…I just think we should take another look at that place in Benson.”
Paul and Audrey meet up with friends at another one of the houses set in Omaha (photo below). A high school classmate of Paul’s, who underwent the downsizing process, pitches him on the pros of being small. He convinces him to at least go visit and see what they have to offer in Leisureland, New Mexico. By the way, this house location was scouted in Omaha but because of production budget and schedule, these exterior and interior scenes were shot elsewhere.
Leisureland is a classic Hollywood fantasyland. This new tiny world was created by a mix of physical locations, proper placement of green screens, arduous filmmaking, and expensive digital effects. Practical locations become the foreground or background in what’s called a plate.Very early in scouting, the idea of shooting Leisureland in Nebraska was indeed discussed. We scouted Omaha area Linden Estates, West Shores, and Newport Landing. The latter looked good. It could have been large-scale filming in Omaha or at least gathering plates to place digital mansions on empty lots. However budget and schedule forced these scenes shot elsewhere too.
Watch this “new home build” sales pitch on equivalent value and upgrades – in Leisureland.
And a new home build presentation like no other.
Paul and Audrey return to Omaha from the Leisureland exploration trip – inspired, yet still on the fence. Their decision is made after listening to a phone message (also real people casting). That voice is real Mortgage Banker Tom Milo Goodman.
You’ll have to watch the movie to learn how the rest of the story plays out.
Collaborating with all of the location owners in Nebraska, including others not mentioned here (restaurants, manufacturing facility, shipping distribution center, etc.) was awesome. I wish we could do it again and more often… Working with Alexander Payne and top-shelf Hollywood pros is always a great ride. Downsizing was a fun one.
* Location owners are paid a location fee in exchange for permission to shoot on their property. Insurance is issued by the production. From location agreements to W9 forms, check requests, and insurance certificates, there is plenty of paperwork to do on any movie at each filming location – and non-filming locations (used for parking, select departments shop space, storage…). There are offers, counter-offers, negotiations, and occasionally “sorry, this property is no longer available.”
** Many scenes in movies and TV are “doubled” – meaning a location is shot elsewhere other than the scene’s scripted location. Some locations are doubled between exterior and interior. It happened at the duplex, McMansion, and other locations shot in Omaha. Downsizing is the first and only movie where Alexander Payne doubled his beloved Omaha outside Nebraska.
*** When a movie is scripted in multiple cities, production will choose one as a main hub or basecamp city. Film incentives (tax breaks) drive most decision-making. Even if a movie is set in one city or town or in a totally digital world – cities, states, and countries with best incentive packages win the production and the local economic benefits. Early in pre-production, I work extra hard and hope that ALL of the movie will be shot in my state. Yet my experience has taught me that most major movies are made in strong film-incentive states and countries. Nebraska has zero robust incentives. Downsizing was filmed partially in Los Angeles, Omaha, Norway and the majority in Toronto, Canada.