By Shannon Mullen
Women in Film & Video of New England presents a new series of Q & A interviews with professional female filmmakers who live and work in New England or have ties to the region.
This edition features Lori Balton, a top Hollywood Location Manager who started her career in Boston. Her long and diverse list of credits includes Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Inception, There Will Be Blood, Memoirs of a Geisha, The Aviator, Seabiscuit, Best in Show, Armageddon, City of Angels, A River Runs Through It, Rocky V and Dead Poets Society, to name only a handful.
WIFVNE: Tell us how you started your career in New England, and whether that affected your path.
I had no idea what to do after college, so I followed my boyfriend and his band to Boston, worked at Boston University and got my graduate degree in the evenings. I landed my first job on a cable show as a Production Assistant, moved up coordinating industrials and commercials and slowly worked my way onto whatever features came to town. I started doing craft service, APOC, 2nd AD, and by the time I hit locations I knew I was home.
But the features were few and far between. I met my husband on “Second Sight,” an unmemorable film in which we moved a mock up 747 through the streets of Boston at night. He invited me to come out to LA and I figured that if I didn’t I would always wonder what would have happened, so I moved to LA, went to see a Unit Production Manager I worked for in Boston on “Witches of Eastwick” and got hired on the spot. Then I got into the union and fortunately I have never stopped working. It would be fun to go back to Boston to scout… it’s been a long time since I was back.
WIFVNE: How did you find your niche? When did you decide that location work was for you and how did you know?
I love that every day you deal with something different. Boredom is not an option. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter 19 years ago that I really defined my place in the industry. I thought I would try just scouting, assuming I would have to step back a bit. Instead, I became known as someone who only scouts and was suddenly in great demand—magically, my luck has held. I was the first person to make a living solely scouting for feature films–a job that i am completely grateful for.
WIFVNE: What qualities do you think enabled you to rise to the highest levels of your profession and what are some lessons you learned along the way?
I truly enjoy what I do, and I think that makes a big difference. I also have a good work ethic and really enjoy the variety of people I get to meet on my job. I guess the best lesson learned was back in my craft service days when someone nicely complimented my oh-so-artfully cut cheese cake. I wanted to brandish the knife and scream “I have a master’s degree! I can do a hell of a lot more than cut cheesecake!” Instead I took a deep breath and asked if I could get him a cup of coffee.
WIFVNE: What obstacles did/do you face as a woman trying to pursue a career in the male dominated film business?
I grew up with four brothers. It honestly never occurred to me that I couldn’t do something simply because I was a woman. I do frequently find myself the only female in a scout van, or working on a string of testosterone-laden movies like HEAT, FACE/OFF, ARMAGEDDON… It doesn’t seem to faze any of the guys I work with either. I never got special treatment, nor was I ever singled out for abuse.
WIFVNE: What are some of the biggest challenges facing anyone working in film these days, regardless of gender?
My daughter just announced that she thought she would want to do what I do when she’s done with school. Long pause… I told her I don’t know if I would recommend that, although I would support any decision that she feels passionate about.
The business has changed so much since I started; there is so much more a focus on money over creativity; then there’s the difference between finding intuitive, evocative locations for someone like Cameron Crowe on “We Bought a Zoo,” versus the more technical task of locations that would incorporate green screen effects in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
WIFVNE: What advice do you have for women who are just starting their film careers, especially those of us who are attempting to do it on the east coast?
I was lucky to work predominantly in Los Angeles while I was raising my daughter. By her senior year in high school features were drawn to [tax] incentive states and now that she’s in college I travel more, so there seems to be less of a need to stay based in LA. There are organizations like the Location Managers Guild of America that let people from all over connect and learn about the industry.
And speaking of organizations like the LMGA or Women in Film, they’re such great networking tools, and these groups rely so heavily (or solely!) on volunteers. Get involved on committees with people you are interested in working with, make a connection! I’m a huge fan of paying it forward; these groups provide an opportunity to give back, as well as to make a good impression.
It amazes me that there are not assistant location managers clamoring to help on the LMGA committees – it’s so shortsighted to miss a chance to connect with some of the top location managers in the industry.
WIFVNE: How has the industry changed for women working in film during your career, and what still needs to change?
There are certainly a lot more women working as location managers, and more that have managed to balance work with children and a somewhat sane family life. One of the most difficult things in this business is to have the courage to set limits.
Check out Lori’s photography at her website: http://loribalton.com/