Lori Balton is a location scout and manager who scouts for film locations all around the world. A true professional, with over 30 years of experience in the film industry, she has helped to find impressive scene locations for film directors like Scorsese, Tarantino, Aranofsky and Spielberg, and such world-renowned films as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, “Babylon”, “Pearl Harbor”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “The Heat” and many others. Lori Balton is the first location scouting professional invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Lori and I are talking in Lithuania: it turns out that her family is from here. And it was no coincidence that this highly experienced film industry professional from the United States visited Vilnius, Kaunas, Trakai, and the coast of Lithuania for the first time in her life. The “Baltic Fam Trip” organized by the Vilnius Film Office and Baltic Locations brought Lori here: the most cinematic locations of the Baltic States were presented to a group of professional location managers from the USA, Canada, and Europe. In this interview, we talked with Lori about how cinema came into her life 30 years ago, what kind of emotions flooded her when visiting Lithuania, and the toughest challenges in her profession.
We met at the very beginning of the Baltic Fam Trip. Being here must have been very meaningful to you since you trace your family roots to Lithuania.
It’s great to be here; it is a place where I always wanted to go. When I was invited to Lithuania by the organizers of the Baltic Fam Tour I was thrilled because they knew I was trying to trace my ancestry.
Due to their help, I met a living relative, which I never expected. We held hands and looked at each other and just smiled for a very long moment. I wanted to come and understand the culture of Lithuania, but to actually see the place where my family came from was mind-blowing. It was the kind of gift you rarely get, and I am so grateful. I grew up in a generation where when you emigrated to America, you wanted to become American, so I missed a chance to learn Lithuanian, which was a big regret.
What was your first impression of Lithuania?
Vilnius seems like such a livable city. I imagine it would be a great city to live in because you can get anywhere on foot or by bicycle. It is comfortable and sophisticated at the same time. Excellent restaurants and parks all over – it has everything a city should have.
From a location standpoint, it has so many different looks in a small geographic area, and that is exactly what we look for: one destination where we can tell many different stories. I was surprised how many great pictures came from the Lukiškės prison. It has so many different parts, looks, and surprises; what a versatile location! I loved seeing all the socialist modernist buildings, too. We don’t see much of that in the US, but I love it. Also, all of the art deco buildings in Kaunas were amazing.
Since we are talking during your scouting tour, I was wondering how you started your cinema career. Was it something you always sought?
I didn’t even know that the job of a location manager existed until I started doing it. I have undergraduate and graduate degrees because I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do for a long time. My first job was as a production assistant in a cable show; then I was an associate producer and the next show I produced myself. The only reason I moved up so quickly was that no one else was there to do it. One thing led to another, and soon I was working in commercials and movies, in the craft service, as coordinator and second AD. Then someone said, hey, we need someone in locations, have you ever done that? And I said no, but I am happy to try. And that was a match made in heaven!
You’ve been on this career path for more than 30 years. What do you like about your job as a location scout?
I am passionate about what I do. I love everything about it from the initial research, and virtual scouting, to physical scouting and taking pictures. My job has taken me to many beautiful places. Each location is a shorthand by which the director telegraphs something about the character or the story to the audience. It adds some perspective of what the character who will occupy this place is like.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
I loved the job of a location manager, but it is one of the most challenging jobs on set, carrying so much responsibility. If anything goes wrong it somehow traces back to locations, and if all goes well, there are five people standing in front of you to take the credit. It takes a particular type of person to do the job well. You must be self-sufficient – not the kind of person who always needs someone to pat you on the back. You work hard and take pride in a job well done! As a group, we are typically underappreciated, which is why it was such a big deal to get into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When I was expecting my daughter, I realized I couldn’t be a parent and a location manager at the same time. One of my shortfalls as a location manager is that I am a very bad delegator. If I have to tell someone three times to do something and it is still not done the way I want it, the fourth time I just do it myself.
So, I decided to only scout… That is the part of the job I truly enjoy and while the hours are still long, as long as I get the job done, I get significantly greater flexibility. However, it was a bit uncertain, as no one else on features was only scouting at that time.
What do you search for when you visit a specific location or city?
Usually, I search for two things: places that are so unique they cannot be found elsewhere and places that are so similar to others, that they could double for other parts of the world.
It is also essential to have enough support: stages, equipment, and crew – those are the things that productions would ask for. It is advantageous to have very different locations concentrated in a small area for them to be geographically close to one central point.
I love scouting for plate shots which have a smaller footprint. With a crew of 3-4 people, you carry minimal equipment, and thus you can go anywhere, without requiring 5-star hotels and international airports. On “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” I scouted the northern border of Vietnam, where you see China’s karsts and waterfalls, but you are physically still in Vietnam. Since the tourism industry is not developed yet, we stayed in people’s homes. I like keeping an open mind, considering locations all over the world. And I love that I’m given the discretion to do so.
Which of the projects you worked on are particularly memorable to you?
One movie that still holds up and I am very proud of is “Heat”. Michael Mann is a stern taskmaster and I credit him and supervising location manager Janice Polley with teaching me my craft. “Seabiscuit” is a personal favourite because I was scouting California and it coincided with my daughter’s spring break. So, she was my “assistant,” handing me new rolls of film, meeting many horses, and learning all about her State. She is now a horse trainer in South Carolina. One of the first jobs I did as a manager was “A River Runs Through It,” another lyrical film that stands the test of time.
You’ve had so many different experiences and worked on various genres and with very different directors. Do you still have any career aspirations?
I would love to still work with the director West Anderson, since I am a huge fan of his work.But I have been fortunate enough to work with Pakula, Beatty, Scorsese, Redford, Nichols, PT Anderson, Payne, Scott (both Tony and Ridley), Tarantino, Guest, Hancock, Aronofsky, Duvernay, Spielberg….and others. It’s been a nice long run, and I’ve had good luck in working with filmmakers who are collaborators.
Overall, the older I get, the more I realize that my opinion counts for something, so I am not as hesitant to give it. I’ve developed a very thick skin. I am closer to the end of my career than to the beginning, so that may be why it is easier to be outspoken. Many people have used location managing and scouting as stepping stones because they wanted to write, produce or direct. But I love being right where I am. I’m so grateful that I have been doing it for over 30 years, and I still enjoy it. I am very fortunate.