Location scouts in Germany Looking for the Needle in the Haystack

Location scout Rüdiger Jordan from Cologne at work
Location scout Rüdiger Jordan from Cologne at work | Photo (detail): © Rüdiger Jordan

In the old days the task of looking for photogenic locations for films was yet another job that set designers and production managers had to do. Nowadays, however, it is done by specialists, especially when unusual locations are required.

Where would all those timeless film classics be without their impressive locations? Where, for example, would Doctor Zhivago be without its Siberian snowfields, where would Lawrence of Arabia be without the Sahara Desert or even Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire without its poetic, urban images? Some locations are unique and fortunately there is no substitute for them, like a stand-in or a stuntman for an actor; others on the other can be substituted. This was the case for location scout, Rüdiger Jordan, from Cologne, when he found out that Danish director, Lars von Trier, was planning to shoot his film Antichrist in North Rhine-Westphalia, although it was actually set in the USA. “I was asked to find landscapes within a radius of 50 kilometres of Cologne that look like the Rocky Mountains.” Deep in the Westphalian forest the 44-year-old location scout also managed to find exactly the right log cabin, in which some of the film’s most important scenes were shot - perfect for the writer-director’s psychodrama. “It wasn’t easy, but in the end I managed it.”

When looking for suitable locations Jordan can fall back on his own treasure trove of images. “My database contains about 151,000 photos of thousands of locations,” reports Jordan. “Whenever I enter a room, I always take two to four photos. Sometimes, if it is a large building, it can mount up to a good 200 photos.” With this selection of photos as back-up, he does not have to start from scratch when he gets a job enquiry. He is especially pleased when people give him tips about places that might be suitable as a film location or when he is approached by easygoing house owners. “Sometimes looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack turns out well after all.”

Sociability and a lot of imagination

Jordan has been working full-time as a location scout since 2006. However, when he worked as a recording and production manager he also had to look for suitable locations. Slowly, but surely he started to realise that location scouting was more his thing. “It is now my main source of income.” Many of his colleagues in the business also went down similarly winding roads until they actually found the job – a job for which there is no official training. Jordan estimates that in Germany there are about 100 full-time location scouts who earn their living with the job. About 45 of them are members of the Federal Association of Location scouts, which was only recently set up in Berlin in 2010.

So what does a person need to be a successful location scout? A knowledge of architectural history, experience in the shooting of films, sociability and negotiating skills, as Jordan says. “At the same time you should be a good photographer and also have a lot of imagination so that you can visualise what the scenes are going to look like in advance.”

George Clooney in the hills of the Upper Harz

Whenever Jordan and his colleagues cannot find the right location, they use the motif databases of the regional film promotion organisations. For example, since 2001 the Film Commission of the North Rhine-Westphalian Film and Media Foundation has been helping people to find locations in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. “Our database comprises 4,500 locations with 14,500 images and is thus the largest of its kind in Germany,” says the head of the Film Commission, Lena Kraan. “The database is unique in Europe and enables the Film Commission, 39 film studios/filmmaking locations and 14 location scouts to work together in close cooperation, whereby the scouts and the studios are always adding new material and motifs.”

According to Ms. Kraan the popularity of the portal is growing. “The seven most sought after topics that were registered by last year’s 170,000 searches were: Cologne, street, room, gate, city, design and pub.” Hollywood stars also like to avail themselves of the services of the scouts when they come to make a film in Germany. George Clooney, for example, when he was making his historical film The Monuments Men, used some picturesque mines and mineshafts in the hills of the Upper Harz region that had been recommended to him by Benno Pastewka from Leipzig.

Bollywood on the Bergstrasse

The Film Commission of the state of Hesse has, in contrast, acquired a liking, for something totally different. In 2006 Bollywood producers shot the film Humraah (The Traitor) on the romantic Bergstrasse (Mountain Road) – a region in the state of Hesse; in 2007 Indian superstar, Himesh Reshammiya, also made a movie there – Aap Kaa Surroor – The Movie. Ever since then quite a few other Indian directors have started savouring the delights of the region’s quaint half-timbered buildings and hills full of blossoming fruit trees. In order to deal with the Bollywood demand for romantic idyllic locations a special agency was set up in Heppenheim – the Indo-German Film Agency. It is a service point for international and German productions and has apparently been working quite successfully – in 2013 VK Singh shot the melodrama Spark in Heppenheim, Hirschhorn and Lorsch.

In the meantime shooting films has become an important business factor for many towns and regions. In order to whet the appetites of both German and foreign filmmakers, every year the Film Commission of the Stuttgart region organises a theme-related location tour of interesting places to shoot films. These tours are not just an established instrument for the marketing of regional motifs, emphasises Ulla Matzen from the Stuttgart Commission. “Films transport images of the region way beyond its borders. This is why location placement is becoming more and more important as a marketing strategy for the region’s tourism.”