2012 Supernatural Location Tour (No Spoilers!)
This article takes you along on the 2012 Location Tour with locations manager Russ Hamilton. While we clearly went to some locations that are being used in season 8 – heck, Supernatural reuses so many locations that it would be impossible to avoid that, and we saw a glimpse of Purgatory at the end of season 7! – this article doesn't include any of the spoilery teases provided on the tour, so you can read this and stay unspoiled. The teasing bits Russ provided will appear in a very short follow-up article clearly marked as containing spoilers. Please don't mention spoiler-related information in your comments on this article; save them for the next one. I know what I skipped saying here!
This year's tour took us to the Purgatory woods, which have also been other things in the past; the DOD lands, also called the North 40, which have been used in so many episodes I've lost count; the backlot, originally built for Watchmen and now a staple of the local studio scene; Como Lake, where Castiel walked into the reservoir and released the Leviathan in Hello, Cruel World; the Paramount Gentlemen's Club in New Westminster, used in Criss Angel Is A Douchebag; and the Minoru Chapel, the deconsecrated church where Castiel killed the preacher in Meet The New Boss.
Before we get into the individual locations, let's cover some educational territory. Russ and his assistant Janice (working only her second season on the show) were fonts of information to help explain the ins and outs of location work and how it fits into the whole picture of the show. The time spent traveling between locations on the tour was a great opportunity to ask questions about process and learn a lot!
First off, Supernatural is the most location-intense show anyone has ever seen produced – well, at least since Route 66 and I Spy back in the 1960's! – and that is a huge part of its production cost. Every other show has standing sets where most of the show's filming is done on every episode. Stories start, end, and develop in the office, the conference room, the lab, the courtroom, the morgue, the hospital, the leading character's home, the usual hangout bar/restaurant. Supernatural is unique in that it has no standing sets. Oh, it's had a few recurring ones – most notably Bobby's house, followed by Rufus's cabin and Harvelle's Roadhouse – but even they were recycled and reconstituted into other things between uses, and turned up only occasionally, not in every episode. Since every story takes place in a different town – and since the guys have to drive there rather than popping through a convenient stargate! – there's simply no way to have standing sets.
What that means is, while other shows save a lot of money by setting most of their story and their shooting in a set they built once from scratch and reuse for the duration of the show, Supernatural is building virtually every set used in every episode every week. Even if they're shooting inside a house, office, warehouse, or restaurant they found on location, they will have totally redressed the interior with their own furniture, artwork, and knick-knacks both to suit the needs of the script and to ensure that things belonging to the building's owner/tenant aren't damaged during the shoot.
In addition, even most rooms used on location are duplicated absolutely faithfully back at the studio on a soundstage so they can “wild” the walls. Sets are very different from rooms in a house because none of the walls are load-bearing, so the director can simply pull out a wall on set to create room for the cameras and crew as well as the actors to get the shots and angles he or she needs. And if the scene involves a stunt, it's a lot safer to do it on the soundstage rather than risk damage to some home's walls or floors, or to the stuntman! They need roughly five days to build a set. The show uses three soundstages over at the studio; they'll be shooting in two of them while they're building on the third.
Every episode of Supernatural has eight days of prep followed by eight days of shooting, but there are members of the crew – including the set construction guys – who may be working even on weekends not counted as part of those totals. Russ's crew has three days during those eight days of prep to find all the locations called for in the episode's script. Especially if there are a lot of minor locations required, they will try to find multiple locations in proximity to each other so that when the shooting happens, the circus – the place where all the crew trucks and equipment park – can stay in one spot to service multiple scenes, such as a motel exterior, a street, and a park. Every time they have to move locations, they lose time that could otherwise be spent shooting, and all of those moves have to be factored into the schedule. Even with that kind of planning behind all their location moves, Russ estimated their fuel costs alone at $12,000 to $15,000 per day!
Russ estimated they have some 10,000 potential locations already documented, and take an additional 5,000 photographs of places every week. He said they'd found the place they used as Crowley's mansion years before they used it; they loved the look but wanted to save it for a really big pay-off, not use it when something lesser would do. They provide photos of about three to five alternatives for the various major script locations to the director, who picks the ones they'll actually use. Day six of prep is always the technical survey day when the heads of all the production divisions pile into the bus to visit every location they're going to use to identify everything they're going to need to have at each place, from set dressing and props to electrical power to lights, cranes, plants – everything.
The rental costs of the properties they use vary depending on the building. An average house runs about $2,500 per day, and when they count in the expense of preparing the place and putting up the occupants in other housing for a few days while the prep and shooting is going on, that average cost jumps to about $6,000 or $7,000 for the shoot. Renting a mansion can run to $10,000 per day just for the rental. When a house is used, the crew starts by taking pictures of everything in the place before touching a thing; then they move out all the belongings to safe storage and redress the place for the shoot. When they finish with the location, they use the reference photos to ensure they put everything back exactly the way it was. Their goal is to leave a homeowner no evidence the show was ever there – well, apart from the contract and the check! The set decoration crew usually numbers about ten people, but they add more at need.
Shutting down a business in town in order to shoot there – whether inside the business itself or blocking access to it while shooting on the street – can easily cost $20,000 to $30,000 per day. Even with that cost, however, it's a lot cheaper to rent and redress some locations than to try to build them on stage from scratch, especially if they're large, like a restaurant dining room, or full of heavy equipment that would stay in place during the shoot, like a factory floor or commercial kitchen. Shutting down a road, which requires both city and police participation, is $10,000 a day!
Most shows spend only a day, or at most two, shooting on location per episode. On Supernatural, there has been only one episode, shot all the way back in season two, that was shot entirely in the studio apart from one day on location. Care to guess which one? *grin*
Russ said he wasn't allowed to tell us the full production budget for a single episode of Supernatural, but I've heard a figure around $3 million per episode – which seems likely, given location, set construction, and special effects costs on top of cast and crew salaries.
On To This Year's Locations!
This year's tour began in Purgatory, in the spooky woods where we saw Dean and Castiel trapped at the end of Survival Of The Fittest. What you may not realize is that we had seen that place before for the very first time in The Man Who Knew Too Much – these were the woods with the stream in the ravine where Sam ran from his soulless self – and then for all the camping (glamping!) and woods scenes in How To Win Friends And Influence Monsters. In real life, this is the home of Panther Paintball, 57 acres of privately owned woods at 19022 16th Avenue in Hazelmere, in Delta. Russ loves this location as the spookiest woods he has ever seen, and a place where the crew can do virtually anything. There's not a lot of undergrowth in large sections of the woods, so it's easy to bring in equipment, even heavy cranes and high-powered lights. Add some smoke machines and night shooting, and it's tailor-made for nightmares! The owner hasn't missed that, either; his paintball arena is opening a zombie apocalypse scenario for Halloween! One funny hazard of the location is that the grounds are littered with unexploded paintballs just waiting to pop underfoot; I wonder how many cast and crew shoes now have painted soles?
Our next stop was the DOD lands, also known as the North Forty. Located just north of Boundary Bay Airport, this was a Defense communications (i.e., wireless, meaning radio) technology base during and just after World War II, which now belongs to the community of Delta. During this past year, it became an off-leash dog park. The buildings are long since gone, but all the base roads remain, which makes this the perfect location for anything requiring empty roads, like car chases, controlled crashes, and locations in the proverbial middle of nowhere. It has the huge advantage of not requiring roads to be closed, so – remember that bit about it costing $10,000 dollars a day to close down a road? Not here. There's no traffic on these roads but what a film company brings with them, so there's no cost to shutting down the roads and no need for police to direct traffic around the closure. When they're shooting at night, they do have to coordinate with the airport to ensure that their lights won't interfere with airport operations and aircraft safety, and they've had to negotiate with the huge commercial greenhouses located just outside the grounds on one side to have them sometimes cut off their greenhouse lights to preserve the illusion of being somewhere very secluded. (Ever wondered what those funny things were sticking up in the distance beyond Sam's head when he and Dean were walking after having ditched the van in Everybody Loves A Clown? Ventilation windows on top of greenhouses by the airport!)
Supernatural first used this location in season one for Route 666; it's where the haunted truck chased Dean in the Impala, not to mention where the haunted truck chased every car. It's also where the semi t-boned the Impala at the end of season one, where the brothers stopped the bus in After School Special, and it's the location of every single crossroads and every business in the middle of nowhere, including the diner where Sam got snatched in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 1 and Harvelle's Roadhouse. The crossroads – which has always been the same crossroads! – is right next to the slab where they built the diner and Hervelle's, but you'd never know it just by watching the episodes! Not far away is the very similar slab that held the gas station Dean found after emerging from the grave in Lazarus Rising
It's also the place where they built Rufus's cabin, right beside the distinctive tree famous for being in the most often reproduced photograph of Kim Manners. That location was a deliberate choice on the part of the crew, a tribute to Kim.
The curled-up train tracks in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 2 were filmed along Russ's favorite stretch of road in the DOD lands; a street where the trees themselves curl over the road. It's the same place where the Yellow-Eyed Demon appeared to Jake beside the railroad tracks and gave him the Colt; those were the same tracks we later saw bent. It's a place eerily enclosed by its trees. They shot a scene at one point with the Impala driving along that particular road, but so far, it has never been used. Maybe someday?
Speaking of which, Russ also laughed that producer/director Phil Sgriccia has wanted to take the Impala out on the road for years, simply to shoot five days worth of guerrilla footage of the Impala rolling on roads in different places around the whole Vancouver area to replace the very limited, pretty much instantly recognizable footage currently available. (How many times have we seen that same stretch of road first used in Phantom Traveler, hmm?) The problem has been that it would just take too many people to organize, including a cameraman and the transport crew and flatbed truck (since none of the cars are licensed to drive on the roads, and are worth too much to risk an accident!); would cost too much, given the need to put the roving crew up in hotels wherever they wound up; and would take one of the cars out of service for too long. Apparently Phil has threatened sometimes just to take off in a car with just an iPhone to use as a camera; that would be a trip!
The diner from which Sam was demon-napped in All Hell Breaks Loose Part 1 was built on an asphalt slab very near the crossroads, Kim's tree, and the site later used for Rufus's cabin. Just before they were due to shoot the diner scene, they had a torrential downpour that left the entire site flooded. But the Supernatural crew is nothing if not flexible and ready to improvise. According to Russ, the carpenters designed and built the boardwalk and ramp to bridge the flood between the car and the diner set in one hour flat!
And here's an amusing factoid: Supernatural director Mike Rohl has a long personal history with the DOD lands, because he lived there! His parents were stationed there during its commissioned days, living in on-base housing, so Mike played as a little boy on the very same grounds where Supernatural and other projects now regularly film! The sign now describing people living on the base is right beside the diner location. The other sign describing the base itself is located at the very intersection where the semi t-boned the Impala. The DOD lands are now very easy for fans to visit because they are public property, and since their dedication as an off-leash dog park, even include a small parking lot area that didn't exist when I last visited the location in 2010.
Our next stop was the backlot, where we ate a location-style lunch in a tent catered by the Guanaco Truck, a Guatemalan food truck owned and operated by the family of one of Supernatural's camera operators, which – in addition to sometimes providing lunch for the cast and crew on location – featured in the episode Party On, Garth. Russ laughed that they had an argument with the studio over that appearance, because Warner is very sensitive to product placement in the show and wasn't happy about a Canadian business being clearly identified and used. The production staff won that round, though, and I can attest that Guanaco's pupusas are delicious!
The backlot was originally built on a strip-mall block very close to the studio during 2007/8 as the primary set for the Warner film Watchmen and was never intended to be anything else. It's really showing its age, and Russ expects it will be torn down within the next five years. The property it's sitting on is steadily increasing in value for commercial development – the area has built up tremendously – and the set itself was never constructed to endure. They're reaching the point where trying to keep the set standing is a losing proposition, and the value to the property manager of leasing out the set to production companies for filming simply won't be able to compete with what the site could bring in if it was developed.
In 2011, while Russ was escorting the Monday Vancon location tour, he got the call that there was a fire at the backlot. The warehouse closest to the entry gate burned to the ground, but the fire fortunately didn't spread to the set itself, probably because it had been so cheaply built. As Russ noted, most of the set is nothing but particleboard and plywood supported by two-by-fours, and while the front facades have been painted and artfully finished over the years by numerous production companies to look like everything from concrete to brick, wood, and stucco, the backs were never painted or sealed, so the exposed boards soaked up years of Vancouver's damp and rainy weather, making them too soggy to catch fire readily.
The downside of that cheap construction, however, is that the lot is deteriorating badly. Most of the practical sets – the few buildings on the lot that actually have interiors that could be dressed and used as locations – have now been deemed unsafe, except for the corner diner and the bar. The whole brownstone block is cordoned off with hazard tape, and the block's front stoops are literally falling apart. The set used as the pizzeria where Dean met Death is now unsafe, as is the storefront used, among other things, as the magic shop in I Believe The Children Are Our Future. Supernatural has poured a lot of money into preserving the backlot while using it over the past few years, but they don't own the lot, and other companies leasing it for occasional shoots haven't been as concerned about its long-term survival. And without rebuilding the lot from the ground up, there's no way it could last.
The backlot, in addition to the simple degeneration of time, has undergone transformations instigated by other production companies. One of the most obvious is the transformation of the diner. Originally distinguished by iconic oval and round windows – take a look at scenes from such episodes as the Winchesters' first meeting with Sheriff Jody Mills in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid – the diner was redone by another production company with standard rectangular windows, later seen in Appointment In Samarra (the building where Dean crashed the car) and Mommy Dearest, among others.
The next location on the tour was Lake Como, where Castiel walked into the lake and released the Leviathan in Hello, Cruel World. Watch video in which Russ described some of the considerations that went into choosing and testing this location, to make certain it would work! Janice explained that they kept a tank of warm water nearby, so that Misha could rest in the warm tank between takes while staying wet, since he couldn't get dry and still preserve continuity.
The Paramount Gentlemen's Club – a strip joint in New Westminster – was our next stop on the tour. This location was used in Criss Angel Is A Douchebag, and also provided a hilarious venue for Russ to show off on a stripper pole! The lighting in my photos doesn't do the place justice – or perhaps the flash does entirely too much justice. I think the place looks better in the red and gold lighting native to the venue … the flash strips away all too many illusions!
The tour concluded at Minoru Chapel in Richmond. This church, originally built in 1888 and deconsecrated in 1964, was the location used for the scene in Meet The New Boss in which Castiel killed a preacher for being a bigoted hypocrite, and changed the image in a stained glass window from a picture of Christ to one of Castiel with a halo. Russ explained that they had removed and replaced all the historic pews for the shoot, to protect them from any damage, and that to accomplish the stained glass image change, they had simply put a new panel in front of the existing one, since they obviously couldn't take any chances on damaging the original stained glass!
Are you curious about next year's tour? So is Russ: he's planning on opening a social media channel to get fan input on what locations they'd like the tour to include, so get ready to watch Twitter and FaceBook for the opportunity to nominate and vote on your favorites! One location he's planning to include is Crowley's lab. The building – formerly a power station, which was then converted to a glass factory – was being used as an art studio when they did the shoot, although it's now so run-down you might expect it to be abandoned. Russ said they had to pull out and store all the art, because the lighting effect they used to depict Castiel opening the door to Purgatory and swallowing all the souls involved so much power and heat that it would have destroyed the paintings!
Well, that's it for the non-spoilery report on the 2012 Location Tour. If you're okay with spoilers, check out the next post; if you're avoiding spoilers, wait until after the first five episodes air before you check it out.
And I think I'll be planning on joining Russ for next year's tour … :)
A slideshow of all non-spoilery tour photos - with captions - is here.
My photos and videos are here.