Location, Location, Location
Scouting a South Jersey spot to create movie magic
By Klein Aleardi

Ever wonder where they found that beautiful mountainside in that health food commercial? Or the forest in that popular Netflix series? It’s possible that Suzanne Koneful knows where, and she may have been the one to find it – right here in South Jersey. 

Collingswood’s Koneful has been working in TV and film for over 2 decades as a location scout and manager. She’s travelled across the country searching for barns, winding roads and even a few castles to serve as backdrops in our favorite movies, shows and commercials. And many times, the perfect spot is in South Jersey. 

Q: How do you find a location for a production company? 

I get the call from a director, a producer or a production manager, and they say, “Hey, we’ve got this story,” and they give you these ideas and descriptions – we need an ocean by a forest – and we piece it together for them. It can be finding an actual location for filming, or going out with a visual artist to grab a background that can go onto a green screen that will be used on a stage. 

 Q: Are you just looking for the perfect spot?

We need to figure out how the crew gets there, where they park, where they eat, where they have an office, where wardrobe and makeup set up, and then what happens in front of the camera. We’ve had triple decker buses that we had to get into a downtown. Or, we have to figure out, how am I gonna get this truck up on top of that helipad? We’ve even had to figure out the logistics of a car chase. 

 Q: Ever pull off the impossible? 

Every shoot has its own unique challenge, but one of the biggest for me was driving across the state of Texas – north to south – in 4 days. It was for a Texas food store campaign. They wanted towns in Texas that were named something related to Christmas. Jingle, holly, mistletoe, stuff like that. And I had to find a tractor trailer or the post office with the town’s name on it. I was cataloging 1,500 miles, endless roads, seeing random armadillos. I was thinking, “This is strange and interesting.”    

 Q: Are your scouting trips often strange and interesting? 

I mean, I’ve had some scary scouts, where I was like, why am I here? When I was working with Indie films, we were shooting in Eastern State Penitentiary, before they redid it, when it was really gritty. I had to run down a corridor and all I could see was the light at the end of the tunnel. It felt insane in there. 

 Q: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? 

One of the fun jobs I had was for Nature Valley. I had to find waterfalls, vistas, certain types of trails. So I hiked 21 miles in 3 days and photographed all the areas they needed, and I had to make sure I knew exactly where they were on the map. I actually took my son with me. He had been on a couple of sets with me, but he had never seen what you go through to get the right location.

 Q: What’s it like scouting/managing in South Jersey? 

It’s such a mixture of locations. You have some gritty city streets in Camden and in Atlantic City, and then you go out to the Pine Barrens, and there’s quirky little towns and beautiful historical areas and houses. I actually just did a New York City street in Atlantic City.

 Q: You made Atlantic City look like New York City? 

Yes. We didn’t do a big city street driving shot. We went for the medium shot and the close-up shot, throwing a hotdog stand on the corner or a construction site. We add nuances for those shots. We’ve been able to pull that off. 

 Q: How did you break into the business? 

I went to college for music, but I didn’t have the confidence to be on stage. I also took some film courses, and that’s when I fell in love with the visual side of things. I got an internship at the Philadelphia Film Commission during the first year it existed. Then, I did pretty much every job in the business: I was editing, I was doing make-up, I was a production assistant, I was a coordinator. 

 Q: What was your first big movie? 

I was trying to get a Production Assistant job with a large production company, and they didn’t have any work. Then the movie “12 Monkeys” – with Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe – was shooting in Philadelphia, and they said, “You’ve been so persistent, we’re going to introduce you to that film crew.” So I interned on set for one day. Then they asked how much they’d have to pay me to keep me on, and that was that. I caught the bug. 

 Q: How do you choose your projects? 

I used to be very selective with the scripts I would get, because, for example, if we’re shooting this really bad horror film, I have to convince this farmer to let me mow down his field. And if I have a script that has some redeeming qualities and some good actors, that’s easier. 

 Q: Can it be hard to convince people to let you shoot on their property? 

I’m very transparent. I tell it like it is, I’m not going to over-promise. And if it’s not interesting to you, I am not going to try to create that, because you’re not going to enjoy yourself. You’re not going to have a good time, you’re not going to trust us. 

 Q: Do you have any horror stories? 

I only have 1 or 2. I remember one movie early in my career, I was a location scout and the manager, who I didn’t work with again after that job, made a deal with this business owner to shoot in his bar. I wasn’t part of that deal-making process. But we’re there setting up and he shows up with a gun and says, “I want all y’all out of here.” They were able to figure it out eventually, I think. 

 Q: And the second? 

I was working with a narcissistic director, and he was like, “Go up that hill. I want to scout that barn at that house.” And I see a no-trespassing sign, so I said, “We really should find out from the locals who owns this property before we drive over there.” But we pull up right in front of this barn, and behind us comes another truck. The guy’s got his gun on a rack in the car and he comes out and goes, “What are you doing on my property?” I’m standing there looking at him and the director thinking, see what you’ve done?

 Q: Do you have any tips for someone wanting to get into location management? 

It’s 99% preparation, 1% showing up. And relationships are a huge part of this job. You’re gonna have the day when you’re on set and the director of photography says, “I want to get up on top of that building.” Well, if you prepared and you have all the contacts, you can call the person who owns that building and you can make it happen. Otherwise, you’re holding up the whole  crew.  

October 2023
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