Puzzle Master: Film Scout Likens Finding Best Production Locations to Solving a Puzzle

Categories: Film

After years of scouring DeKalb County and Metro Atlanta for countless film scenes, this veteran location scout knows where to find the perfect upscale penthouses, gritty urban landscapes,  rural Depression-era streetscapes and even “outerspacescapes”

No doubt about it, Jen Farris has what many of us would consider a dream job. As a veteran location scout for television and film production companies, Farris spends much of her time exploring metro Atlanta to find just the right spot for actors and video crews to work their magic.

An Atlanta native who grew up on the city’s south side, during her 14 years as a location scout, Farris has visited virtually every nook and cranny in the region seeking to bring the visions of producers, directors and screenwriters to life.

“I don’t really even have an office,” said Farris, who ranges far and wide from neighborhoods and parks to business districts and farms to find suitable shooting sites.

“Location scouts work from our car. My job usually involves reading the scripts and trying to locate sites within a 30-mile radius of the production office I’m working with,” she said. Farris’ movie and television experience includes scouting locations for multiple episodes of high-profile productions shot in and around the metro area, including:

  • “Genius: Aretha,” the multipart bio series detailing the struggles and triumphs of the late soul and R&B superstar Aretha Franklin
  • 18 episodes of “BMF,” which chronicled the often-violent, drug and rap-fueled rise and fall of Atlanta’s BMF (Black Mafia Family) crime syndicate
  • nearly 40 episodes of Emmy Award winning dramedy “Atlanta”; “Lovecraft County,” “P-Valley,” “Average Joe,” “The Bobby Brown Story”
  • and action-adventure flick “Game Night.”

Farris is particularly fond of 2017’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” starring Oprah Winfrey and directed by Tony Award-winner George C Wolfe. “It’s one of my favorite biopics ever,” she said. “Such a dynamic story.”

“From the farmhouse to the penthouse to the crackhouse in 30 minutes”

Typically, Farris’ involvement in a project begins well before any actual production has begun.

“The scripts are usually very detailed on what they need,” she said. “They might describe in some detail what format the site should be, what the particular characters are doing – are they talking in an emergency room or walking down a hall? Some will identify the year or time period they’re looking for.”

Many county and local governments have teams who help with getting necessary permits and arranging road closures, she said, noting that the DeKalb Entertainment Commission is a frequent source of assistance.

Similarly, some “film friendly” sites like hospitals, hotels or college campuses also have a point of contact who’s familiar with the process.

But Farris also finds herself exploring as-yet-undiscovered possibilities for shooting.

“Metro Atlanta is very vast. I always say we can go from the farmhouse to the penthouse to the crackhouse, and we can do it all in 30 minutes,” she said with a laugh. “That’s a really great thing.”

She particularly loves the variety in DeKalb County.

“If you look at Stone Mountain, we have one life on the ground, and a whole other life above it,” said Farris. “All the locations are magical. Years ago I pitched it to ‘Sleepy Hollow’ when they were looking for some sort of outer space, other dimensional-location. It has these crater-like textures and outcroppings and that panoramic view of nothing in the distance – I never could have found that on the ground.”

The region’s ever-evolving communities allow for a wide choice of sites, she added.

“With all the development in the metro, I’m always discovering new locations,” Farris said. “I remember when Fayetteville was all farmland. And there’s Avondale Estates, which I’ve used a lot. It has all those European-style buildings, and some of the neighborhoods are very authentic – straight from the 1950s – and the architectural style is still intact.”

A great example, she said, was the Aretha Franklin biopic.

“With the Aretha Franklin project I had to show her from the 1930s to the 1980s,” Farris said. “So I had to know all the architectural styles of those eras, and metro Atlanta provided them all.”

Farris often finds herself cold calling people to see if she can book a film there. “I’m just cold-calling. If their house or neighborhood matches what the production needs, I’ll leave a letter with my info and say ‘Call me back, it’s a paid, insured opportunity.’”

Getting back up to speed

Like most of the film and TV production business, last year’s writers’ strike hit Farris hard. “The strike stopped my business in January,” she said. “I still haven’t gone back to work; my job is based on a script so when the writers quit, I don’t have one. I was able to do a little work for a European company for National Geographic, but that was it.”

With the strike over she expects things to pick back up in 2024.

“The TV series call back every year,” she said, and she expects return business from productions companies she often works with including Fox, FX, STARZ, BET and NBC, among others.

“I’ve worked repeatedly with a lot of these series, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the smartest and coolest people in the business.”

Puzzle Master

Farris said she’s asked herself why she finds her job so rewarding.

“I’ve analyzed why I like doing location scouting, and I realized that when I was a child, I loved doing puzzles and coloring. My first contest was a coloring book contest. I believe that’s what I’m still doing: I’m looking at a raw space, white with black lines, but imagining it with color. It’s like solving a puzzle.”

When she finally sees the finished product, “it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s how it turned out,’” said Farris with a laugh. “It’s like opening a gift.”

To find out more about Jen Farris’ scouting business, visit here: https://www.jen-farris.com/

Be sure to also heck out this great video of Jen talking about a typical day in the life of a location scout.