Q&A with ‘Rampage’ location manager John Latenser

Scores of trailers, film equipment and crew members set up camp in the Brenau University Trustee Library parking lot in summer 2017, piquing the curiosity of Gainesville locals. Even though the project was to remain confidential during filming, eventually Brenau students and community members caught glimpse of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on set to film a scene for his latest movie, Rampage, released in April 2018.

The person responsible for putting Brenau in the picture was John Latenser V, a seasoned location manager for motion pictures, television series and documentaries. A longtime colleague of director Alexander Payne, Latenser has served as location manager on five Payne films beginning in 1995 with Citizen Ruth.​ Other collaborations with Payne at the helm include: Election,About Schmidt, Sideways​ and Nebraska.

Latenser is a member of Location Managers Guild International (LMGI) and manages location based films nationwide. A true location manager to the core, Latenser enjoys working with directors, who strive to film entirely on location without any stage days.​ He has scouted locations for several Paramount Pictures releases ranging from Transformers​ and Transformers: Dark of the Moon​ to Up in the Air,Fun Size​ and Labor Day. ​Other noteworthy credentials include: VEEP,Love & Other Drugs,He’s Just Not That Into You,24,National Treasure: Book of Secrets,The Kingdom,The Good Shepard,The West Wing, Syriana,Thank You for Smoking,The Fog of War​ and Traffic.

A former television producer, Latenser resided in the Washington, DC area for two decades, before relocating to Atlanta, GA.

It was no easy task for Rampage location manager John Latenser to find a bamboo forest in Georgia for the movie’s opening scenes, let alone one that accommodated the production company’s rigid time constraints.

Window staff writer Alison Reeger Cook spoke with Latenser about the process.

Describe what you did (primary jobs) for the Rampage film on the Brenau campus.

I was the location manager for seven months, which included scouting, prep, permitting, etc.

What does a location manager typically do in the film industry?

The location manager is the department head in charge of the location department. Typically, he or she is one of the first crew members to start on a film. At first, the primary responsibility is to scout for the locations in the film. This is done by reading the scripts, which is the framework of the film. The location manager works closely with the production designer and director in finding the right locations to fit the film. After the primary locations have been found, the location manager brings on additional scouts to help find the rest of the locations. And even later, he/she brings on personnel to help prep each of the locations by working out logistics such as where will the crew park, where should catering go, how close can we park equipment trucks so the other crew members can work efficiently, hire police for traffic control, hire security, and then there’s restrooms, trash removal, etc. There are a lot of responsibilities that fall under the location department. The location manager and his crew are the liaisons between the community that is being filmed as well as the production company. Our goal is always to make the entire filming experience positive for everyone involved.

How did you get assigned to work on Rampage, and how did you find out about Brenau’s bamboo forest that the movie required?

I was called by the production manager first, who typically hires the crew for each movie. And almost simultaneously I was called by the production designer, who typically has a say in who is hired as the location manager, given how much influence the location manager has on the visual aspect of the film (for which the production designer is primarily responsible). During our research and during our scouts, we noticed that bamboo was a common theme to zoos. Since we knew we would have limited time to film at a real zoo, we scouted for scenes that could be filmed elsewhere, then cut together in editing to appear to be part of the same zoo. I actually learned about Brenau’s bamboo forest by searching the internet. I came across a story about … who first planted the bamboo in Gainesville. After cross referencing a few leads, I determined that it existed somewhere on the Brenau campus. I put one of my scouts, Tom Pierce, on it and he located it just north of the tennis courts using Google Earth — which showed the difference in texture as well as a green patch that existed when the deciduous trees had no leaves. We had found other patches of bamboo forests around the greater Atlanta area, but none that were as impressive or easy to access as Brenau’s. Once our production designer visited the site, we knew we had to film there.

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Dwayne Johnson's character Davis Okoye with gorilla George in New Line Cinema's action adventure 'Rampage,' which was partially filmed on the Brenau University campus. (Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/Brenau photo illustration.)

Lights, Camera, Bamboo, Action!

Almost 100 years ago, a Japanese garden was planted in a secluded spot on the Brenau Gainesville campus. In the summer of 2017, that grove was no longer a forgotten remnant of the university’s history – it found its way into the Hollywood spotlight.

How did you get started working in location management?

I am one of the few that actually studied television, radio and film. I was actually a television producer for “America’s Most Wanted” before making the jump to film. It was kind of a domino effect: When I left “America’s Most Wanted” to pursue a job at a news station, I was
called shortly afterwards by my friend at Fox Television to work on a pilot they were filming in Nebraska (which is where I was born and spent a good chunk of my childhood). As the pilot was coming to its completion, I learned about a movie that would be filming in Nebraska called “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar.” After interviewing with the production staff, who had just filmed “The Pelican Brief” in Washington, D.C., where I had been based at “America’s Most Wanted,” I got the job. It was during my time on To Wong Foo that I befriended several folks in the location department. Although I worked in production, I would help out the location team during my down time. As To Wong Foo came to an end, I learned of another film that would be filming in Nebraska. It would eventually be released as “Citizen Ruth” and was Alexander Payne’s first feature length film. My friend from To Wong Foo asked me to be his assistant location manager on “Citizen Ruth.” Then the most unfortunate thing happened: My friend, who showed me the ropes of the location department, had a heart attack and died just before our Tech Scout. Since it was a small budget film, I was asked to move up into the position of location manager. The film shut down for a day so crew members could attend my former boss’s funeral. From that point on, the crew really bonded. Alexander Payne brought the team back together for two more films that shot in Nebraska and kept a few of us on his team even when he started filming in other states. The rest is history, as they say.

What was it like working with the Brenau staff on the film?

Working with the Brenau staff was one of my favorite parts of working on Rampage. The level of professionalism and attention to detail was unsurpassed by my other location contacts on the film. It was a true pleasure and I hope to have the opportunity to do it again sometime.

Do you have any fun stories from working on the set or with the crew of Rampage?

One thing that comes to mind is how our lighting department had to come up with creative ways to light the bamboo forest — as you may know, it gets pretty dark in there. Working with the Art Department, they were able to utilize dead bamboo, which they painted to look green and alive, then ran cables up through them, so they could mount lamps inside the forest without being seen on camera.

I see on your IMDB page you’ve worked on all kinds of films and TV series. What kinds/genres of movies and television do you enjoy working on the most?

I have been fortunate enough to have worked on some pretty amazing projects during my career. I would have to say that my favorite films have been mostly the smaller ones that tend to be dark comedies. I like the movies that tell human stories. The big films are fun to work on and it’s pretty amazing to see some of their logistics accomplishments. I actually make a conscious attempt to work on both big and small films, because it helps keep me employed! To date, my favorite film to have worked on was Up in the Air. George Clooney and the crew were the best. It wasn’t an easy film the for location department, but the positive memories of making that film will last a lifetime.

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