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On Location

August 30, 2010

We’re well aware of what happens when academics write about the importance of place and pilgrimage in fandom. Often it doesn’t go well. And yet here we are in Vancouver, the Mecca for the Supernatural fandom. We’ll save the more academic musings for the books. For now we wanted to tell you about our own recent pilgrimage, a far cry from our first fan experience here, which involved sliding down muddy river bank at midnight (without flashlights) searching for the iconic fence where Dean told Sam his secret. Yes, we found it. And a far cry from our subsequent visits here in academic mode. We think we might have finally found something like that elusive balance.

This time, the tour didn’t involve nearly as much mud and was definitely brighter. Possibly less dangerous, and probably more legal. That said, our big comfy air conditioned bus drove right by said iconic fence. Can’t say we weren’t just a bit whistful for that early adventure. While this tour didn’t offer the possibility of being arrested, it did offer were two guides from Supernatural’s locations department, Russ Hamilton and Allan Ross. They are passionate about their jobs and they gave us a fascinating look at some of the other iconic filming locations, as well as a sneak peek at the site of a few upcoming episodes, including Jensen Ackles’ directorial debut. We also got a better idea of the challenges and rewards of being responsible for finding and securing the locations that make Supernatural the visually stunning show it is. No easy task, it turns out.

Russ and his scouts have only five days to find all the locations for an episode, which also means hours and hours of prep work. For example, if they’re going to shoot past curfew, a frequent occurrence, that means getting permission from every single homeowner, business and municipality affected. Allan mentioned one particular shoot where he had to poll 2700 people in four days! Luckily, nobody really says no, especially since some sort of compensation is often provided, sometimes donations to childcare centers or other community organizations.

The locations scouts see five or six scripts before they actually get to the shooting script, which means they see the original in its utopian incarnation – if we had unlimited time and money, this is the story we’d tell. It’s somewhat painful to watch the gradual paring down to make the story doable, and “it’s not nearly as amazing as it could be,” Russ said. “it really is a feature film in eight days.”

The team takes their challenging job very seriously, working hard to find new locations to film in so they won’t repeat settings. “If people notice the same configuration of trees or the same wallpaper, then we’ve failed,” Russ told us. He added, “You guys know more about the show than we do, after doing over 100 episodes. But you guys are the reason we’re here.” Russ and Allan quickly learned that if the constant question “what episode was filmed here…” was asked and they just hesitated for a few seconds, a fan would jump in and answer for them.

One of their biggest problems is finding the “dilapidated farmhouse” the writers are always calling for that is also safe to film in! Another challenge is putting everything back exactly as it was after filming is done. But these guys are good at it – they once filmed a scene at a church until late in the evening, and left it so pristine there was a wedding there the next afternoon.

Like everyone we’ve talked to on Supernatural, Russ and Allan had great things to say about the crew and the boys. “The guys are so funny – they have such chemistry.”

We may have noticed that.

In fact, the crew’s closeness is something everyone we’ve interviewed has talked about. Russ mentioned The Impalas, the crew band fronted by Jensen, and how they started it just for fun, but they’re really good (as the YouTube videos of the 100th episode party prove). In fact, there’s talk of having The Impalas perform at next year’s con – something we would be TOTALLY down with. As most of you undoubtedly guessed.

Supernatural’s locations department is clearly one of the best. They were the only production who actually got permission to film inside Olympic lines during the games – 100 feet inside, but hey, that’s still inside. Both Russ and Allan are clearly proud of the show and their staff of scouts – “We’re actually 100% proud to see the final product.”

So how does Season 6 compare to the prior seasons? “It’s a challenge because Eric always had his finger on the pulse of this show – but a good challenge, it’s good to change it up.” They are also very excited about one of their upcoming directors – Ben Edlund. Gotta say, we’re right there with them on that one.

Okay, so what did we see on our lovely bus ride?

We loved so many things about “Swan Song”, last season’s finale, so heading to the location of ‘Stull Cemetary’ was a great place to start. After a few rather thrilling u-turns on a tiny country road, the intrepid Allan leapt from the bus to wrestle open the giant cattle gate, and our bus headed up the gravel road. The house is also the one used in “Bloodlust” and “The Magnificent Seven”, so we got to stand in the room where Sam and Dean stumbled upon the family who starved themselves to death (yes, the call was for 85 pound extras….ouch). They shot in the house, but they often recreate interiors on set as well, reproducing the house in every detail. And because they’re so proud of what they do, they sometimes invite the homeowners to set to see their house recreated there. Must be an odd thing to see.

This house, like many used for filming locations, is a ‘heritage house’ – which means nothing can be tampered with. No holes in the walls, no modernizing the fixtures, no getting rid of potentially tacky wallpaper. Sandra, the owner of this property, is also a hay farmer, so the house is surrounded by hay fields. At times, SPN has had to come in and harvest the hay early when the script didn’t call for a house surrounded by six foot high hay fields – and of course, pay her the market rate as well. We followed Russ and Allan to the fields behind the house , where the cemetery in “Roadkill” was set up – and the spot where “Sam beat the crap out of Dean” in “Swan Song”. Here’s Russ on that very spot, luckily without anyone attempting to do him bodily harm.

Next we headed to Derby Reach National Park, where Jensen Ackles made his directorial debut this season. The house was also seen in “Croatoan” – across the street, bordered by a distinctive fence and with the water in the background, was turned into a cemetery.
Once again, nothing is simple for the locations staff. Because it’s a national park, no digging allowed – instead they had to build up a frame to fill and then dig there! Jerry Wanek helped Jensen pick this spot and some of the other locations for his episode, and Russ said Jensen did ‘an awesome job – he was always professional and prepared.’ We wandered back across the street to another house on the park site, where Russ tells us “one of the best scenes EVER” was shot for Jensen’s episode. It’s a fight scene, and apparently it’s epic. Even required a temporary addition to the house so they could break out a window. Okay, we’re intrigued, we admit it.

The locations department and Michelle the lovely PA (only four days on the job and doing it perfectly from what we could see) set up a lunch tent for us next to the Albion Ferry. The ferry was closed in July, and Supernatural was the first production to be able to shoot on it – quite a coup in the never ending battle to see which shows can find unique places to film. “We work really hard not to shoot where everyone else does, to find someplace that hasn’t been in X Files, Fringe, and Psych, among others. We want to do stuff that’s original, and it’s for you guys too. Everyone here cares too much about the show to do that. We even shot at Rodeoburger right before it disappeared (for “Hell House),” Russ said proudly.

Look for a dramatic scene involving Bobby and a sheriff’s car on the bridge in Jensen’s episode.

(Side note – somebody thank whoever made the delicious chicken corn chowder and the delectable chocolate zucchini bread etc etc – yum!)

We also wandered around the intersection in “99 Problems” where Sam and Dean encountered the truck on fire and the giant water cannon truck that appeared to help – that shoot required the locations gang to get permission from the farm owner next door to host five giant propane tanks on his property. Obviously PR is a crucial aspect of this job; the guy said yes. (Also, the church they used for that episode was so much red tape and so much trouble, the episode title could have referred to just getting it made.)

From there we headed back into downtown, stopping by the Arundel Hotel, site of recent paparazzi spoiler photos of the boys watching “someone” fall out a window. Yes, we know who, we’re trying to avoid spoilers here! It’s all online already if you care to go find it.

We then went to a swingers club with Russ and Allan.

Also known as The Metro, site of “Hammer of the Gods” creepy tacky motel. Did Sam honestly call it four star?? Oh, boys…

Last stop was Burnaby Fraser Foreshore Park, also a beautiful national park. We walked under the trestle bridge that the crew still calls the “Hookman bridge”

We then hiked back through the woods to the grassy fields where the Season 4 opener took place. Russ held court on the spot where Dean clawed his way out of the grave (which required Jensen to crawl through a four foot tunnel to get inside, since they didn’t want the grass to look disturbed when he broke through). I’m sure Jensen had a great time with that one.
That incredible shot with the hundreds of downed trees was done digitally – originally they had planned to bring in some actual logs and then add to them digitally, but were informed that there were “nesting raptors” in the area. Sounds very Jurassic Park, and resulted in an all-digital image. A strikingly well done image nevertheless.

The Burr House here, built in 1906, was the site of Sam’s fond Thanksgiving ‘normal’ memory that broke Dean’s heart in “Dark Side of the Moon”. The house itself worked fine for shooting, but they couldn’t drive the Impala up the road because there was an eagle’s nest a hundred yards up. Never mind the fact that it’s a public road that’s quite well traveled. Try explaining that to the director, Russ sighed. They couldn’t do the fireworks there either, obviously.

This was the last stop on our little tour, so we helped Allan take some group photos of Russ and the gang. Check back here for Allan’s photos that he took throughout the day shortly.

More from the con soon too….

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2010 7:13 am

    Man, the internal squee I had to swallow … I love that you shared these with the rest of the fans who lurk, awaiting for updates on this blog. *grin* Thank you so much for sharing and writing in such a way that I felt like I was there too.

    ♥♥♥

  2. Erica permalink
    September 2, 2010 10:36 pm

    Woo hoo another sites tour! That sounds like so much fun! Sounds like you were with a great group of people with phenomenal guides.

  3. Amy permalink
    September 3, 2010 4:45 pm

    Great write up, ladies! I’m glad you posted this as our tour was a bit abbreviated because of several accidents on the highways around Van. But Russ made up for it with a constant stream of great stories and interesting details about the technical side of getting the show filmed. It looks like he was in excellent form on your tour, too. Glad you had as good of a time on Thursday as we had on Monday!

  4. Becky permalink
    September 5, 2010 6:10 pm

    Excellent write-up as usual. I would have loved to see the Burr House on our tour – I’ll have to put it on the list for the next time I’m in Van.

    Russ had his heart set on taking us to Matsqui, but the highways were completely clogged. But he did a great job keeping us entertained on our abbreviated version.

    Just a note, he told us when they did the “clawing from the grave” scene for Adam, they did use real trees and had a machine in to put them in place. I always thought they had used a logging site, but apparently it was in a park. Pretty impressive set decorating.

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