How Wise Wolfe turned Albuquerque into Pittsburgh
By Ben Ikenson
Last year, a television and film location scout found himself in Albuquerque with a mission that could justifiably be considered a location scout’s worst nightmare—to make places here look like scenes from, of all places, Pittsburgh, Penn. The towns are as distant aesthetically as they are geographically.
In his previous career, Wise William Wolfe—heir of the unusual fourth generation family name—worked in a coroner’s office in a parish near New Orleans. “I handled day-to-day affairs of the coroner’s office, like death certificates, autopsy reports and psychiatric commitments,” he says. “So you see, I was well-prepared for a job in Hollywood which depends upon discretion amongst all the insanity.”
It seems fitting that Wolfe, while still employed working for the administration of the deceased, answered a casting call for the 1993 film Interview with a Vampire. “I didn’t have the bloodsucker look so they passed,” he recalls. “But the phone started ringing five months after that and I haven’t looked back since.”
It was the beginning of a second career that varied dramatically: In 2000, he worked as John Turturro’s stand-in and double on the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?; he served as director Taylor Hackford’s assistant on the 2004 biopic Ray. Through the years, Wolfe created a niche finding perfect spots for shooting specific scenes.
But last year, the location expert nearly met his match. Working for the Sci Fi Channel serial The Lost Room to be produced by Lions Gate, he was charged with finding, if not manufacturing, places in the Duke City that could pass as places in the Steel City.
“It didn’t take long to realize what we were up against,” says Wolfe. “One character had a Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne-esque mansion that I flat-out told them was a showstopper, and not in the good Broadway sense. We’re in the high desert Southwest, for cryin’ out loud. All adobe and viga, what were they thinking? Either we had to build this mansion or have a second unit shooting those scenes simultaneously in another city and state—say, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
Of course, Lions Gate wanted to take advantage of the generous tax incentives New Mexico offers to the film industry, similar to those in Louisiana that made New Orleans such a hot spot for filming when Wolfe shifted career paths. He had to respect the hand that fed him.
“We had to make it work somehow,” says Wolfe. “We ended up building a huge facade that spanned from sidewalk to sidewalk on Fifth Street between Central and Gold. An even bigger green screen was draped behind it to ‘build’ on the facade with visual effects which became the go-to remedy for all our Pittsburgh ‘problems.’ This, of course, cost large sums of money which no one had budgeted.”
Immense challenges and occasional no-brainer solutions. Such is the nature of the job of the location scout, says Wolfe. But this time Wolfe was also serving as location manager, which brings yet more responsibility—and headache, induced by the constant ringing of his cell phone and the seemingly ceaseless flood of problems these calls so often represented. From residents annoyed by notification flyers placed in mailboxes to inform of the city permit to film in their neighborhoods, to assistants relaying messages of technical issues, such as when a pipe burst next door to a film shoot and flooded an expensive set.
And then … “the monsoons came to New Mexico, the worst in half a century I believe,” says Wolfe. “Inclement weather can wreak havoc on a production that’s on a tight schedule and budget. I remember the first assistant director came up to me after several months of shooting and asked, ‘Do you still have any lining left in your stomach?’”
Of course, the New Orleans native is no stranger to weather-related stress. But, as the federal government in the aftermath of Katrina embarrasingly revealed its incompetence to Wolfe (and the rest of the nation), at least Albuquerque availed itself to him during his filming ordeals.
“Red tape, wherever, is the bane of the creative process whether you’re building a house or filming a movie,” says Wolfe. “I can’t say enough good things about the efficacy of the mayor’s film office and the city managers in assisting us weave our way through all the permits and official decrees required to film. It was a relief to find that most people in Albuquerque recognized the value of accommodating the film industry. I grant you, at times, the ‘Hollywood steamroller’ might seem callous and uncaring, but my job is to make folks understand that we’re a business and just trying to ‘git ’er done’ and get the hell out. Being so visible on the streets makes us a target. The City of Albuquerque understands it represents its citizens and businesses first, but having a hospitable attitude toward the film industry makes it easier to assuage all the concerns about the organized chaos filming brings to town.”
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