'Westworld' location manager: Coronavirus could move productions on to sound stages (exclusive)

Season 3 Premiere. (©2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

Location manager Mandi Dillin has scouted for Transformers, Iron Man, Quentin Tarantino, and Christopher Nolan. But for the last five years Dillin has been organising locations for HBO’s Westworld, a job that entailed recreating artificial depictions of the past in Seasons 1 and 2, and for Season 3 – which is currently airing on Sky Atlantic and Now TV – coming up with a convincing version of the future.

We spoke to Dillin about the challenges involved in crafting a location-heavy show that plays out in multiple time periods. But we kicked off by asking how the coronavirus is currently affecting her industry. 

Yahoo Movies UK: Are you working from home at the moment?

Mandi Dillin: No, I have been off work for about two weeks now. And I’m not sure when I will return to work which is kind of scary, but I’m trying to make the best of it. Sleeping as much as I can!

Mandi Dillin attends the HBO POV "That's a Wrap" Celebration on December 10, 2019. (John Sciulli/Getty Images for HBO)

Can a location manager work during self-isolation?

Yes, one can, depending on the project. For example the project I was working on when the city of Los Angeles shut down – and the world shut down – we were still in the scouting and pre-production phase, so up to a certain extent you can still do a lot of digital scouting, digital correspondence with the attorneys to get contracts settled and stuff like that.

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But it’s the physical part of the job, which is about 100% of the job when you start filming – of going into people’s homes, of going into businesses – and currently that is what makes people uncomfortable. I’m not sure when people will allow us back into their private residences for filming.

What are the problems the industry is facing during this crisis?

Depending on what the governments say – so depending on the state of California and what the President decides – in terms of group gathering, that’s one concern I have. Because typically a film crew – especially for the projects I work on – is anywhere from 200 to 500 people, so if the film industry is able to pick up again, I have a slight worry about limitations on the number of people who are able to congregate at any one time.

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A perfect example is Westworld; if you’ve seen the previous seasons you know that we have a large cast and we typically have a lot of background, plus we have a large crew. That on any given day was about 400-500 people. So if there are restrictions on the quantity of people who can gather, that concerns me a little bit. 

Do you think the industry will have to change and adapt going forward?

I see more work moving to stage. I see producers wanting to build interiors on stage more than they typically would. Because that’s a more controlled environment – at a studio, where you can limit the number of people inside, and certainly sanitise it.

What are the challenges involved in finding locations for Westworld?

If you don't like what you see in the mirror, don't blame the mirror. (©2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

Keeping the locations fresh and consistent with the look of the world we’re trying to create. Specifically for Season 3, we’re trying world-building in a new way. On previous seasons we knew what the world was – Western World, with little parts of other worlds built in that were based in an historic context, such as Shogun World. Here we are talking about a future city that no one’s ever seen, and that we hadn’t even seen until we started planning out Season 3.

So the mandate at the beginning of a season is, always, ‘Find cool s***.’ This season I was able to go on a worldwide search for buildings and spaces that had the aesthetic we were looking for. Then once we decided on our three geographies – which would be Spain, Singapore and Los Angeles – we were able to really hone in on the best of what each of those cities and countries had to offer.

Is a lot of the future that we see in Season 3 located in Singapore?

Season 3 Premiere. (©2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

It’s a combination of Singapore and Los Angeles. I think that we’ve successfully tricked people with some of our Los Angeles locations. Singapore is featured throughout the entire season, but you really see it in Episodes 1 and 4 so far. The goal always when we have a travel unit is to get the big shots while we are there, and do a lot of the scene work and dialogue work in Los Angeles when that’s possible just because it’s a massive amount of both money and logistical effort to get a certain amount of crew out to Singapore. Or wherever – even Utah.

On previous seasons when we’ve filmed in Utah, it would only be for a couple of days, so while we’re at that location we would have to maximise what we’re filming to get the most bang for our buck. So that’s true of both Spain and Singapore this season. We only filmed for a few days, then peppered the scenes from those filming periods throughout the entire season to help make our world and our visual storytelling seamless.

How many new locations did you have to find for Season 3?

People put up a lot of walls. Bring a sledgehammer to your life. (©2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

The foreign locations, we had about 25 in total in Spain and Singapore, so they were completely new. And then Los Angeles, we had over 120 unique locations, and I think only one of them was a repeat from previous seasons, which was the Man in Black’s mansion.

Do you have a favourite of those locations?

I have to say that featuring the streets of downtown Los Angeles; the city of Los Angeles in general is really exciting. I think it can be overlooked because people focus on the beaches and Hollywood and that side of Los Angeles. To me, having the opportunity to film in mostly downtown LA is exciting because it shows a side of the city that people don’t really know exists. Unless you live or work in downtown Los Angeles. 

Do you prefer creating these artificial versions of the future or the past?

People put up a lot of walls. Bring a sledgehammer to your life. (©2020 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

I like the future. I like all of it – the past is cool too – at least you have a reference. But I think the future is so exciting because really, what is the limitation? As long as we stay within the aesthetic of Westworld, or whatever project we’re talking about at the time, you really have no limits, because anything goes. Because really, what is futuristic?

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People thought Blade Runner was futuristic – which it still is – but they used the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, which is a Victorian-era building. And that was based on a science-fiction novel. So I feel like there’s a lot more flexibility when you’re looking at ‘futurism’ and locations.

Inside the Bradbury building. The historic building was featured in the film "Blade Runner," along with several other films. (Photo by Ted Soqui/Corbis via Getty Images)

Did you miss the old west on this season?

It’s nice to have a change. It’s nice to have the dirt out of my teeth and my boots. Even though I miss wearing all my ‘Western World’ gear – I have a separate set of gear just for those locations. But I’ve done a couple of other projects that were western – like Django Unchained – so I felt like I was pigeon-holed in the world of making westerns for about two or three years. So for me personally it’s refreshing to do something else.

Over the course of the three seasons, have you found people thinking that some of the real locations are computer-generated?

Ed Harris as The Man in Black. (©2016 Home Box Office, Inc. All)

A lot of people do. It’s funny because we’ve always been a location-heavy show. And on Season 1 and Season 2 people would come up to me quite often and say ‘Wow, Westworld must be so easy, all you do is just film at ranches and have digital locations.’ And I would be mildly offended because working on the ranches is a huge ordeal for our western-style locations.

But also in Season 1 I think we were 80% on location, and it’s been a gradual increase each season. Especially for Season 3 – I want to say we were 98% on location, and it was very challenging, but also very fun.

Are you working towards Season 4 yet, or might the coronavirus cause delays?

I’ve only heard whispers of Season 4. Typically there’s about a year between when we finish filming one season to when we begin talking about the next season. Even though [showrunner] Jonah [Nolan] has five million things happening in his brain at one time. For us it typically is a year apart.

So I wouldn’t know if Season 4 would be affected by coronavirus yet, but if we were to make a Season 4, which I hope we do, I wouldn’t even imagine starting to talk about it until January of next year. 

Westworld airs Mondays at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and Now TV.