For a Veteran Hollywood Scout, it’s All About ‘Location, Location’

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Lori Balton ’81 has worked on dozens of films and TV shows, including last summer’s Jungle Cruise and Marvel's latest hit

By Beth Saulnier

Lori Balton ’81 seated, holding a camera and working on a laptop.
Lori Balton helps A-list moviemakers find the perfect backdrops for their storytelling. (Photo provided)

What’s a typical commuter route … for a mermaid? Lori Balton ’81 pondered that question during a not-particularly-unusual workday about a decade ago.

A veteran Hollywood location scout, Balton was in Hawaii exploring sites for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth film in the blockbuster series—specifically, seeking a habitat for the film’s alluring but dangerous mermaids, whose tears hold the key to eternal youth.

“We were having an argument about how they would go from their pools to the ocean,” Balton recalls. “And I just looked at everyone and started laughing and said, ‘We’re a group of adult human beings standing here arguing about mermaids.’ I just loved the whole idea of it.”

On Stranger Tides is just one of the dozens of films Balton has worked on during her more than three decades in the movie business. Her résumé includes a multiplex’s worth of A-list projects and box-office hits: Catch Me If You Can, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, There Will Be Blood, Inception, Argo, The Aviator, 3:10 to Yuma, Seabiscuit, Heat, A River Runs Through It, Memoirs of a Geisha, Best in Show, and many more.

I've been lucky in that I work with a lot of producers who really want the best location—not the easiest location, not the cheapest location, but the location that best helps the director tell his or her story.

While most of Balton’s work has been in motion pictures, she has also scouted for TV shows such as “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” on Amazon Prime and HBO’s “The Young Pope.” Upcoming movie releases include the long-awaited sequel Top Gun: Maverick, the live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and the Lucille Ball biopic Being the Ricardos.

A woman standing on a rock formation in the Texas desert. In the foreground is a man with a jeep.
Balton atop a rock formation, scouting in Texas for Disney's 2013 version of The Lone Ranger. (Photo provided)

For the recent Disney action adventure Jungle Cruise—inspired by the corny-but-beloved theme park ride—Balton scouted the Amazon River from its delta in Brazil to its headwaters in the Peruvian Andes. For last summer’s Marvel hit Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, she traveled to Vietnam’s northern border, searching for landscapes that might resemble parts of China without the complexities of filming there. For the live-action remake of The Lion King, she took a crew to shoot footage in Yellowstone National Park that would help form the landscape of the movie’s fearsome Elephant Graveyard.

“I’ve been lucky in that I work with a lot of producers who really want the best location—not the easiest location, not the cheapest location, but the location that best helps the director tell his or her story,” says Balton, also an avid photographer who has posted hundreds of images on her Instagram. “That’s the most important thing, period. But you also have to find a location where you can bring the crew, where you can get the equipment to it, and where homeowners are going to cooperate. Part of what I love about the job is that each location is different and has its own set of parameters and issues.”

Sometimes, finding the right location isn’t the hardest part: it’s convincing the property owners to allow filming, which may carry a handsome fee but often means vacating the premises and giving access to hordes of strangers. “When people are hesitant about it, I always ask, ‘Can you deal with disruption in your life? Because it’s kind of like inviting a traveling circus.’ But we are very responsible; our credo is that we leave everything in the same or better condition than we found it, which we always do.”

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Balton lying on her side photographing a quarry.
Balton shooting photos at a quarry in Connecticut—and unintentionally perching in a patch of poison ivy—while scouting for an upcoming Netflix adaptation of a Stephen King story. (Photo provided)

A communication major in CALS, Balton fell in love with movies, in part, thanks to the three years she spent as a student employee of Cornell Cinema, mainly as an usher, box office staffer, and manager. (During her first—and, as she recalls, last—night in the projection booth, she forgot to advance the reel on the French arthouse classic Hiroshima Mon Amour and melted some frames: “So the film opens and you see it burning on the screen—and, of course, all my friends are there for my big debut as a projectionist, and they’re cheering and catcalling.”)

Balton moved to Boston after graduation, earning a master’s in communication at B.U. and landing various positions on film sets around the city. Among her first was the 1989 action comedy Second Sight, starring John Larroquette and Bronson Pinchot. Balton calls it “a horrible, horrible movie”—indeed, it has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes—whose production is memorable for two reasons: it involved hauling a mock 747 through the streets of Boston, and she met her husband, a set electrician, on the job.

She relocated to Los Angeles and found work in location management—the field responsible for a wide variety of logistics, from permits to fire safety to appeasing neighbors inconvenienced by the incursion of trailers and crew.

“In my opinion, it’s the most difficult job on a movie set—because if anything goes wrong, no matter what department it is, it’s always your fault,” Balton says, “and if anything goes right, there are always five producers in line ahead of you to claim the credit. So it takes the right kind of personality—someone who’s confident in themselves and doesn’t need constant praise, who takes satisfaction in a job well done.”

A man and a woman standing in a snowy landscape in front of a helicopter.
Balton (left) in New Zealand with legendary helicopter pilot Alfie Speight—his credits include the Lord of the Rings films—who, she says, flew her "on the crazy flight Tom Cruise took" in one of the Mission Impossible movies. (Photo provided)

As Balton explains, most location managers also serve as scouts, and she held both roles early in her career. But after she had her daughter—who’s now in her late twenties—she began to realize that the 24/7 demands of location management weren’t compatible with motherhood, and she focused more on the scouting side. She eventually helped found the Location Managers Guild International, serving as its president for five years, and in 2013 became the first location professional invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—making her a voting member on the Oscars.

Balton’s page on the Internet Movie Database has an impressive collection of credits stretching back to the late 1980s, but they don’t include the time she found herself on the opposite side of the equation—as the scouted rather than the scout. During the 2007–08 television season, a colleague asked to use Balton’s family home in L.A.’s Venice neighborhood to shoot an episode of the short-lived series “Women’s Murder Club.”

“At first I was like, ‘I don’t know if I want all those strangers in my house,’” she recalls with a laugh. “And then I thought: ‘You cannot be such a hypocrite. You talk people into this every day. You have to say yes.’”

Published October 11, 2021


  1. Jean Ferguson

    We’ve worked with LORI for 30 Years… this is a great article and she is more than worthy…It’s quite a unique field!! Thanks for publishing it!

  2. Darlene Rice

    Lori is an amazing personality wrapped up in professionalism. From the first point of contact to the fingers crossed they pick us moment she is just a wonderful human being. We are honored she found us at Quarry View.

  3. Jan Pascale

    Lori is an amazing artist, truly a creative collaborator. She thinks and scouts ‘outside the box’, finds wonderful locations that support the story, and paves the way, often literally for the rest of us to complete and capture the scene. Brava, Lori!

  4. Sinclair Anderson

    Lori is a consummate professional! I’ve worked with her on many projects and hold her in the highest regard. She’s the best at what she does and she’s an even better human being. Much love, Lori

  5. Dee Gregson

    Congratulations Lori from a fellow LM and scout from the U.K. Your jobs look a bit more exciting than mine!

  6. Lee Humphreys, Class of 1999

    What an amazing story! The Comm Department is so proud!!

  7. Andrea raisfeld, Class of 1983

    My favorite people in the production puzzle are the location managers. They are the ultimate problem solvers and must be fine diplomats to be the liaison between the production and the homeowner (and often the neighbors thereof!) and the municipality etc etc. a lot of people to attempt to please.

  8. Elias Savada, Class of 1972

    I was a member of the first class of Cornell Cinema back in the early 1970s. It also changed my life. I’ve been a film historian and researcher ever since.

  9. Emily Eider, Class of 1981

    I am also an ‘81 graduate of the communications program. Spent my career primarily in non-profit communications. What a fascinating life Lori has led, taking us to far away places!

  10. C. David Burak, Class of 1980

    Congratulations on a well written article describing Lori’s very impressive endeavors.I went to many Cornell Cinema screenings when I was getting my MFA in Creative Writing (’80) & afterwards. They were reliably well run affairs with usually fascinating films.It’s great to read about someone like Lori & how she was able to make use of her experiences as a student to climb to the top of her profession.

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