'The Bear' unit production manager has 3 words for Chicago-made projects: Locations, locations, locations

Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

CHICAGO — “Not necessarily realistic. But authentic.”

That’s one credo Carrie Holt de Lama, a veteran of the Chicago film industry, has learned through countless hours of driving around, with a location scout, a filmmaker or alone. Her mission: find a building, an intersection, a vantage point or a vacant lot that suits what a script requires. Preferably something that hasn’t been filmed a million times already.

Aren’t those words “realistic and “authentic” synonyms? Well, kind of. But when you make a movie or shoot a series episode, authenticity often becomes less about objective accuracy and more about subjective rightness. The right locale, the perfect backdrop for a specific scripted scene, often makes zero geographical sense (favorite local example: the where-are-we? opening credits to “The Bob Newhart Show”).

Realism has its gradations. Hulu’s smash hit “The Bear” operates in its own intense realm of poetic realism, dreamy yet nerve-wracking, especially on multiple deadlines in the kitchen. It’s not “documentary style” (a meaningless, generic descriptor). Instead, it’s fueled by series creator Christopher Storer’s memories of growing up in the area, when he first discovered Mr. Beef on Orleans Street.

De Lama is unit production manager on “The Bear,” a large part of which means coordinating with location managers to find, for example, the right house in the right neighborhood for Jamie Lee Curtis (Season 2, Episode 6) to implode on Thanksgiving.

De Lama is also executive producer on the new Chicago-set and filmed “We Grown Now,” which opens the Chicago International Film Festival Oct. 11. The film is very good, set in 1992 in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, among other Chicago locales. There’s a question: How to evoke a physical place, and presence, that has been erased from Chicago history for a generation now? Our interview was edited for clarity and length.


Q: Carrie, walk me through how “We Grown Now” creates its own idea of 1992 Cabrini-Green.

A: That was a serious location challenge (laughs). Here’s this beautiful script by Minhal Baig set in an area of Chicago that doesn’t exist anymore. The location manager Maria Roxas — we’ve worked together a lot — she and I and Minhal drove around Chicago looking for locations. For three years, off and on. For the Cabrini-Green high rises, we found the Chicago Housing Authority senior residence at the Ogden-Ashland-Madison intersection. We used the low-rises that still exist (as did the recent “Candyman” remake), and filmed downtown, at Union Station and at the Art Institute. The Art Institute turned us down three times before we got a “yes.”

For the apartment interiors, we built the apartment in the old indoor soccer stadium on 35th Street, just west of Western. We couldn’t afford Cinespace (where “The Bear” films its interiors) or any traditional soundstage. Too much money for a “tier one” low-budget film, under $7 million. Which is a lot of money.

Finding the right locations is also about finding the overall neighborhood that’ll work with you. Filming has a direct impact on a surrounding neighborhood, with traffic and parking, everything. It’s not easy for the people that live there. I remember working on “Death Wish” (the Bruce Willis remake), we filmed at a Pilsen convenience store. It cost $12,000 to rent. Then the director, Eli Roth, changed his mind about something, we had to go back, and the second-day price went up to $18,000. It adds up. But the people should benefit.


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