Location, Location, Location: What Sandy Lighterman Knows Best

On the set of Burn Notice. All photos courtesy of Sandy Lighterman.

Tony Stark in Miami? An explosion on the set of Burn Notice? Actors dancing in the street? Filmiami’s Sandy Lighterman knows how to make it happen.

Working behind the scenes to woo Robert Downey, Jr., to a tropical paradise sounds like a dream job—but, like movie magic, that description is not exactly what it seems. Enticing the latest Iron Man production to shoot scenes in South Florida was a time-consuming but ultimately rewarding process for Sandy Lighterman, the Film Commissioner for Miami-Dade County. She and her Filmiami staff not only match scripted locations to local landmarks, but help encourage such big-budget productions—as well as much smaller ones—to think of Miami-Dade County as a cinematic backdrop.

Think of Miami (or the way it’s often portrayed on television or film), and palm-dotted expanses of beachfront where the famous and fashionable play likely come to mind. Lighterman, however, can see her city as “New York, Chicago, Los Angeles [or] ‘anywhere USA.’” It’s just a matter of knowing how and where to look. Beyond edifices that can replicate other metropolises, South Florida filming locations can be as diverse as “a Caribbean island, jungles, farmland, and even a huge man-made hill.”

As for Iron Man, Lighterman recalls that Filmiami “started wooing them back in early fall of 2011. Originally they wanted to shoot the sequences they are going to shoot in the Miami area in San Francisco or Ohio.” Convincing the production to film in Florida required “sending many photo packages, meeting with Marvel in Los Angeles, and taking the producers, production designer, lead location scout, and local location managers around to work on their logistics to get them to come here. And they would not have come if the State of Florida did not have the attractive film production tax incentives that began in 2010.”

The superhero superblockbuster is just one of several movies to feature South Florida on screen. Rock of Ages, Step Up 4 Revolution, Marley and Me, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Up in the Air, and Dostana also illustrate the region to millions of moviegoers worldwide and provide evidence to future filmmakers of the area’s potential shooting locations. To create that showcase, Filmiami, the cooperative effort of the Miami-Dade County, Miami Beach, and City of Miami film offices, is “a full-service film commission providing location and logistics assistance, government liaison, production information, and referral sources. We attract productions by sending out photo packages to match locations they are looking for in their scripts, storyboards, or concepts. In addition, we understand the production side of the business so we can provide assistance with budgeting and crew and vendor lists.”

Sandy Lighterman

Filmmakers initially searching for the right “look” for scenes or whole movies or, later in the process, location managers with a specific locale in mind turn to Lighterman. Often she is asked “to break down scripts for their locations and then put photo packages together so that [filmmakers] can see that we do have the types of locations the production is looking for. We then refer the productions to local location scouts so that they can further their search. We just try to attract [people to area filming locations] but don’t want to take away any potential jobs from our location managers/scouts. Our locations photo database has over nine hundred locations. We work closely with both out-of-town and local location scouts and managers. That’s a huge part of our job as a film commission!”

The time frame for finding the right place to film often is short, especially because of budgetary concerns. Lighterman explains that “TV commercials and still photo shoots sometimes scout a week or two ahead of their arrival, but more and more they arrive last minute, and we are scrambling along with them to help them secure County locations and get approvals for permits. TV series usually clear their locations about five to seven days in advance, unless the scene is more complicated. Feature films and independent filmmakers usually have a bit more time for prepping,” giving Lighterman and her staff “time to secure off-duty police officers [or] fire department personnel (for anything with pyrotechnics, fire, etc.) and get clearance with [for example] public works, the airports, seaport, or transit. We coordinate with all County departments to get approval for the permits that we approve.”

What could be better than working with the film industry in a locale renowned for beckoning beaches and electric nightlife? According to Lighterman, the job is not always glamorous. Much of her time requires meeting “with prospective producers and creative [consultants] regarding upcoming projects, working with County departments streamlining the permitting process for productions, [and] speaking with studio executives, independent filmmakers, TV commercial producers, digital media outlets, and photographers regarding upcoming projects that might come to our area and try to persuade them to shoot in Miami-Dade County. Also, I meet with the Mayor’s staff and advise on policy that affects the film and entertainment industry.”

Such meetings and paperwork can be rewarding because they result in “attracting productions to come and shoot in Miami-Dade County and assisting productions in their logistical needs. It’s wonderful to be involved with economic development where we are helping to create jobs and keep residents employed."

Occasionally, however, a request comes along that is a bit more daunting, although not much can throw Lighterman, who “began in this business at a very young age” and “was a film and television producer for more than twenty years prior to joining Filmiami." One of the more unusual requests recently crossing her desk was “for an alligator to crawl out of a manhole.” Alas, this request had to be denied. “Unfortunately, our manholes lead to our sewers,” which would create hazardous filming conditions, “so we could not accommodate that request.”

She more often deals with the everyday challenges of film production. “For Rock of Ages we needed to close a main street artery nightly on and off for a couple of months. Burn Notice has an explosion almost every week, and they have road closures.” Lighterman compliments the “great team that works in my office that makes it all seem easy (though it might not be!). Also our County departments work cooperatively with our office, and that makes our job much easier and more seamless” for the productions’ logistics.

Lighterman realistically assesses the future of the entertainment industry in Florida while hoping for continued sunny skies. “Our industry will continue to grow as long as the State of Florida legislature continues to support and fund the State production tax incentives and the State Office of Film and Entertainment. Those elements are key to the entire state benefiting economically from this industry. If the incentives are properly funded, then Hollywood and the global industry will have the confidence to keep sending productions our way. This also will assist us in building more of a permanent financial infrastructure so that productions will start originating from here instead of Hollywood or other places. Being able to finance and originate content from Florida is key to securing a continuous and successful film and entertainment industry.”

Lighterman’s confidence in Filmiami’s role within the industry, as well as the local economy, is well founded. After all, she convinced visionary entrepreneur Tony Stark to set up shop in Miami.

Filming Burn Notice in Miami

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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