A member of the Teamsters union and the Directors Guild of America, Kevin Breslin is a filmmaker and a location scout for commercials. Over 20 years, he has maneuvered crews through the city and arranged thousands of shoots, including the New York Lottery’s “If I Had a Million Dollars” and Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” spots. Mr. Breslin, 56, lives in Belle Harbor, Queens, with his wife and youngest son.
How much time do you spend driving around looking for new locations?
I use time very carefully. I’m a quick read. When I’m driving, I’m a very visual person, so I might see something and say, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” Or in the back of my head, say that would be cool sometime, someplace. And then sometimes they’ll call, and I’ll say I remember something. And they say, “Can you find it?”
So, if a director said to you, “we’re looking for a great alley,” could you list off alleys?
You can hand them pictures all the time, files they call them, but they can be outdated. Things get done over. Including alleys. Alleys get closed down. Gates get put up. “No filming.” So you can show them anything, but is it feasible to shoot there? Has the look changed? Is it the same? There’s always a caveat: take a look at this, but we’ve got to go out and do the legwork and see if it’s still there and can we film there.
Do you worry what New Yorkers will think when the geography in a spot is askew?
That’s art. Suspend disbelief. Who says it has to be absolutely linear? Who says and why? It’s irrelevant to a degree — that’s the fun of it, I think.
We just did the John Legend Chevrolet commercial. One minute we’re in Williamsburg, the next minute Greenpoint Avenue Bridge, then Houston Street. Next minute he’s on the highway. If anyone stopped for a minute, they’d say “Man, he is all over the map.” So what? There’s visual delight.
How has the business changed?
I used to be able walk into a building, talk to a guard downstairs and say: “You know, I’m here. I’m scouting a commercial. I need to get to the roof. I need a shot.” He’d say, “Ah, the building is closed.” I’d say, “I need two minutes,” hand the guy a $20 — and you’d be on the roof. You got the shots.
Now with surveillance cameras everywhere, no one can help you in any way even if they want to. Now it’s impossible. You have to call — speak to the building manager, speak to the real estate agent, speak to the public relations department, speak to this one. So, now you’ve got to make 40 calls just to do anything.
Tell me about unusual shoots or locations.
I’ve done dangerous ones with stunts. Stunts sound exciting. But you forgot something. Someone can get hurt with a stunt. We had one where we’re going to have a guy get thrown out of a window on the sixth floor. O.K. Where’s he going to land? He’s going to hit the floor.
I find the building, I find the street. I bring the stunt man. Is this a plausible place? Clear the street. Put down air bags, build a plank so that it’s level. Then the window, he’s got to take out the window and put in candy glass. He practices his steps. He’s timing it. Me and the stuntman for days. Day of the shoot we’ve got about 14 cameras going. Right before the shoot, I see him bless himself. This separates fantasy from reality right here.
Or we’re filming a big commercial in a funeral parlor. I figured out how to hold off funerals for two days. I paid the guy an exorbitant fee. Dead bodies they’re bringing in past me, in the black zipper bags to go downstairs. Two bodies have come by me. You have families grieving. They’re in the room right over there. I was having to take pictures in the rooms. I walked into one room, the makeup artist is putting makeup on an old woman who has died. And I’m thinking to myself, this is a long day. We’ll get to our spot when we can. We can’t determine when people are dying.
A lot of other cities, and of course, sound stages, fill in for New York City. What are the advantages of filming on location?
People say be thankful we’re working in New York, like they’re doing us a big favor. They want the reality, or they would go to some nonunion city, or a place they can work cheaper. That’s a one-dimensional attitude. In New York City, most all of the time, you can turn the camera and there’s gripping reality. You can tilt down and see things. You’ll pan and see things. It just has an edge to it.
Do you have a favorite location to shoot?
Oddly, no. Anywhere where it matters for that moment. I always like if somebody’s broke. A girl was struggling in Williamsburg. She sunk her life savings into opening up a hair salon, and we had three or four hair salons to choose from. She was so nice and she was early on in Williamsburg on Metropolitan Avenue before the total transformation. So I steered it in her direction and, of course, she got it. Not a fortune. But to her, a fortune because it paid two months of her rent. I’ll never forget her telling me, “You saved me because now I’m able to keep my business going.” And I remember thinking, “Good. I’m glad. Good for you.” Why not, it’s advertising money. Why not throw it around?
What do you like best about your job?
Definitely the people. There’s too many in our monstrous city. But I’ll never forget one tiny little story. I was in Washington Heights by myself, and I have to go to the roof of a building to get the angles of the streets. And I’m thinking why do they always give me rough assignments?
I see this old woman go in. She goes up in the elevator and I miss her. So I go up the stairway, and there are two nasty drug dealers. Bad people. So, the first thing I do, I get very street smart. I just walk by them like I’m authoritative. As I get to the third floor, I see the old lady going into her apartment. I knock on the door. I tell her who I am. “I’m scouting for a commercial — blah, blah.” She lets me in. That’s nuts. She must be about 85. She’s being nice to me. Asking if I want coffee or tea. I’m just looking out the window.
And then I realize this could be my grandmom, so I start asking her about herself. I start looking around and she has money there. And I’m thinking, “Lady, lady, you shouldn’t have me here.” So, I said, “Look I can’t stay, it’s so kind of you,” and I said lock the door. And then I said, “By the way, don’t let anyone in again.” You can catch people off guard.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Portraits of local flora and fauna.
The flowers of the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) are evolution’s answer to a bee’s dreams. They are filled with pollen, abundant in season, and easy to locate. For humans, they are also stunningly beautiful, if ephemeral. Each satiny yellow bloom lasts about a day, opening broadly in the first hours of the morning when temperatures are still relatively cool, and closing again as the sun sets. A good-sized plant displays up to a dozen two-inch flowers every day from mid-June through early July in and around New York City.
The cactus’s flower is shaped like an open bowl, with dozens of pollen-tipped stamens. Both native bumble bees and introduced honey bees find the blossoms irresistible, and are a constant presence from the moment they open. Patience pays when observing the arrangement between these partners. Finding an open flower, a bee dives in, swimming through masses of pollen-laden anthers and vibrating its body rapidly to loosen the pollen grains. It turns out this activity is hardly necessary: prickly pear cactus stamens are “thigmotactic,” that is, they are mobile, and bend inward when stimulated. The stamens proactively bend in toward the bee, dusting its fuzzy coat with pollen. This cactus pollen is eventually combed off by the bee and packaged for transport to the hive.
You can try this yourself; carefully brush a pencil against the stamens of a newly opened prickly pear flower. The response is quite remarkable.
Growing in full sun in well-drained soils, the plants can be found in bone-dry conditions, in sandy, rocky and otherwise poor soils, but they are very adaptable. I have encountered them thriving in areas where the water table is right at the soil’s surface. The plant’s paddle-shaped pads are unmistakable, and since there are no other cactuses native to the New York area, identification is easy. A cactus seems like an anomaly this side of the Mississippi, but the eastern prickly pear can be found from Florida north to Massachusetts, with outliers in Texas and Montana.
In the fall, as the weather cools, the cactus pads (actually modified stems) desiccate, and become rumpled, greenish-purple strips that lie flush against the ground. This behavior prevents water from freezing and expanding in the stems, ultimately killing the plant.
Lying prostrate also allows even small amounts of snow to cover the dormant cactus. Snow is a cold but efficient insulator, and temperatures under the snow hover at just about freezing, never far below. The same pads rehydrate and spring back vertically, only to sprout flower buds and new stems as the weather warms.
There is no discussing a cactus without at least some mention of spines. Merely modified leaves, the spines of the native prickly pear are accompanied by glochids, which are fine and hairlike. Don’t let their size fool you; there are few things as irritating as these almost-invisible spines lodged in the joints of fingers or other body parts.