Renaissance Location Professional Emma Pill
By Nancy Mills | Fall 2017
When Emma Pill was offered the job as supervising location manager on Blade Runner 2049, her first thought was not “Blade Runner is a classic film. How can I possibly live up to its memory?” That was her second thought. Her first was much more practical: “How are we going to find post-apocalyptic, future 2049 locations?”
Pill may not be the most practical person. “My family and my fiancé joke that I can’t cross the road on my own,” she says. “They think I’m disorganized in my normal life.” But when it comes to working on a film, a hidden superpower exerts itself.
Now celebrating her 20th year as a British location manager, Pill has an impressive list of credits: Spectre, Cinderella, Thor: The Dark World, Dark Shadows, John Carter, Captain America: The First Avenger, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, The Wolfman, Mamma Mia!, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Stardust, The Bourne Ultimatum and Munich. And that’s just since 2005.
Blade Runner 2049 almost slipped through her fingers. “At the end of 2015, (director) Denis Villeneuve, (cinematographer) Roger Deakins, (producer) Bill Carraro and I actually looked at London locations,” Pill says. “They’d thought of doing locations in the U.K. and studio work in Budapest, but it became apparent that was not a sensible way of doing things. When the whole production moved to Budapest (at the suggestion of the film’s executive producer Ridley Scott, who directed Blade Runner), I didn’t think I’d get to go.”
2049’s production designer Dennis Gassner made sure she did. “Emma and I had been working together for a while,” he says about their collaboration on Spectre, the 24th James Bond film. “I put her on Blade Runner 2049. Emma is smart, funny and tenacious, and she has great taste. She gets it. She is the job personified. She has a great instinct and has a history of what seems to work. She’s always searching. It’s about knowing the game. If you don’t know the game, you can’t play it. She can play.”
Gassner is impressed with Pill’s political savvy. “That’s an important part of how you conduct yourself within a highly creative environment,” he says. “Emma has a great sense of how to do that. She works well within the company structure.”
Pill went to Budapest with Gassner in January 2016 for what she thought was an eight-month posting. She wound up staying for 11 months. In addition to supervising the location work at the two Hungarian studios—Origo Studios and Korda Studios—where much of the film was shot, she also supervised work in Iceland, Spain, Nevada and Mexico City. In all, she was responsible for nine main unit locations and five aerial unit locations.
One of her first tasks was not to be overwhelmed by the original Blade Runner. “I’d seen it years and years ago,” she says. “As soon as I got the call, I watched it again. That’s when I realized it is so iconic. How am I going to match this?” Soon, though, she recognized her job didn’t involve matching but finding something new. “Seeing the film did help,” she says. “You’ve got to have it in the back of your mind. But you have to look at it with fresh eyes. You can’t try to replicate. You need to go in with an open mind and try to find the best available architecture. My brief was not related to the original. I needed to go into concrete, straight lines and Brutalist style. Grimy locations, lots of grimy locations. That was hard because there’s not a tremendous amount of it in Budapest. Budapest architecture could double very easily for Paris.”
Pill likes to consider options outside the box. “As location manager, you can put up ideas that are slightly off-brief if you think they’re interesting,” she says. “Sometimes you get knocked down and sometimes they think your idea is amazing. Denis is a very energetic and communicative director. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll say so, and that’s great. At least you know what he thinks. I’d rather have a ‘NO’ then ‘EH!’”
Once Pill got settled in Budapest, she started her usual routine—spending her weekends exploring the city. “To learn about a place and get my bearings, I always walk,” she says. “My team would hate me on Monday morning. I’d come into the office with pictures and say, ‘I want to know what’s in that building.’ That’s the problem with location managers. We’re nosy! I found one of our key locations by just walking down the street. I thought, ‘That building looks really interesting. We need to get in there.’ It was a school that had extraordinary architecture. We used it as an apartment block for one of the characters, but we had to shoot during the students’ summer holiday.”
Gassner doesn’t consider nosiness a problem. “I told Emma, ‘Just look at the city. Describe to me what looks interesting. I’ll do the same when I’m driving around.’ There’s a pattern language that starts to develop. The first Blade Runner has its signature, and we have to have our own signature. They’re going to be contiguous, but there’s a freshness to it. Location managing is an art. Like any of the departments, it’s very particular. You have to love it, and Emma loves it. She’s an unsung hero.”
Ultimately, much of Blade Runner 2049 was filmed on stages because, Pill says, “Roger wanted to control the light.” But there were also plenty of locations to find. “Hungary is a fantastic region with amazing post-war industrial architecture that’s just standing there,” she says. “It’s a location manager’s dream. We don’t have that in the U.K. As soon as a building is abandoned, developers take it over. There are quite a lot of abandoned buildings on the outskirts of Budapest. I felt like an urban explorer, going into them. They’re not necessarily safe. If I found something visual, I’d look at safety issues—have air-quality tests, asbestos checks, possibly put up special netting to make sure nothing was falling off buildings.”
Her hardest location to find? “A street in a winter environment,” she says. “It had to fit into a futuristic world, not be typical Budapest architecture. We managed to find a couple possibilities. One of them is in the film’s trailer, where Ryan Gosling is walking down the street and it’s very snowy. It was a full night shoot in a residential area of Budapest. The locals were very accommodating.” To get the job done, Pill worked closely with her Hungarian location team. “I relied on them more than if I were working in my own country,” she says. “My Hungarian is not good. It’s one of the hardest languages to learn, but I had a great team who spoke fluent English.”
Working in Hungary proved smoother than Pill expected. “You have to adapt to styles, local techniques and local companies,” she says. “My team was good at their jobs. What they didn’t need is my telling them, ‘You need to do it this way.’ If something wasn’t working, I’d eventually use my experience and say, ‘How about if we do it like this?’”
Through her team, Pill found one of 2049’s most striking locations in an old tin factory. “I do a lot of research, trawling the internet, looking at architectural websites,” she says. “I also went through my location team’s libraries to see if there was anything interesting and to get ideas. That’s where I first saw this wonderful space. One of the guys had an old photo of it. He didn’t know where he got it. He just knew it was in this massive, abandoned, fenced-off building.” One morning, Pill and one of her assistants set out to find it. “We spent a few hours searching,” she remembers. “We had to go up abandoned staircases, and cross holey floors, which is not a good way to scout. Finally, we found the space in a basement. It was all concrete, and it was covered with 2-3 inches of water. It had fantastic concrete pyramids coming down from the ceiling, and high ground-level windows. It was a weird space, but Denis and Roger fell in love with it. Then we had to make it work, which was challenging, making it safe and secure. During filming, I remember standing on set and thinking, ‘This is very beautiful. No one is going to think it’s an actual location.’ You have to have the tenacity to get what you want. It’s wonderful when you present a location and see the creative types get really excited about it.”
In addition to her hands-on work in Hungary, Pill says, “Part of my role was to find a lot of the visual effects locations in other countries. Viewers won’t notice, but visual effects needed aerial plates (footage from helicopters used as background for visual effects shots). Denis wanted a cloudy desert, which is the hardest kind of desert to find. Deserts with no vegetation usually means there is hardly any rain, which means there are hardly any clouds. He also wanted a desert in winter that would fit our production schedule.
“I had a brain wave. I’d been to Iceland before, so I went to Denis and asked if it had to be a golden sand desert. He said, ‘What are you thinking?’ I showed him the deserts in Iceland, and we went for the black volcanic look. I spent five days in Iceland, two of which in a helicopter scouting the entire country. We ended up shooting the aerial plates there.”
Pill also worked closely with Los Angeles LM Robin Citrin, LMGI. “Robin looked after an aerial shoot for me at the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas,” she says. “We also needed a shot of the Vegas skyline, some shots in Lincolnshire and in the southern part of Spain, plus the favellas of Mexico City. With these faraway locations, I researched them and production sent small teams of people, but I didn’t get to go.”
If possible, Pill, 46, would like to visit every location, no matter how obscure or difficult. That’s one reason she loves her job so much. “I fell into location work,” she says. “My background is art and photography. I went to Salisbury College of Art. Photography is my passion. After college, I decided to travel, which is my other passion. I was gone 1½ years.” While she was away, Pill failed to settle on a career. “I wasn’t grown-up enough to think about what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was 24. I thought maybe I could work in the film industry, but it was all so unknown. I moved to London and rented a flat. I knew photography and travel would be in my world.
“Some contemporaries of mine from college were working on a film in the New Forest, and they said, ‘Why don’t you apply to be a runner?’ My photography course had done a bit of film and TV at the end, and I knew I was interested in the moving image. I also knew I was never going to be a camerawoman or technical person. I became a runner on The Woodlanders (1997, based on the Thomas Hardy novel). It was out in the woods. I’m not an office person. I grew up on a farm in Oxfordshire. Outdoors is my natural habitat. I don’t mind standing, although not for 12 hours in the rain. I started out helping out in the production department. Then I did a couple other jobs as a runner (True Blue, Fever Pitch). After that, someone offered me an assistant role (A Merry War) in locations. I accepted, not knowing what a location manager was, and it morphed into a path that was just perfect.”
In the two decades since then, Pill has built a strong career, making her one of the top LMs in the U.K. Over the years, she has worked with such directors as Kenneth Branagh, Tim Burton, Marc Forster, Paul Greengrass, Phyllida Lloyd, Chris Nolan and Steven Spielberg. Right now, she is working on Disney’s Christopher Robin for Forster, due out in 2018. “It might be a smaller cast and crew, but you still have the same amount of work,” she says, comparing it to Blade Runner 2049. “I have a pretty challenging schedule. There are a hell of a lot of locations.
“It really depends how you set up the team on the schedule. Sometimes we have three to five locations where we’re prepping, shooting and striking at the same time. I have 13 or 14 on the Christopher Robin team. You have to be a bit more creative on your deals and budgets. We don’t have a Bond budget, but we have a similar number of people on the team. I have amazing producers who listen when I say, ‘This is why I need X, Y and Z.’ If I had two locations and 20 people, something would be wrong.”
Looking back on how her career progressed from hanging out in the woods to basically closing the Thames River for a spectacular action sequence in Spectre, she says, “You start by doing small films. You work with key producers and production designers. When they get bigger films, they request you. You end up going with the flow.
“For me, everything changed in 2005. Munich was my first launch into big-boy films. The film shot in two countries. I did Malta with location manager Mark Somner, and was there for about six months. We doubled Malta for seven other countries, including Israel, Spain and Italy. The good thing in Malta is that English is their second language, so I was able to bring a few of my team from the U.K.”
LMGI’s Ali James, who was Pill’s assistant for eight years and served as ALM on Munich, has some colorful memories of that Spielberg film. To illustrate her boss’s determination to get the job done, James describes an incident that occurred during their time on the island. “We found a location we wanted,” she says. “The owner then turned around and doubled or tripled the price. There was another building exactly the same type and size, so Emma said to the Maltese LM, ‘Let’s get that one.’ Over the course of the next six hours, she managed to organize all six owners. We tracked them down and had them sign a bit of paper. Then Emma told the first guy, ‘Get stuffed’ in the nicest possible way. You have to have a certain amount of stubbornness and yet be charming.”
Both women found Munich to be “a very difficult movie,”
James admits. “We were quite a lot less experienced. The two of us learned an awful lot.” Adds Pill, “That was baptism by fire for me.” Their interactions with Spielberg were minimal. “The people around him were very pleasant,” James says, “but we didn’t hop in a car with him and drive around looking at locations. Some directors are low key and some arrive with bodyguards.” The experience undoubtedly cemented a friendship between the women. “Ali probably knows me better than anyone else,” Pill says.
James started as Pill’s assistant in 2004 on Goal! The Dream Begins. “We worked solidly together until 2011 (through Dark Shadows) and then got back together on Spectre,” James says. “Then I got sent off to Mexico City (to handle the Day of the Dead sequences among others, and Emma headed up the London locations.” The two, who are both 5 feet 3 inches tall, joke about being mistaken for each other. “People get us muddled up,” James says. “They’ll call her Ali and me Emma. We’ve given up correcting people. We support each other a lot. She’s fully into what she does, and she’s rarely out of work.”
James mentions Pill’s willingness to help those just starting out. “Emma has been a great mentor to loads of people,” she says. “There’s no official training for location work. She certainly paved the way for me and other girls coming up. Women are very outnumbered on a film set, so we redress that balance a little bit. Emma has done everything from opening Tower Bridge for Thunderbirds to being the first female location manager to work in Morocco—for both The Bourne Ultimatum and Inception. “There is not much she has not attempted on film over her career.
“She leaves no stone unturned. She is a very good scout and researcher. She’s good logistically at running films. In the U.K., we do everything on a film set from start to finish—from finding locations to figuring out where the toilets go. Emma has always been popular with designers and directors. She’s tenacious and a good listener and good at adapting. She tries to make it fun.”
Not everything Pill has to do is fun. Handling legal contracts is not high on her fun list, but she truly loves her work. “I can travel,” she says. “I can use my camera, and I have some influence in the creative process. That’s the best part of the job. I have a logistics streak in me, and I love the challenge of finding locations and then bringing all the elements together. It’s thrilling standing there on the night, watching it happen.
“Bond was a pretty extraordinary experience. I got to do scouting all around Europe.” Most thrilling was watching the climactic Thames River scene in Spectre, which took her and her team hundreds of hours to pull off. Pill recounts putting it all together. “The river sequence ran for 1½ miles, from Vauxhall Bridge to Hungerford Bridge, taking in Lambeth and Westminster bridges. It all had to be lit as the sequence was shot at night … Westminster Bridge being the very heart of London. We lit each bridge arch from a rigging boat (17 arches in total), through the nights for three weeks in advance as we had to close the Thames to river traffic. We lit from 10 rooftops. We positioned five lighting cranes along the river, and even had two 150-foot lighting cranes floating on river barges. We had 32 lighting generators that moved into position on a Friday night, and moved back out on a Sunday night.
“We shot the sequence over eight weekends, which included closing Westminster Bridge. We had a hero helicopter and a camera ship that flew down the Thames up to Westminster Bridge at 150 feet above the water, following a speedboat with the actors onboard. Westminster Bridge and Lambeth Bridge were closed to the public at various times. Due to helicopter noise, we had to finish the flying element by midnight each time, and continue with non-noisy stuff up to dawn every morning. I had a 24-hour location team in London to manage all these elements, with a team on the night of 13 locations, 50 location PAs and 150 location security. We sent out approximately 11,000 resident and business letters over the eight-week period, letting people know of our activities, as we were in such a high-profile location.”
Callum McDougall, executive producer on Spectre, brought Pill to the film as supervising location manager. He had tried to work with her for years, but, he says, “Unfortunately until now, she was not available. She was an integral part of the planning of this huge film. She became one of our very key figures during pre-production and shooting. I really like and admire Emma’s continual enthusiasm and drive. She can be like a dog with a bone. She won’t give up and will keep pushing with ideas and options until we have what the director and designer are looking to find. She adores what she does, which is very evident as soon as you meet her, and she inspires those that work for and around her. She does extensive research and doesn’t leave a page unturned. At the same time, she is fun. The experience of working with her is always enjoyable. She is a real team player.”
McDougall made sure Pill was acknowledged in Spectre’s main credits. “It was a first for me,” he says. “But that just goes to prove what an integral part she played on the film. As we know, it’s never one person, but she was the HOD of the locations, and that’s where traditionally, we put HODs on a Bond film. Yes, we had production managers and location managers in all the various countries, but Emma was supervising and coordinating. It’s very unusual for us to have one location manager who supervises all the film’s global locations, and that’s where the recognition came from. It was at the request of the director as well. Emma found all of the locations on the film, along with Dennis, with the exception of Mexico City. That was due to timings when Mexico became the country choice. That’s also why her title is supervising location manager.”
Pinpointing what sets Pill apart from other location managers, McDougall says, “There is a confidence, and the ability to immediately identify what the director and designer are looking to find for the visual journey of the film. Emma just comes up with some really good options, alternatives and backups (if required)—and is very focused on the goal everyone is looking to achieve. She has a passion for the film and also loves all the logistics as well—and my God, did she have logistics to deal with for the shoot on the Thames. It was mammoth, and she relished it all! She has an amazing eye for detail. She makes good creative choices. She is extremely hard working and efficient and excellent at budgeting and cost control. Without doubt, she would be top of my list of location managers for any film. Her résumé speaks for itself, showing much repeat business from producers and production companies.”
McDougall notes that Pill worked closely with director Sam Mendes, designer Gassner, producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli and himself for more than 18 months. “After the initial meetings, Emma set up office at Pinewood Studios (our U.K. base) and did extensive research on locations, along with our location manager, Ali James, and it wasn’t until we had a shorter list of options did she head out on the road with our associate producer, Gregg Wilson, and Gassner. Dennis and Emma both had a clear understanding of what Sam was looking for and also both came up with inspiring choices, which then lead onto further design decisions for both exterior locations and studio interiors alike. Once they had done an initial scout to the locations, they would prepare boards for Sam and the producers, and then we would do a director’s first scout.
“As always when you are prepping a film, ideas come and go, and Emma would have many meetings with Sam during development and pre-production. There was an unprecedented car chase through the streets of Rome (a first) and around all the Vatican buildings (which were all done for real, no CG). The big ticket was the chase down the Thames with a helicopter crashing on Westminster Bridge. On so many of the locations on this film, we were not just dealing with the multiple countries (U.K., Italy, Austria, Morocco, Mexico) but some of the most iconic buildings and areas within those cities. It was a huge ask. It was similar in Mexico City with our helicopter sequence in the most famous square in Mexico City—Zócalo.”
McDougall mentions an unusual challenge. “The winter locations in Austria were tricky, as we had to see them with snow,” he says. “We really had to scout and choose them nine months prior to the shoot—before the snow melted so we could see visually what it would look like. Also, since they were ski resorts, we had to get an early reservation before all the rooms were taken for their normal ski business. We had two large film units shooting there at the same time. The snow, which had arrived early the previous year in abundance, was late arriving. On one location by the lake where Bond finds Mr. White, it only snowed two days prior to shoot. We shot for a couple of days, and then all the snow melted and it was lush and green again two days after we left in January! We were making snow at one of the other locations for a chase sequence. Locals were saying, ‘Never been like this before!’ It only happens when a film crew turns up—the world over. Of course, we had looked at data for the last 10 years, which was encouraging, but the world’s weather as we know is ever-changing these days. But all the locations that Emma found in Austria worked perfectly in the end.”
What’s on Pill’s wish list? “When you work out of the U.K., you don’t get to come stateside but you do a lot of Europe-side,” she says. “I’ve done a whole raft of stuff—period, fantasy, futuristic, modern day. I’d like to shoot on a Caribbean beach and work in Africa. If they ask me, I’d love to do the next Bond film.”
Emma’s Blade Runner 2049 Team:
Senior Location Manager: András Rudolf
Location Manager: Zsolt Molnar
Junior Location Manager: Csaba Sepsi
Assistant Location Managers:
Istvan Pápp, Bálint Forgács, Mihaly Magenheim, Balint Regius
It’s a Tough Job, but Someone Has to Do It … Emma’s Greatest Hits
Thor: The Dark World (supervising location manager) “Scouting in Norway, traveling by helicopter down UNESCO-protected Geirangerfjord on a crystal-clear day and blue sky, I got the most incredible scouting photos. I remember putting a camera crane on the roof of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was quite eventful, and equally at the top of St Mary Axe (the Gherkin), there is a window-cleaning bucket that comes out of the building on the 38th floor. I managed to get out in it, to get images of London for a camera position.”
Dark Shadows (supervising location manager) “We had to find a daunting building, and we finally chose a large house in Beckenham, which was the wrong side of London to the studio and a real pain to travel to. But it was a good visual location. Ali really didn’t want me to offer it up as an option as it was painful to manage, but I knew it was what Tim Burton would like, and indeed he chose it.”
Inception (location manager: Morocco) “There is a riot scene in a dream at the beginning of the film. We shot this in the Medina in Tangier with 300 rioting extras and car explosions in the heart of a food market. We had more than 1,000 stall owners to deal with. The actual scene was very short for the effort that was put into setting it up but worth it. It was my second film in Tangier, and it was lovely meeting up with the same people two years on after Bourne.”
Mamma Mia! (supervising location manager) “How can you not be happy being on a Greek island? The chapel was the most incredible location. We actually built a set chapel over the existing tiny chapel as it needed to appear bigger for the interior scene that was shot on stage. Prep took place for one month in advance, and the only way was to walk the kit up the steps.”
The Bourne Ultimatum (supervising location manager: Morocco) “I remember the rooftop chase. Also, fitting a large feature film crew into the Old Medina town had its challenges with narrow passageways. We had to be very creative with utilizing every little space to put our kit. I am under the impression I was the first female location manager to film in Morocco, and I was made to feel very welcome. It’s a great country. I have been back three times now and have had the opportunity to scout most of the major cities, deserts and mountains, which we also did on Spectre.”