How Janice Polley pulled together an elite international team to decipher Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-bender…
by Shaun O’Banion
Photos by Melinda Sue Gordon/courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment, except as noted
In The Tempest, William Shakespeare famously wrote: “What is past is prologue,” meaning history sets the context for the present. Humans are essentially a collection of past experiences moving ever-forward, using any knowledge gained from those experiences to make decisions. Those decisions then create a ripple effect reverberating outward, carrying us into our future.
With that in mind, there is perhaps no more apt place to dive into Tenet, the latest time-shifting blockbuster feature from writer-director Christopher Nolan, than by looking back at how supervising location manager Janice Polley/LMGI came to find herself sitting in Nolan’s garage working her way through an incredibly complex draft of the script.
The Polley Prologue
Polley, a Toronto native whose SLM credits include Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and two films in The Divergent series, had never considered going into film. “In our family,” she says, “you looked at a real career, not anything in the arts.” As a student, she planned to go into sports medicine. In fact, she graduated having studied kinesiology at University when her sister happened to get a job as a PA for a local commercial company.
Polley soon got an offer to join her sister, but despite the company being the biggest commercial production house in the city, shortly after she started, the owners announced they were bankrupt and would be shutting down. By that time, Polley had a taste of the business and liked it.
“I remember thinking, ‘How can I stay in this?’” she says.
She needn’t have worried. An opportunity soon presented itself when she noticed a new group moving into the building. They were members of an MGM crew coming into town for Mrs. Soffel, with Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson, and someone on the crew asked if Polley would be willing to stay on for their shoot. Of course, she said, “Yes.”
Her fortune improved from there. A producer on the film had fired a few assistants and Polley was asked if she’d like to interview for the position. Not only did she get the job and survive through the end of the shoot, she was asked to relocate to L.A. for another film.
“I was shocked,” she recalls. “It was so far from the realm of what I’d grown up with in Toronto, but I said ‘yes’ again and moved down to L.A.”
She was tasked with scouting locations on that next film and was soon able to join the union despite the fact that, prior to that job, she’d never even used a camera. “I remember having to ask a driver to help me load the film,” she laughs.
Polley soon completed a number of big action films working as a scout and assistant before moving up to location manager. Two critical things happened during this period: The first was that she was hired as a LM by the late director Tony Scott, and the second was when she was hired by writer-director Michael Mann.
Polley would ultimately go on to work as Scott’s LM on nine films, including True Romance, Man on Fire and The Taking of Pelham 123, and as Mann’s LM on six features, including Heat, Collateral and Blackhat, as well as a brand-new HBO Max series which just wrapped in Japan.
“The two of them taught me everything I know and I’m still in awe of both of them,” she says.
With those credentials, it’s no wonder Polley got the call asking if she could come to Christopher Nolan’s home for a meeting or, more specifically, to his garage. Nolan famously begins all of his projects in the garage where he and Academy Award-nominated production designer Nathan Crowley, who has worked with him since Insomnia in 2002, begin to conceptualize each film. For Tenet, executive producer Thomas Hayslip was also present.
Polley was working at the time but couldn’t pass up the chance to meet the groundbreaking filmmaker. “I showed up and was given the script to read,” she recalls. “You just sit there in his house and they leave you alone to read. It was a very complicated story so I read it twice, once to grasp the mechanics of it all and the second to really focus on what the locations were.”
She also knew she wouldn’t be allowed to keep the script.
Written by Nolan, Tenet follows a nameless agent known only as ‘The Protagonist’ (rising star John David Washington) who, along with his mysterious partner, Neil (Robert Pattinson), works for a covert group trying to prevent a Russian oligarch named Sator (Kenneth Branagh) from starting World War III and bringing about the end of the world as we know it.
It’s a dizzyingly complex, globetrotting adventure involving heists, fist fights, gunfights and car chases—often in reverse—as well as one of the biggest practical effects ever created for a film—all wrapped up in the idea of time inversion.
Actually, “dizzyingly complex” doesn’t quite do the film justice. It is an absolute brain-breaker of a narrative.
After reading the draft, she met with Nolan, Crowley and Hayslip and the rumors she’d heard about Nolan were confirmed: He wanted to shoot the film almost entirely on location and he wanted to use practical effects as much as possible. For Polley, that sounded great.
“I come from movies where you went everywhere and did it all practically,” she says, “so working at that scale is very exciting to me.” While Nolan had a few ideas about where he wanted to shoot, Polley was pleased to find there was a lot of room for discovery. Despite still finishing up the other film, she was invited to join the project.
Polley knew this film was going to require a global location team who could help execute Nolan’s vision—no small order when the script is only made available to a very select few. In spy film parlance, Polley carefully assembled her ‘strike team.’ They would have just 14 weeks of prep to bring it all together, and all had to be at the top of their game.
She reached out to colleagues Julie Hannum/LMGI in California, Australia-based LM Colin McDougall/LMGI, Amanda Stevens in the UK and Enrico Latella/LMGI in Italy, a former LMGI Awards nominee who was featured in LMGI Compass for his work on 6 Underground.
To prepare the international scout for the film until she could come over full time, Polley needed to recruit a trusted ally who could jump in immediately. She suggested Hayslip call Klaus Darrelmann/LMGI, a location manager from Germany who she had met years earlier while scouting Berlin for Tony Scott.
The Darrelmann Objective
Like Polley, Darrelmann had taken an unconventional route into the industry, never intending to get into film. He studied medicine for eight years before coming to the realization that it wasn’t the life he wanted.
While in school, Klaus had picked up the occasional job as a driver on local productions so he decided to reach out to some of those old contacts. Those first jobs led to work in the Location Department and, within a few years, he was working as a LM for filmmakers like J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Greengrass, and Steven Spielberg and racking up LMGI Award nominations for projects like Atomic Blonde, Bridge of Spies and The Girl in the Spider’s Web—and a win for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
He didn’t know it at the time, but when he answered the phone one morning in January, he was about to add the name of another massive filmmaker to that stellar list.
“I got the call,” recalls Darrellman, “and it wasn’t a normal situation where you have a couple of weeks’ notice. They basically said, ‘You have three days, please fly to Oslo, check out if this is OK. Please fly to Stockholm and see if that’s OK.’”
They were looking for two key locations at that point: something for the opera house that opens the film and one that could serve as ‘Stalag 12,’ an old Soviet mine and the setting for the third act. Not unlike a character in a spy film, Klaus packed his bags immediately and got on a plane. Nolan and the team would join him in Stockholm for a scout that ended up seeing a whirlwind seven countries in seven days—a feat Polley would repeat with a crew of 40 for the tech scout, even adding a country.
At one point on the scout, Chris mentioned he’d never been to Estonia, “So we said, ‘let’s look at Tallinn,’” says Crowley. “Keep in mind, this is at, like, five o’clock p.m. while standing on a frozen street in Stockholm,” laughs Hayslip, “but Klaus quickly made a new plan and got people moving in that direction.”
Realizing the scale of the film, Darrelmann immediately got on a call with the local production service company in Tallinn. “I told them, ‘get every clever person you know and put them on hold for the next few months. We will need everybody,’” recalls Klaus.
One of the first names put forward as being a clever local LM was Kristofer Piir.
The Piir Initiation
Kristofer Piir/LMGI had attended film school and studied audiovisual media before finding his way into the Location Department. He had been working in Estonia for nearly a decade, diving back-and-forth between commercial projects and local features, but neither he nor his native country had ever seen a project like Tenet.
When he got the call from Darrelmann, he wasn’t initially told what the film was, but he did have a snippet of information. “The Warner Bros. NDA gave us a hint,” Piir says with a wink.
Piir was asked to upload some images of Tallinn for the team to look at, which he did and, suddenly, the phone was ringing again. “I remember them saying, ’these are great, we’re coming over,’” Kristofer says. “The next thing I knew, I was going to pick them up.”
Kristofer would eventually find out he was working on a Christopher Nolan film shortly before he arrived at the airport and Nolan got in his van.
The Tallinn Dossier
When almost no one has read the script for a film, scouting can be tricky. “Part of my job is that I’m like a tour guide. A script tour guide,” says Crowley. “As we’re going around, I’ll basically read the scenes aloud.”
With Crowley reading during the ride into the capital city, which dates back to the 13th century and retains its Old Town, gothic towers and cobblestone streets, they began to talk about what they could possibly shoot there. Piir had a plan for what to show the team based on their requests, but he hadn’t planned on showing them locations on the ride to the hotel!
He’d been briefed on finding a traditional-style opera house, but it was a more recent relic that caught Nolan’s eye. Linnahall, a massive, seven-acre concrete structure was designed by Estonian architects Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe with interior designers Ülo Sirp and Mariann Hakk for the Olympics in 1980.
Linnahall wasn’t on Piir’s list, but they diverted over to the site to take a look around. “It was frozen solid,” says Hayslip, “untouched for years. I remember walking up these stairs and it was like trying to walk up a frozen waterfall.” The group managed to make it safely up the icy steps and climb over a few snowbanks before Nolan turned to the team and nodded.
“They wanted to get inside right away but we couldn’t because I hadn’t spoken with anyone from the site and didn’t have the contact for the site manager on me,” recalls Piir. Based on the exterior alone, Linnahall was now priority one.
With permission for access granted the next day, they discovered the location was in worse shape than they could’ve imagined. There were only a couple of still-functioning lights, so they navigated through the interior space with iPhone flashlights glowing.
“Despite its condition, we were really impressed by it, so the question became, ‘what’s it gonna take to dust this thing off and get it going again?’” says Hayslip.
Darrelmann was dubious. “I mean, to me, it just didn’t seem like it would work. The site had been closed since 2009 and was just this big, leaky building with mold and two inches of water on the floor,” he says.
Worse than that, according to Crowley, “One corner of the structure was literally crumbling into the Tallinn Bay.” Still, it was exactly what the film needed and, realizing what a key location they’d found, Tallinn instantly became a major base for the film.
Nolan wanted to bring in four or five thousand background to fill the Linnahall for the intense IMAX opening sequence of the film in which a group of armed men take over a concert and blow up a portion of the interior. Again, no cg. No inflatable audience members. Five thousand people. Each day. And a practical explosion.
Polley, Darrelmann and Hayslip immediately started digging into permissions, health and safety standards and what it would take to make the site suitable for filming.
The first thing they did was bring in air sampling specialists. Then they brought in a team of engineers to explain how to refresh the massive mechanical wall which lowers around the amphitheater. They even brought in asbestos people. Happily, there was no asbestos used in the construction, but they had used … horse hair.
“Yeah, it sounds crazy but they’d used horse hair for insulation,” says Hayslip, “so then you have to get into gradations of like, what type of horse hair? How spreadable is it? How bad is it? And then you’re down to how many parts per million if someone were to walk across it or, in our case, what would happen if we were to blow it up?”
Meanwhile, the structural engineers were busy trying to assess whether or not they could bring vehicles onto the rooftop that eventually served as the setting for the film’s first few moments.
The vans in the opening shots are sitting on the roof of what was once an ice rink, so the engineers had to test point-loading and figure out exactly where vehicles could be placed and how many of the cast and crew could be up there at any given time.
“They delineated an area like, ‘OK, you can bring vehicles up here, but if they drive at ‘x’ axis, they have to be separated ‘x’ feet apart,” says Hayslip, “and on the ‘y’ axis, they need to be separated ‘y’ feet apart.’”
With all of that happening, Nolan and Crowley were onto the next thing.
“The very day we found Linnahall, I turned to Kristofer,” says Crowley, “and asked, ‘you don’t happen to also have a piece of highway we could shut down, do you?’”
The Heist: Pärnu Highway and Laagna Tee
Nolan and Crowley guessed that, in order to pull off a heist sequence midway through the film, they’d need somewhere between 5 km and 7 km of roads leading into a highway with at least four lanes on either side. Three lanes for background and stunt vehicles and a fourth for the camera car.
The heist is a huge set piece involving The Protagonist climbing from one moving vehicle onto another in order to steal something from an armored car. This leads to a high-speed chase—some of which involves inverted cars moving in reverse—explosions and, finally, culminates in a shootout on the streets between our heroes and a cadre of armed gunmen.
“To get a four-lane highway you can totally shut down is very difficult,” says Crowley, “so we knew what we were asking. We had the same problem on The Dark Knight.”
“Very difficult,” may be putting it mildly.
When Warner Bros. needed to shut down a section of highway back in the summer of 2001 for a massive sequence on The Matrix: Reloaded, the filmmakers ultimately had to build 4 km of highway on the runway of the former Alameda Naval Base in California—overpasses and all—but when Darrelmann and Piir took the team to the Pärnu Highway, the primary artery in Tallinn, they knew they had to shoot there.
The team began negotiating with the local mayor straight away but things were off to a rocky start. “The first time we talked to the city about shutting it down, they basically laughed in our faces,” says Piir. “There were many compromises because that 7 km runs through the most densely populated area of Tallinn in the heart of the city.”
Matters were further complicated when, halfway through negotiations, a new mayor took over and was unenthused about having to work out the dynamics of re-routing more than 10 major bus lines through the city for several weeks.
“They had a very hard time,” says Crowley, “but we got the location and I have to say, the reason I wanted to contribute to this article is because Janice and her team are just very good at their jobs.”
Ultimately, they got just 10 days to shoot the bulk of the highway sequence but the shoot went incredibly smoothly and wrapped with both the film crew and local Tallinn government pleased with the outcome.
A further nine pieces from the film shot in Tallinn over a total of 33 days, including several portions of the freeport sequence, some stage work in a converted warehouse, interiors at the Old Tallinn Courthouse and a walk-and-talk at the Maarjamäe Memorial.
The Freeport Diversion
For another sequence, The Protagonist and Neil have to infiltrate a heavily fortified freeport to steal a priceless piece of art. To do so, they need to create a massive diversion. Neil’s plan? Crash an empty 747 jumbo jet into an airplane hangar.
The fictional “Oslo Freeport” was pivotal to the story and was pieced together using four international locations—only one of which was actually in Oslo: The Paljassaare Port and the stunning Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn, the Victorville Airport in California—where perhaps the most astonishing set piece in the film would take place—and lastly, the rooftop of the opera house in the Bjørvika neighborhood of Oslo.
“For me, the plane sequence is probably the most amazing thing we were able to do,” says Polley, “I mean, the Amalfi Coast is beautiful, the building in Mumbai was great, bringing Linnahall back to its former glory on screen, all incredible. London? Copenhagen? All great. But you know, they’re there. Crashing an actual plane into a hangar? That’s extraordinary.”
Knowing the sequence would need to be accomplished without the use of models or CGI, Hayslip began searching for a 747 the production could buy, ultimately finding one being sold at the Victorville Airport.
“We were going by helicopter to scout our ‘Stalag 12’ location which we ended up finding at defunct iron mine in the desert ghost town of Eagle Mountain, California, of all places,” Hayslip says, “so I suggested we fly over Victorville because I’d already been in contact with them.”
They flew down, scouted the plane and quickly realized Victorville would work as a match for the other pieces of the location puzzle. “Once we locked in a deal for the plane, we had to make Victorville Airport the location,” says Hayslip.
That put a tremendous amount of pressure on the location team to work it all out because they couldn’t actually move the plane the production was going to buy—at least not by air.
“Yeah, when you have what was probably the biggest picture vehicle ever in a film but you can’t move it? It gets tricky,” laughs Polley. “Obviously, Victorville Airport was very accommodating.”
Polley had worked at Victorville Airport years earlier for the opening of John Woo’s Face/Off, but working with planes in 1996 is a little different than working with planes in 2020.
Making things more complicated was the fact that the hangar next door was the hub for a major air carrier—one that had recently ground its airliners due to several fatal crashes—and the hangar on the opposite side happened to be where the President of Mexico stores his plane while in the United States.
“It’s also an active airport,” says Polley, “so there are planes everywhere and it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘hey, can you just move that one around the corner?’”
Even if they wanted to, the airport doesn’t have permission to move any aircraft on their own. Doing so would require the permission of a corporation or perhaps even an entire government!
“That’s when Janice, Julie and the team really shine. They put in the work to build trust and create those interpersonal relationships that make things happen,” says Hayslip.
In the end, Polley was eager to share credit with the studio for pulling it off. “It really took all the power of Warner Bros. to make that happen,” she says. “But we did it and the resulting sequence is just spectacular.”
The Mumbai Scenario
Tenet is quite possibly one of the most logistically difficult films ever made, and to accomplish what Christopher Nolan wanted to do in Mumbai would certainly fall within that scope. Polley tasked Colin McDougall with heading up the effort.
The first hurdle was securing the Royal Bombay Yacht Club for a brief sequence in which The Protagonist and Neil share a drink while talking over their next move. Founded in 1846, the private club had never allowed a film company to shoot there in its more than 100-plus-year history.
So how did they get permission? It wasn’t easy.
“Commercial activity is not allowed under their charter,” says McDougall. “We had to get very creative in structuring the deal to ensure their Executive Board would be happy. Then it had to go for a vote by the membership. It took months.”
“That’s the thing: In fairness to every location person in the world, you have to touch on logistics,” says Polley, “because we can all go out and take a picture of something, but arranging to actually get a location like that is what makes it happen. Believe me, I would love to just scout … it’s the best part of the job, but there’s more to it than that.”
For another Mumbai set scene, Nolan had written a sequence where The Protagonist and Neil have to enter a fortified high-rise in the city by rappelling up the side of it. “We had scouts looking at high-rise apartments all over Mumbai,” says Polley. The architecturally stunning, 23-story Neelam Shree Vardhan Tower fit the bill perfectly.
Located in an affluent area of Mumbai called Breach Candy, where many of Mumbai’s senior politicians and business leaders live, the building was owned and occupied by a single family and was used for both interior and exterior scenes. The 20th floor was used as the structure for the rappelling sequence and the 17th floor for a key meeting between The Protagonist and one of his contacts in a luxury apartment. Crowley and his team built the market at the base amidst lush palm trees.
With two tricky locations in process, Nolan had saved his most complicated request for last: He wanted to get an establishing shot at the magic hour by flying a helicopter over the city and up to the tower with an IMAX camera attached to it.
“That was a little unsettling,” says McDougall, “because the LMs I had spoken to before going to India told me no guns, stunts or traffic control were allowed, and absolutely no helicopters.”
In order for the helicopter work to even be considered, they would first require the approval of the military, who are very cautious due to ongoing tensions with Pakistan. Adding to the complexity, the infamous 2008 “Hotel Mumbai” terror attacks were planned by a Pakistani-American who had posed as a film scout while gathering information.
“One of the first things we were told by the military was that we could not fly after sunset,” says McDougall, “and that is, of course, exactly what the director wanted.”
They quickly realized the only way to get that approval would be an appeal to the highest level of government. “Using the state film office, we were able to work our way up through the government until we were able to set a meeting with the Secretary for the Chief Minister,” says McDougall.
Things started to flow after that meeting and the team was assured the support of the state government. However, as helicopter approvals would also need to come from the federal level, this process also took many months and required numerous meetings.
“I would come into the office every day asking, ‘hey, did we get permission?’ and they’d go, ‘not yet!’” says Hayslip. “It was down to like, ‘we’re flying the pilot in,’ ‘they’re rigging the IMAX camera.’ ‘We got the landing zone!’” Everything was falling into place—except for the permit.
Finally, just days before the shoot, final approvals were granted. Once again, Polley and her team had made it happen.
“That aerial shot was the biggest accomplishment on this movie in terms of Mumbai,” she says, “in fact, on The Dark Knight, Chris had planned an aerial shot that was denied at the last minute, so this was quite a coup because it was another thing that had never been done before. Local producer Dileep Singh and Colin were instrumental in making it happen.”
On the day, there was a military observer in the helicopter to ensure the pilot strictly adhered to the approved flight path and time limit. “They landed 15 minutes after sunset which gave us one take to get the shot,” says McDougall. “It all worked perfectly.”
After 14 weeks of prep, Tenet shot for 96 days in a total of seven countries. In addition to Estonia and India, they shot in the U.S., the UK, Denmark, Norway and Italy. That’s a kind of global scale filmmaking that really doesn’t happen anymore unless your film features a character named ‘Bond’ or members of the ‘Impossible Mission Force.’ Polley, of course, had her own impossible mission force, and it hasn’t escaped her that they truly did pull off the impossible.
“It truly was an extraordinary team in every sense of the word,” she says, “and I also have to thank Julie Hannum, Amanda Stevens in the UK and Enrico in Italy. Really, just everyone on the team. They all did phenomenal work.”
Of her experience working on the film, Polley says, “First of all, it was an honor working with Chris. I hope I get to do it again. He’s such an intelligent, interesting person who’s so creative and truly loves locations. I’m also grateful for getting to experience the culture in each country we went to. When you’re working in these places, you get to see the way everyday life operates—something you never see as a tourist—so I love Tenet for allowing me to see through the eyes of the locals and especially for giving me the opportunity to work in India which has always been one of my favorite places in the world.”