When I was a boy the BBC used to air a Western every Saturday evening. My dad and I used to watch these together in our small provincial British town. I remember remarking to my Dad how cool it must be to work on a film in the extraordinary desert scenery featured in the movie. This somewhat random notion passed quickly. Little did I realize that 40 years later I would find myself getting paid to take photographs of that very scenery as I did last year on Transformers 4.
I’ve heard it said that if you lined up a 100 Location Managers you would get 100 different stories of how that came to be, and I am no exception. I left school in the last century without knowing that such a job title even existed!
As is apparently so often the case, I got into “The business” completely by accident…. circuitous series of happy accidents. I spent the bulk of the 80’s in banking and finance in London. I loved living in London, but found Thatcher politically and philosophically abhorrent. I had an interesting job in investment analysis but I was a square peg in a round hole. Wearing a suit and working in an office became increasingly unappealing – it feels like a different life, especially given my standard garb these days of shorts and hiking boots! I left to live in the Greek Islands, and taught water skiing and ran a beach. I lived with my girlfriend in a cottage in the middle of an olive grove and it was paradise on Earth.
After a year in Greece, I decided to return to London. Hell was going to freeze over before I took another office job so I took a job as a bicycle messenger in order to stay fit and have time to ponder my future. My folks were appalled because the life span of a London bike messenger duking it out with London traffic is roughly the same as a fruit fly. The owner of the messenger company found out that I had a finance background. I was hauled into the office to look at the books It took me about 3 nanoseconds to see that, although she had a sound business idea, she couldn’t organize the seating plan on a commode. I rearranged her M.O. and the company started making money picking off profitable clients from bigger messenger companies. My revolution brought me to the attention of the CEO of one such company who offered me a job running the messenger company he was about to open in LA. I turned him down because I had already accepted a job teaching water skiing at a camp in Maine.
I headed to Maine in the early summer of 1988. Once more I found myself in an idyllic setting. During that sublime summer I received a phone call from the aforementioned CEO who begged me to fly to LA to see if I could turn around the fledgling but flounderingcompany. I told him I would be traveling to LA after camp, albeit by a meandering route so that I could explore the U.S. He said that whenever I got there I had a job; on October 23rd 1988 I took up residence in Los Angeles and have been delighted to call it home ever since. I ran the messenger company for about 4 years whereupon it was sold for a tidy profit and I received several months of paid vacation.
I was home in Manhattan Beach California when a TV Production Manager friend of mine called and said: “You’re a decent photographer. Can you find and photograph examples of some locations we need for a TV movie to be shot in London and LA.” Although I hadn’t actually delivered packages, the messenger business meant that I knew Los Angeles very well. I duly took some photos and the director, (Paul Greengrass, later to become a big time Director) liked them and asked if I could be the Location Manager for the LA segment. I said “Er, it may have escaped your attention but I have never done anything like this before!” – my friend , basically said “pish posh, details shmetails – it’s just common sense – you’ll be fine!”
In many respects Allison was correct. Whilst film school may well equip some people with the wherewithal to succeedmuch of what has stood me in good stead I learned in the seemingly disassociated industries e.g. team work, perseverance in the face of adversity, quick thinking even things as mundane but important as writing correspondence and budgetting.
So my very first job was as a low-budget, non-union Location Manager – I knew NOTHING Allison also asked me to drive the show’s star, I said “Uh – ok. I guess so” . So I found locations and on the first shoot day I, picked up the star and drove him to the set arriving at crew call. I strolled onto set greeting everyone warmly but that quickly gave way to horror and embarrassment when one crew member after the other sputtered variations on a theme of “where the f%$k have you been?”. In my complete ignorance, I hadn’t arranged little things like, ooh, crew parking, truck parking, catering area, maps, signs and , um, permits. We bumbled our way through the first morning until things settled down but in the early afternoon I received a visit from a less than thrilled Permit Office official He took pity at the sight of my pathetic hang dog expression and invited me to join him in his office after wrap so that I might learn what a responsible Location Manager is supposed to do. he patiently ran me through the basic tenets of location management and helped me plan out the remainder of the 2 week shoot. As he spoke, I feverishly scribbled notes on a yellow legal pad which I still have —a treasured possession and reminder of my humble, make that embarrassing foray into the wonderful world of location management. Since then I have shot at 3 Wonders of the world, over 20 World Heritage sites, Kennedy Space Center, countless National Parks and Military Bases. During my thus far 21 year career I have picked up many tricks of the trade but most of what has stood me in good stead during that time I learned in that meeting the evening of my inaugural day!
Having been bitten by the film bug on that first show, I wasn’t sure how to proceed so I took work as a Site Rep for a Location Service. I would make myself useful wherever I could – carrying all manner of equipment, taping layout board etc – Looking back even though I was just trying to help out, I was a walking union violation! However, my enthusiasm on Pulp Fiction impressed the Location Manager, the wonderful Bob Craft enough that he kindly passed a succession of non-union jobs onto me.
I could write a whole separate article about the insanity and fun of the first of these jobs which involved a low budget modern-day western in central Nevada. The highlights included the principal actor pouring a giant bowl of jello over the producer’s head and the producer suing him for assault, my accommodation on the show being the back room of a brothel and my main job on the show being to keep the townsfolk from revolting against the production by organizing pool, darts and drinking tournaments in the local bar every day for about three weeks! I would finish work every day decidedly the worse for wear!
As the days and months went by I realized that my personal skill set was reasonably well suited to that required of a decent Location manager—and it was generally enormous fun!
I got a lucky break when Peter Novak, one of the best Location Managers in the business, hired me and got me in the Union. He took my skill level up many notches and inculcated the need for tenacity I owe him big time for shaping my approach to the mechanics of our craft.
My last show as a non-union manager was for German TV and I made about $2500/week. When I joined the Union, assistant rates were a LOT lower My first 399 job paid the princely sum of $719/week plus $150/week for my car. But I also got fringe benefits: pension and welfare, and the ability to work on more established films. However, my then girlfriend was less than amused that I was suddenly bringing home less than a third from one week to the next. She was almost convinced that I had run away and joined a cult, which in a way, I suppose I had. It often baffles people outside our industry when I tell them what my day-to-day work life is like but when I explain the camaraderie that grows so quickly among the members of a production crew, it makes more sense.
I blasted quickly through the 300 days one is required to work as an assistant before moving up to Location Manager. That time was not without incident:
I was rescued by helicopter from the Santa Monica Mountains after getting lost and then falling off a ledge and narrowly escaping continuing the rest of the way down a 500’ cliff.
I was dramatically thrown out of a building after asking if we could feature it in a scene about an abortion clinic with a siege outside. I couldn’t work out why they had got so hot under the collar until I learned from their neighbors that I had approached the California HQ of the Pro-Life movement.
I fell headfirst into a pond after kneeling down on the pavers surrounding it only to learn that they were jutting out over the edge of the pond andnot cemented down.
Almost poisoned a barking dog in the garden next to the house we were filming at. I used the old peanut butter trick once an hour all night until wrap. This was on a Friday night and apparently the dog’s owners were away all weekend. On Monday morning I received a call from the poor mutt’s master yelling so loud I had to hold the phone a foot from my head. As a result of my actions, the dogsuffered explosive diarrhea over a number of valuable Persian rugs. $11,000 worth of dry cleaning costs later, the threat of legal action against me and the production abated but , needless to say, my production manager was underwhelmed.
The most pivotal period of my career was the four seasons I spent on “X Files.” I did 90 episodes and it was basically like doing feature films at high speed. It was by turns terrifying and exhilarating and those years flew by in the company of surely one of the best crews ever assembled. There was no way of delivering such a high quality product at such a pacewithout the entire production being at the top of its game. The X Files’ charismatic creator and executive producer, Chris Carter, set a wonderfully benign tone, which permeated the production from top to bottom. He is a true creative genius as is evidenced by the mesmerizing variety of story lines and topics covered throughout the nine seasons.
The X Files was my first introduction to uber fans. Other than music, I have never been utterly fanatical about anything in my life but continuously running across the rabid fans on the show was at times hilarious and surreal. Despite our best efforts to fly under the radar (code names, cryptic signs etc), people went to inordinate lengths to track down our sets. For example, we were filming in the mountains about 100 miles East of LA in the middle of the night. We had closed two miles of forest road with roadblocks at either end. I went to relieve a Highway Patrol man so he could eat “lunch.” He drove off into the night leaving me alone with my thoughts, staring up into the star filled-night sky. After a few minutes, I jumped out of my skin when a woman suddenly walked out of the darkness and said “Excuse me – are you Ilt?”
“Who are you, how do you know my name and what on earth are you doing here in the middle of nowhere at 2am?”
“Well,” she said, “I’m a fan of the show and I thought I would come and watch the filming if possible. I’m with a group of friends….”
“Whoa! Group of friends???? – where are THEY?”
“Oh – they’re over there watching us. They’re a bit nervous.”
“THEY’RE nervous? How d’you think I feel, you suddenly popping out of the darkness like that?!?!?”
She was profusely apologetic and actually very sweet. She was with a group of 9 women from the US and Europe who were part of an X-Files internet chat room that had decided to meet up in LA to try and watch us film. After some truly ingenious detective work they tracked us down in Big Bear and thought, “What the hell – let’s go out there and see what happens.” She figured out who I was because she heard me talking to the Police officer, heard my British accent and could also see that I was tall. She had seen me on TV and in pictures so had once again undertaken some astute deductions.
Before leaving she asked for my autograph. “What? I don’t do autographs! I’m a backroom boy. I’m a nobody!”
“Oh no! You’re very much Somebody to me and my friends! Look – I’ve got articles about you here,” whereupon she produced a satchel with an alphabetized “concertina file” with articles about the stars and crew. She went to the letter “J” and pulled out everything ever written about me in print or on the net. This just about blew my mind. She passed one of the articles to me together with a Sharpie. I wrote “You guys are FREAKS, love from Ilt” at which she squealed with pride! The rest of the women then cautiously approached one by one and asked me to sign similar items. They were all terribly nice. They were well-educated and articulate, which just goes to show how out of step I am with the prevailing zeitgeist surrounding such shows. In fact, one of life’s ironies is that I am not into science fiction or comics, cartoons and action heroes so what do I end up working on? Exactly those kinds of shows time after time! I am not complaining one little bit. I just find it funny and, as I say, ironic.
My charmed life continued with possibly the most wonderful year of my life spent in Prague on “Hellboy.” I found myself living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world—a place that people save for their entire lives to visit. Again, this period did not pass without incident. Just after completing the initial directorial scout, the heavens opened with a vengeance and we were evacuated from our hotel as the biggest, most prolonged storm in history flooded Prague and central Europe. While the director and producer flew back to the US, I stayed until the waters receded and carried on working in a rather shell-shocked city. It was interesting and heartening to witness the indomitable spirit that has carried the Czech people through the Worlds Wars and the Communist era as they slowly dried out and carried on with their lives. As has proved the case so often, my life experience during the course of my work has transcended the mere utilitarian execution of my job – I have been so lucky to watch and learn about life as it is lived in so many different parts of the world and my time in Prague was the quintessential example of this.
I then learnt from whence the expression “from the sublime to the ridiculous” derives. In a departure from my generally agreeable career path, I found myself on what proved to be a mediocre film from a mediocre director shot in a mediocre country. Although it was a forgettable experience, it was memorable for a number of reasons.
I was thrown in jail for accidentally trespassing on a military base. (I was released after about 7 hours with a fulsome apology from the local authorities.) When the producer heard I was in jail, his droll reaction was “Ask him how big his cell is – we need one for the movie!” One of the actors jumped out of the picture boat in full make up and costume and swam to the camera boat to attack the director (a popular move with the crew). Another actor suffered from the bends while scuba diving on a day off.
The teachable moment from this show was the realization that it’s less important what I work on than with whom I work. I was seriously chastened by the ugliness of the previously mentioned project so when the wonderful production manager Bernie Caulfield called me to do HBO’s Carnivale, I happily leapt into the welcoming arms of a quality human being. Carnivale is one of the productions I am most proud to have been associated with. One of the creators of the show is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s son and there was a glorious magical realism to each script. It was a surprise and a shame when it was canceled.
The silver lining from Carnivale’s demise was that I got to stay with HBO and move onto Big Love, also under the expert guidance of Bernie Caulfield. The scripts and actors were great; the subject matter of a polygamist family trying to live a normal life was fascinating and thought provoking. HBO proved once more that they have unerring judgment and courage when it comes to quality TV and have blazed a trail resulting in the profusion of great shows which now grace our screens these days. That they let a show with such provocative subject matter run its course to a very satisfying conclusion is remarkable.
One of the coolest aspects of our jobs is that occasionally location managers are invited to visit other states and countries on what are known as “Fam Trip.” These are familiarization trips are designed to promote filming by taking us to places we might otherwise have no knowledge of. The host venue shows us diverse scenery, architecture, icons, hotels, restaurants and production facilities, for obvious reasons. I have been lucky enough to have gone on several, all over the US, as well as New Zealand, Iceland, Thailand. After Big Love, I was invited on a “fam trip” to Jordan. It proved fortunate on many levels. First of all I travelled with a first class group of location professionals, all of whom were interesting and enjoyable company.
Then there is Jordan itself – a magical country with astonishing ancient sites as well as warm and lovely inhabitants. The highlights included the ancient city of Petra (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) and Wadi Rum (the most atmospheric place on earth where they shot Lawrence of Arabia. T.E. Lawrence described it as “Vast, echoing and godlike”) both of which I subsequently shot on Transformers 2.
The last, but most significant piece of good fortune on this trip was that Ian Bryce, the producer of Transformers called three of my fellow travelers to check their availability for the project. He called Mike Fantasia who was busy so he gave Ian my name. Ian checked my IMDB listing and said “Nah – too much TV.” He then called Lori Balton who was also kind enough to give Ian my name. When he called a third person who again mentioned me in dispatches, he said something along the lines of “Jeez – who is this guy I have never heard of, if all these others are giving me his name?!!” Long story short, he took a chance on interviewing me, we got on like a house on fire and the rest is history! I always think it is funny that I had to go to Jordan to end up on a succession of the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood history! Again, Ian proved the point that, for my money, who you work for is WAY more important than what you work on.
As the saying goes pride comes before a fall. When I started on the first Transformers movie, I had been warned about Michael Bay’s reputation for being…er…mercurial. Once the show was underway I gradually found my feet and learned how to deal with his, shall we say, unusual working methods and avant-garde approach to time keeping. So my confidence increased with each passing day and I became more my usual garrulous self until the occasion when we scouted a Pasadena classroom containing a particularly voluble group of drama students. As we entered the room they called out, “Hey! Who are who are you guys?” I replied, “We’re from the movies.” This elicited excited shrieks of “Which movie?” So, like a moron, I started to play the crowd:
“Have you seen Bad Boys?” “YESSSSS!!!!” they bellowed!
“Have you seen Pearl Harbor?” “YESSSS!!!!!”
“Have you seen The Rock?” “YES!!!!”
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, there’s the Director standing right over there!” ….
”JERRY BRUCKHEIMER???” they yelled back!!!
I was struck dumb with panic and swiveled on my heel expecting to see Michael drawing a finger across his throat and looking at me daggers but , to my relief , he quietly said “The movie is Transformers,” which almost literally brought the house down. That is the precise moment when I learned a) what a gigantic global phenomenon the Transformers franchise was and b) be extremely careful if and when you decide to try your hand as an MC.
I then moved onto what I think is an underrated film – Hancock starring Will Smith and with the wonderfully anarchic premise of a drunken super hero. My newly minted lesson in humility from Transformers came in handy one evening. One of my assistants and I met down at Ports of Call in San Pedro to ensure that our base camp lot was empty and ready for the trucks and trailers due to arrive in two hours. When we got there, the lot was a sea of cars so I put in a panicky call to the owner who assured me that they were there for a Latino Pop concert that would finish shortly whereupon the cars would leave promptly. He was right but failed to mention that, before leaving, all the young families who at the concert also brought their babies, and changed their diapers before leaving. So once all the cars left, we were confronted with a lot littered with 500 poop bombs. My assistant exclaimed “Oh God – where the hell are we going to get a cleaning crew at this time of night?” to which I replied, “I have good news and bad news – the good news is that we can get a cleaning crew. The bad news is that, it’s us!” “Us – no way! I didn’t spend 4 years in college to pick up crappy diapers! No way!” On the grounds that I didn’t feel I could really make him do it, I got my gloves and trash bags out of my trunk and started picking them up. He stood there fulminating for a few minutes before giving in and joining me in this distinctly enviable task. I still crack up when I think about him slowly making his way round the lot grumbling “I’m an aspiring producer – I can’t believe it’s come to this!” or repeatedly muttering “4 years of college….4 years of college.” We cleared the lot just in time for the first truck to roll in. The transpo captain said “Hey – this lot’s great. Any problems?” Little did he know what had transpired in the time immediately beforehand.
This show also provided evidence of a god with a sense of humor since I was required to scout the rooftops of all the tallest buildings in LA while being deathly afraid of heights. But the piece de resistance on Hancock was a series of phone calls I received one Saturday. We were filming a bank siege in downtown LA. It was a huge scene featuring many extras dressed as SWAT teams or booby trapped hostages. Clearly the AD or extras wrangler took their eye off the ball because my phone started to blow up with indignant calls from Starbucks and the 7th St Mall who both reported that there were extras wandering around their stores either toting pump action shotguns and smoke grenades or with bundles of dynamite strapped around their waists.
With barely time to draw breath, I quickly started on Transformers 2. This may have been the pinnacle of my experiences as a location manager and I could probably write an entire book about my time on this show. I got to spend an aggregate of about 5 months in Egypt and Jordan. This encompassed scouting the most amazing architectural and cultural sites in both countries including the pyramids, all the spectacular edifices in Luxor as well as the aforementioned Petra and Wadi Rum.
I then switched from one modern master of his craft to another when I did Inception with Chris Nolan – a truly gifted and original thinker, who is clearly in the midst of a long and illustrious directorial journey.
On my first day I went to Warner Brothers to read the screenplay. We had to do so in a special room and could not take the script from there. I finished it in the morning then went for lunch at the commissary. I went back to the hallowed room and did so again. I then went home, took 3 Advil and lay down in a darkened room for several hours! If you haven’t seen “Inception” it is a brilliantly clever work of art but, when one first reads the script, it’s mind bogglingly intricate. There’s an old story which illustrates how each different department head reads the script from the singular perspective of their job with little attention paid to other aspects of the script like dialogue. It alleges that a prop master scans through Hamlet muttering to himself “Bullshit, bullshit, dagger. Bullshit, bullshit, Skull.” Well, in the case of Inception, Chris’s fiendishly intricate plotting with the now famous dream (or are they?) sequences meant that one had to keep all the elements of the story in mind at all times in order to find and manage the appropriate locations. Once more I had a brilliant location team alongside me including the astonishing JJ Hook (surely the best Location Manager in the world). This was just as well since the complex action sequences staged in downtown LA called for the need to knock it out of the park on a daily basis, which I am proud to say we did. My favorite moment from that movie featured the train we built for the scene where it careens down Spring Street bashing cars out of the way left and right. We shot the first day with the “train” (actually a train shell built over the top of a Semi truck tractor and trailer) on a Saturday and then parallel parked it on the street as if it was a giant Toyota Corolla.
The next morning I was walking the quiet pre-dawn streets of downtown checking on our security guards. As I approached the train I drew up alongside a drunken homeless guy who slurred, “Is that a train?” “What train?” I replied. “Man, I gotta quit drinking,” said the homeless guy before shuffling slowly off down the street. True story!
I then switched back to “Bayhem” on Transfomers 3 which, despite being one of the most technically challenging shows I have ever attempted, was also one of the most satisfying. This was in large measure due to the wonderful city of Chicago – the place to which I would readily move if, god forbid, LA fell victim to “The Big One.” From the legendary Mayor Daly on down through the city administration and film community, we were generously welcomed and accommodated when we made some pretty outlandish requests (including closing the busiest and most prestigious street, Michigan Avenue for three days). Chicago “got it” and I would happily shoot there again in a nanosecond.
I was sad that I wasn’t able to be there when we shot Chicago on Transformers 4 but our locations were spread out literally across the world so I had other fish to fry.
Transformers 3 led on to a wonderful succession of notable and exciting projects where I found myself undertaking amusingly counter-intuitive tasks
On the The Dark Knight Rises we had to depict a snow blanketed, tree-less and wintery Manhattan in Pittsburgh in the leafy height of Summer.
On Iron Man 3 we had to find Switzerland (you know, the place with the Alps) in Miami (you know, the place that makes a pool table look mountainous).
On Transformers 4, the Age of Extinction we had to depict Hong Kong in, where else? Detroit! Obvious really!
Thankfully, in the last instance, I actually got to go and film in the real Hong Kong that was yet another incredible life experience to which I could dedicate a separate book unto itself. I just saw the film and am incredibly proud of what we pulled off there, given the alarming population, traffic and building density. The key word in the last sentence is “We” – Hong Kong is definitely a place that would be impossible to shoot without an excellent team. The local location staff was superb and one of LA’s finest, Doug Dresser was a brilliant and indefatigable powerhouse during our time there – as well as in Detroit.
After completing our assignment in Hong Kong, we moved on to Mainland China and filmed at the Great Wall. In a career liberally sprinkled with magical moments, this would have to be one of my favorites. Scouting it was great, filming it was fun but it was a trip on a day off to a further flung section of the Great Wall at Jin Shan Ling with JJ Hook, Nick Jamison and 2 of our Chinese translators that will live long in the memory. This part is much further from Beijing than the regular spots that are always heaving with tourists and, once in the area, you still have to hike for an hour to get to the Wall. It was SO worth the effort because we basically had this 600-year-old wonder to ourselves – there were maybe 5 other people around. It was a cool, clear and beautifully sunny autumn day. You could see the Wall snaking off along the ridges of the mountains for literally fifty miles in either direction. Given the usual air quality, or lack thereof, this was astonishingly lucky.
While on the subject of luck, as you will have gathered by now, it has not escaped my attention that I must surely be one of the most blessed people on Earth and I am incredibly grateful for that.
From X Files to Inception, to Iron Man, to the Transformers franchise, not only do I have one of the most interesting jobs, but I have also been fortunate to work with a lot of wonderful people. I hear horror stories about assistants working for lazy, uncaring managers – I had the opposite experience. There are legion tales of location managers working for abusive, unscrupulous producers and production managers. I have encountered very little of that. In fact, I have been on the receiving end of staggering kindness and friendship, which has contributed significantly to my quality of life personally as well as professionally. Last but by no means least, I have enjoyed the ultimate good fortune to have had a long line of amazing people working for me down the years. High quality individuals who would grace any industry and many of whom I am glad to count as life long friends.
I have sometimes wondered whether there is an unhealthy existential linkage between me and my job – I was going to say “chosen career” but ,it kind of chose me rather than the other way round! In many respects the line between my personal and professional lives is blurred. But all in all, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Even the more stressful or unhappy times have been teachable moments and I have heard it said on more than one occasion that Nietsche must have been a location manager when he said “That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!”
The best advice I have received came from, ironically, another Welsh location manager working in LA, Huw Davies. He said that to be a great location manager you had to be “like a duck – swimming serenely across the surface of the pond while kicking like hell underneath to keep moving forward.” I have tried to adhere to that adage. – I haven’t always succeeded but I have given it a bloody good go and things haven’t turned out so badly! Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I would find myself posing for a photograph (while at work!) in front of the kind of Western desert scenery that had piqued my interest all those years ago.