Spotlight on Location Managers

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They have worked on such shows as A Place to Call Home, Please Like Me, The Kettering IncidentINXS: Never Tear Us Apart and The Code -but how do Location Managers find that perfect site, and convince people to let film crews take over their properties? Experience!

TV Tonight posed the questions to three of the best: Edward Donovan (pictured), Colin McDougall and Mel Dunstone.

EDWARD DONOVAN:

1. Describe your role and tell us about some of the TV shows you have worked on?
The Location Manager is responsible for finding, negotiating and managing the places where filming happens. We take a creative brief from the Director and Production Designer and find options. On Australian TV shows there are any number of influencing factors on the final location decision including the production schedule. If you have more than one location on any particular day for instance, you don’t want to spend a lot of time moving in between them. It’s dead time. You’re not making a show if you’re driving the camera around in the back of the truck all day. I’m working on the third season of Love Child at the moment. Last year I did the ‘Kung-fu Comedy’ Maximum Choppage for ABC2. In 2013 I worked on A Place to Call Home as the Location Scout and before that the second season of Redfern Now. I also worked on Tricky Business, Rescue: Special Ops and Cops L.A.C., going back a couple of years. I also work on feature films when the opportunity presents itself and less commonly for me, television commercials. I’ve also done some reality TV and the odd documentary. As Henry Rollins once said about how he chooses acting roles, ‘I only take the jobs I’m offered.’

2. How did you come to be a Location Manager?
I started in Film and Television in the early 90s saving parking for the trucks, doing security and delivering port-a-loos on shows like Police Rescue and GP at the ABC. Then I got a truck licence and worked driving make-up and costume trucks (on more Gary Sweet TV shows like Cody and Big Sky). I worked in on-set Production Logistics which is really a sub-set of the Location Manager’s world and developed a lot of great relationships with a lot of Location Managers. In 2003 I went to Panama as the head of Security on the reality show Survivor and in correspondence with a Location Manager friend, she offered me a job on an American Feature Film (Son of the Mask) and this began my time in locations.

3. How do you find the locations for your productions? What are the best tools you draw upon?
There is a wealth of experience on any given show so the first step to finding locations is to talk about it amongst ourselves. Then you go out and look. Knock on doors, peer over fences, walk around the back lanes, buzz intercoms, ask the locals, phone a friend. When you’re scouting in the country, it’s easy to justify a middy in the front bar of the local pub. A location scout in a country pub in the middle of the day will pretty quickly get picked as being ‘not from around here’ and we hate to chat.

4. What have been the more memorable experiences? And the oddest?
We get to do lots of interesting and special things not only on television shows but on films and commercials as well. I’ll never forget flying with Gary Ticehurst on a location scout for a car company who wanted aerial footage of our freeways. “Bit to the left, please Gary?” and a bit to the left you would go. He was a special guy. Badly missed. I’m also pretty proud of the Ernie Dingo episode of Redfern Now called ‘Dogs of War’, written and directed by Wayne Blair which I did. Wayne’s script described this really specific geography of three houses – two adjoining and one opposite whose residents engage in a neighbourhood dispute. We needed the interior and exterior of all three houses and I was really thrilled not only that we were able to achieve it all in one real location, but that we filmed there for something like 7 days and left without annoying too many people too much.

5. And the ones you would rather forget?
Cops L.A.C.

6. How do you convince strangers to allow a crew to film on private property? What’s your best opening line?
It’s not at all about having a ‘line’. It’s about being honest and trying to establish a relationship. I’ve developed a pretty good barometer for telling how it’s going to go, pretty quickly after someone answers the door. Also, I never go so far as to ‘convince’ someone, or ‘talk them into’ having a film crew, especially in their homes. Sometimes the discussion about the location fee will bring someone around, but if I detect apprehension or reluctance I won’t push. It’s not worth it. It’s not like it’s the only house, ever. Having said that, describing to an agreeable home owner what it’s going to be like can be hard so I tend to be brutally on honest. Almost like… “There’ll be 50 people here and they’ll act like they own the place. It’ll be like we’re throwing a party in your house and you’re not invited. But don’t worry, if we break anything we’ll pay for it. There’s nothing REALLY valuable in there, is there? We’re fully insured.” If they’re still keen after that. You’re on. And I’m really nice about it.

COLIN MCDOUGALL:

1. Describe your role and tell us about some of the TV shows you have worked on?
There are two main aspects to my role on a TV show. The first is to define the Writers, Producers and Directors creative vision for all filming locations needed for the show and then to get out and find good options to fulfil that creative need within what is practical and achievable for the production. The second is to ensure all is in place for the production in terms of permits, approvals, location agreements with property owners etc to be sure every minute runs as smoothly as possible when we are shooting on set from a location point of view. I have worked on great Australian stories like Mary Bryant through to crazy American experiences like The Oprah Winfrey Show when she visited Australia and brought 100 or so of her most passionate viewers with her. Some more recent TV shows I have worked on are the ABC drama Redfern Now, The Code, Hiding and I am currently working on The Code 2.

2. How did you come to be a Location Manager?
I fell into it really, had taken a year off and travelled overseas with my wife. On our return to Australia a good friend, who at the time was working in Sydney as a Location Manager, asked if I could help her out scouting for the film Soft Fruit. That was 1998 and I haven’t stopped working since and loved every minute … well almost every minute.

3. How do you find the locations for your productions? What are the best tools you draw upon?
I have to say Google Maps, Streetview and Image searches have completely changed the way I go about scouting now. Usually I will spend a fair amount of time doing a desktop search before we even consider hitting the road. It is amazing what you can find online if you have decent search skills. Having a good solid knowledge of the area you are working in obviously gives you an advantage however you can apply those same search skills to places you have never been before and get great results. Once on the road the best tool ever invented for Location Managers has been the smartphone. Apps have changed my world from GPS based navigation to apps that calculate sunrise-sunset times, tides and Sunpaths wherever you are … not to mention camera apps. However nothing beats low tech, you often can’t beat a chat with a local when you are searching for that amazing farmhouse or barn etc.

4. What have been the more memorable experiences? And the oddest?
Being the first drama crew to be allowed large scale filming inside Parliament House for The Code was definitely a memorable experience however it was quite a nightmare getting the crew and equipment through all the security checks. Filming crocodiles in Kakadu for the National Geographic Channel was also a memorable adventure. Odd experiences there have been many, however one of the oddest would be filming in a “Druggies” house location and having to stop filming due to the noise from an actual drug raid being carried out by the Police two doors up. There is nothing like a “real” location.

5. And the ones you would rather forget?
Usually bad experiences are associated with unpleasant people and fortunately that doesn’t happen too often. Occasionally damage to properties happens despite all the precautions that are in place and all the care taken. Crew members are generally very good and respectful however it is never enjoyable telling a property owner we have just damaged their property. I must say when you get a phone call from a location owner the day before planned filming to tell you they have changed their mind and they longer want to take part is definitely one I would rather forget.

6. How do you convince strangers to allow a crew to film on private property? What’s your best opening line?
The opening line I usually use with a smile is “I’ve got a very unusual request.” This usually gets peoples attention long enough to then talk them through what we would like to do.

PLM3_Mel Dunstone on set_Credit Ben Timony

MEL DUNSTONE:

1. Describe your role and tell us about some of the TV shows you have worked on?
As a Location Manager I work closely with the director, producer and production designer to get the correct brief for the show and then, specific briefs for each required location, be it a house, suburban street or whatever. Its a process of sourcing different options that are as close as possible to the brief and then reducing the options to the perfect one. Once an option has been found, its onto negotiations with owners, tenants, body corporates, councils, neighbours, traffic control & security companies, police, public transport companies and of course the crew to make sure that everything that is in the director and production designer’s mind is achieved, as easily as possible on the filming day. I am currently working on Please Like Me Series 3 (I also worked on series 1 & 2), Foxtel drama filmed in Tasmania The Kettering IncidentINXS: Never Tear Us Apart, Molly and Mrs Biggs.

2. How did you come to be a Location Manager?
I had been working in the Production Department on films and TV in South Australia for about 4 years when I was working on McLeod’s Daughters. The show was breaking for hiatus and I had decided that I needed a break from my position. Coincidently, the Location Manager on the show was leaving, and I was very fortunate that, the producers offered me the position. That was in back in 2002 and I haven’t looked back.

3. How do you find the locations for your productions? What are the best tools you draw upon?
Every job is different, depending on what you are looking for and whether it is a contemporary or period show. Other Location Managers are a great source, but its also about thinking laterally. If you are looking for specific locations in the country for example, the local pub is always a great start. Chatting to people is the only way to find some locations. So is much is hit and miss. We do a lot of letter dropping, hoping that what is behind a closed door is what we are looking for. Thank goodness for the internet as well. I have been fortunate enough to work with some fantastic scouts who find the gold out there for the shows.

4. What have been the more memorable experiences? And the oddest?
I was fortunate to work in Tasmania last year for The Kettering Incident. Such an amazing place. We were lucky enough to film in many different types of properties in the Huon Valley, Derwent Valley and the surrounds. If it was within an hour of Hobart, we either filmed there, or scouted it. The logistics were challenging but the work and locals were amazing. Working on INXS: Never Tear Us Apart was fun and challenging, not only because of the band but because we depicted 80 different cities over a 25 year period in a 35 day shoot. It was a great shoot! The oddest? Finding the ‘perfect’ toilet to film in is always fun.

5. And the ones you would rather forget?
Every job is challenging in some way and has days you would rather forget.

6. How do you convince strangers to allow a crew to film on private property? What’s your best opening line?
Its very difficult to convince anyone to allow a crew at their property. People are generally into it or they are not. Really its all about being honest with them. The amount of people, the equipment, the time for the Art Department and crew to bump in and out. We treat all properties with respect, because the best way to convince someone to let you into their property is by them knowing other people that have had positive experiences. Opening line is something like “I have an unusual one for you, I am working on a TV series and I am looking for a … Do you think that this might be something you are interested in?”

6 Comments:

  1. Elizabeth H

    An interesting read. It’s nice to read about location managers and the challenges they face. I used to be a regular viewer of H&A and noticed one day the Braxton house and Palmer house had new outside locations. Obviously the previous owners of the former houses either were no longer interested or new owners took over the properties and weren’t keen to be a part of the process.

  2. Secret Squïrrel

    Good article, thanks. It’s nice to have an insight into some of the work that goes on behind the scenes of TV production. Great that you managed to get a female perspective, too.

    Interesting to see the contrasting styles, too. Nothing beats actually going out to a potential location and walking around but Google Earth/Maps and Streetview can certainly assist with narrowing down options. I imagine that we’ll start to see drones being used more frequently, too.

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