“By virtue of suspense of disbelief we hope the audience is not distracted to such a degree that the object of viewing a film becomes a game of ‘spot that location’.”
Michael Harm boasts a remarkable collection of film and television productions in his portfolio as location manager. He’s worked with Woody Allen on more than one occasion, was present for two instalments of the colossal Harry Potter franchise, oversaw Brad Pitt’s zombie followers in Glasgow last September – and his current project (all will be revealed!) is certain to draw much attention to itself upon release.
To say the role of a location manager is complex is more than just a slight euphemism. Michael talks about some of the challenges he faced on the particularly large set of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, in the particularly popular location that is Greenwich Old Royal Naval College, whose characteristic domes have featured in just short of 50 films and series to date including The King’s Speech, The Duchess, and both of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.
Can you explain the role of a location manager?
The power of the moving image as a narrative medium, whether captured on 35mm film for cinema or digitally for television, is that unlike theatre, it places the audience at the focus of the action, and takes them to the locations where the drama unfolds, whether in the front room of a detached suburban house, on the high altar of a Gothic cathedral, at sea, underwater or in space. Most adults will know that it is not really space, but there are some that do not know that it is not really the Gulf of Aqaba in Lawrence of Arabia but Spain; it is not the Normandy beaches in Saving Private Ryan but County Wexford’s Curracloe Beach in Ireland.
In a film, the scenery and settings in which the actors speak their lines and play their parts are ‘acting’ also; they make a contribution to the storytelling process because more often than not, the scenery and buildings are not, in reality, what they are pretending to be in the film.
There are creative reasons for this as well practical and financial. No221B Baker Street today is almost impossible to use as a location for Sherlock Holmes not only because it does not quite look how people expect it to appear but also it is situated on one of the busiest traffic routes in that part of London. For security reasons, you cannot film in Heathrow Airport or the Bank of England. For cost reasons you cannot transport actors and a film crew to the summit of Mount Kilamanjaro. In all these cases, you have to find a substitute that not only credibly depicts the original but also enhances the audiences’ visual experience.
The job of the Locations Manager, therefore, is twofold: it is to find the right scenery, settings and buildings to meet the requirements of the director, production designer and producer. Then once these locations have been approved and selected, it is to manage the process of making them available for use by the production.
What kind of artistic challenges does it present using a popular, widely recognisable filming location?
It is up to the designer and art department to create with set dressing and, with more budget available, set building, a world that uses the existing buildings cleverly and creatively in such a way that we don’t recognise them as having been used before. There is the added advantage of the now widely used visual effects. What that department requires in the end frame is a Green (or Blue) field in which they can key in another image – this being another filmed piece digitally created from photographs or drawn images – either real art or computer graphically created.
At Greenwich this is a useful option as the buildings are so unique and recognisable. Even though the Christopher Wren style of architecture is by design Georgian (which we can find in a plethora of existing buildings in London: the Bank of England, Mansion House, The Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain etc) the layout of Greenwich buildings, the distinctive columns by the Painted Hall and the Chapel all lend it to be recognised… unless we add, by means of Blue Screen Visual Effects (or some clever set build pieces) a different world every time.
I would lie if I said I didn’t recognise Greenwich in each of the aforementioned films, but, by virtue of the ‘suspense of disbelief’ each and every film tries to create, we hope the audience is not distracted to such a degree that the object of viewing a film becomes a game of ‘spot that location’.
The Old Royal Naval College is home to the University of Greenwich; were you expecting any particular incidents in such surroundings?
When working on any picture the producer [and publicity] are very keen to keep the project under wraps and have full control of how and when any information is released to the press. The more well known the artists involved, the greater the interest for press photographers. It is a bit of a cat and mouse game to try to keep the paps off the set. As we have paid for the location with a location fee, we try to get exclusive rights for shooting in any medium for that period: this makes any other company or person in breach of copyright when they do record images on the day we are working there. For the production company, students and others using the site are a big concern as mobile phone pictures or videos are easily uploaded onto the internet. Once these images get out, there is no stopping them from being copied and spread out.
As [Pirates of the Caribbean] was such a complicated sequence with 40 carriages and 70 horses, and up to 350 crew and 500 extras on the set at any one time, we had a health and safety obligation to close off the area in which we filmed. A film this size and with this fame attracts huge interest. This is absolutely normal and we are very much used to this. We find that the vast majority of the public understand why you cannot give them the freedom to walk around our sets and shoot images of the stars.
It was a huge challenge to be able to communicate all the diversions to visitors trying to find their way around a very large film set. However there were no incidents to speak of and we can say pulled it off without a glitch. We can generally measure a successful shoot by the simple token that we can ever return and show our faces again!
Find a complete list of Michael’s work and filmography on IMDb
Leave a comment below if you would like to invite Michael to give us a more in-depth interview!