Want to Make Film Locations Come to Life? The ‘1917’ Location Manager Has Some Advice

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Photo Source: Universal Pictures

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A key aspect of bringing a film’s story to life is finding the right locations. You may not even think about it while watching a movie, but if it was wrong? You’d know it right away. These are the rolling hills traversed by a ragtag band of magical beings on a quest; the centuries-old castle that serves as the backdrop for a historical biopic; the intersection of city streets where the big fight goes down. 

You spend your life walking through and observing different locations, but it takes a special eye to do it professionally, which is where people like Jason Allen come in. It’s thanks to his work as a location manager that projects like “Dolittle,” “Ready Player One,” “The Mummy,” and “1917” were able to find and secure the locations that made their stories come to life.  

For anyone who wants to work in finding film locations, it’s worth taking note of Allen’s experience and advice.

What does a location manager do?
To help understand what positions can make up a locations department, I’ve put together a chart:

The early stages of a project require the locations department to find and photograph or scout the locations needed as per the script and briefs given by the director and production designer. A location manager will fulfill this role and also most of the time employ additional scouts to cover other areas and countries. These scouts are often also location managers or assistant location managers. 

The scouting photos will be presented and a shortlist of favorites will be made and become part of the director’s recce, a small number of senior crew visiting locations to consider what’s possible and to pick favorites, organized by the locations department. Once locations are agreed on, the locations department organizes a tech recce when all the HODs (head of departments) visit the chosen locations and discuss what each department will need and what they will do in order to achieve filming.

“I don’t have any job-specific training. I learned everything on the job and continue to do so.”

The locations department will then liaise with all departments and figure out the logistics of making the requests and needs a reality. We’re also responsible for all the contracts and permissions relevant at the location and the running of the site during the preparation, filming, and strike (putting it back to how you found it).

How did you get started?
I was in between jobs and a family friend who owns a locations support company kindly gave me a job driving a gator—an ATV used for moving kit around on film sets—on a “Harry Potter” film for a couple of weeks. That then progressed to me working fulltime for his company for around two years on a variety of films, TV shows, and commercials.

What was your first film crew job?
Whilst working for Makin Locations I was assigned to the Tim Burton film “Alice in Wonderland” which was filming in Cornwall and had a large set up that, at the request of the locations department, wanted someone from the company to look after it. That led to me also helping as a location assistant during the filming for Emma Pill (a senior location manager) and location manager Ali James. On Emma and Ali’s next job, reshoots of “The Wolfman,” I was asked to be the location assistant and that was the start. 

How do you find work?
The majority of my work comes from people I’ve worked with over the years or from recommendations from those same people as well as my peers. It’s a small community and if someone’s asked about doing a job and they aren’t available and know you are, they’ll often [recommend you].

What’s your process when first approaching a new project?
Everything starts with scouting which, in the infancy of a project, is largely research-based. These days, thanks to technology, a large amount of this can be done from a computer. That’s not to say that ringing around and chatting with your peers, book research, and driving around with a map can’t yield just as much—it’s certainly a combination of all. Once you’ve generated leads, it’s a case of making contact and appointments to scout as well as ensuring you get good coverage with your photos for the consideration of the producers, directors, production designers, etc.

What training do you have? What training does someone need to be a location manager?
None. I don’t have any job-specific training. I learned everything on the job and continue to do so. A driving license would be a must but other than that, there isn’t any required training.  There are courses people can take to help (you could check out ScreenSkills and the Calltime Company). I also have colleagues that have film and media degrees but few profess that anything they learned was relevant or useful in reality. From what I understand, the courses would be far more useful to someone wanting to get into locations work and are often taught by established location managers so there is a networking benefit, too.

What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about location management?
I don’t know about wish but it would be helpful for people to know that the location department is among the few departments that work the longest hours. It’s rarely glamorous and often very stressful but it is varied, interesting, and for the most part, rewarding and good fun. 

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Very long consecutive workdays. It wouldn’t be unusual to work 15-hour days for weeks on end and 12-hour days either side of [that span].

How does your work impact actors on set? How do you interact with them?
That would fall into logistics and servicing locations and is different from job to job and location. Interaction with actors depends on the actor but you’re normally too busy for anything other than an introduction and a bit of small talk before the radio goes or the phone rings. 

What skills are essential to becoming a location manager?
A hard work ethic, people skills, and a sense of humor.

What advice would you give people looking to get into location management?
First, you need to get your foot in the door. I would always consider someone offering to work for free—that shows they really want to do it. If you do that, hopefully, the next project that location manager has, you’ll get offered paid work and you’re in. 

If you don’t like long hours, hard work, and a lack of personal time, though, then it’s probably not for you. On the flip side, you’ll get to go to some cool places, meet interesting people, and there’s time off between projects.

What do you look for in an applicant?
A hard work ethic, people skills, and a sense of humor. For people starting out, I always value that over experience.

Do you have any advice for someone’s first day on the job?
Don’t be late, be early. Be calm but keen. Ask for things to do, look for things to do, and don’t stop.

Ready to be on set? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

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Lisa Granshaw
Lisa Granshaw is an editor at Backstage.
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