Britain has long been known for having some of the most enticing film locations in the world. It’s also been known for putting thorny obstacles in the way of anyone wanting to use them. The good news, though, is that over the past year matters have improved: The tangle of red tape is thinning out a little.
Even so, film companies wanting to shoot in public places may find the success (or otherwise) of their efforts depends on the goodwill of that stolid, traditional figure — the British bobby on the beat.
“When it comes down to it,” explains Nick Daubeny, location manager on director Richard Attenborough’s recently completed “Shadowlands” and Neil Jordan’s current $ 60 million production “Interview With the Vampire,””you’re totally dependent on the local constable. You get your police permissions, of course. But on specifics — can you close this street or that, and when — they leave the details up to him.
“So if anything goes wrong, he’s the one who gets it in the neck. And it only takes one local resident or shopkeeper to object, and the complaint’s logged on the computer. Then it’s a black mark on that policeman’s record and he regrets having helped you.
“So all you can do is build up a relationship of trust. But it’s quite unpredictable. American filmmakers comeover and think it’s going to be like New York. You have to explain how delicate the situation is, that you can’t assume anything.”
Still, there’s currently no shortage of visiting U.S. companies, and many of them have no complaints. Last summer Caravan Pictures took over Charlestown Harbor, in Cornwall, for three weeks to shoot exteriors for “The Three Musketeers.” A slight altercation involving cast members and a local beauty found its way into the newspapers. But line manager Ned Dowd has only good memories.
“People couldn’t have been more helpful. We were shooting nights, and during high tourist season, too, which could have been very disruptive. But we had great cooperation. Anything we asked for in location terms, we got. And terrific British crews always delivered what we asked of them.”
While Dowd’s words might provide a pleasant antidote to Daubeny’s critique, commissioner Sydney Samuelson of the British Film Commission isn’t letting the praise obscure what he acknowledges is a serious concern for filmmakers. “At a grassroots level we are talking to national organizations such as the police force and the National Trust about framing filming guidlines for heritage properties as well as working with government on eliminating unnecessary red tape in filming. We are also supporting initiatives to set up film commissions in areas of the U.K. where there are currently none.”
As for the overall health of the British film and TV production scene, BFC chief executive Andrew Patrick says he is “optimistic,” noting that last year saw a 21% increase in investment in the U.K. production, a situation Patrick says is due “almost entirely to international projects filming here using British facilities, locations, crews and actors.
“We have been especially encouraged,” says Patrick, “by the fact that seven international productions including KennethBranagh’s “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” Caroline Thompson’s “Black Beauty,” Neil Jordan’s “Interview With the Vampire,” Richard Attenborough’s “Shadowlands” and the television miniseries “Scarlett” filmed here, reflecting the high regard for our production values and the services provided by the British Film Commission and the U.K. film commission network.
“We have reason to believe that this level of investment will be sustained in the coming months,” he continues, pointing to TriStar’s “Mary Reilly” with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich and “Judge Dredd” with Sylvester Stallone as two of the upcoming major films set for U.K. locations in 1994.
A rough rule of thumb on U.K. locations is: The further from London, the better. Liverpool, with a movie-conscious city council and a long-established Film Office, hosted more than 30 productions in 1993. Among them was Universal’s multiple Oscar-nominated “In the Name of the Father.”
Along with its hospitable stance, Liverpool boasts a clutch of impressive public buildings that often stand in for their London equivalents. Trial scenes for “Father” were shot in St. George’s Hall, a dead ringer for London’s Old Bailey. Howard Bibbins, the film’s location manager, was impressed with “the speed and ease with which permits for filming were obtained.”
Other northern cities, like Glasgow and Sheffield, are building movie-friendly reputations. But for better or worse, London is where 80% of visiting film companies want to shoot. And London is where the problems loom largest.
For a start, it’s one of the few major cities in the world with no overall governing body — and hence without a central Film Commission. Nor is such a commission an imminent prospect. Negotiations between the 32 boroughs that make up the capital have been going on for nearly two years, and are no nearer a conclusion. While a few local councils are keen to the idea, others are indifferent or downright hostile.
One of the most recalcitrant boroughs is Westminster — which just happens to house Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and a stack of other prime photogenic sites. “They’re so unpleasant there,” says Nick Daubeny, “that it’s just not worth showing a director Westminster locations. You settle for somewhere that may be less artistically satisfying — but where they’re helpful.”
The borough of Camden and the City of London, by contrast, are rated among the most cooperative. Mark Samuelson of New Era, producer of the T.S. Eliot biopic “Tom and Viv,” speaks highly of “every single location we wanted, at a reasonable fee. We were most pleasantly surprised. Over the past year I think there’s been a very marked improvement.”
A low-key approach pays dividends. Samuelson stresses, “We didn’t go in as some massive film unit expecting the whole place to change the way it ran itself.” Sally Hibbin of Parallax Pictures (“Riff Raff,””Raining Stones”) concurs. “If you go in with flash cars and mobile phones waving money around, you build up a lot of resentment. And a lot of greed.
“We’ve just shot in the borough of Ealing Ken Loach’s latest production, ‘Ladybird, Ladybird,’ and it was the first time I’d used a local Films Officer. He had a double-edged role — helping us find the ideal locations, but making sure we didn’t disturb the citizenry. He was very good at it — and incredibly helpful.”
But even in the friendliest districts, the jigsaw puzzle of conflicting authorities can cause headaches. As Philippe Hartmann, Camden’s French-born films officer, points out, there are areas within the borough itself where his writ doesn’t run.
“If you want to film in Regents Park, you have to apply to the Department of the Environment. A few yards away on the Regents Canal — that’s the Thames Water Authority. And so on — it’s all fragmented. If you’re a big Hollywood producer, you don’t want to deal with 50 different people and all these petty regulations. You’ll go to Eastern Europe, where they’ll make you welcome.”
What’s needed, says Hartmann, is a fundamental change of attitude –“but it’s got to come from the very top.”
The U.K. government is notoriously disdainful of films, offering few tax breaks to either indigenous or visiting companies. In December it even proposed to levy VAT (sales tax) on visiting film actors, a move only fought off after fervent lobbying from the industry.
Nick Daubeny, too, blames widespread cultural snobbery. “Things are slowly getting better, but we’re still up against this philistine attitude to films — especially in London. It’s different in France or America, but here there’s a lack of sympathy with film culture.”
Negative attitudes have certainly bedevilled Daubeny’s work on “Interview With the Vampire.” Literally so. “The Church authorities are being very narrow-minded. Without seeing the script or reading the book, they’ve decided the film’s blasphemous. We’ve been refused a lot of facilities.”
A shoot in a deconsecrated church in Teddington, on London’s western edge, was banned at the last moment — an order, it’s said, from the highest level of the Church hierarchy. Now the interior is being reconstructed at Pinewood.
Luckily not all British clergy are so hostile. “We’re filming in Deptford (East London),” says Daubeny, “and there the vicar’s talking to the local schools about it (the film). He sees it as an essentially moral tale.”
So if you’re planning a U.K. location shoot, being nice to your local bobby may not be enough. You may need to take tea with the vicar as well.