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‘Inception,’ above, coped with shoots in six countries, including Morocco, top.
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Film shoots by their nature tend to be stressful, and strains often get magnified when a movie goes on location.
Consider, for example, the case of an American production shooting in Tokyo, which was one of the locations for Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” released last Friday.
“I frequently describe a motion picture shoot as the biggest taxi in the world,” says Nilo Otero, the film’s first AD. “You put that flag down when you come to work, and you can accomplish things when the meter is running or you can sit in traffic. Filming is one of the most decisive businesses in the world, and Japanese group decision-making isn’t very flexible.”
Time management is but one challenge faced by below-the-line department heads as they travel to distant locations. Another is to find competent local crew and work with them under conditions that can take Hollywood pros out of their comfort zones.
As moviemaking has become more globalized and domestically more dispersed — with scores of states and countries deploying generous tax incentives to lure shoots — productions today come better prepared. The line producers, UPMs and ADs whose job it is to keep a project on track have become more resourceful at finding experienced locals. Meanwhile on-site crews, having worked on more shoots, have grown more skillful.
In addition to photography in Southern California, “Inception” went to England, France, Japan, Morocco and Canada. “When we went to Tangiers, there was a great local crew there because it’s a location that gets regular visits, and there’s a squad of very competent people working in the area,” Otero says.
“It’s very different working in a third-world country,” he adds. “You’re bringing a large, powerful, rich industrial process into what can be a fairly delicate political, economic or cultural situation. So you need to be sensitive, accomplishing what you need without upsetting the local order or coming off as the ugly American.”
The ease of filming in a foreign country often hinges on intense advance planning. “Everybody knows that a shoot is done in prep,” says British line producer Kevan Van Thompson, left, who lives in Prague and specializes in shepherding shoots in Eastern Europe. “If the prep is not done properly, the shoot doesn’t go well.”
Earlier this year, he co-produced and coordinated the filming in Serbia of “Coriolanus,” an updated version of Shakespeare’s play directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also stars along with Gerard Butler. The small nation is trying to join countries like Romania and Hungary as an attractive low-cost location.
“They’re very ambitious, very inexperienced, but incredibly willing to learn,” Van Thompson notes. “They want people with experience around them.”
Valuable assistance came from local location manager, Aleksandar Tadic, who was a conduit to the country’s military and police for the film’s many battle sequences. “He was as good as anyone I’ve worked with in the world,” says Van Thompson.
“I do a lot of visual research before I come to a country, watching films they’ve previously done to see what they can achieve.” says Mexican production designer Eugenio Caballero, right, (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), who is in Thailand prepping for “The Impossible,” directed by Juan Bayona, based on a true story about a family vacationing in Phuket when the 2004 tsunami overwhelmed the Thai resort. Caballero has hired a Thai art director with experience working in the country’s film industry, along with a local set decorator and props person.
D.p. Lance Acord is no stranger to foreign shoots. He was cinematographer on Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antonette,” which filmed in Paris and Versailles, and “Lost in Translation,” shot in Tokyo. More recently, he was d.p. to director Spike Jonze on “Where the Wild Things Are,” which lensed in Australia.
Acord starts assembling his own crew well before prep starts. “If you’re a production designer or a cinematographer, you usually have four to six weeks for prep, which is not enough time to also find crew.” Acord conducts detailed interviews to hire people with the right chemistry. “You want to get crew members who aren’t just doing it as a job, but have a vested, creative interest in the success of the project,” he says.
The Australian crew proved indispensible. “We shot on 150-foot cliffs, in forests and quarries,” he says. “The grips really stepped up, working with the performers, who could hardly see in their monster suits.”
In the U.S., as more states have climbed onto the incentives bandwagon, those that have been most successful in luring shoots, like Louisiana, New Mexico and Massachusetts, have become production hubs with growing rosters of trained professionals.
“There usually are some good crews to pick up locally, but it depends on how many shoots are going on at the same time,” says cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), who’s in Pittsburgh lensing “I Am Number Four,” helmed by D.J. Caruso. “That’s why I try to travel with my own keys — my gaffer, key grip and first assistant cameraman. It smooths the process a lot.”
Not everyone has that luxury. “I usually try to bring an assistant from California, but it’s not always possible,” says makeup artist Brad Wilder. “If it’s a low-budget production, they want you to train someone locally.” Wilder is in Greenwood, Miss., working on DreamWorks’ “The Help,” based on Kathryn Stockett’s book about a group of Southern maids in the early ’60s.
Stockett insisted on the out-of-the-way location. Wilder says he received inquiries from makeup people in Nashville and Memphis. Meanwhile he followed his usual routine: “Whenever I come to a new town, I get maps and find out where the drugstores and beauty supply shops are located.”