Is Location Manager Emma Pill the real 007?
Location Manager Emma Pill is known for her work on action movies Spectre, The Bourne Ultimatum and Inception. She talks exclusively to The Location Guide about working on one of Britain's best loved film franchises and the pros and cons of filming in London.
After an unintended detour around London courtesy of the confusing Hammersmith and City tube line I am late for my train to meet Location Manager Emma Pill in Oxford. I make it to Paddington station with only a few seconds to spare.
I think director Sam Mendes and the producers wanted to bring it back to London but shoot the city in a different way… not with your average views.
Moments like these might catch me by surprise but they are nothing compared to Emma’s daily work routine. Having worked on Spectre, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Inception, the sight of car chases, explosions and all things action are now commonplace for her.
I got a call back in December 2013 from Executive Producer Callum McDougall. They wanted some initial scouting done that winter because they wanted to find an alpine location for the following year. It’s hard to sell a ski location without snow so we had to look that season. We eventually used a Tyrol ski resort called Sölden, Obertilliach and Lake Altaussee. There was supposed to be a stand-down period until April but that never happened. I ended up working on the project right through until we shot in December 2014.
It was incredible to have a year to prepare. We went to Austria, Switzerland, the Dolomites in Italy, and then lots of travelling around Morocco - to the desert, to the towns, to the cities - so we were on the road a lot.
I’m a nightmare to drive with as I don’t keep my eyes on the road! I’m always looking for new things and new ideas in Central London.
London features quite prominently in Spectre. What is it about London that separates it as a filming location from other major cities?
London has a huge global reputation and tourist appeal; everyone knows Big Ben, Westminster Bridge and the River Thames. They are iconic and are known around the world.
I think director Sam Mendes and the producers wanted to bring it back to London but shoot the city in a different way... not with your average views. There’s one shot in the film, an aerial establisher, that’s quite unique. It comes across St James’ Park towards Whitehall. It offers a very different view of London.
So Sam Mendes wanted to use a different side of London than what was featured in Skyfall. Did you look back at that film before deciding how to proceed?
I had seen Skyfall. There is one location that we do use again but that’s to finish off the film and I think it’s poignant in that respect, and you obviously have to return to the MI6 building but that’s because the script dictated it. For one of the car chase sequences we found a tunnel that I didn’t even know existed until working on Spectre. Castle Baynard Street is an underused secret tunnel right in the centre of London.
You’ve just touched upon it but are there some areas of London that you feel are underutilised but would make for fantastic filming locations?
I’m always driving around London looking for locations. I’m a nightmare to drive with as I don’t keep my eyes on the road! I’m always looking for new things and new ideas in Central London.
There’s a particular location in the film that is just off Trafalgar Square. It’s genuine with real interiors and roofline. When we got up there we found it had windows on all sides of the room with one looking towards Big Ben and another looking towards Trafalgar Square. It was an incredible find. Everyone said “people won’t believe this is real”.
The biggest challenge in London was the sequence that takes place on the river between Vauxhall and Golden Jubilee Bridge. It was shot at night so it all had to be lit. That’s just under a mile and a half of the Thames!
We closed the bridges in between (Lambeth and Westminster) and had helicopters filming at 150 feet.
The team sent out about 11,000 letters to local residents and businesses letting them know what we were doing because it’s not very sociable filming with a helicopter. We had to stop at midnight.
If you want to close a red route in London run by Transport for London then it’s a twelve-week lead in, that never alters.
The river is a dark foreboding mass at night so nearly every rooftop along the shoot had to be lit. The director and the DOP didn’t want to be too close to the boats so it had to be lit from the riverside.
In Mexico, Location Manager Ali James had to close Zócalo square and use 2,000 extras. Having to coordinate that number of people through costume and makeup before call was a challenge.
In Rome the car chase sequence at night was shot over two or three weeks. Matt Jones, who was the location manager there, actually did the shooting and worked the lock off. On one mile and a half long street 450 location marshals were required to lock it off for the shoot. Each one was positioned on a side street, pavement or doorway to stop pedestrians walking out while the camera was rolling... and the cars were going fast!
Location Manager Ben Piltz had the challenge of working in the cold at high altitude. The Ice Q restaurant in Sölden, which was our hero building, is at 10,000 feet. You get a lot of interesting weather scenarios up there. Location Manager Charlie Hayes had the other extreme in Morocco... sandstorms!
Do you feel the Bond name helped speed up the permissions process?
I wouldn’t say that it carried it through any quicker because there are statutory lead-in times regardless of what film you’re doing. If you want to close a red route in London run by Transport for London then it’s a twelve-week lead in, that never alters.
I got into buildings that I’d never been in or seen before because I had Bond behind me.
It was all layered with many different organisations: the Port of London Authority runs the river and then there’s the London River Service who run the boats and manage the majority of the piers. Westminster City Special events team and Film Fixer who represent the borough of Lambeth were also integral in the permissions process. There were so many different people involved but there was definitely a will to help because it was Bond.
I know the London Mayor Boris Johnson was keen to help and there are scenes filmed inside City Hall. How difficult was it to secure the building as a filming location?
City Hall is run by the Greater London Authority and there’s a great team who deal with filming. They also look after Trafalgar Square so they were really helpful. It’s quite a tricky building to film in but we actually ended up using it for two locations. The scene in Tokyo where M (Ralph Fiennes) attends a meeting - that’s in the top space in an events room called the London River Rooms. We shot up there because it has a great view of modern buildings and is a great cheat for Tokyo.
I did The Bourne Ultimatum there a few years ago and then Inception. Spectre ended up back in Morocco as well so I have quite a lot of knowledge of the country. We actually filmed in Tangier for Spectre, which was where the other two films were shot as well so I know Tangier very well and I think that helped when we were initially scouting because I knew my way around the city very quickly.
So how film friendly is Morocco?
Very, they have great crews over there that do international films. We used Zak Productions as the production service company, whom I’ve worked with many times.
It’s a short hop from the UK so you’re not spending hours travelling, it’s only a four hour flight which is nothing. It’s a great country with many different locations. The Atlas Mountains are incredible, we didn’t use them this time but they are amazing.
You’ve touched on this already but could you outline the pros and cons of working on such a big production?
The pros are that because there’s a general love of the Bond franchise you’ve got a lot of willingness to help. I got into buildings that I’d never been in or seen before because I had Bond behind me.
The cons are that when you’re filming you’re trying to keep it under wraps but people love the franchise so much they want to film you at the same time. After two hours on set I could look up online where we were and what we were doing so trying to keep everything quiet and spy-like was very difficult.
But its still the same job. It’s not that you’ve got to be anything different to what you would normally be on any other film. You still go through the same process of securing locations, running a budget and doing a location contract as well as putting up toilets and catering to all of the extras.
I do feel that there’s an expectation because it is Bond that we could do a lot more than usual but sometimes things just aren’t possible whether you’re working on Bond or another project and that was challenging during a few periods but we got there in the end.
Can you tell me the most enjoyable moment working on Spectre?
It’s got to be the relief on May 17th 2015 at about 9pm. I was sitting on a boat on the River Thames and when everything we’d been working towards came together. Bridges were shut down, the river was shut down, it was all lit and the boats were in place. The helicopters came in and we started filming. It took months of work to get to that point and the river looked incredible. That is a moment I will never forget. It was an amazing feeling.
There must have been some trepidation about pulling it off?
It was definitely a big ask but we did come through and I had an amazing location team of 13 in London... especially Tom Crooke and Finlay Bradbury. It was always a 24 hour operation, we spent the day rigging, then shooting at night and then de-rigging the next morning. We had 32 generators alone.
To what extent would you say the UK tax incentives have helped to keep projects like Spectre in the UK?
Oh, hugely. So much so that at the moment you’ve got the Star Wars franchise at Pinewood and Marvel who have pretty much taken over Shepperton. It’s actually quite difficult to get studio space for future incoming productions. I’ve been working with people who are looking for studio space but they are all very busy next year.
A lot of projects are looking at coming to the UK for the tax incentive which is fantastic for our industry, we just need a few more stages to fit everybody in!
Which is your favourite Bond Film ?
I’m going to have to say Spectre aren’t I? It was 19 months of my life!
That’s as good a reason as any!
I felt so involved with it right from the initial scouting, doing the research and giving Sam, production designer Dennis Gassner and the producers the ideas. You can be really creative although it’s ultimately their decision but if you see really interesting, good looking locations and you think that it would look amazing then you can always offer it up. Sometimes you put your neck on the line by offering curveball ideas but more often than not they paid off. That’s why I have to go with Spectre.
And finally, what’s your next project?
Ah, in true OO7 style, that’s a secret.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures
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