Written by James Peak on Apr 30, 2010. Posted in Interviews

Robin Hood gets the best from UK locations for filming

Robin Hood is riding through far more than the glen for Ridley Scott’s latest epic, an action-packed account of the legend, involving sea landings, castles springing up in the woods of Surrey, and the wrong type of undergrowth. Scott called on Bill Darby, veteran of UK locations, for the film that will open this year’s Cannes Festival.

Darby knows UK locations like the back of his hand. He has transported giant polystyrene menhirs to the edge of a North Devon cliff for the climax of Bruckheimer’s King Arthur. He has turned Wales’ Snowdonia into Camelot for First Knight. He’s swapped the desolate Brecon Beacons in for the Russian Urals. He has even made the streets of New York come to life using nothing more sophisticated than Manchester.

“For such a crowded country it’s amazing how much wildness there is. Even in the middle of our biggest cities you are never far from a spectacular landscape of one sort or another.”

Bill worked on Robin Hood for nearly two years. Scott’s USD130 million production saw Bill scour pretty much every castle, forest, moorland and beach in the UK for this historically accurate take on the Robin Hood legend. First on the agenda was to find a site suitable for Robin’s home village of Nottingham, (in reality, now a British city of 300,000 people) where Robin returns after 11 years away on the third crusade.

“We were finalising arrangements to build Nottingham set in Knole Great Park in Sevenoaks. We needed to construct a corn exchange, church, inn, barns, and a village square. Really ancient woodland pasture is possible in modern Britain, but rare, so we focused on finding some unimproved parkland that could pass for the 12th Century. We were a week away from starting 20 weeks of construction, but then I took Ridley to a spot between Farnham and Goldalming just south of the Hogs Back. It was a 55 acre valley with ancient English oaks studded around the landscape running precisely east to west. You could imagine gazing down at the village’s medieval strip farms, crops for which we later sowed. Ridley took one look and decided this was the place, preferring the location both for it's proximity to the studio, and because of the east-west lie of the land, he prefers to backlight his characters using the sun, and decided this would be his Nottingham. The location worked absolutely perfectly.”

The production didn’t shoot in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s traditional haunt, as the expansion of Nottingham from village to city means there is not much of it left these days. However, the shoot needed woods. So Bill researched Eastern Europe where the woods are extensive and shooting is cheap. But these woods didn’t match up to the vision:

“The topography was wrong… with different undergrowth, native species of bush and shrub. We needed groups of staggered oaks, and not too much undergrowth. Too thick and you can’t see your characters coming, too thin, and the woods look all wrong - they don’t have that ancient, grand feel we needed for Robin's habitat.”

Bill narrowed his search to a perimeter around London.

“There are loads of excellent woods around London. After extensive recces, we plumped for Bears’ Rails in Windsor Great Park, an ancient oak forest with some trees over 700 years old, which is only about 40 minutes from Central London.”

The shoot also used two locations at the Ashridge Estate, Berkhamsted, which is owned by the National Trust. Thunderdell Woods – several hectares of huge, twisted chestnuts – served as an outlaw's hideout, and The Coombe, which has great views of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

Next up: castles. After examining literally every single castle in the UK, the production decided to build their own.

“The cost to support a large construction crew on an away location for the time we needed was the deciding factor. We needed to mimic the French castle, Chalus, where King Richard died during a siege, and weeks of preparation were required. So we built our own castle in Bourne Wood, which is practically the backlot of Shepperton Studios these days; and we were there for more than six months.”

The climax of the film is a coastal battle with Robin’s scratch army of noblemen and commoners fending off an invading French force. This shoot saw up to 1200 people on set, and isolated Freshwater West, in Pembrokeshire, doubled as a beach on the English South coast.

“Because of the numbers of cast and crew, and the nature of the scenes which see the action switching from land to sea, we had an enormous support mechanism in place, separate installations for the main unit, horse unit and crowd, each the size of a village, a sizeable marine base in Pembroke Dock and a huge safety operation. We were very lucky with the weather and these scenes went off brilliantly, right on schedule.”

Pressed on the best underused locations in he UK, Bill prefers not to name his favourites, but having worked there so often, it is clear he has a soft spot for North Cornwall and Wales.

“Wales is most spectacular. Pembrokeshire is a trek, but it has marginally more direct road and rail access from the metropolises than North Cornwall, and even this margin can be a factor in your decision, but finally, on a shoot like that it's the director who really decides, and if Ridley says lets go, that's where we go."

After 20 years on the road finding the best places for large-scale productions to base themselves, Bill is lyrical about the range and quality of British rural locations.

“Of course I've got a vested interest in plugging the place, but there is a vast variety of locations available in the UK. We don't have everything - high mountains and deserts are beyond us for instance - but there's almost every other type of landscape.”

And of course if it isn’t available in the UK, Bill Darby will just build it for you.

Robin Hood opens the 2010 Cannes Film Festival.

Bill Darby's latest project imoviei.com - a new concept in online movie databases - has just gone live.

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