Written by James Peak on Jul 29, 2010. Posted in Interviews

Interview: Transformers and Inception Location Manager

Ilt Jones is a softly-spoken and unassuming man, originally from North Wales, now carving an enviable career as the go-to Location Manager for action. If your building, football stadium or casino needs blowing up, give him a call and he’ll put it in the movies.

Ilt is currently managing his third film in the formidable Transformers franchise. It‘s good that he is softly-spoken and unassuming, because his day is anything from a high-octane payload of explosions in Central Chicago to genteel conversation with emissaries of the King of Jordan - whatever is needed to keep the wheels of production grinding along. Ilt has also worked on high-end TV dramas, as well as Hellboy, Gattaca and, just recently, Inception.

When I called Ilt for this article, he was on set for Transformers 3. He explained that the climax of six months' work was about to come to fruition:

“Yeah, hi. Our base-jumpers are just about to jump off the Trump Tower in Chicago, to be filmed by a camera helicopter. This is the fruition of six months' work. Nope, of course you don’t need to call me back. Let’s do the interview right now!”

A few minutes later machine gun fire and chopper blades rendered Ilt inaudible, but he would not be put off from telling me about filming in The Windy City. Action movies often need the kind of access that closes down whole districts for days at a time. For director Michael Bay’s expansive and explosive vision to come to life takes a lot of goodwill from the city fathers, as Ilt explains:

“It’s the climactic battle sequence of the movie - well, one of many - and we have had to close loads of streets and also run intermittent traffic closures. The Chicago authorities have been amazing. Mayor Daley is the key. A fantastically helpful gentleman who realised from the outset how Chicago could be centre-stage for the next Transformers movie and get exposure around the world. He is so ‘can-do’… he doesn’t worry about covering his ass like most politicians - he just gets it done. He is my hero.”

How about the Film Commission in Chicago. Have they been helpful?

“Have they been helpful? Yes! Rich Moskal – the Mayor’s Film Commission Chief - has utterly nailed the access on the ground for us. He has been a brilliant link between the crew and the political administration. He has really put the rubber to the road to help Transformers shoot in Chicago.”

Ilt explains that nowadays there is such competition for TV and film work, as demonstrated by the incentive wars of the last two years, that cities are getting used to thinking more laterally to grab new business.

“Now I have three Transformers movies under my belt, anyone with anything to blow up gives me a call. I had Texas on the phone pitching us a football stadium in Dallas that we could explode if we wanted. And Las Vegas called about a casino that was coming down. You can see from how the Californian Location Expo has grown that cities are falling over each other to grab films and TV, and an efficient local film office that is really keen to make things happen will make a huge difference.”

And it’s working for those that have got it right. Two years after the most generous states put their incentives on the table, you can’t move in places like Detroit without seeing big white production trucks parked up against a huge range of locations.

“There is a saying in this industry that we’re not making a movie, we’re making a budget, and thereby maximising the dollar return. If a studio decides it has USD100 million we will tailor scripts for the right location. It’s part of your responsibility as a LM to find the biggest bang for the studio’s bucks, wherever that may be.”

Ilt also specialises in big builds for movies that need to adapt locations. When he was working on Hellboy, he found an old MIG fighter jet factory in Prague and realised that it would be easier to retrofit the factory as a sound stage for the movie that needed to bring both New York and wartime Scotland alive.

Recently he found Kananaskis, Alberta, a defunct ski resort, in the Canadian Rockies between Calgary and Banff, for Inception, Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller for Warner Brothers.

“We did the climactic battle sequences for the movie in the Rockies in this incredible old resort. We built a fortress in the mountains, a gigantic set that took six months to do, and then waited for the snow.”

The build had to be solid enough to brave 100mph winds and as the fortress was going to be dismantled after the shoot anyway, Nolan eventually decided just to blow the whole thing up on film.

Does Ilt have any advice for aspiring Location Managers?

“If you’re curious about the world and you want to see how it all joins up, then this is the job for you. You get to see the underside of institutions and industries and cultures, and different walks of life. I get to see some awesome stuff and I have Transformers, amongst other projects, to thank for that.”

Before he rushes off to check on the Transformers set, I ask about Ilt’s all-time favourite location?

“That’s easy - Petra in Jordan. The King of Jordan, believe it or not, is a big Transformers fan, and he also has one of the finest Film Commissioners working in the world today: George David, General Manager of the Royal Film Commission. He rolled out the red carpet for our shoot and was astonishingly on the ball for the entire time. He opened up one of the wonders of the ancient world to us - Petra - for Transformers. We filmed at the monastery up in the mountains, airlifting gear in using the King’s helicopters. On the day we struck set the crew had to move rapidly on to Amman, and I was left to strike the rest of the set with a skeleton crew. I wandered around with this ancient wonder of the world all to myself, and I thought ‘Wow - this is better than stacking shelves for a living!.”

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