Location Manager Christian McWilliams talks to TLG
This month I talked to Christian McWilliams, the English Location Manager who has reinvented himself as the undisputed go-to guy for Morocco. We discussed Tony Scott, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, and the most beguiling, history-steeped studio in Africa: Atlas Studios.
I phone Morocco one evening, hoping to speak to Christian, who loves Morocco so much that he decided to relocate to Marrakech.
“He’s in Dubai!” says his wife.
So I phone Dubai, without remembering to calculate the time difference. It’s 2am. This is a terrible journalistic faux-pas.
“Hello!” he says cheerfully. “What can I do for you?” I explain to Christian (pictured in Dubai, right) that I would quite like to interview him for TLG. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to call back another time?” I ask.
“I’ve just worked a 23-hour shift and I feel great.” he says. ”Plenty of time for sleeping when you’re dead.”
This stalwart attitude is probably what has seen Christian through high-end TV like Inspector Morse, art-house movies like Howard’s End and Orlando,
to the blockbuster Hollywood projects like Alexander and Prince of Persia that are now his bread and butter.
Christian explains that his big break in location managing came when Tony Scott recognised his knack for finding perfect locations where there should be no such thing:
“11 years ago I was a junior on Tony Scott’s Spy Game. The hunt was on for a critical location to work for the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Previously, if you wanted to shoot Langley, you had to go to Langley. But I suggested Hemel Hempsted.”
“Was that a good idea?” I ask, cautiously.
“There is a Glaxo Wellcome building there, which doubled nicely for Langley. Tony seemed to love that. It gave him an option in the UK. So I found myself working more closely with the producers. I was called and told to turn up for this 2am emergency meeting in London. The trouble was that Spy Game’s Tel Aviv locations were under threat because of the first intifada. The Palestinian carpenters were suddenly throwing bombs at the Israeli art department. The producers said ‘bring a bag, you’re travelling- we’re just not sure where yet’"
Two hours later, I had a brief to go to Tunisia and I was literally checking in at Heathrow when they pinged me to go to Morocco instead. It couldn’t have been more random. The wind blew me to Morocco.
How did that work out?
“Oh wow, everything was so much easier in Morocco. It was a time when it took five forms in triplicate, and a week’s lobbying, to get a parking meter sorted in London. But on Spy Game in Casablanca they let us blow up buildings! I mean buildings that they had no previous plans to blow up! So liberating!”
Apart from this can-do attitude, what made Christian fall in love with Morocco? Several factors: the culture of extreme hospitality, the willingness of the King of Morocco to build a can-do film location, and subsequently Christian’s love of the lady I spoke to on the phone earlier. But also significant was a half-French, half-English Location Manager, John Bernard, who taught Christian how Morocco really works:
“John is an amazing guy. He worked on The Sheltering Sky and The Mummy. He was in Morocco 24 years ago. He was really the first ever Westerner to work as a Location Manager and base himself there. He showed me how the system works and how to get things done politely and respectfully.”
Why? I wonder out loud. Is Morocco very different to other places then?
“The King loves cinema and wants Morocco to be at the forefront as a location. Film is important and high profile. As a result the culture demands that you go in person to very senior people in Government, and when you meet these Government ministers you must do certain things to show your respect.”
Christian explains that he was also fortunate to meet some people from long-established firm Dune Film, who know everybody worth knowing in North Africa.
Karim Abouabayd, Hafid Balafrej and Jimmy ‘24 hour’ Abounoum have worked very hard to make Morocco a real centre for film. They are a like a huge family and we’ve seen many sunrises and sunsets together.
What kind of things did John, Jimmy and Karim teach you?
“Well, paperwork in French and Arabic to show your respect for their language and culture. You ask officials to make decisions to help you solve your problems. You would never try to impose a way of working here. Instead it is always about delicately suggesting resolutions. I suppose the golden rule is to respect everyone from a Mayor to the parking attendant, and they’ll do anything for you.”
After his experiences on Spy Game, Syriana, and Alexander, Christian thought ‘Why would I want to work anywhere else?’ and decided to stay.
“After 11 years I am still overwhelmed by the welcome you get from Morocco. Here you meet someone for three minutes and they will insist that you come home and meet their family. I married a beautiful Moroccan girl and now my children speak Arabic, French and English. This place is in my blood. It’s my home.”
Clearly this was a good decision. Morocco has never been busier. As well as the other films mentioned, Christian has worked on Body of Lies, Rendition, Mama Mia, Babel, Road to 9/11, The A Team, The Nativity, In the Valley of Elah, Pope John, The Hills Have Eyes, Traitor, Asterix and The Occupation, as well as numerous commercials and drama documentaries. Most exciting recently has been The Way Back by Peter Weir, which opens the Dubai film festival.
“It’s a road movie for prisoners. The whole journey is a march from Russia to India. I got some calls from Michael Meehan, Peter’s Location Manager, who was in the Chinese Gobi desert explaining that it just wasn’t working out there. The desert was a minimum four hours from the towns. He wondered what Morocco could do for them. I sent him a load of photos – to match the locations he was finding. Every time he showed me a Gobi location, I replied with a better photo. There is such a richness of environment here that it was easy to do. Then Peter Weir realised the shoot needed to go to Bulgaria for the snow to do a gulag, and the best nearby desert is Morocco.”
Peter Weir spent his Christmas holiday touring the country. He was tickled pink by the place and film history, and even allowed the places he found to dictate the film’s narrative:
“We went to the old Atlas Studios, which is stuffed with 30-year-old sets. Ridley Scott (pictured with Christian and Body of Lies crew) built Jerusalem for Kingdom of Heaven here. There are old sets from Jewel in the Nile, The Living Daylights, Body of Lies and Gladiator. When Peter saw the old Buddhist temple that was a remnant of the Kundun set from 1997, he was so amazed that he wrote an entire new scene based on the characters spending a night in this ruined, ransacked temple. We made a huge statue of the Buddha, turned it on its head and burnt the interior of the set. It looks incredible.”
One of Morocco’s best-kept secrets, Atlas Studios is a museum of world cinema. Christian describes how filmmakers can walk though ancient Egypt, through Bethlehem, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Roman-pillared halls, before heading out to Ridley Scott’s version of Jerusalem at the foot of the Atlas Mountains.
Finally, I ask Christian if he attributes his success to anything other than being in the right place at the right time.
“I suppose I realised early on that in this business you never stop learning, and when you work for people like Becky Brake and Michael Meehan and with guys like Dow Griffis, who live and breathe cinema, you can keep learning all the time because the projects are new and fresh. Who could ask for anything more?”
I wonder what kind of project would prise Christian away from his beloved home. Apparently it is a very high-end and hush-hush production I am not allowed to talk about under any circumstances. I say goodbye and let Christian continue with his mission. Impossible though it must be to operate for 24 hours straight, Christian is managing it.
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