TLG talks with Nicholas Day, Operations Manager at The Crown Estate
The Crown Estate, among many other duties, oversees filming in several prestigious locations such as Windsor Great Park and has worked closely with major domestic and international productions. To learn more about the organisation's association with the production industry, we sat down with Operations Manager Nicholas Day to discuss his career and recent work.
How did you become involved in film locations?
Having spent over 20 years managing historic houses across the UK, I became indirectly involved in film location work as a matter of course. If memory serves me right, Young Sherlock Holmes, which was filmed at Penshurst Place in Kent in 1985, was possibly the first major film which came my way. Followed a couple of years later by what is still one of my favourite films of all time, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.
Following a number of years managing for The Duke of Rutland at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire (many productions, including Thornfield Hall in nearly every recent production of Jane Eyre), I moved down to Leeds Castle in Kent where sheer volume of visitor numbers meant that filming was limited to television documentaries and travel programmes.
A move north to Blenheim Palace resulted in a couple of interesting filming projects including my first and only Bollywood production, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (with Andy Pavord acting as Location Manager) which was a fascinating experience in seeing how a Bollywood production was put together.
Having arrived at Windsor Great Park just over 11 years ago, I was able to bring to the Estate an established knowledge of how film crews, be they large or small, work in a heritage environment and what their requirements are. With our proximity to Pinewood, Shepperton and now Leavesden and Longcross as well, it was apparent to me from the outset that we could, and should, develop a reputation as a film friendly location by offering a unique natural environment to productions of all sizes and scale.
So what does your role involve exactly?
As Head of Visitor Operations at Windsor Great Park, the filming activity only occupies a very small amount of my time. With Windsor welcoming over six million visitors a year, my role as one of a team of managers on the Estate to ensure that first and foremost we protect Windsor Great Park and the Windsor Estate and retain its identify as a Royal Park and Forest. Nothing is more important than protecting this extraordinary piece of natural and national heritage.
The visitor business involves assisting in delivering a commercial return from the Estate whilst in no way compromising its integrity. As such, many decisions we make here are first and foremost a stewardship decision with commercial considerations only coming into play later in the piece.
The same applies with the decision-making process on whether or not to accept a filming request. The well-being of the park will always come first.
How do you assist local and foreign producers and production professionals considering filming at Windsor Great Park?
At the outset at my time at Windsor, I was determined for the Estate to become known as a film friendly location. I have had great support throughout this process from colleagues, most notably from Gino Caiafa who ably assists me at all times in dealing with the film industry. Supervising location managers are invariably our first port of call. I would like to think that a good number of supervising location managers working in the UK are aware of the way in which Gino and I work with the film industry and have our numbers somewhere on their phone.
We have at Windsor a unique opportunity to provide a wide range of rural landscapes all within proximity to the major studios and Central London. So, if someone is looking for Scottish pine forests, rolling parkland or ancient oak forests, villages, private roads or village greens, all are available within the Great Park itself.
Following initial scouting visits, we go out of our way at Windsor to welcome as many recce's as are required before we get to directors and technical recce's. The more people that can come and see the variety of what we have to offer here the better as far as we are concerned. However, it is important to remember that all of this is under the proviso that we will only permit filming here if we are totally confident that the impact on the Great Park is non-existent or at worst minimal and negligible, and is always recoverable. We will not permit activity that causes any form of damage to the park.
I think it important as a manager of a location to make both the film crews’ life and our life as simple and easy as possible. As such we lay down very clear guidelines from day one, particularly around the conservation and preservation of historic landscapes. Whilst it is very easy to sit with a supervising location manager, producer or even director, it is less easy to speak to every member of the crew. As such we will work on day one to make sure that all the information we require communicating to the crew is contained in the call sheet and any transport documentation. I will also, wherever possible, work with the location manager by allocating a member of the Crown Estate team to the film crew during their period of occupation. I have found that if both the film crew and the location work together as one then most problems are resolved before they become problems. Communication is key.
Tell us about Windsor Great Park as a film & TV location?
We offer everything apart from built heritage in Windsor Great Park. Clearly Windsor Castle being a Royal residence is not included in our filming portfolio. We make it very clear that cameras cannot and must not be pointed at Windsor Castle other than in the case of historical documentaries which we are fully conversant with and have approved.
The natural landscapes that we offer across the 18,000 acres of the Windsor Estate range from wide expanses of commercial pine forests, to veteran oak forests, ponds, lakes, 15 miles of private road and even 1950s villages. However, it is primarily for our landscapes that we are best known. As far as the administrative facilities are concerned, we do not provide any fixed structures for storage, offices and catering crew, everything needs to be brought in.
We will work with the location manager to identify the right location within the Estate to service the principal film location. This will mean the use of substantial quantities of trackway to protect the grass. An added complication of filming at Windsor is that the entire location is designated as either a SSSI or an SPA (Special Protection Area) for environmental and ecological reasons. As such we have had to develop an excellent relationship with Natural England and will always apply for the necessary assent from NE before a film comes on site. Natural England, along with location managers, have come to appreciate that we have developed a system on the Estate which works well in protecting the environment. It is fair to say that if Natural England say no, we will also say no.
Please give us a few examples of productions that have benefited from using your locations and facilities in the past few years.
There have been any number of productions here over the last 10 years. As I am sure you can appreciate, the film industry requires confidentiality and as such we will always build into our contracts a confidentiality agreement which protects both the film and the Crown Estate. We are prepared, within in reason, to talk about films once they have been completed and released.
Over the years, Virginia Water Lake and Swinley Forest have played host to Harry Potter in various guises brought to us by Sue Quinn. Sir Ridley Scott brought with him his Robin Hood film of 2009, whereby Virginia Water morphed into the River Thames adjacent to the Tower of London. Bill Darby helmed this one on the location front.
The Great Park has seen Midsummer Murders, Silent Witness, James Cordon's The Wrong Mans for the BBC and Grantchester amongst any number of television dramas or comedies. We welcomed Maureen Lipmann with A Lady of Letters, we played host to The King’s Speech and Top Gear, and we have hosted TV commercials for anything from supermarket chains to cars and car insurers, from fast food outlets to toilet paper and mobile phone networks.
Hatrick Productions brought with them an ITV drama, Point of Rescue, and in 2011 we were able to host 47 Ronin and Snow White and the Huntsman, along with Marc Forster’s World War Z.
More recently we welcomed a number of Disney productions including Kenneth Brannagh's Cinderella, with Emma Pill providing location management, and Ali James and her location team helped us look after Into the Woods directed by Rob Marshall. 2014’s Legend of Tarzan film saw parts of Obelisk Pond converted into an African river, complete with a wonderful working paddle steamer, and we also welcomed Warner Brothers with Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
I have been offering up, for a number of years, a superb location deep in the heart of one of our woods – a stunning small pond surrounded by reeds, rushes and lush forest. Finally, we found the perfect match with Alex Garlands recently released Annihilation. Working with Alex Gladstone heading up the locations team, and with huge input from Alex Garland, we found a number of locations close to the pond and also further afield on the Estate. So, without providing too much of a spoiler, the partially submerged boathouse in the American Deep South is actually on the Surrey/Berkshire border.
Sequels are always good news for us, and following Snow White and the Huntsman we were pleased to then welcome The Huntsman: Winter's War. Bridget Jones' Baby also paid a visit to us as we, along with Camilla Stephenson, converted a farmer’s field into the central scene from the festival which featured in that film.
Whilst being perhaps a slightly smaller crew, it was also fun to welcome The Teletubbies to the Estate! 2017 was a busy year filming on the Estate and as of yet, none of the productions filmed that year have made it into the public domain so I need to remain confidential at this stage.
Is your location available every day to filmmakers or do you close down at certain times of the year?
Being a Royal Park and Forest, there are certain restrictions on both areas in which filming can take place and of course at certain times of the year. Royal usage of Windsor Great Park will, as you can imagine, take precedence over all other types of park usage. Every year during Royal Ascot week, it goes without saying that there is no access to certain parts of the park for operational reasons.
What's been your most difficult location request to date and why?
It is fair to say that we probably turn down as many location requests as we agree to, owing to the unique nature and sensitivity of the site, both from a security issue and from protecting the natural environment. I do remember turning down a request to bring in three bears from Eastern Europe to roam free in the Deer Park, home to a herd of 700 red deer which originated form Balmoral!
Any outstanding memories or anecdotes or funny you could tell us about film crews working on location at Windsor Great Park?
Introducing the previous Chief Executive of the Crown Estate to both Sir Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe whilst floating on a boat in the middle of Virginia Water Lake comes to mind something which does not normally happen on a Friday morning. There are plenty more, but various NDA’s, and confidentiality clauses in contracts prevents me from divulging them here!
What do you do to relax after a hectic week of filming at Windsor Great Park?
Windsor Great Park remains open to the public throughout the year, and what normally happens after a hectic week of filming is we move into a hectic weekend of visitor business. My role at Windsor, covering all aspects of the visitor business, does not stop when the filming stops. Living in the Great Park allows me to enjoy some of the wide open expanses that the film crews enjoy, but on occasions alone with my dog or my family!
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