TLG talks to Line Producer and Production Manager Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante about his 25-year career
Malcolm Scerri-Ferrante’s career as a Line Producer and Production Manager spans 25 years, several countries and big-name projects including the recent remake of Papillon. TLG sat down with Malcolm to discuss his work and the many incredible anecdotes he’s accumulated along the way.
What’s the best approach producers should have when shooting in Malta?
Like every country, Malta has its pros and cons. The country’s small size helps tremendously with getting from one location to another, with a unit base move generally happening within an hour. However, the island is suffering severely from increasing traffic so you’ve got to be wise about the timing of your moves. The island has about 80% of an A crew and 50% of a B crew. This means if you are the second or third production working concurrently with another one, you should expect to bring several keys and assistants from the European mainland. Remember that local knowledge in certain positions cannot easily be replaced by foreigners so hiring local key crews quickly is a top priority.
You have experience working in countries such as Hungary, Canada, Colombia, South Africa, Jordan and Slovakia. Which country is your favourite to work in?
That’s a difficult one because they all have their good and bad aspects. However, Canada does remain memorable for its very efficient crews and film infrastructure. When I was in Vancouver we used the crew from The X-Files. I almost wished that I’d come across an issue to fix as I wasn’t used to being so relaxed. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked in Hungary but I know the industry is strengthening each year.
South Africa is simply an amazing place to live and work. A shoot there can be very smooth as long as you’re not forced to employ what I call the “bottom-of-the-barrel” crew. That’s the problem with popular destinations – their crew at times tends to be spread so thin, but at least the industry is several crews deep. If you manage to engage with the good teams then South Africa would tick all the boxes for me in terms of living, film infrastructure, crews and costs. My experience in Colombia was very limited but enough to leave a huge desire to return. I was working for a small independent American film company that required military ships. President Santos ordered the Cartagena navy admiral to give us “whatever we needed”.
When we flew down to Cartagena together with the Colombian film commissioner to meet the Navy, I was expecting a meeting with the admiral’s deputy. Instead we found ourselves in a boardroom with all the high-ranking navy officers and the admiral himself. Most of them had tablets and they were googling our picture ships and comparing them with theirs. Never had I encountered such genuine interest, enthusiasm and charisma from a state military or any government department for that matter. The director and myself exited the meeting with a feeling of great awe.
You mentioned countries like Colombia and South Africa which, unfortunately, are partially known for their crime rates. How did you feel working in those countries?
I can’t judge Colombia too well as I was there for less than two months and I was always in safe areas but I never really felt threatened. I had spoken to a producer from Love in the Life of Cholera that was shot entirely in Colombia six years earlier. He told me he felt absolutely safe and was eager to return with another movie. Funnily, he did add that the only memorable incident was when a props truck showed up on set with several holes. Apparently the driver had driven the night before through a gun fight in some rural street.
It’s worth noting I have been to Colombia three times and it feels safer every time I return. South Africa does have crime but in Cape Town the violence is mostly concentrated in the townships and that’s why statistically the city shows a high crime rate. Otherwise it honestly isn’t much different from any big European city like London. It has its good areas and then some corners that you don’t want to venture into at night.
I’m more hesitant about Johannesburg to be honest but it depends where you go. When I was there in 2013 we needed security vehicles to escort us every time we scouted the area called Hillbrow. On one of the filming days an armed robber, stealing an iPhone, was shot dead in a shoot out in the building next door to our set when he was chased by security guards. That was a little hectic but the city’s governance is improving and I hear the long term future is looking bright.
Would you change anything about the way the industry currently operates?
There is currently a great demand for film and TV content and not enough crew to go around in many of the popular locations. I would recommend producers and studio production heads to do more homework about who to hire, even when shooting in well-known destinations. The production value on screen can sometimes be seriously compromised by bad or lazy preparation, especially if the budget is tight and money cannot be thrown at each and every problem. And there are times when money alone cannot be the solution.
Over the last decade I have heard much too often about stressful productions for unjust reasons. Some excellent crew members wish they worked in another industry if only the money was just as good while others have been brave enough to move on. There are always going to be problems on set but problems that are self-inflicted are truly unnecessary. Sometimes it feels like film schools need to play a more pivotal role in one’s training, with producers and production managers being no exception.
I also recommend less reliance on budgets churned out for free by production service companies. I’d be happier paying for a budget made by a seasoned production manager or producer who has no conflict of interest and will not back into a number when the script is clearly saying something else. I have heard service company owners say things like: “if they don’t want to listen, give them the numbers they want. Once they start prep they will realise they have to cut the script or find more money”. Obviously, there are some companies that are not so greedy and if they feel the money and the script don’t suit each other, or if they know crews won’t be available or the weather will not be favourable, then they will own up and state it out loud. The problem is that companies with both experience, integrity and focus on production value, are probably less than half of the existing companies out there.
Can you recall your most frustrating moment on a production?
There are certainly more than one. One that I find hard to forget is when I was on a big commercial shoot and the location owner tried to close down the set because, as I found out on the shoot day, the location manager had sold him our operation as a “small photo shoot”.
We were actually doing a huge car commercial and had lots of lighting cranes and over 70 crew. The owner was the head of an association formed by committee members who were all tough bully types and the police had to be called to stop them from fighting amongst themselves. I was very lucky to be able to sort it out with my cheque book without the client noticing a thing. A golden rule of any location manager is to never underplay to location owners what they are to expect. In fact, I think it’s best to exaggerate a little so they will never be surprised by anything on the day.
Another frustrating incident that comes to mind was when shooting a second unit in the Middle East. I was brought into the game 10 days before the shoot by one of the show’s executives who was handling the transition and had already set up all the basics with a fixer there. I then received an invoice for 100% payment in advance before we travelled. I was already very suspicious of the budget but we had no other choice. The executive order was to pay it. We struggled to get a good service out of them and when the final costs arrived they were surprisingly (or rather not) matching the budget 100%. When I asked for the invoices there was a lot of pussy-footing and avoidance. Sometimes you have to remind yourself that if an executive wants to waste his/her money then don’t get too attached to what you cannot control. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge and focus on getting the shots.
What lessons have you learnt from these experiences?
After almost losing a location on the day I will definitely never settle for key crew that is not 100% up to scratch, even if nobody is available locally, particularly for a commercial. For some films or TV series you could afford to take more of a risk, especially if you’re employing over 150 people. Commercials are spending an immense amount of money in a very short time-frame and usually it is all happening in only one or two places. One small mistake from one crew member can be very costly, which is why I tend to micromanage commercial shoots.
My advice is also to never avoid researching the best fixer or service provider in the country as a means of saving time. Don’t be lazy – simply because everyone recommends him or her doesn’t mean others can’t do a better job. When shooting in a central European country I was recommended a certain individual because all the American films had used him. I was very tempted especially since he was not charging for the recces - which can be very telling in itself. There is no such thing as a free lunch as the old adage goes. Anyway, I could have hired him and if anything went wrong I could simply blame those bosses who recommended him but being passive and ignoring my gut is not my style.
It’s remarkable how enlightening a few phone calls can be to the respective UPMs and Production Accountants who worked in the same place before you. It’s shocking when you realise just how little research some producers conduct before they work with a particular fixer or service company. In this case I found out that this recommended chap was the devil everyone knows but was also taking kickbacks on everything so I opted instead for an up and coming local PM. You’ve got to ask yourself, do you have the budget to pay for collateral damage when using certain fixers who also happen to know how to get the job done? Or would you rather do more research and be more patient but then save a chunk of money that you could then put on screen? Often it all boils down to how much time and money you have.
What attributes do you think production managers and producers should have in order to be successful?
If success is measured by getting things done in an efficient and cost-effective manner then I would say you need to have good people skills, great management and communication skills, be persistent and patient, and you have to tolerate politics too even if you hate it. I also believe the captain must go to his quarters alone because too much familiarity can breed contempt. You also need to be humble whilst remaining firm. Everything good that happens on set is a result of a team effort and not due one person alone.
Flaunting a big ego around won’t make people like you and they won’t go that extra mile for you if the shoot is in trouble. Also, don’t hesitate to say no to when the situation calls for it. The more you say no to unnecessary things the better chance you have to say yes to those money shots that really raise the production’s value or the better you can reward those hard-working crew who went beyond their remit.
Can you recall an incident when you felt you were in a serious fix?
On Eragon I got a call from our production manager for Slovakia, some two weeks before shooting there, with a major crisis: the Head of the Environment Department had suddenly rejected our filming permit on one of the Tatras mountains we had scouted extensively. The issue stemmed from the fact that we needed a helicopter to transport our crew to the top and the aircraft noise would scare rare goats on this mountain range. We had no back up location and this news was totally against what we were expecting. Not really knowing what to do, I drove urgently the next day from Budapest to Slovakia to meet this department head together with our PM and the UK location manager we already had working there.
During the four hour drive I was constantly trying to figure out what to say. Do I need to donate some money to some project? Was this an honest concern for the goats and rules in the book? I called the local PM and told him to make sure this department head knew I was driving all the way just to meet him but he should not be told why. I wanted this man to know how important he was for our film and I didn’t want him to think that I was coming over to break the rules.
When I entered his office I sensed this was an honest man simply trying to do his job and stick to each letter in his rule book. He was strict and ethical. I thanked him wholeheartedly for all the cooperation he had been giving us so far and after exchanging the niceties I told him we had a major problem.
We chose Slovakia for our mountain scene even though we had also planned another eight days of filming. I explained to him that the mountain scene was our money shot (where our character Brom is buried). And then I asked: “can you help me? Can you please find a way for how we can shoot this scene? I really need your help. If we don’t get this scene our director is going to be very unhappy”. Those were the exact words I used. I did not threaten to cancel the entire shoot and neither did I hint for a donation.
Five minutes later, to the amazement of myself and my colleagues in the meeting, he started pulling out his maps and gave us a section of the mountain range that he could make an exception for filming. One hour later we were in a helicopter scouting the range again. Later that evening I was in the director’s trailer back in Budapest showing him the video and he found an even better mountain than the one he had previously selected. Sometimes the biggest problems can be surprisingly easy to solve if an honest and humble approach is used and all the way you must retain hope. Impossible cannot be part of your daily vocabulary.
Malcolm, thank you for your time.
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