TLG talks to Mike Fantasia, President of the Location Managers Guild International
I worked in various jobs in the natural resources field after I graduated from college. That eventually led to a job as a realty specialist for the Kootenai National Forest based in the small logging town of Libby, Montana. Steven Spielberg came to the area to make the firefighting movie Always in 1989 and one of my assignments was to work on the permit for the shoot.
Patricia Fay, the location manager on Always, hired me to coordinate finding experienced fire fighters to work as extras near the fire and to work as a fire patrol after filming shut down each day to insure no hot spots remained. Having a front row seat behind the scenes on a movie set with arguably the greatest filmmaker in the world was an incredible thrill.
I was becoming a bit bored with my job and as I learned more about location managing I realised that I was well prepared for doing that kind of work. I’d also been a keen amateur photographer since high school – an important skill for a location manager. My college education and working in natural resources for over a decade stood me in good sted for reading and making maps, researching and scouting properties, determining property lines and researching property ownership, and preparing and reviewing legal documents.
I love telling people about my job and showing them how it relates to the overall process of making a movie.
During large fire breakouts, I worked in various positions in addition to leading strike teams of 40 people into fires and digging fire lines. On a couple fires, I was tasked with finding and setting up areas to use as fire camps - parking areas for large trucks and heavy equipment; catering, showering and lavatory areas; sleeping areas for crews; helicopter and airplane landing zones; places for firefighting equipment to be repaired, stored and distributed, and so on. It seemed like the perfect combination of education and work experience, so in January 1991 I left the security of a federal job and jumped with both feet into the world of filmmaking – based in the cinema capitol of Libby, Montana!
What do you love most about being a location manager?
There are so may things I love about my job. I enjoy the people I meet wherever I go in the world. I’ve made friends on every continent (except Antarctica) who I keep in touch with. I love telling people about my job and showing them how it relates to the overall process of making a movie. Except for a very few people I’ve met over the past 27 years (U2 pilots, the president of a prestigious Ivy League college, a thoroughbred jockey and an internationally acclaimed architect) everyone agrees my job is pretty cool, interesting and a heck of a lot more fun and exciting than theirs’!
I’ve had the opportunity to travel to incredible places that many people will never have a chance to see. I’ve been in a burial chamber in one of the oldest known Mayan ruins in central America; I’ve been on islands in the river below the largest waterfall system in the world; I’ve been on top of some of the tallest buildings and in mines that are thousands of feet below the surface. I really have the best job in the business!
Who have been your favourite directors to work with and why?
I’ve had the great pleasure to work with some of the biggest directors in the business as well as many who are up and coming. Working with Steven Spielberg on numerous projects (Always, Catch Me If You Can, Munich) gave me the opportunity to study his process and learn how he changed direction as he shot and edited the film, deleting entire scenes, adding new scenes, combining locations and sets for efficiency. He is a master.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have worked with a couple young filmmakers who have completely different styles. On Godzilla I worked with Gareth Edwards (pictured below) who had directed only one other film. Gareth knew what he didn’t know, which is always a great attribute in a young director. He had an excellent producer in Patty Whitcher and the best department heads he could find. He relied on us to help him achieve his vision and it was a pleasant filming experience that produced a really good movie.
Working with directors like these, as opposed to some of the notorious “screamers” in the business, makes going to work a pleasant experience.
On Spider-Man: Homecoming I worked with Jon Watts, a young filmmaker who had also only directed a couple of other features. The movie was shot in New York City and Atlanta. Jon went to NYU Film school and lived in the city so he had a clear vision of what he wanted on screen. He provided us with photos, drawings, sketches, Google Earth images that helped us focus our scouting. He’s a nice guy who has a lot of talent and on top of all that, he was great to work with.
I also enjoyed working with Peyton Reed on both Ant-Man films for Marvel. Peyton is unflappable! On each film we either lost locations at critical times or had huge location problems presented to us just before filming. Peyton’s response is always the same: “that means something better will come along”, or “I know you’ll make it work”. Never critical, never angry, always supportive.
I’m prepping a film with Joseph Kosinski now. Joe is a very smart director, a man who knows what wants. We had a great location lined up that we quickly realised wasn’t going to be manageable to film – we were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Joe, of course, was disappointed the we lost it, but his attitude was the same as Peyton’s – “something better will pop up”. And it did. We found a great location that actually worked better than the original one and everyone was much happier with it. Working with directors like these, as opposed to some of the notorious “screamers” in the business, makes going to work a pleasant experience.
What was your favourite movie or TV production you have ever worked on and why?
I think working on Munich (pictured below) is going to be difficult to beat. I was winding up scouting on Lincoln when the producer asked me to go to Budapest for “a couple days” to figure out the problems the production was having. It didn’t take long once I got there to get to the bottom of the problems and we took steps to resolve them before production started. The next four months were an incredible experience working on such an historic production. Production Designer Rick Carter worked with us to find ten European and American cities in Budapest; we transformed Andrassy Street into Paris and Rome; a sports stadium into Frankfurt; a former Luftwaffe air base into Munich; and a university library building into New York.
As incredible as that experience was, with all it’s challenges, the thing that makes it my favourite production is the content of the film. It’s a very important and moving story that was directed by the most influential Jewish director of our time. It brings up moral dilemmas that need to be examined and it asks where the line is between retribution and terrorism. At issue is the endless cycle of violence that erodes moral and ethical codes and is, I believe, the central theme of the film. The men charged with carrying out the missions were everyday men who gradually grew disillusioned with their assignment and were ridden by guilt and paranoia about what they were doing. It raised a lot of questions and controversy before, during and after filming. It was filmed when there was a lot of tension in the world. The Iraq War was raging and there was a lot of unrest in the US over the course it was taking. Hurricane Katrina hit the US while we were filming and there were a lot of very direct and interesting discussions that took place among the international crew at dinner every night about how they perceived the US changing as a world leader. For many reasons, it was the best filmmaking experience I ever had.
What are your favourite states, cities and countries to work in and why?
Los Angeles is a great city to film in, even with the large developments that have transformed the downtown core into a more difficult place to film. The weather is generally beautiful, far better than virtually any other large production hub except Australia. The crews are the best in the world and the film-related businesses located here lead in innovations in filmmaking methods, equipment and techniques. FilmL.A. does an incredible job coordinating filming in the greater LA area, much better than any other place I’ve worked. On a larger scale, California has a fantastic network of local and regional film commissions. They do an excellent job serving location professionals and are second to none in the world.
New York City is also on top of my list. It’s such a diverse city, from the high-rises of Manhattan to the central American markets in Queens, from Staten Island to the emerging areas in Brooklyn. The Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment also does a great job juggling the huge influx in production around the city.
Starting out in the businesss on a Speilberg film was certainly extraordinary.
I want to work in Jordan in the worst way. I was there on a fam tour about ten years ago and I was taken by the beauty of the country and the people. A number of my friends have filmed there and have had fantastic experiences. George David does such a great job as managing director of The Royal Film Commission and the government pulls out all the stops. Hopefully I’ll find a script that takes me there again very soon!
What would you say were your most extraordinary ‘on location’ experiences and why?
Boy, there have been so many extraordinary experiences over the years. Some of them are extraordinary because of the location we were in and some were extraordinary because of the things we did at the location.
Starting out in the businesss on a Speilberg film was certainly extraordinary. And then working with him on films like Catch Me If You Can and Munich were great experiences. Being able to view an ancient Mayan burial chamber deep in a tomb at Tikal was an experience most people will never have. Sitting on an island at the base of Iguassu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil for a day, with helicopters filming overhead and water thundering down around me was a truly magical experience I’ll never be able to re-create.
Flattening a hill, building a section of Kyoto on a horse farm in southern California on Memoirs Of A Geisha, filming during one of the wettest years in a decade and restoring the hill when we were done was a year-long event that boggled the mind when one reflects on the herculean effort that went into it. One wonders how we were able to convince the town fathers of a small town in northern Idaho to allow us to cover their downtown area with paper to simulate volcanic ash, and to build a church steeple, a highway overpass and a building facade, all which collapsed during our filming. These are but a few in a long list of extraordinary things I’ve experienced in my 27 years as a location manager.
During your career you will have set up hundreds of locations shoots. Which from memory was the most challenging and why?
There have been many over the years – the torrential rains, snow and frozen ground, tornado and 80 mph winds we endured throughout the filming of Seabiscuit; or the winds, torrential rains and flooding we endured on Memoirs Of A Geisha. But perhaps the most challenging was the snowstorm that hit us toward the end of production on 3:10 To Yuma in New Mexico. We went on Christmas break with the expectation of coming back in the new year, filming for a couple more weeks and going home. Mother nature had other ideas.
We spent about four months transforming Kellogg, a small mining town in northern Idaho that had seen better days, into a city that was devastated by a volcano and buried in ash.
To make a very long story short, the southwest was hit with a 75-year storm between Christmas and the new year. Something like five feet of snow combined with strong winds and sub-zero temperatures blanketed thousands of square miles, including our set at the Ford Ranch in Galisteo. The set was isolated and we had no idea of its condition. On January 2, the producer, art director and I skied about a mile through thigh-deep snow into the set. The entire set and base camp were covered with three feet of snow. Trucks were buried. The 100 foot long tent filled with wardrobe was partially collapsed. The producers and director had never touched a snow shovel in their lives and were at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed so the construction coordinator, transportation coordinator, art director and I led the attack. We hired 80 labourers. We bought 200 snow shovels from a Home Depot in upstate New York (which remarkably had no snow yet that year) and shipped them to New Mexico. We hired graders, bulldozers, bobcats, backhoes, dump trucks and front end loaders. The labourers started by shovelling off the roofs of over 30 buildings, then they moved to sidewalks and alleys. Bobcats worked the small areas. Graders and dozers scooped snow into dump trucks and they created 30 foot tall mounds of snow the size of football fields. After about a week of working in 15 degree temperatures and strong winds, we moved about 30,000 cubic yards of snow.
We then had 75 belly dump trucks of gravel delivered and spread it over the roads within the set. Viewed from above, it was a postage stamp of brown dirt among millions of acres of white. Over the next two weeks, as the sun came out and melted the snow as the crew filmed, we worked feverishly in front of them to cover areas that melted with dirt. Our efforts paid off and the crew remarkably only missed a few days of filming and nobody ever knew that just out of camera range were millions of acres of snow!
What is your most memorable or happiest ‘on location’ story?
I was hired as an assistant location manager on Dante’s Peak. We spent about four months transforming Kellogg, a small mining town in northern Idaho that had seen better days, into a city that was devastated by a volcano and buried in ash. We hired over a hundred local residents to work in virtually every department for many months. It was a long, difficult show. Just before Christmas, months after we wrapped, I received a package in the mail. It was a silver coin minted from silver mined in the last operating silver mine in northern Idaho. Included in the package was a thank you card. The person who sent it said that they had been having a difficult time making ends meet over the previous few years and the job I gave him allowed his family to have the first happy Christmas in many years. I still have that silver coin and every time I see it on my bookcase I think of happy kids on Christmas morning. It never ceases to amaze me how films can change people’s lives.
You are very active in the industry. Please tell us about the Location Managers Guild International (LMGI) and your role as president, getting into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and your work as a board member of the Asian Film Commission Network (AFCNet).
The LMGI has been in existence for about 15 years, first as an American guild and for about the last five years as an international organisation with members on every continent. It was formed in LA by a group of location managers who were fed up with being ignored as part of the creative team and who wanted to promote our work and, as our tag line says, to “promote excellence on location worldwide”. I’ve been active in the guild since its inception, a board member for about 10 years and was recently elected president.
My emphasis over the next year will be to continue our growth with our goal of doubling our worldwide membership by the end of 2019. We also want to increase opportunities for members to become active on our various committees and by contributing articles, photographs and ideas to The Compass magazine, our website and the newsletter we plan to launch in the next couple of months. We want to have more events modeled after very successful events in Vancouver and Atlanta that combine an educational component such as panel discussions or demonstration of new technologies with a social gathering and new member recruitment.
Any person, corporation, business, labour union, civic or community organisation supporting the purposes of the LMGI and meeting the requirements may apply for membership.
We have built a strong foundation for the LMGI and now with a strategist on board to help us become more focused we’re poised to offer our members even more by holding events in cities around the world, increasing networking opportunities and providing greater member benefits.
The day after being elected president of the LMGI I was informed that I was elected to the designers branch of the Academy, the organisation that presents the Academy Awards each year. Only three other location managers had previously been elected to the Academy, so it was quite an honour to be among this year’s class. The inclusion of location managers in the designers branch is an indication that location professionals are being accepted as part of the creative team, a huge success in our efforts for acceptance. I’m just starting to learn about the inner workings of the Academy and hope to become more involved with it as time goes by.
Two days after receiving notice that I was elected to the Academy, I was elected to the advisory board of AFCNet (a body of sixty film commissions from eighteen countries). AFCNet was organised ten years ago to promote the balanced growth of the film industry in Asia. I have yet to attend a meeting of AFCNet so I haven’t been involved in their process but I look forward to becoming involved with them over the next year and contributing to their progress.
What do any of our TLG worldwide location professional audience reading this need to do to qualify and become members of LMGI themselves ? Who should they contact?
Any person, labour union, or industry member supporting the purposes of the LMGI and meeting the requirements may apply for membership.
The LMGI has various membership levels. Most of our members are Active Members – location managers, assistants and scouts working as professionals in the motion picture, television, commercial, video or print industries who have LMGI sponsors and at least 300 paid working days in the industry. Associate Members are people in those fields who do not have LMGI sponsors and have worked 150 days. Apprentice Members are emerging locations managers, scouts and assistants who do not meet the criteria for active or associate membership but want to participate in LMGI activities as they accumulate their days.
With the new year, our Business Members have transitioned to Business Partners. This includes any individual or entity that wants to support and sponsor the LMGI. Business partners include vendors and businesses supplying goods or services to the production industries as well as film commissions, government, community and civic organisations. This newly crafted programme provides the opportunity to customise a more creative, cost effective way for vendors to get the most out of their relationship with the Guild.
What do you do to chill out and relax after a long week on location and working as president of the LMGI?
Between the LMGI and whatever job I’m working on, it’s sometimes difficult to maintain any semblance of a personal life. My job involves a lot of travel, whether in southern California, overseas or places in between, so my wife Judy and I stick close to home on weekends. Frankly, living near the beach in LA is pretty nice so we like to ride our bikes to Hermosa Beach or Santa Monica or just hang out at home catching up on life. There’s a lot of things happening close by – concerts at the marina, plays at the Geffen Theatre, or just checking out all the new restaurants and shops nearby. We take advantage of not having to get into our car for a few days.
Where do you like to travel and when did you last take a vacation?
Even though I’ve travelled to well over eighteen countries, five continents and forty states, I hate to admit that it’s been a decade since I’ve taken a real vacation, and that was to central Italy. My escape is my old log house tucked into the mountains of northwest Montana. It’s quiet, my cell phone doesn’t work on most of my property and we can lay in hammocks for hours and look through the trees to the mountains beyond. We have a lot of trips in the planning stages – Mongolia, Nepal and the Indian subcontinent, Central and South America, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Korea, Japan, Africa are all on our list – but work keeps intruding on them. But we'll start to knock them off next summer when I finish the film I’m on now.
If you hadn’t become a location manager what other job would you have liked to have done?
I started out in the natural resources field after college and was lucky enough to work with hundreds of smart, funny fantastic people in many wondrous places. I suspect if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time make a film four miles from my house in “the middle of nowhere” that I would have continued along that path. I probably would have left the government track and ventured into the private sector to a place at the Trust for Public Lands or another such organisation. I’ve also always been interested in disaster relief so I could see that as a direction I could have taken. When I worked for the Forest Service I worked on a couple pretty big fires as the person who found the location to base hundreds of firefighters and support crew – very similar to setting up a base camp for a film in a remote area. I could see me moving in the direction of working with an organisation like the Red Cross or Team Rubicon.
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