Harriet Lawrence - Location Manager

Location Manager Harriet Lawrence talks to us about ‘the best job’ in the world and how she’s hugely proud of all the Assistant Location Manager trainees she’s helped train. Harriet’s credits include My Cousin Rachel, Suffragette, Burton and Taylor, Fleming, Outnumbered, Downton Abbey, Entebbe and Dancing on the Edge.

Did you know you wanted to work in production or was it a role you fell into?

I grew up in Scotland, moving to London to do my foundation course in Art at Chelsea School of Art and a degree in Photography at the London College of Printing. After brief stints in retail and picture editing, I fell into Location Managing by accident. During a chance meeting in 1994 with a location Manager, I suddenly discovered the job I love. I had never considered working in film, but this amazing and quite unusual combination of being creative and practical really hit a chord with me as I am curious and organised by nature. I began working in commercials, with little training, and went on to work in drama and independent UK films.

What has been your route through production?

My route through production has been fairly straightforward. I assisted on commercials for a couple of years, before going out on my own, and then moving into TV Drama and increasingly, film. I was spared the years of making tea and photocopying by being thrown straight into scouting and babysitting shoots very quickly with very little knowledge to back me up.

Can you explain what a Location Manager does / can you very briefly outline a typical day?

It varies enormously from early stages of feasibility - when a film is not even necessarily financed. It can be very useful for Producers to know where some of the bigger locations or options could be, when they are raising finance and budgeting.

In prep, we are working closely with the Director and Designer, breaking down scripts, bringing ideas up that work with their vision, researching, scouting, reading books, visiting locations (recce’s), meeting and talking to all manner of people. It’s like detective work in the beginning, unravelling the director’s vision and finding the options that might work. And bringing new and unexpected ideas to the table.

Once the locations have been agreed, we need to make sure they work with the schedule, sort permissions from the owner, neighbours, council, POLICE, highways, Traffic Management, contracts, etc. We need to budget and work with Producers and UPM to make sure the solutions we are offering up work within the overall budget of the production. We bring history, architecture, geography, and creativity to the scouting table early on, sometimes thinking very laterally to solve problems.

During the shoot we are up early (sometimes very, very early), organising and running the logistics of the shoot as well as managing our department. Making sure the vehicles and crew can get access, all the technical vehicles are in place, the public can work around and all the many minute details that ensure the crew can go about their jobs in a bit of bubble are sorted. If we don’t do our job thoroughly, the rest of the crew can’t do theirs when they turn up. It’s our job to think of everything before any one has realised they need it. We can become an expert in all sorts of obscure things in a course of a film, and have to have a good working knowledge of H&S, Planning and Environment laws, tides, sunset, sunrise, animals, boats, trucks, planes, trains and automobiles. And bins, toilets, mud, trucks….

What characteristics do you need and which ones do you think are your particular strengths?

Curious, organised, the ability to get on with everyone and problem solving. I have a passion for architecture and research. Infinite reserves of patience help - I’m still working on that one! I want everything now…

What’s the one piece of advice you would give someone at the beginning of their career?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions - we all started somewhere too. Be willing to try anything. Don’t try to move up too quickly; the best assistants are the ones who have spent time learning. Grab opportunities - if you are offered work experience on set, take it. Don’t get stuck in any one genre at the beginning - TV Drama and independent films are the great learning grounds as you will get much broader experience, more quickly, than in big studio pictures. Try to meet Location Managers and Assistant Location Managers in person - be willing to be flexible and offer to meet them for a quick coffee where they are working or shooting. Don’t waffle - keep it concise and sometime saying less is more effective. That was more than one piece of advice…

What do you look for when hiring someone?

I am really looking for personality first and foremost. An assistant has to be easy to get along with, interested in the detail, organised, alert and show a certain amount of initiative. A sense of humour - I love having a team around me who know how to have fun, while at the same time, working very, very hard. A knowledge of architecture, photography, geography always helps, but those parts of the job can be taught! Nous is the one bit that is hard to teach but absolutely vital in our department.

What’s been your best production experience?

So many moments. I love driving through town early in the morning; the calm before the rest of the crew turn up. I love the early stages when anything may be possible; driving around some of the most beautiful parts of the UK, seeing the parts of buildings most people don’t get shown… Meeting amazing people.

Suffragette was wonderful in so many ways - great story, dream production team, really, really collaborative HoD’s, fantastic story/ script. It was enormously hard work as it was set in 1913 and shot entirely on location all in or around London. Oh, and of course being the first feature to shoot in Parliament was something really special.

But equally I have loved tiny productions like shooting with the Parks and Recreation team around the West Coast of Scotland in Distilleries where the LM becomes Girl Friday sorting all manner of things (sheep, boats, hotels, lunch, breakfast, horses, more sheep….).

Anything that involved messing around with boats, trains, horses, and drones (not necessarily all at once, although if anyone has that script, bring it on!).

Alone walking through Speakers Court, in The House of Commons, at the end of day 1 of 4 shooting, thinking “we did it; we are actually shooting in the House of Commons".

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve been faced with professionally?

It can be frustrating sometimes when a team is not collaborative. You have been hired to be part of a team, but sometimes certain personalities don’t work together and that can make for a quite disjointed production. It’s not surprising that it happens as there are so many strong personalities that make up a creative team and fortunately those are rare but it can be a challenge to not take it personally. Or take it home with you!

What do you consider your greatest professional achievement?

I have been running various training course for junior members of the Location Department for 10 years now, and I am hugely proud of all my “baby LM” - the 60 or so Assistant LM trainees that have been through the 6 month course I developed with Skillset and FL, and now run via the Production Guild. I love nurturing them and introducing them to the wonders of Location Managing. Many of them are now stepping up to Location Manage themselves, and I am so pleased for each of them when I see how well they have progressed.

What piece of advice would you give your younger self?

Always grab every opportunity and remember to take time off!

What production / project are you most proud of and why?

They are all different and many of them have been a great experience. Despite the early starts, miserable weather and endless mud & rubbish, I am happiest out and about. After more than 20 years I still (mostly) think it is the best job in the world. Dancing on the Edge has wonderful locations and what we achieved on a small budget in a 16 weeks shoot, entirely on location was incredible.

Suffragette, obviously. 

Harriet will be running our Introduction to Working in the Locations Department on Sat 25th and Sun 26th of November at Pinewood Studios. For more information visit  http://bit.ly/2gGtrWu