How to be a location manager: ‘find someone who’s got a bit of nous’

Steve Brett is a veteran location manager. He offers some pungent insights about the job, its pains and pleasures, and who should do it for life.

Location manager does not sound like a job which is on fire with creativity and glory. It has all the romance of the word ‘clipboard’.

In fact, it can be a whole department. As supervising location manager Steve Brett told Screenhub, when working on larger international productions he will have a location co-ordinator, some location scouts and an on-set location manager. He is a person of wide interests and he loves every minute of every challenge and twist of his job. 

He has worked on the TV series of Mission Impossible, the original Romper Stomper, Chopper, all the Miss Fisher projects and Jack Irish. He does this amidst a lot of other work, mixed in these days with a second life in a construction business with his son.

If he is stretching himself and his thirty years of experience on a lower budget local film, the role goes through several stages.

Reading the script

‘The producers, directors and assistant directors will work out what component of the project they want as locations, along with the production designer. I read the script and break it down.’

He starts with his own files and photographs, in discussion with the producers, director and designers. Then he organises site visits with a location scout, to record visuals and logistical issues, which are then interrogated with the visual team. That can be very difficult – sometimes he is dealing with ‘a hell of a fight’. 

‘That’s probably the most stressful part in the location manager job, because you’re limiting the amount of turnaround time to lock all that in. You want to fast track that and it becomes a bit of an art form and a bit of fun, but you’ve got to give respect to the people who take the bullet at the end, which are the director, the designer and the producer. They’re the ones we look after. They’re the ones we service.’

At the same time, the diplomatic hat stays on to get access and support on the ground. 

Negotiations

‘It’s all about dealing with the real world of people in their lives and inconveniencing them for X amount of days. And if you’re shooting in houses of course you’re relocating people. You can imagine that emotional journey, dealing with the real world versus the film world and getting in the middle and making it all work. Basically that is our job, and there are a lot of tears on the way.

‘We are a service provider, I suppose, but in very short turnaround times.’

Production can arrive in such a variety of places, from mansions with demanding owners to coal mines, beach cliffs and the centres of country towns. Besides surrendering personal territory, people discover their spaces are completely transformed, with huge amounts of equipment, lines of trucks and kilometres of cable. 

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‘If you’re dealing with a block of a hundred apartments, you are going to deal with every one of them’, Brett explained. ‘There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of payoff, a lot of pleasing and taking away their parking, a lot of diplomacy as you keep people awake at 2.45 in the morning.

‘A lot of location people have taken that on board personally and virtually had nervous breakdowns and health issues because of it. To me it’s one of the more difficult parts of the industry. No-one wants to do it. We are what I call a necessary evil.’

Logistics

The organisational problems are fierce. Permits, health and safety, parking, access, storage, wardrobe and makeup, and – above all else – time. Schedules have to hold, traffic jams are a nightmare, decisions are fast and negotiations are crisp. 

According to Brett, ’Productions are travelling factories with the amount of gear they carry around. You’ve got to logistically provide for them so they can get the gear on set. Realistically, that is not too hard.’ 

the key to good locations work is to provide spaces which can be dressed effectively, accessed easily and are physically close together.

This is the simplest part of the job, because it is just a big jigsaw with a lot of clear communication through the production office. But location managers are still selling in their practical solutions, so nothing goes down in a spreading heap. 

There is a cruel reality which both creates and resolves a lot of tension. They all obey a basic rule of distance, in which the key to good locations work is to provide spaces which can be dressed effectively, accessed easily and are physically close together. Transport time is wasted time, a way of burning money in the street.

The skills

Steve Brett had a career in visuals for advertising, dealing antiques, surfing photography and running a kitchenware factory until he took over the family florist shop. He went to Queensland to start something horticultural and was hired to drive a truck for a couple of days on a production, and was re-hired as a unit manager. He never looked back. 

‘I always give people a go. You find someone who’s got a bit of nous – usually the best people have been out in the real world. People preferably who haven’t been to film school, who are street savvy, who can take the knocks and speak to everyone from a homeless person in the street to the Prime Minister. 

‘You have got to be able to dedicate yourself, to throw yourself in there and appease everyone and communicate. The main thing is to listen. 

‘And to be able to solve problems for people – never ask them to solve problems, you solve it all for them. You come with the answers. 

‘usually the best people have been out in the real world… who are street savvy, who can take the knocks and speak to everyone from a homeless person in the street to the Prime Minister.’ 

Steve Brett

‘I look for savvy people, trades people are really good, people who have come out of other than management in the hospitality industry, people who have been self-employed.. They are usually the best, the all-rounders. 

‘Who can devote a lot of hours. It’s 24-7 when you are on board. And you’ve got to rise to the occasion. 

‘I look at it as sink-or-swim. You throw them in head first and you can certainly tell if they are going to make it. The people who do problem solve, the people who do survive on locations.’

Turning locations into a career

For a long time, younger people coming into the location department saw the job as a stepping stone. They wanted to be producers or directors, or heads of department and saw the chance to get exposure. 

But Steve Brett is seeing a change, as his young recruits see the department as a great place to work in itself. It is challenging work, with great variety and it tests your ability to be organised, and calm, and calming, and able to work under pressure. 

Location managers sign a contract in every place the production invades. They guarantee that everything will be returned to its original condition, after everyone else has gone, as if they had never been there. And that is what they do and it’s the final touch of satisfaction in the job. 

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.