What do you actually do?! Episode 8: Richard Knight, Production liaison and former Location Manager

Today’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? is all about working in film and television. We’re talking to Richard Knight, who works in production liaison for Screen Yorkshire, and he is also a former location manager.

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KM: “You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do Podcast – each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip, or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. Hello and welcome to this episode of What do you actually do?! My name’s Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode we’ll be talking about working in the film industry. Today we’re joined by Richard Knight, who works at Screen Yorkshire in Production Liaison and Education and is also a former Location Manager. So, Richard what do you actually do?

RK: Hi, thanks for having me. Well now, at Screen Yorkshire, what I do is I help with all of the film and television projects which come to Yorkshire which are seeking to film here. Some that are actually already filming here, across a whole range of different sizes and scales. So, what Screen Yorkshire, the film office does is, if a producer gets in touch they might be calling from LA, they might be calling from Leeds, or York, or any of them. If they need help with setting up their shoot, they might need locations advice, they might need advice on local authority contacts, they might need accommodation or supplies. Our job at the film office is to assist those productions. So we have a locations database which we can dip into, we know all of the local authority contacts which we share with productions. The idea is to make filming in Yorkshire as easy as possible for productions. Give them the best experience of filming in Yorkshire as possible, so that they really enjoy it and come back. The end result of that is to drive the local regional economy, to drive the creative industries in Yorkshire.

KM: So, you help make it happen?   

RK: We help make it happen, yes. The other side to the business that we also do is, we manage a fund, a content fund, which invests in projects on a commercial basis. So, we have potential investment to projects that also helps bring them in. We’d typically invest around, no more than 10% of the total budget on commercial terms, so we want to invest in projects to get return back so we can reinvest. One of our conditions is they’re either a Yorkshire based company or they do the bulk of their filming in Yorkshire. So we’ve had, Dad’s Army, the feature film, which came to Yorkshire specifically because of our investment. We’ve had Official Secrets, starring Keira Knightley. The first Peaky Blinders series, came to Yorkshire, so a massive list of projects that wouldn’t have come to Yorkshire were it not for Screen Yorkshire’s involvement. The final thing that we do at the moment is, we do a lot of training and development. So I lead on that at Screen Yorkshire. That is engaging with universities through our connected campus initiative, we work with Screenskills, who have funded various boot camp training courses, we’ve done some specific further training and development, continuous professional development for specific grades. One of the big challenges that we have is finding local crew who work on all of these projects, and that’s a key part of it.

KM: So its kind of bringing different projects here, but also making sure that you’ve got the infrastructure in place to support them when they do come.

RK: Yeah, exactly that. That is one of the main reasons my job initially was created at Screen Yorkshire, to provide some of that practical logistical support. At the time, four or five years ago, Screen Yorkshire was just ticking along as a much smaller company. We’ve had the remit and the funding to expand, but at the time it was exactly that – to provide further support to the projects because they needed it. 

KM: So, from my stalking of you, you’ve worked for many years as a Location Manager, is that kind of location management experience what made you a good fit for this role? Because you’ve got that experience of all the logistical stuff?

RK: Yes I think so, yes. Because of my connection to industry, and having worked on the frontlines of it since 1998. I did about six years in London but predominantly, in recent years, in Yorkshire. I know the region like the back of my hand basically. So, I know where the doubles are for Kensington for Islington when we’re asked to find them. I know where things can work. I know also, quite importantly sometimes, what we don’t have in Yorkshire. So we can very quickly assist productions. So my encyclopaedic knowledge of it is great. The other thing I’m also good at, which I feel I really bring to Screen Yorkshire is the knowledge of the local crew and just knowing the difficulties and the challenges that each shoot faces. I can see challenges coming a mile off. They send me the script, I can go “that’s going to be a difficult day. That’s going to be a difficult day”. So I can pre-empt and second guess problems, almost, before some of the crew do because I’m so experienced, basically. 

KM: So where did your interest in film, TV – that kind of stuff, where did it all come from?

RK: Well, it’s an interesting story. I grew up on a farm in Staffordshire. Very small farm. I was the first of my generation, first of my family to go to university, trained to be a surveyor. I never thought, I loved film don’t get me wrong, but I never thought I’d ever get into it. I got into it, I remember, a really really bad example of getting into the film industry, because I got into it through nepotism. I went to school in Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, a kid in the year above me ended up getting into film and he was Shane Meadows. So, through various means, he ended up making some short films that did really well, then he made 24/7 his first major feature film that won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1997. He was friends with my cousin, who was in a band, he used their music in the film and I got into it through that, basically.

KM: So was this sort of a happy accident? 

RK: Yes it was, yeah. I never thought I’d ever see Shane again and so yeah it was. I’d finished my degree, didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was working in a call centre. It came out that Shane was doing his feature film, Room for Romeo Brass in Nottingham, they needed a Production Assistant, so I got the job. I think one of the things that stuck me in some good stead was I didn’t know the film industry at all. So I just owned the role that I was in. So I was just a really good assistant. Off the back of that I got some running work. It was still really stop starty then. I did some work for the BBC down in London – blagged a load of different stuff to get on that job. Then it dried up again. I was back doing office work.

I’d realised very early on, on the very first day I ever worked in the film industry, I met the Location Manager of a Room for Romeo Brass in Pret, and that was the first time I’d ever knew that the job existed. It was revelatory for me. It was like “oh someone goes out and finds them” you know. I was top of the school in geography. I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the UK. I was really into landscape photography. I had a camera bought for my thirteenth birthday and it was a standing joke on our holidays – we only ever used to go to Wales – but it was always we needed to stop at any viewpoints so that I could take a photo. So I’ve somehow turned that into a living.

So, locations was something then that I really decided to focus on. As a role it’s very interesting. It’s very left brain, right brain. We as locations get a project very early. Not many of the crew realise exactly what we do – which is great to be able to articulate it now. What locations do, we obviously break down the script and find the locations. It could be anything. It could be penthouse apartment, national gallery. You know, sometimes locations are named in the script, it makes it a bit easier to find them. Pubs come up all the time; hospitals, police stations on dramas. Usually we’ll get told “you’re based in Manchester”, “you’re based in London” and then you get eight weeks to go out and find them all. It’s a lot of door knocking. It’s a lot of being creative with reading the script, working out with the director, with the designer, how they want it to look. Getting into the head of the director and what they’ve got in mind for these characters, particularly character’s houses. So, there’s clues in the script if it says “they drive a porsche” and “they’ve got a pool” then that tells you the sort of house you’ve got to find for them. Other times it’s not in the script and you have to almost go back to the writer to find out what it is that they want. Then you apply your knowledge of the area to try to find those places. Then it’s a lot of letter dropping to residents. “Would you be interested in your house being used for the film?” For every ten, twenty letters you post through people’s doors you get one reply because everyone thinks “filming? That’s not us. We don’t do film. What are they on about?”. Then they throw the letter in the bin and go and sit and watch TV,  watch something that was shot in Yorkshire, on a street like theirs, they just never saw it happen. So, a lot of it is just being the persistence of trying to get into places. As a location manager we would normally not pick them, but we offer up options. So, we might go and in a week say, find half a dozen decent looking properties for this particular character. On the Friday the director arrives, jumps in the car, we drive around and look at maybe three that they’ve selected from the photographs that they like. They’ll stand in there with the script and um and ah and decide how it might work. The production designer joins that recce, decides “hey we love this house, it’s brilliant. However, that wall’s in the wrong place. So could we just knock that down?”

KM: Do they actually do that? Do you knock down walls?

RK: Oh yeah it’s happened to me numerous times. 

KM: In people’s houses?

RK: Yeah if the rest of the house is amazing and they want to shoot it on location. I’ve had two houses knocked into one, once, yeah. It’s rare but it happens.

KM: Do they rebuild it afterwards?

RK: Yeah. They have to commit in writing to rebuild it afterwards. So suddenly I then become, this is the thing that happens, the creative side, usually if they want to do loads to a location, if they go in and go “Right we’ve got to repaint it. This wall’s in the wrong place. The kitchen’s the wrong look. We’d have to change this. We’d have to move all their furniture out.” You, as a location manager and a team have to just go “Hang on a minute, we’re in the wrong house here. Give me another week. I’ll find something a bit nearer to what you want.” At some point the pressure of the shoot kicks in and you run out of time. And then they have to either compromise and go “Right ok. That one you’ve found, yeah ok we’ll paint it but maybe we won’t do that knock down of wall. Maybe we won’t change the kitchen because we’ll just compromise on the look.” Then it would be my fault, obviously, because I haven’t done my job. Then what happens is you’ll finish the shoot and it’ll be amazing, and everything will look great and all those issues will be forgotten. Then about two weeks afterwards you’ll be scouting on your next project and walk straight into the one that you needed to have found four months ago. It happens all the time, yes. 

So yes, it’s very left brain. Once the locations are found we then would go into all of the contracting. We organise all of the paperwork; the location fees.  We’ll do road closures if we’re doing an explosion in the middle of York, say. I’ll need to close down certain areas, liaise with all the businesses nearby, liaise with the council, liaise with the police. A lot of management organising the parking. Sometimes we can be shooting through the night in residential areas with massive lights on cranes. When someone walks up to a shoot, screaming their head off going “Who’s in charge here!?”, the crew point to me and then it’s me who has to deal with it. I’ve had death threats several times because I have worked on things like This is England and Utopia, in particular, Four Lions. My background, my history of work has been not so much the Castle Howard kind of country estates, more the urban estates.

KM: Gritty urban drama *laughs*. 

RK: They don’t so much ride around in Land Rovers, it’s mopeds and things and cause trouble. So, I’ve learned a lot of PR skills. The whole thing is like panic PR. It’s like panic event management because every day you’re moving seventy eighty crew, ten or twelve massive trucks and it all arrives in one location. We’ll shoot there, then the whole thing moves, then it moves again, and moves again and moves again. The hours; we have to be first there, to see everybody in. We have to be last there, to see everybody out. Fifteen sixteen hour days are regular. 

KM: So, it sounds like it’s a huge job. It’s really multifaceted. You’ve got this creativity. You’ve got to have this vision in your mind but you’ve got to really communicate really effectively to understand what the other players are looking for. But then you’ve got all this logistical stuff, the being really massively organised, on top of everything. The kind of negotiation skills to work with the public. It sounds like it’s an unusual combination of loads of different skills. Are there any other sort of personal qualities, or any other skills that you can think of that you really need to have to work in that location management side of things? 

RK: Yeah. I think, there’s a range of ways in. You can join it from all sorts of different directions because it’s so multifaceted. So, assistants of mine have come in through hospitality, bar work, working at festivals. Anything that involves customer facing, anyone who’s outgoing and reasonably bright immediately has potential qualities that are useful. There are location managers out there who come through the unit manager side of things, which is more the parking the trucks, and organising the directions and they can do that for quite a while and then they get the location manager job and they are given a camera and they barely know which way to point it, at a location. So a certain creative aptitude is very useful.

So I also know location managers and location scouts who I’ve worked with and worked for who are brilliant artists. They’re photographers, they’re intelligent, they understand the language of film and their ability to go out and second guess what a director of photography might want or a director might want, and to really get under the skin of what’s required is amazing. And then their ability to park the trucks is hopeless. So, it’s trying to be a bit of an all-rounder, you know. So, it does take a lot to do.

A lot of the best producers that I know, and line producers – a line producer sits under the producer and looks after the budget , the budget is divided into lines, its where the name line producer comes from. A lot of those, the best ones I know have had some time in the locations department. Because of that interactivity with the set and seeing it all for real, you can come up through a production office, work in a production office on a show, like ‘Victoria’ say, or some other big show, and never really spend much time on the set. So you can sit there ordering and paying for a fifty five metre cherry picker, to put a massive half wendy light on, and not actually know what a fifty five metre cherry picker looks like and how driving that through the middle of York causes beyond chaos because it’s absolutely massive. So, you physically, as locations, you physically get to see all of the work coming together. So, the chances for progression through up to production level are really really good.

Yeah, in terms of qualities it’s very much an all-round role. Resilience is what’s needed. This week I had a unit manager on the phone to me in floods of tears. Just because of the pressure. She just is not getting enough sleep and she’s been pressured because they haven’t got enough money on the project. She’s being pressured because they want things that she just physically can’t find and can’t deliver in the time. The sense of team work that is engendered on a shoot, you feel personally responsible for letting the side down, and it hurts and I’ve had it myself. The length of the hours and stress is one of the reasons I wanted to leave the front line and take the Screen Yorkshire job. Because it’s a lot more structured, I get a lot more strategic side of things, I get a bigger overview, and I don’t have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and deal with a blocked toilet on a unit base in the middle of some God awful moorland where it’s barely minus five, you know. So yeah, it’s not all glam, believe me. 

KM: So you’ve done your time, doing that. You’re painting sort of, there are some real down sides to that role. What would you say you really loved about the location management stuff?

RK: The best times I had were when the script said something really interesting like “the character jumps over a wall and explodes”, like in Four Lions or in Utopia where a character gets pushed off a penthouse balcony. You as locations, we’re the first people who go in to these places. So I have to go and find a penthouse and I speak to the building manager and they say “Oh so who are you then? Oh we’re doing filming? What would you like to do?” Well *laughs*. We’d like a stunt man to drop off your penthouse roof. And it’s brilliant because you are the most crazy enquiry. I call people who handle a hundred calls a day and I’m the most crazy enquiry. And I love being the most crazy enquiry. It’s brilliant.

The creative side when you solve a problem that is in the story that is in the script, if you solve it. For example, on Utopia, we had this whole sequence where there was an island, supposedly a Scottish island that had been closed down because there was a big outbreak of the supposed virus on it. We were filming near Liverpool. So it was where can we find a Scottish island near Liverpool? So I know the geography of the UK really well, so I suggested Bardsey Island which is at the far end of the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales. However, the method of getting onto Bardsey Island is one boat that takes about five people and we wanted field hospitals, field shelters, army vehicles and personnel. So we couldn’t physically make it work at Bardsey. So I had the idea of hey, why don’t we go half way between those two places – the Great Orme’s Head in Llandudno. That is a peninsula of land that juts out over the sea, it’s got sea on all sides, it looks like Bardsey, but we can drive to it.  So, I said well look, let’s get the character on the boat and we’ll get over to Bardsey, we’ll shoot his arrival at Bardsey, two armed guards at the harbour of Bardsey. That was all we shot there. Dead simple, minimal unit. Everything else we did on Great Orme’s Head and it cuts together like clockwork. It looks brilliant and I made that happen. I came up with that and I sit and watch it and visually it’s creative, beautiful. It’s all shot in widescreen, beautiful, that’s why I love Utopia it’s one of the best locations work I’ve ever done. And I get to sit and I watch that at ten o’clock on Channel 4 with however million other people, and I sit there and I go that was me. I did that, you know. No one knows. All the crew think we just park the bloomin’ trucks, but I know that I did it. When it’s cinema as well, watching This is England and things, where I’m in the cinema at the premiere screening at the West End, the biggest screen in the UK, and there are my locations. It’s like having your photography shown to the world. It’s just brilliant.

KM: So, it’s that real sense of satisfaction to see it at the end.

RK: Exactly. So, creative satisfaction was one of the key things.

KM: Ok. Just to finish up, thinking about students who are keen to break into this kind of sector. What are the sort of challenges on the horizon coming up in the future? Anything that you can think of that people should be trying to anticipate for where things are going in the industry.             

RK: I think in terms of production there’s a small concern that’s been mooted around the locations world, which is VFX. Because so much is happening in post now, that there are certain location managers who have just recently been mentioning that. So much is happening in VFX that our side of it is potentially being diminished because you don’t need to find these amazing locations anymore. You can just find some spaces and then everything else happens in post. So that is a concern.

In terms of production, it’s never been better and certainly in locations we’re short, well we have been short. I’m now sitting here now talking to you knowing that there’s a project in Yorkshire that needs a location assistant to start ASAP for four weeks and I can’t find anybody. I’ve trained up dozens of them over the last few years and know people who could do it, runners who could do it, AD’s, anyone interested in production could go and be the location assistant on this set and I can’t get anybody. So there’s shortages definitely.

Channel 4 coming to Yorkshire, for anyone Yorkshire based, is obviously really big. We’ve just heard today that Endemol Shine are setting up a Leeds office. So the Channel 4 effect is already happening. So in terms of locations, the key thing with locations in particular, is just trying to look for the opportunities and just aligning yourself for that, by being the person that sells themselves as being useful to that production, by not going into any interview with a location manager talking about your show reel and about your influences from David Lynch and all of that kind of thing. By talking about, you can work the hours, and you know how to use a radio, and you’re more than happy to help muck in tidying a location at the end of the day – that will get you the job. And from there you can get a lot more creative. Once you get into location manager the rest of the production world is potentially your oyster because of the skill set. 

KM: And you’re getting that insight into everything. Building those connections. 

Well thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us today, it’s been really useful. We’re going to put some links etc. to where students can find out more about working in the sector. But thanks again for joining us.

RK: No problem. Thanks for having me.

KM: Thanks for joining us this week on What do you actually do!? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris. Edited by Raquel Bartra and produced by both of us. If you love this podcast, spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more useful tips? Follow University of York Careers on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are on this episode’s description, and we’ll be back next week.