Issue date: 
Tuesday, 12 December 2023

The last few years have been busy for filmmaker Robin Murphy.  She produced feature films Punch and Lowdown Dirty Criminals and managed locations for TV series’ After the Party, The Gone, Sweet Tooth and One of Us Is Lying.

What is it about location managing a project that draws you to that role?

I enjoy location managing because it’s one of the few roles on a production where you spend a lot of time interacting with the community. I used to be an AD and was on set all the time with the crew and that was fantastic, but there's something nice about being able to go out and interact with the rest of the world.

When I'm looking at a project there are lots of things to consider. There's the script, the team, the director, the producer, and at this at my time of life, the deal. Earlier on that was less important but these days, I'm a bit more discerning about what I take on. I guess it's really the whole package.

How do you go about pitching locations to a producer while keeping the director's vision in mind?

It’s so different on every production. I think it's a tricky thing navigating the director's creative vision and what's going to work as a location logistically for a producer.  The skill is to always find the balancing act between the two.

I might show a director some photos that's not exactly what they visualized and they're like, “Oh no, we don't want that” and I say “I really recommend that we go and have a look at it”.  Visiting the location is an entirely different experience and can be essential to getting it over the line, often because they get to see the logistical advantages as well. 

How do you balance accommodating the director's creative vision and logistics?

For me personally, I'm not one to pussyfoot around. My style is to be direct, maybe sometimes to my disadvantage. But once you've been doing it a while and you know the area they are looking at you can upfront say “I think it's going to be really hard to find this location, we should look at some different ideas”. It's a really complex process balancing what the director wants, what's feasible within the budget, and what's physically available in the area that you're filming.

At what stage does the production designer come on board?

It depends a bit on the production and what your timeframes are. Sometimes your production designer is under the pump and there's not enough time for them to come on location recces. However, if possible, when you first take a director to a location it's good to have the production designer there.

Swing Bridge on the walk to Mt Sunday Image supplied by ChristchurchNZ

What do you think is key to a great location filming experience for the crew on site?

The key for the crew is keeping it as stress-free as possible. Really prepping everything thoroughly and prepping the crew and access is very important.

You also have to manage expectations. Making sure HODs have the opportunity to see the locations and to really drill down on what their issues are, before you get there. So, it's a two-way street. You have to understand what their requirements are, and they need to understand what the limitations might be at your end, and you just sort of work together and try and figure out a solution.

How do you deliver on those expectations?

It's kind of a bit of psychology. The key is that their experience is as stress-free and smooth as possible because that affects the whole production. If it's going to take them half an hour to get their gear into a location, then that's going to affect the schedule. There's a lot of discussions that happen around that kind of stuff.

How does your experience as a first AD help?

One of the things I found moving across to location managing was that my first AD experience was invaluable. In a way I was lucky because I had already spent many years on sets with directors trying to make logistics work from an AD perspective and also trying to understand the director’s vision. You've got to understand which are the important scenes, where they might need more time and which scenes you can rush through. Those kinds of learned skills were really helpful when I crossed over into location managing because I already knew how to talk to directors about what their vision was and what they needed to achieve logistically.
How does your AD and locations experience inform your producing? 

As a producer having an intimate understanding of all the logistics is essential because you're going to be able to budget it more effectively and accurately.  You're going to understand how the schedule works.

I guess in a way I'm a bit unique that I've done so much of everything. I’ve been producing off and on for 20 odd years, it's very rarely that I go over budget. I know what's involved and it really helps to have all that experience, certainly as a location manager.

On which project have you had the most extraordinary location managing experience and what made it so brilliant?

The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be the most extraordinary location managing experience, and ironically, it was only my second ever location managing job. I was working as a 1st AD when they were starting up the production for The Lord of the Rings.

I signed on as the supervising location manager and the production brought in a supervising unit location manager who had worked on a lot of big productions internationally. He was able to deal a lot with the logistics because I didn't have that kind of experience. I was really lucky to have him there alongside me. I was dealing more with Peter Jackson, to understand what he needed.

After I accepted the job, it all happened quite quickly. I arrived in Wellington and within a couple of days I was in and out of a helicopter into the snow on top of a mountain in the deep south of the South Island, sort of pinching myself thinking “What the hell?” I suddenly realised “Wow, I'm in this amazing world that I never thought existed in terms of filmmaking.”

The most extraordinary time was going out to the Edoras set, which was out of Christchurch at the Rangitata River. It was a big river and it had a sort of mountain in the middle. The crew had literally built a three-kilometre long road across the river and up onto this hill where construction had started.

Edoras location The Lord of the Rings Mt Sunday, Canterbury - Image supplied by ChristchurchNZ

What do you think is the key to having quality location consulting and permitting discussions, the driver of good outcomes for the production?

The best driver is having enough time. Getting in early and being able to have those discussions early on. I trick I learned over the years is to ask for more time than I thought we needed.

When you're filming in Wellington and Auckland they have very specific permit processing systems in place so that makes it a lot easier. But, if you go to a small town in the middle of the North Island and they've never had a film crew there, you have to work it out with them.

The Department of Conservation have evolved a lot in the last 25 years, since we did The Lord of the Rings. When it came to iwi consultation back then, DOC preferred to do it all themselves, but these days they encourage you to go directly to iwi and have your own relationship with them. So they have evolved as well.

Each council is a little bit different and these days with the way funding works a lot of projects have an iwi liaison person or a producer that takes on that role for the production, which is the way it should be done.

What has been the most challenging location management role you've had so far?

I don't want to harp on about The Lord of the Rings because it was so long ago, but that was the most challenging, because it was so big. There had been big budget American productions come into New Zealand to shoot as a location prior, but that one felt like a Kiwi film because it had Kiwis at the helm.

But other projects, After the Party was quite a challenging job because they wanted to shoot at a lot of different locations. When you have a large volume of locations you have more people to deal with, more Council applications and you have to try and deliver everything in a short period of time so everything is under pressure. 

I also worked on The Gone which was a crime show and the police in the show were always going to different places.  I've noticed over the years that there's a tendency to do more on location and less in a studio. Both The Gone and After the Party were purely location shoots.

Island Bay 

How do you prepare location owners or permitting agencies for handling unexpected changes or emergencies for that planned use of the location?

It's really important to be upfront about the shoot and have the hard conversations at the beginning. For example, ‘content’ can be an issue. You may want to shoot a gory murder scene in a house and the owners might not be ok with that. You have to present the worst-case scenario up front then you've got plenty of time to go and find another location. At the end of the day, if you're asking someone to film on their property it's completely their decision as to what they allow you to shoot in their house.  Then if you've got that good relationship because you've been open and honest, everyone is on an equal footing and when change does happen it’s easy to connect and negotiate with them. Managing expectations is really key.

What are the key skills and attitudes which you think makes for ideal scouting talent?

I do some scouting myself and again it comes back to what I was saying about trying to understand what the director wants, but also being creative in that process to offer up other options.

A good scout will take photos in all directions, think about key angles and maybe alter the lens size a little bit. One thing to avoid is wide angle lenses because they make everything look bigger and then you go to the location and the director’s like, “This place is really small”. It's better to have several photos more at 50mm kind of level, basically equivalent to what you see through your eyes.

Having good labelling and ordering the photos in a logical way is key. If I’m taking photos of a house, I always like to start with the exteriors. Organizing the photos in a logical order that matches what the script requirements are, enables the director to connect more easily to the location.

Which skills do you think are most essential for people looking to get into location coordinating or managing as a career?

People skills are good. Understanding of logistics. It's not just finding the location, it's where are you going to park, how we're going to service it for makeup and costume, where are the buses going and making sure your comms are good.  

I think being practical is a huge skill, it's not all theoretical. Being organized, especially making sure you’ve got your paperwork in order.

Each location manager works in a different way. I tend to be a delegator. I think it comes from my AD background. I would just say, “OK, onsite manager, you manage your crew, come to me if you've got any questions or issues or problems.” I expect them to decide when their crew are going to turn up, how they’re going to stagger calls times because it's a long day and you can't have people working 15-hour days.

The coordinating role is office-based. They must be good at running a budget or helping me run the budget. They need to develop a good relationship with the accounts department and ensure that invoices are getting through and are being paid.

A couple of years ago, I did a very low budget – The Māori Sidesteps. There was a crew of 20 people and two vans and a small truck so I could do it all myself.   

These days, most mainstream television or film productions, you have a team anywhere from two to 10 people. Or if it's a big production, you might have up to 20 people, but that's pretty rare.

What are your hopes for the future of screen production in New Zealand?

I would hope that the NZ government continues to support the industry in a meaningful way with both local and international productions to ensure sustainability for our industry, which often struggles with the ebb and flow of work.

I have a personal campaign to get more women into location managing as it's currently very male dominated. There's always talk of getting more women into directing and camera, and those roles are important and increasing, but we're not seeing many women who wholeheartedly want to get into location managing, so I do my best to make sure I have as many women as I can find for each job, especially on set, and see if I can get them to fall in love with it....

Can you highlight a list of 5 or so favourite projects you have worked on?

The Lord of the Rings trilogy 1999 - 2004

Outrageous Fortune (series 2 & 3) 2005 - 2006

Pork Pie (remake) 2015

Sweet Tooth (pilot) 2018

After The Party 2023

Last updated: 
Friday, 15 December 2023