An Interview With – Location Manager Peter Conway
Peter Conway is an Irish location manager who has worked on the likes of Vikings, Disco Pigs, King Arthur, Inspector George Gently, Albert Nobbs and Haywire. The location manager is responsible for finding and securing locations to be used for filming. Niamh Creely, for Film Ireland, talked to Peter Conway about bringing Dublin to the big screen in Haywire, starring Gina Carano, and Albert Nobbs, starring Glenn Close.
So how did you get into location managing?
I’m from County Waterford. So when a Channel 4 TV production shot in County Waterford, I went up and got a summer job. It was a real eye-opener. I had no idea of the skill and equipment and preparation that actually went into a shoot. So then I moved to Dublin and worked on the next production and the next production.
And you were just kind of drawn to the locations side of things then.
It’s a very varied job. The nice thing about being a location manager is that we deal with pretty much most of the crew. From the very outset, we get the script and you spend time with the director and production designer. As the locations start to fall into place you then begin to get into the nuts and bolts of the shoot. You know, now we have picked where we are going to shoot, how will we actually do it? How do we actually light a particular street or building or how do we actually shoot a car stunt scene? You might need to close the street, for example. And then we would deal with the authorities – a city council or a town council, or if you’re shooting in the street, you’re dealing with the residents committees or the residents. And with a large production you’ll have what we call a unit base. It’s like a village, with catering and hair and make-up and wardrobe and crew car parking. It’s like moving a small circus around a city or around the country. We have to deal with everything, down to when we’re finished filming and we have to start putting everything back. We might have to repaint a house, for example. It’s quite a process. We end up dealing with so many people on so many different levels, it can be very satisfying.
And what do you think of the rise in CGI – do you think that will change the film industry’s need for locations?
Well, to be honest it hasn’t really detracted a whole lot from what we do. We’re still extraordinarily busy and CGI is actually a great help. I remember doing some period stuff in the late ’90s in Dublin and we had to remove telephone wires and satellite dishes and so on, which is incredibly difficult. Getting permission to remove someone’s satellite dish for a couple of days or to bury telephone lines underground – it’s very expensive and time-consuming. So the advent of CGI has eliminated a lot of that. I was involved in Neverland last year, which was the Peter Pan thing for Sky. And a lot of that was CGI. That was on a different level. They were literally creating locations from scratch and it was interesting to see. Perhaps, you know, in ten years there won’t be a need for location managers. But that, I think, remains to be seen
Anyone familiar with Dublin city centre got an extra bonus watching Haywire. You’re used to seeing chase sequences in anonymous American cities, but this time you get to see Gina Carano freerun across Dublin rooftops in what looks like a geographically accurate manner. I’m guessing this was not a cinch, logistically speaking?
Gina Carano jumps over Dublin’s skyline in Haywire
Yes. I have to admit from the outset, I was somewhat surprised at the nature of the project. They described it as The Bourne Identity
with a female lead, so I thought it was quite interesting to come to Dublin to shoot it. When Steven Soderbergh arrived one of the first things that we learned is that he didn’t like to cheat anything. When we’re filming, usually there’s some element of cheating, maybe the interior is somewhere and the exterior is somewhere else. But we found out pretty quickly that was something he didn’t like doing. So you are right. When you see the movie, it all makes geographical sense. For example, there was a scene where she runs to a hotel. And naturally enough from a logistical point of view and from a production point of view we would see if we could find perhaps an empty space or something that we could adapt as a hotel. But no, he wanted to shoot for real. We ended up shooting in Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey Street and the Shelbourne Hotel in the lobby area, which is no mean feat in one of the busiest hotels in Dublin.
So it was all shot on location then?
Yes. Everything else that you see inside the Shelbourne, that was all shot in the hotel itself. Though for obvious reasons, because the fight scene in the room was so detailed and choreographed, that was an exact copy of the room, built in Ardmore Studios. But of course the rooftop chase sequence was the most complicated thing to put together. It all happens very quickly when you see it but that actually took months to figure out. We decided that she darts into Wynn’s Hotel and once we found a way from Wynn’s Hotel up onto their roof, then between the stunt co-ordinator and the production designer and Steven Soderbergh, we figured out a logical route that she might take as she is being pursued. But then our job after that was quite difficult. We had to go and approach each individual building to get on to the roof, which, trust me, can be quite difficult. We had many, many roofs and on each roof there were different requirements. We employed a structural engineer to assess the weight-bearing capacity of each roof and that it could take the weight of 60 people and various different pieces of equipment. We had another engineer employed also to photograph and then trial every roof for any damage that might have been there before we shot, so in the event of any litigation afterwards, we were covered. By the time we got to shoot the rooftop chase sequence, which took two-and-a-half days to shoot, we had had months and months of preparation to actually get to that point.
And then of course, there’s Russborough House in Wicklow as well.
Yes. In the initial recces, that location wasn’t a requirement. They just said, ‘Are there any period homes in Ireland?’ I was like, ‘Of course there are. There are lots.’ So we brought them to see a couple and pretty quickly Steven Soderbergh decided Russborough was the one for him.
And then with Albert Nobbs, you were faced with a completely different kind of challenge – recreating late 19th century Dublin. Location scouting started back in 2001, but you were involved from a later stage, right?
Mia Wasikowska and Glenn Close walk the streets of Dublin in Albert Nobbs
Yes. In 2001, Glenn Close and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein came to Ireland and scouted locations. Cabinteely House they immediately identified as a good location for all the interior hotel scenes. Ten years later they came back, which is when I got involved. But you’re right. To shoot 1890s Dublin in 2010 Dublin was an incredible challenge. Because although we have a lot of period streets, when you actually start trying to figure out how to shoot something like Albert Nobbs
in a modern city, it’s difficult. I mean, obviously, Dublin is a fantastic Georgian city. But when you break down the script and you realise you need six or seven different streetscapes, you suddenly run out of them pretty quick. We ended up shooting on Bath Street in Ringsend, which had a couple of period buildings and a laneway that the art department then dressed. Then we restaged a number of scenes into Glasnevin Cemetery, which is a wonderful period cemetery and we shot Grafton Street in the courtyard in Dublin Castle. And we shot another street scene in the Iveagh Gardens in the centre of Dublin, so those were all beautiful period locations that we used instead of shooting on real streets.
Well I think the two films really show the range of locations in Dublin.
Yes, the level of international film in Ireland has gone up in recent years I think. People are now aware of what Ireland has to offer in terms of urban locations in period Dublin and other cities around Ireland. And the outstanding countryside is also a huge draw for production. I was involved in Astérix and Obélix that shot last year in Ireland. A huge part of that was shot down in the Burren in County Clare, a very unique landscape. But to go back to Albert Nobbs and Haywire, filming in a busy modern city has huge difficulties when you are moving a large production around. So the Irish Film Board are a massive help in anything of that nature. And the Film Dublin Partnership is a fantastic asset that enables us to access the fire department and the police department and so on. It’s made doing a large production in a downtown location much easier in recent years.
The Film Dublin Partnership?
It was set up through the Irish Film Board. For large productions, if you’re shooting downtown and you need to close a street, the Film Board will set up a meeting basically with all of Film Dublin Partnership’s members. So if you need to contact Dublin Bus or An Garda Síochána or if you need traffic control or street closures, it’s an opportunity for a location manager like myself to go in and speak to all of them in one meeting. The Film Dublin Partnership works fantastically, particularly for large high-impact productions like Haywire and Albert Nobbs, where you really need the city to kind of come on board.
This interview first appeared in Issue 141 of Film Ireland Magazine.