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Will Ferrell (Finalized);John C Reilly (Finalized) Holmes & Watson

The unexpected life of a movie location manager

From ‘Inception’ to ‘Holmes & Watson’, David Campbell-Bell tells us about a career spent putting London in the Hollywood lights and managing egos

Written by
Thomas Hobbs

When I tell people I’m a location manager for Hollywood movies they assume it’s incredibly glamorous, but I actually spend most of my time on the phone trying to persuade people to let directors do something crazy. I have to make a director’s vision come to life by finding the perfect location while avoiding anything that could expose a studio to legal liabilities.

I love the challenge of finding the right location. For ‘Holmes & Watson’ we couldn’t use the real Baker Street, as it just didn’t look right, and it was too open for us to control the area while we were filming a musical number. We ended up using Gordon Square in Bloomsbury instead. For period films I have to find places that are frozen in time.

At the moment, I’m working as location manager on [2019’s ‘Fast and Furious’ spin-off] ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. One of its scenes involved landing a helicopter outside St Paul’s Cathedral, the first time a film had got permission to do that. The current terrorism fears made it really tricky to pull off, but my aim is always to persuade people that they’re helping to create movie magic.

I was lucky to get my first job as a runner on ‘Band of Brothers’. I got to share a set with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, even if I just washed cars and cleaned the loos. But I caught the filmmaking bug instantly. I was a student at the time but I dropped out of university. From there I moved through the ranks, graduating from location assistant to an assistant location manager on Woody Allen’s ‘Cassandra’s Dream’.

Puzzle-solving is one of my favourite aspects of the job. For instance, on ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’, there’s a chase sequence where Tom Cruise runs from the roof of St Paul’s to Blackfriars Bridge and then on to the roof of Tate Modern; that one scene took months to plan. I had to convince various London councils, the Port of London Authority and Network Rail to let us do it.

‘Michael Bay’s schedule is more slippery than a dodgy otter’

But things don’t always run smoothly. Tom broke his ankle on the second day of filming, which was a nightmare for me as it completely reset our location schedule. But he was the ultimate professional and ended up back on set faster than any of us ever imagined he would. On ‘Inception’ with Christopher Nolan, we were filming at Bloomsbury House when a fan breached security and threw herself at Leonardo DiCaprio. Just as security ushered her away, her sister ran on to the set, also screaming. We had to calmly explain that she wasn’t in a movie.

Keeping a director like Michael Bay happy on ‘Transformers: The Last Knight’ was also a challenge. Bay’s schedule is more slippery than a dodgy otter. He has such infectious energy, so making his shots a reality was definitely invigorating. For ‘Holmes & Watson’, we managed to shoot at the Tower of London for a big musical number with Will Ferrell while the site was still open, which was a real achievement. Off-camera, there were hundreds of tourists; what you see on screen is just a fraction of the physical footprint we occupy. It’s my job to make the impossible, possible.

’Holmes & Watson’ opens Dec 26. 

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