Film Studies 101: Being A Location Manager

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Haunter of departure lounges in pre-production and quartermaster general on set, the location manager's role spans the duration of a film's production. For Jamie Lengyel, Supervising Location Manager on Avengers: Age Of Ultron, work started with a first read of the script in 2013, followed by travel across four continents and culminating with supervision of the UK arm of Joss Whedon's superhero epic. We asked Lengyel to share the tricks of his trade.

Warning: contains mild Avengers spoilers

EMPIRE IS SITTING IN A SOHO CAFE having a cuppa with a member of HYDRA. It's an unexpected revelation, not least for the man in question. "How did you know that?!" puzzles Jamie Lengyel, AKA 'Evil HYDRA Scientist'. Thanks to IMDb, Avengers: Age Of Ultron's supervising location manager's secret cameo is out of the bag. "I'm a bit dumbstruck," he laughs. "Joss [Whedon] cast me in Baron Strucker's lair, possibly because of my lack of hair. When I asked our cinematographer what my performance was like, he looked at the ground a bit."

It's probably as well that Iron Man, Thor and co. put a swift end to his days of evil science on screen, because his responsibilities off it are onerous enough. First in and last out on any production, Lengyel's work begins with a copy of the script in one hand and a passport in the other. Ultron, the project he's just bid farewell to, spans four continents. His boots, along with those of his team and director Joss Whedon, were the first on the ground in all of them. "Sometimes I feel like a very privileged Mr Benn, because everyday you're going to different places," he says, stressing the creativity required in the earliest stages of pre-production. "I love the conceptual stuff at the beginning. Working with the [production] designer, Charles Wood, and director on the overall strategy."

My location manager was told that we were the first people to close Mapo Bridge since
Kim Il-Sung. The strategy for this Marvel tentpole was to "go global". It involved breaking ground in Seoul with a colossal tearabout involving Ultron, some lorries and a train. It could equally have been in Hong Kong or Singapore, but South Korea had the advantage of taking "the brand" to new terrain. "The script just says 'Asian city'," he reveals, "so I presented the studios with five or six cities that had good skylines and the infrastructure for this superhero battle. I broke down the sequence into beats and created a very crude map of the geography of the sequence - 'Captain America leaps from bridge to train', 'train taken out by Ultron' - and went to Seoul with a library of ideas."

One of them involved a feat only a long-deceased dictator has pulled off before. "My location manager, Simon ‘Kimchi’ Crook, was told that this was the first time Mapo Bridge has been closed since [North Korea's] Kim Il-Sung invaded in 1950," he grins. But for all Marvel's door-opening (and bridge-closing) leverage - in case you're wondering, Iron Man is the superhero most beloved by bureaucrats - a deft touch is required. "We introduced them to what we would expect from the location," he elaborates. "It was quite a culture shock, both for us and them. We took a softly-softly approach." Unsurprisingly, Lengyel adds diplomacy to a job spec that also includes resilience, positivity, flexibility to changing plans and a Tony Stark-like ability to scoff in the face of adversity.

Those skills were tested again when a key UK location, Hayes's Old Vinyl Factory, earmarked for a big Sokovia battle sequence, went into redevelopment. A breathless search for a replacement led his team to the old police college in Hendon. "It was a tricky negotiation," Lengyel remembers, "because we had to bring in 800 cast and crew, a mini-Glastonbury, and do it without distrupting their work elsewhere on the site." Plan B turned out nicely. "It was three times the size of Hayes. Joss couldn't believe all the toys he had to play with."

Location scouting in Verrès, Italy for Avengers: Age Of Ultron; (Left) the same location, post-battle.

IT MIGHT SEEM LIKE A TRUISM but a love of cinema comes in pretty handy on this job, too. As an archaeology and anthropology student at Nottingham University, Lengyel caught the movie bug in a big way. He's a Wes Anderson nut ("I love the work that's gone into design and locations") with a cineaste's love of the greats, Scorsese, Allen and Hitchcock among them. His post-uni career kicked off with a small Soho production company, turning out short films and commercials work. One of those ads led to a location job on a Michael Elphick drama and on, in turn, to more television work. "Everyone's done their time on The Bill," he laughs. "I spent the early part of the '90s looking for empty police stations for TV dramas."

Stately homes, too. Prestige BBC period pieces, Trollope dramas and Cranford among them, made Lengyel a familiar face on the National Trust circuit. One stately home he couldn't use was Buckingham Palace on The King's Speech, Her Maj taking a dim view of burly gaffers roaming her home, but there were 40 other locations to be supervised across a brisk 40-day shoot. As a "very different challenge", he points proudly to the late 19th century Parisian station his team recreated at Surrey's Longcross Studios. It was a logistical minefield safely negotiated on behalf of one his movie heroes. "When the call came through for Hugo, I said 'yes' before they'd finished the sentence," he recalls. "We were responsible for sourcing and engineering a 140-tonne French locomotive. We found one scrapped in Norfolk somewhere." Getting it safely onto Stage 1 required the largest Hornby set known to man. "I created new doors and a track leading out to the road. There was this much clearance [for the locomotive]," he gestures about a tea cup's width.

Everyone's done their time on The Bill. I spent the early part of the '90s looking for empty police stations. But ask Lengyel his greatest location achievement and even building a life-size train set with one of his film heroes pales. That honour goes to Children Of Men, for which he helped set-dress London as a grimy near-futurescape. "There was one 24-hour Sunday with a crowd of 400 when we closed down Whitehall, Trafalgar Square, The Mall and Great Scotland Yard," he remembers of the scene in which Clive Owen's character travels across London. The cafe bombing sequence required the partial closure of Fleet Street and the use of a small pub. "We filmed it as a cafe on the Saturday, overnight the special effects team came in with their explosives box and we did the whole bombing sequence on the Sunday with traffic and 40 stuntmen flying all over the place." The bomb had to be set off several times before the shot was locked. "Every time I heard the explosion, I thought the real thing had happened."

That groundbreaking use of London locations alerted Hollywood to the city's potential beyond period dramas and Harry Potter. You can, for instance, feel its hallmarks all over Tom Cruise's Edge Of Tomorrow, while Thor: The Dark World also knocked some zeroes off the city's real estate values - on screen, at least. It's a source of great pride for Lengyel. "Children Of Men was one of those films that helped bring big blockbusters to London," he points out.

Above: On set at Hendon Police College in London (left) and dressed as rubble-strewn Sokovia in Age Of Ultron (right).

AS THE PROJECTS HAVE GOT BIGGER, so the travel has increased. Growing up in the Middle-East and mainland Europe - Lengyel's dad was a travelling businessman - it comes fairly naturally, but with a wife and two young kids in Bath, he's happy to be UK-based during filming. Still, he and his Avengers designer Charles Wood are locked in an intense frequent flyer battle. "In the interests of good relations, I'm obliged to say that he has a few more than me," laughs Lengyel.

On Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Lengyel and his trusty Fujifilm X-E1 SLR laid down the Marvelverse's boundary rope. He pinpointed Italy's Aosta Valley (for Sokovian exteriors), Johannesburg (ditto, the Hulkbuster battle) and, of course, Seoul. During filming, though, it was back to Blighty to provide the nuts and tighten the bolts on the set of Whedon's behemoth. "I have a dedicated location team making sure the shoot runs smoothly, from negotiating permissions to looking after the many important logistical considerations like providing power for the caterers and making sure the camera truck is in the right position." And the Robert Downey Jr. village at Shepperton Studios? "That's run by Team Downey. We set it up and facilitate it, as we deal with all the trailers and caterers for the cast, depending on their contractual requirements. "

Above: (Left to right) Production designer Charles Wood, first assistant director Jamie Christopher, Joss Whedon and Lengyel scouting locations in Seoul.

Next up for Lengyel is another Marvel project, Doctor Strange. Attempting to weasel out some location details, Empire wonders whether he's good at, say, altitude. "I am, but I can't comment on whether [the film] involves any location work," he says, straight-batting like a veteran. He confirms only that he has location teams on the ground in the UK. "We will be going to exotic places in due course. It'll be darker and visually stunning." It's a different corner of the Marvelverse, but he has the perfect consultant to fill him on the lore. "My son has given me a rundown on all the good guys and the bad guys."

Avengers: Age Of Ultron is out now