In Conversation With Catherine Geary
Meet Catherine Geary. As one of film and tv’s most in demand Location Managers, Geary sees vast cliff edges, rough seas and green rolling hills as her office. She has scouted film locations for the likes of Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and James Bond to name but a few. Alongside interpreting director’s briefs and hunting out unique environments, Geary has the added logistical pressure of bringing hundreds of cast and crew members, lights and props into these often complicated environments.
We sat down and talked to Catherine about her journey into Location Management and how she turns real life locations into some of film’s most celebrated backdrops.
Portrait by Charles McQuillan.
Your job is truly fascinating but a bit of a career path anomaly for most growing up in Northern Ireland. Tell us about your journey into the world of film - was location scouting always something you wanted to do?
I went to a local school focused on academia. Oxford / Cambridge were the aspiration (not mine). If you didn’t draw (I didn’t) you weren’t creative. I think creativity now is seen much more broadly, but when I was at school, looking back I don’t think it was recognised in the same way it could be now. As I went into A-levels I developed an interest in photography and took a night class. School had a darkroom that I could work in and somehow I ended up there for most of 6th form. I don’t remember anyone else using it.
I had wanted to go to art college but considered a “non creative” wound up doing pointless A levels, going through clearing and picking a course based on the fact I’d have a year in Paris.
So there was no real plan, I just ended up navigating (pre google maps or any kind of apps) around Paris armed with the French Vogue address book.
Finishing my degree I wanted to be in front of the camera, so I worked for the local BBC but quickly realised it wasn't the right fit. Soon after, NI Screen put me on a work placement on a tv drama. At the interview I was offered accounts or locations and having no clue about either, but knowing I wanted to be outdoors, I ended up in the location department. I remember being told to stand at the top of the Newtownards Road in rush hour traffic, wearing a yellow vest and stop two lanes of traffic from driving across the end of McMaster Street. By the end of the job I swore I’d never work in locations again, or in fact in Northern Ireland!
All joking aside there was no real industry here at that time. That came much later so leaving was a logical choice.
Portrait at Whiterocks taken by Alex Gabassi.
I think we’ve all experienced the ‘first day jitters’ when starting a new job, but the level of responsibility location managing entails appears to be on a whole other level! Can you remember your first project and how did you overcome the nerves?
Location Management is like poker. The fear is there every time but you can’t show it. The domino effect is palpable and the tremors work their way through everything. Nervous producers, production designers or directors…never pretty. You swallow it, (while frequently calming other peoples nerves around you). Then you figure out how to deliver what has been asked for.
We aren’t expected to be planning experts, geo technical engineers or alpine guides but we are expected to find that knowledge and use it. Perhaps there is no actual fear... it’s just moving blocks of lego around, physical or frequently psychologically. Problem solving.
Actually, that's not entirely truthful, there is fear. 2am when you wake up convinced the key holder for a location won’t turn up.
On a current project I'm working on, the Show Runner told a story about a pilot for a tv show he had filmed some years previously in Canada. They planned to film an explosion at a house and chose a stunning listed property. With months of planning the family moved out on the day and the crew came in while the street was lined with curious neighbours. The special effects team went through the property, pre-explosion, and opened the windows to prevent the creation of a vacuum which would magnify the blast. The fire marshall then went through the house closing them all again. The explosion turned into an 80ft fireball thrown through the front of the house. The roof lifted up and rotated before falling back onto the existing building at a jaunty angle. The story tellers eyebrows were burnt off.
A location manager is also an expert in “Sorry”.
I always reference the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark…Harrison Ford running from the boulder. He escapes just in time but is surrounded by angry arrow wielding natives. Feels accurate.
When you receive a brief from a film director, what shape does it usually take form in?
A brief can be anything from a sketch on a napkin to detailed concept art. It can be a feeling or an emotion, a reference to an artist, photographer or a film.
It’s like someone calling Envoy and saying “We need a dress for an editorial.”
There are a gazillion dresses. What’s the mood, who’s the photographer, is it purely creative or commercial, what’s the stylists previous work, conceptual, high end or high street?
Sometimes the director starts a project after I do, or has a million other priorities at the beginning so I work closely with the production designer who drives the creative throughout (while magically making the director think it was all their idea in the first place). We may spend weeks or longer depending on the job, driving a country together. That can be trying if you don’t connect somewhere.
When my son was small we drove around Iceland with him navigating. I’d find obscure places to see away from the usual suspects. He’d ask questions like “ How far? Are we there yet? What’s for lunch? Why won’t my iPad charge? What am I looking at? Why are we here? Do we have to walk?” It occurred to me that this is very similar to going on scouts. Wether they’re 6 years old or 75 yr old Oscar winners, same concerns and crisis of blood sugar.
How important is rapport and understanding a film director’s aesthetic when sussing out locations?
Chemistry is a massive part, whether it's creative or purely practical. A genuine human connection with your team, employers or location owners gets you through the physical and emotional challenge of production. It can be brutal and relentless. Particularly on smaller jobs where you lack the budget for the correct support.
Each production is different, driven by budget, scale, ambition but the human glue is the same.
In my opinion someone who is connected and genuinely wants you to succeed is golden, regardless of the industry.
Tell us a bit about how you get from a brief to a fully workable film set on location? Would you say creativity drives projects more than practicalities?
The starting point is creative. I’ve had “ If money is no object where would you shoot worldwide?” Which was for a studio feature still in the writing stages and completely creative. To “I need somewhere to shoot a space ship with room to park a crane beside Trinity College on Tuesday” which happened mid shoot, and practicality was the driving force. ( In this case, the request grew… I got them a private airfield….they shot the spaceship, wanted to gallop horses up the runway….and burn things right beside the fuel storage!).
For local productions I’m frequently told a producer wants to shoot in Northern Ireland and is coming on Wednesday, “can you show them around?” I’ve a minuscule amount of time and information beforehand. Usually no script, no designer, no director, they come purely for financial reasons. I then put together a package of locations to give them a broad view of whatever they need, modern, period, sci-fi, countryside.
They then leave and perhaps come back in a year or a few months. They start to set up production offices and more crew arrive. I work on budgets and permissions, again with minimal information, driven mostly by experience and guess work. We revisit the locations ( or scout for additional ones as at this stage I’ve seen the script) each time with more and more people who all want different things. They're constantly changing, lists of requests are added into the pot and the budget. At this stage the creative switches into political, psychological warfare or logistics again all depending on the production.
We establish the logistics which can really be anything from simply parking 18-40ft lorries in the city centre to building roads to allow 400 crew and equipment to safely access a cliff. With covid introduced into the mix it becomes more complex, as marquees that could have comfortably sat 100 crew for lunch now need to quadruple in size. Mini busses that could carry 18 now carry 6 meaning we have triple the number of vehicles to accommodate. The job I am on has 400 crew and an average of 100 extras to be dressed, made up, fed each day so everything swells to accommodate.
If I’m lucky I have all the information before the camera turns over on the first day of shooting…frequently I don’t and have to adapt and adjust as I go. Again it totally depends on budget. A healthy budget allows for experienced crew and realistic time periods for prep.
All productions creativities are curtailed by budget. Regardless of whether its a 450 million dollar studio feature or an independent movie shooting with minuscule government funding. It’s business at the end of the day. Investors need returns at one end and the toilets need paid for at the other.
By the sounds of it your job requires you to think at both a creative and logistical level - not many are capable of doing both so succinctly! Would you say this is an inherent or learnt trait?
When I returned to work in Northern Ireland, having trained in Dublin, there were no experienced crew because there was no industry. There was no time to question it, time was a luxury, I just had to take the job and make it happen. It’s not entirely common to work the way I do because everyone really does the job differently. But I had no choice in doing the creative, political, budgeting and parking the cars. Now I have more support but I still do elements of it all.
My eye is inherent. I’m not a technical photographer at all. But I have an eye for a shot, which helps when i’m scouting as I can put poetry into it. Ultimately that’s not our job, there’s an entire art department just for that, but a single beautifully composed shot of dappled light on ancient tree bark in a forest captures much more than 35 shots of the same tree from random angles - mostly out of focus. The discipline to edit yourself is learnt but essential.
Logistics is definitely learnt. I reassure my own crew when they’re anxious that the reason I know what I know is because I have f****d it up at some point and learnt from it. When a lorry is on its side in a gully, or plant machinery is upside down you watch and learn.
Has there ever been any wishes you’ve simply been unable to fulfil? If so, how do you navigate around these challenges?
Frequently. The thing is though, the wishes shift constantly. Crews come to Northern Ireland driven financially. The locations tend to be a compromise. So they want the rapids of the Danube or Icelandic ravines. Someone wants a Lofoten Fjord to raise a submarine ( true request), we don’t have it. The only true fjord is Killary in the West of Ireland pretty but not comparable. Or recently I was given the gardens at the palace of Versaille as a reference. What you don’t say is “No” you say “this is what we do have.” It’s frequently how something is said rather than what’s actually being said that is crucial.
You don’t walk up to a director the first time you meet and say, “we don’t have this or this or this,” ( although certain location managers do) you introduce what you do have.
I want the job, so if they ask me for something that isn’t in the country I’m standing in, I show them where it is, and if they have the budget, I’ll call Versaille.
Having spent many a summer on the west coast of Ireland, it was wonderful to finally see these once overlooked landscapes receive the recognition they so deserve in the likes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. What drew you to these parts of Ireland?
The idea for Skellig Michael came from one of the art department who had been involved in another project. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince shot on the Cliffs of Moher and Lemon Rock, beside Little Skellig .
With Star Wars I don’t know of any other job in the world that would have had the guts to think, “Lets shoot on a vertical rock 7km off the west coast of Ireland!”
With extensive planning around breeding Puffins, we did film on Skellig Michael for a small amount, which involved multiple cargo and crew boats, Irish navy, multiple helicopters, 30 sherpas, weeks of equipment being broken into parts and carried by hand vertically up the island, then rebuilt, or air lifted in. The lighthouse was stocked with dry food for the crew should they get stranded, as the island is inaccessible when there is a strong swell.
I managed the West Coast from Malin Head to Mizen Head for the Last Jedi and the idea was to replicate Skellig on the mainland, rather than have to travel to the island for a prolonged period. Which is how we ended up building sets the length of the country.
There was a great spoof story leaked that the Irish government had allowed the film company to blast Skellig loose from its foundations and tow it closer to the mainland to shoot!!
Us accessing Skellig with a crew is one thing, all I could think about were the young child monks, who would row the 7kms in Atlantic swell, in Currgahs, to the mainland for supplies.
I’m sure you met some characters down around those parts! How do you navigate seeking permission for private and public spaces in rural locations?
On a large studio job, a franchise, with a fan base you can’t disclose the project you are working on. So it goes back to trust, relationship. Connection. You are asking people to sign contracts to allow filming on their land or home or whatever, as a virtual stranger and without them having the full information. It may be a single person or a community.
On one job I had to get permission for a crew to cross common land which was owned by 20 different farmers on the West coast of Ireland. I had to track them all down individually and get contracts signed, many were elderly bachelors, more interested in their cattle than me, or the project and eventually agreed for a small fee. The last was elusive but I managed to finally find him. He spoke to me for an hour pretending he wasn’t the person I was looking for , even though I knew he was and he probably knew that I knew. In the end I just said “Look Brian, sign the contract” he laughed and signed.
Is building a bond with the local community a significant part of your job?
It has to be, whether you’re in Ireland or working with a service company who set the production up for you abroad. There has to be a relationship. A production can’t happen without local involvement. Whether it's the location itself, a residential street with 60 residents for example, an oil delivery company, hotelier, restaurant owner or local labourer. They make the production as much as I do. Filming can have a positive, lucrative spread, but also the knowledge you need is behind their doors.
On one job I was able to give thousands of pounds to a local Irish language primary school in the village where we had worked for months. They had a new computer but couldn’t afford new chairs. I also brought key cast to meet the kids in their tiny classroom and asked our local contractor to build them a disabled access ramp which they couldn’t afford. That production could afford to pay back. They were at one end of a spectrum, a lot of productions can’t as they are scraping a budget together.
Certain productions can approach communities with entitlement. They tend to be inexperienced. I try to avoid egos and arrogance. If a producer or production works in that way, I don’t need to be involved. I have a choice in who I work for and with. Sometimes as a freelancer it’s hard to remember that. But its essential and the confidence to make that choice is something I try to instil in my crew.
We undoubtedly live on a big planet; when researching locations abroad where on earth do you begin? - pardon the pun. How does location hunting locally compare to finding locations abroad?
I’ve worked in locations in Northern Ireland for 20 something years, so the reality is, in broad strokes, I know the country very well. That being said certain counties get most of the work. There are financial reasons why productions base in Belfast and won’t drive more than an hour from the city. Statistically its really Down, Antrim and less frequently, Derry that gets the work. In my experience the bigger the production the more it can be driven, on the ground, by practicalities over creativity. Its incredibly expensive to move large crews around, accommodate in hotels etc so they tend to land in one area and use as much as possible in that site. They do however have the capacity to travel to shoot certain elements if the script dictates. Northern Ireland has proven itself to be a convenient and cost effective base to make the short flight to Spain for Desert or Iceland for glaciers and ravines.
When working abroad you tend to have a local service company who will provide key crew and put the job together. I would travel across to scout with one of their team who speaks English. On my current production I then came back to set up the site where the production was building a city. Essentially the service company deals with permissions and practicalities to facilitate what the incoming crew need. This can be anything from Government connections to facilitate permissions to providing local skilled crew. I have fluent French, a little Russian and good Spanish ( having been here for the guts of a year and a half on and off, minus lockdown) so I personally prefer to make the effort to speak the language. I think it shows willingness to be a part of their team, even though you are essentially not. It also helps when they’re cursing you and you can smile sweetly and tell them how nice their hair is today.
Is there anywhere in particular you have felt an inexplicable connection to outside of Ireland?
I’ve never really felt a connection to Northern Ireland. I have responsibilities here but its never felt like where I am of… I have a house here but it has never been home. From my son was 6, the two of us began travelling. Scandinavian countries and into the wilderness above the Arctic Circle. Our last journey was Svalbard in January. Pretty unforgiving. Perhaps it’s the stillness or the cold, or the people. I don’t know.
In the Faroe Islands with him a few years ago I felt completely connected to the landscape, brutal, wild. Similar to the West coast of Ireland which I feel much more a part of. The landscape felt like my bones.
It would be wrong not to mention that on top of a demanding job you’re also a mother. How have you found balancing home life with travel and an onerous time schedule?
The reality is it’s more commonly one or the other. My brain is on all the time, I don’t get weekends off, with emails, or ongoing problems, so even when I am at home, I’m not really there. There’s no 5pm Friday moment until the job is over.
But what has been possible is finding flexibility if i’m working in NI, I can do the school run. I have also been able to include him. I worked until a few days before he was born and put him in a sling while I parked lorries after a few weeks. I had a cot in my office, a play pen on the floor which I sometimes had to climb into while I worked on my computer to be close to him. I breastfed on scouts with directors. He came with me on weekends when I would work and we would drive gators across country estates checking on medieval battle camps.
When I gave birth I didn’t know any different. I didn’t know anyone who had a baby. I had just bought a house and needed to pay a mortgage. Day care, maternity leave for crew, these things don’t exist due to what can be the short term nature of the job.
There are a lot of conversations around women in film or TV but few of them end in any real support for the technicians, like me, that are trying to hold the pieces together. As a woman whose a professional threat you’re even more of a target. When I was pregnant a male location manager called my new employer to tell them I shouldn’t have the job as I was due to give birth in the middle of it!
As a mum I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to show my son what’s possible. We’ve gone to the Viennese opera, herded reindeer across Finnish/Russian border, swum in glacial lakes, watched the northern lights in Finland, bickered around the Aran Islands (annually), rushed around Versaille to get to the macaroons, eaten fish eyeballs instead of birthday cake in Northern Norway and helicoptered into Manhattan at sunset. My job gives me the confidence to go totally off grid (or stay firmly on it) with him and know that these experiences will stay with him throughout his life. In ways I am absent a lot but then I get periods of time where its just us and I cram everything in.
We’re sure there’s only so much you can let slip, but is there anything you can tell us about present or future projects you’re working on?
I’d love to, but from April, I’m unemployed and plan on spending all the time I can in salt water.
Thanks again to Catherine for taking the time to talk to us about her incredible career.
We wish her all the luck for 2021.
Enjoy the salty seas!