Britain is blessed with a variety of landscapes that can change, sometimes dramatically, within short distances. Close enough to the studios of Pinewood and Shepperton, Egypt has been filmed on the sand of Frensham Large Pond whilst across the water Russia has been shot amongst the pine trees and silver birches of Frensham Little Pond.
“We want to turn the wheels on the camera not those of the camera car” was the advice handed on to me by an old professional on “Highlander”.
In Yorkshire, in Robin Hood Bay, we have pointed the camera in one direction for Wales and then turned it east, on its tripod, for the White Cliffs of Dover. Don’t travel to France and waste your money on Euros but film at Beaky Bottom, near Lewes, with its poplar trees and vineyards and at Waddesden Manor for your impressive French chateau. We used the Flaxman Gallery and Gustav Tuck Theatre at University College London to represent the Paris Architectural School interiors in the film “Inception”. Also on that film, London interiors were used for Mombasa and USA.
Farnborough Airport was used for Tokyo. On “Band of Brothers”, based at Hatfield and produced by Spielberg, as the 101st parachute infantry swept through Europe – France, Holland, Belgium and into Germany - all was found, or created, within easy travelling distance from our studio and only when we came to locations in the German Alps did we need to move beyond our shores to Switzerland. Famously, Stanley Kubrick hated to fly, so on “Full Metal Jacket”, he filmed Vietnam at Beckton Gas Works in the East End of London.
The air of mystery that surrounds this deep historic glen never fails to excite film directors. Never mind the changing weather that can deteriorate rapidly. On and on we filmed there on “Highlander”. Extras had come from all over Scotland, camping locally, hoping to be chosen as clansmen. These near naked soldiers battled it out in horizontal rain in front of film technicians in expensive waterproofs.
As the shooting day grew in length, all they asked for were cigarettes and whiskey and I dispatched vehicle after vehicle to keep them supplied with these necessities. But that was 1985. Since then countless films including Harry Potter have been filmed there and now cigarettes get smoked in the belief that this will deter the deadly midges that gather when the weather is hot.
Conveniently near by is Glen Nevis, whose dramatic setting was used for medieval villages in Highlander and Braveheart . In Rob Roy.they built a village under Ben Nevis but then, because of heavy rain, decided to rebuild it in Perth.
Dover Castle, Kent
Dover Castle is in turn bleak and stately. Unlike the majority of other castles it is very much intact. With its keep, built by Henry II, and walls up to twenty-two feet thick, it is usually the perfect double for the Tower of London where filming is severely restricted. On my first day of scouting with Zeffirelli who was to direct Mel Gibson in Hamlet, I took Zefirelli with the famous Italian designer Dante Ferreti and the less famous producers down to Dover to suggest it for Elsinore. We stood first before the outside walls in an area free from any modern intrusion.
Zeffirelli: Why we here?
Me: Well, I thought that along that path the strolling players might come to Elsinore watched above, from those walls, by Danish soldiers.
Zeffirelli: You idiot! I go back to Italy.
The Italian entourage and producers got in their cars leaving me alone before the walls. Nothing else had been looked at. The recce was a disaster. But Zeffirelli’s moods, which made him actually such fun to work with, changed rapidly and in the end he shot that scene there and used the keep, the moat and corridors extensively in his film.
Durham Cathedral awes film makers with its scale and cavernous interiors that can be emptied and used to breathtaking effect. Witness how Shekar Kapur recreated it for Whitehall Palace and the intrigues against the court in Elizabeth played by Cate Blanchett. Other areas were adapted extensively for the goings on at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
This location reveals the weight of central government. From the age of Victoria, to the present day, Whitehall with its wide avenue between Parliament and Trafalgar Square, with Downing Street off it, and housing some of the most important ministries, is an essential location in many a script about power or the misuse of power. Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later shot there in the early hours of the morning to show the Capital deserted and broken.
In V for Vendetta, we asked to close Whitehall for four nights. We had to create the apparatus of a totalitarian Britain. From 9.00pm, fake concrete barriers and Krieg lights were positioned up and down Whitehall before tanks were placed in Parliament Square and machine gun nests established on corners. The Evening Standard of Friday 3 June 2005 had “Parliament surrounded by troops” on its front page and hundreds of paramilitary police with automatic weapons, some manning a road block up near Trafalgar Square, established Whitehall as a prohibited zone.
This took much careful planning. The authorities were nervous and intelligence already was on high alert. All the departments in Whitehall were consulted and all information promised twelve weeks before filming – crowd numbers and exact positions, pictures and details of all uniforms, automatic weapons and armoured vehicles to be used. Nothing would be allowed to change. I had previously seen police marksmen positioned on Whitehall roofs and we were informed that any armed extra straying from his set position risked being shot. Five weeks after completion of shooting, in July, the terrorist attack hit London
Greenwich Naval College
Greenwich Naval College was built for Charles II in the second half of the 16th century for use as a palace. It’s impressive exterior includes a wide courtyard and the buildings on either side resemble some in Whitehall. It can, with careful shooting, be a substitute for the streets of Westminster. The outside gates and courtyard can also double for Buckingham Palace as they did in the film King Ralph when John Goodman inherited the throne and in Patriot Games starring Harrison Ford. The Madness of King George also filmed there.
It has valuable interiors including Wren’s Painted Hall and a chapel that stood in for a respected Roman Catholic Church in Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you have a Victorian film to shoot in London with horses and carriages, like Sherlock Holmes, it is hard to avoid coming here.
Lancaster House, London
Lancaster House is a palace off the Mall that was built by the Duke of York in 1826 and later owned by the Duchess Sutherland to whom Queen Victoria wrote “I come from my house to your palace.” It is now run by the Foreign Office and heads of state are still entertained here and treaties signed.
It has such an imposing entrance hall and staircase and salons on the first floor that it was perfect for Warren Beatty’s film about the Russian Revolution Reds when it was used as the Winter Palace in St Peterburg. However, during the filming, the Assistant Director yelled at a man ascending the staircase thinking him to be an aristocratic looking extra. This man was a respected visiting foreign dignitary and permission for filming was suspended for a few years.
It is the one convincing interior for Buckingham Palace and was much used in King Ralph and National Treasure with Nicholas Cage. Its salons drip with opulence and John Schlesinger filmed a concert here in Madame Sousatzka and the musical Nine was recently shot here.
Hatfield House, hertfordshire
Where would England or the film industry be without Hatfield House and the Cecils? It was here that the young Elizabeth was sitting under an oak tree when a messenger arrived to announce that Bloody Mary was dead and that she was the new Queen of England. The exquisite film Orlando with Tilda Swinton playing Elizabeth was shot here and Mary Stuart’s royal quarters were set here in The Golden Age. Lord Cecil protected the England of Elizabeth and James I from here and when we filmed the execution of Guy Fawkes in the South Courtyard on “V for Vendetta” we were aware that in the library were the words that Guy Fawkes uttered under torture handwritten by Lord Cecil presiding over his interrogation.
Out in the woods at Hatfield, we built the concentration camp Landsberg that the 101st parachute infantry came across in Band of Brothers as they advanced into Germany.
Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
I was recently asked to be involved in a possible remake of My Fair Lady and where else would I have suggested filming Victorian Covent Garden but in the front courtyard of Blenheim Palace?
Black Beauty had used it similarly with its front steps and massive columns representing the entrance to the Royal Opera House. The huge courtyard easily houses all that you need build for a market within the bustle of 18th or 19th century street life without having to contemplate clearing London streets of cars, painting over yellow lines and removing all street furniture and contemporary fittings.
That demanding genius Stanley Kubrick used the fountains, lawns and walkways on Barry Lyndon.
Kenneth Branagh decided to use Blenheim as Elsinore Palace in his Hamlet. We snowed up the landscape as far as the eye could see but then disaster struck. It appeared that the special effects company producing the snow had used the wrong mix when applying it to the Duke of Marlborough’s front lawn which was now brown underneath the snow. The Duke has a famous temper and the Estate Manager was too terrified to break the news to him.
We knew that the Duke had been a cavalry man and loved riding, so the producer came up with this wonderful idea that His Grace should be offered the role of the officer riding at the head of Fortinbras’s army as it advanced over the snow to take Elsinore. The Duke was thrilled and appeared not to be concerned when told, then, of the damage that had been done to his front lawn. He used the photograph of himself, in this scene, as that year’s Christmas card.
Blenheim stood in for Nazi Berlin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the new Gulliver’s Travels with Jack Black was shot there.
Borough Market, London
Convent Garden is now for tourists but Borough Market still sells fruit and vegetables wholesale. It is the home of Bridget Jones and her diary. It is where the Knightbus drops off Harry Potter on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It stood in for Chinatown, New York in What Every Girl Wants and represented edgy, streetwise London in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. This is Dickensian London. Not many yards from here Dickens set Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist. It was Elizabethan low-life London , Shakespeare’s re-created Globe Theatre is just round the corner, but for street life from the 18th century onwards, it has to be on the scouting list.
Somerset House, london
Somerset House is set around a huge courtyard, 350 feet by 310 feet, and overlooked by buildings faced with Portland stone. It has fantastic alleyways that run below the courtyard. They reek of history and are just wide enough, with sub corridors and doorways off them to create an alternative back street world. The claustrophobic setting lends itself to Victorian drama, to East End sidestreets well apart from any gaze. Portrait of a Lady shot down here and in Sherlock Holmes, it was a prison. In the courtyard itself you can create the traffic of any city. Somerset House stood in for Moscow in Goldeneye and USA in Sleepy Hollow.
Nick Daubeny is a location manager whose recent credits include 'Inception', 'The Pacific', the 'Harry Potter' titles, 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age', 'Mission: Impossible III', 'V for Vendetta' and 'Band of Brothers'