Say What? Brett Higginson

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Brett Higginson has worked in the industry as a Location Scout and Manager for about 20 years. He has worked on numerous movies such as Rain, Narnia Prince Caspian, and Yogi Bear.

What got you started in location scouting and management? Did you do other industry work before that?
Many years ago I had a gig painting and repainting a cyc studio wall and sometimes I worked on shoots as a runner. Then I went away on an extensive OE and ended up living in the States, and so I know the architectural and landscape definers and differences, say, between Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and so forth.

On my return in the early 90’s, I caught up with a friend who was a Production Manager specialising in mostly high-end Japanese TV commercials, and so I fortunately found myself working as part of a small team on many Japanese TVC line productions as a Unit, Art Dep’t assist, truck driver, and PA.

I was also doing some minor acting (small speaking parts in Hercules and Xena and various TVC’s). One day my Japanese boss had too many jobs, asked he asked if I could take care of one of his commercials and be the Production Manager? Back then I barely knew the difference between a gaffer and a grip, so I said, “I don’t know what to do.”

He replied, “You can act, can’t you?” I said I could and he said, “Well, just act then.”

And so I acted as a production manager on a Honda TV commercial that went around a much of the South Island. Part of my job was to source and present the location options and apply for the permissions. I had an interpreter, which was the ultimate foil and I was quick to use body language when demands could not be met. That job went brilliantly well, and it seemed nobody knew that I had been acting.

Those folk returned and more Production Manager jobs followed, but the most difficult part I found was not the logistics of the prep and the shoot, but keeping the visiting agency and clients entertained and trying to fulfil their off-set demands. What I most enjoyed was scouting for the locations and as the industry grew, locations was the area that I was drawn to and wanted to specialise in. It’s a unique opportunity to experience and observe the breadth and depth of our society.

Birdseye TVC for Batch FilmsPhoto: Brett Higginson

Birdseye TVC for Batch Films
Photo: Brett Higginson

What aspects of your work have changed?
I started back in the days when there was actually film in our cameras and, at the end of the day, we would push our film canisters through a hole in the window of the developers, and return the following morning to pick up our photos, which we would then mount on to black card. After dropping the film off at the developers our day’s work would almost be complete.

Nowadays we are faster and more efficient but, for me, my work hours have certainly increased. My workload and productivity have also multiplied many-fold. I’m often still working at 10pm emailing off notes and images etc.

From a location management perspective our worlds have become much more complicated. I recall one time doing a commercial where I was travelling around the South Island with a crew doing a Japanese motorbike TVC and the Director suddenly wanted to film a long scenic stretch of road on a State Highway that leads to the West Coast. We needed to stop the traffic and do it immediately! So I visited the local cop shop and they were very friendly obliging chaps.

I slipped two trays of beer into their boot and we managed to film up and down this stretch of highway while they stopped the traffic for us. Nowadays with all the red tape, health and safety regulations, we could never get away with this kind of improvisation.

I also recall working on a Dutch movie called Bride Flight, which shot here about eight years ago. At a train station in Otira, we paid a location fee of $56.25 cents, including the GST. Such a location fee nowadays might have two zeroes added to it, plus extensive health and safety requirements and hoops of fire for location managers to leap through, before consent could even be considered.

Bride FlightPhoto: Piotr Kukla

Bride Flight
Photo: Piotr Kukla

Since the changes to the incentive to attract co- and inbound production in 2014, have you noticed much change in the amount of work?
As a result of the incentive changes we became more competitive and consequently the industry experienced immediate growth. This trajectory has recently tapered off some, and there is a multitude of reasons for this.

Lack of studio space in Auckland affects everyone and also has a wider dampening effect on our economy. When our studios are booked, we need to find alternative empty high stud, clear span industrial buildings to try to use as studios, and the fact is, now that our economy has picked up, there are not many empty warehouses to choose from, and the owners of these warehouses are wanting higher paying, long term tenants (as opposed to short term film productions) and so the issue of having insufficient studio options is currently affecting the employment opportunities of many.

I tend to do more film and TV series work, as they are a reflection of my interests. Looking at last year’s work, I see that as a scout, I worked on five features and six TV series, including projects yet to release. I also worked on nine TVCs, a documentary and two stills jobs.

Matt Murphy's upcoming Pork Pie

Abbas Alibhai Burmawalla and Mastan Alibhai Burmawalla’s made-in-NZ Indian feature Players
Photo: Brett Higginson

In general terms, are there types of locations you get asked for regularly and what does this involve?
The constant call is for houses and providing suitable contenders is never any easy matter. The need is often geographical, to provide suitable locations near to the other locations so as to minimise the crew relocates, or to find multiple locations within the one location such as a home that could be also selectively shot to depict a hotel room, for example.

I have over 7,500 locations in my library, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of these locations are houses, but I can’t press a button and suddenly have 100 suburban swimming pools pop up, so to dig these out takes time, but this is much quicker than going out and scouting for them.

In general locations rarely stay the same, they alter according to owners, the seasons, and are governed by availability and restrictions. Trees might get cut down or planted and so the sight lines might disappear; buildings get demolished or erected or painted different colours, even natural features like rivers and waterfalls constantly change in appearance.

With real estate prices surging, some houses change hands quickly. I can think of many houses that have had their kitchens changed three times in just the last 10 years.

Requests that have been particularly difficult to satisfy?
Finding Manhattan in Auckland has always been a challenge, or burnt out Tokyo in 1945 but due to the creative talents and contributions of many, we have got there. Auckland lacks period street options – and if anyone knows of an accessible North Island deciduous forest, please contact me.

Power Rangers

Power Rangers: Dino Charge
Photo: Brett Higginson

What locations have you sourced that have made you particularly satisfied when you saw them on screen?
Recently seeing some locations in Mahana, Crouching Tiger:The Sword of Destiny, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople was thrilling.

Bride Flight comes back to mind, because it was a solid period movie that presented many challenges and it required extensive preparation and watertight consultations.

I recall working with location manager Kevin Spring on a TVC, which depicted deer migrating into the city, and so we had deer running along suburban streets, down O’Connell St, around the corner of Customs and Albert Streets, hanging out in bars and nightclubs etc. It was not an easy job.

To gain consents now it is compulsory to consult with all the affected businesses. It’s a completely different model from, say, Los Angeles where the Deputy Sheriffs have the ability to close Santa Monica Boulevard at the drop of a hat to film a car chase. Our way of operating can be difficult for visiting producers to accept, but our industry operates on the goodwill of the public and it is important to not alienate or lose our supporters.

Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Photo: Brett Higginson

Do you do much work out of Auckland?
I do cover the whole country and I have extensive contacts nationwide yet, increasingly, I find that many of my jobs for budgetary, scheduling or for initial elimination reasons are Auckland-based. Although Hunt for the Wilderpeople is set predominantly in the Urewera’s, many of the bush locations were shot around Auckland.

What are you working now?
I have been recently scouting five TV commercials, have managed one of them, and am currently working on one of the first Virtual Reality films.

VR could be the most radical change we have had in our industry since the advent of colour and 3D, and it will be interesting to see how Virtual Reality progresses, as the experience for the viewer is potentially much more inclusive, engaging and participatory, than being a mere spectator on a seat.

SPP's Nothing Trivial

SPP’s Nothing Trivial
Photo: Brett Higginson

How do you see your future?
Over the last few years I have taken an increasing interest in scriptwriting. An earlier draft of a script that I wrote called Mill Town was a finalist for the SWANZ Unproduced Feature award last year. I think Mill Town is best described as Once Were Warriors meets The Piano.

As a result of my desire to be more creative, I have been scaling back on the management side of things and have been specializing mostly in scouting. The reason for this is I find scouting to be a more suitable creative accompaniment for my writing, rather than being occupied by the more time-consuming location management side of things. This is not to say that scouting is not demanding but, for me, scouting is more creative so it’s more akin to my creative pursuits.

 
 
 
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Written by Keith Barclay

Keith is the editor of SCREENZ, and the co-creator and founding editor of CREWED.

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