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Simon Moorhead – producer / director

You started as an assistant floor manager for the television film of “Threads”, the documentary style film of a nuclear bomb attack and aftermath in Sheffield (England); what did you actually do in this position on the film?

One of the faults of IMDB is that it often does not paint the full picture.  My television career started at the BBC in Bristol in the post room after working in theatre at the Bristol Old Vic.  From the post room I moved into role called a TVO or television operative – we used to put up and take down the sets in the studios and dress film sets under the supervision of the designer.

My first job as an AFM was on a film called “A Different Drummer” directed by a wonderful man called Norman Stone.  So “Threads” was actually my penultimate job as an AFM in the BBC.

The AFM is part of the production team and is a role that doesn’t really exist any more.  The job broke down really into two parts.  One part was about looking after the actors – the role which is now called the 2nd AD on drama productions.  The other part was a role that was about liaison between the production team and the design team.  I was responsible for all of the props that the actors touched.  For example – the designer and his team would be responsible for dressing a kitchen, but I would be responsible for the newspaper the actor was reading or the food the actors were eating.

This was the role I had on “Threads”.  On the one hand it was one of the hardest jobs I have ever done and on the other one of the best films I have been involved in.  The film followed two families through a nuclear attack from days before to ten years after.  It came from the BBC Science and Features department rather than the drama department so attention to detail was paramount.  A good example of this, was a scene, where one of the lead characters, probably in year one after the attack, traded her body for a handful of rats for food.  I had to source clean rats that the actress could handle without risk of disease.

What qualifications had you obtained to gain that initial role as the assistant floor manager?

The qualifications for the role really was experience. I had experience of working with actors in theatre and experience of working with production and design teams from my days as a TVO.  Working in film and television is all about experience.  As a producer, if a designer tells me that it is going to take two days to dress a set and I know I can do it in half a day – them words are exchanged.  That is difficult to do that if you have never dressed a set.

How did you make the move from an assistant floor manager (on “Threads”) to the location manager (“The Life and Loves of a She-Devil”)?

After “Threads”, I was still working at BBC Bristol.  The production managers on the film kindly recommended me to the Head of BBC Drama in London and the opportunity opened up for me to get a job in the drama department.  My very first job for the department was “She Devil” and my boss rang me up and said “your starting on this date, and by the way your the location manager”.  My reply was “what’s a location manager?”

What does the position of a location manager entail?

When asked this question – my reply is the job of the location manager is to protect the public, including the location owner from the film crew.  The location manager finds locations that not only provide the visual context for the film but are practical for filming.

Anything is possible.  One challenge, I remember, was to film a high speed chase on a motorway for The Bill. It is normally one of those things that are impossible – however as it was The Bill and because the storyline was about one of the characters who was being trained in high speed driving – we filmed the episode at Hendon, the police training ground.

Part of the normal police training involves driving at high speed on the motorway.  So we simply used the trainers from Hendon as the drivers, assembled a fleet of vehicles that were required at a service station driven by stunt drivers.

They set off followed by our action vehicle and three other cars then followed.  On cue the three vehicles at the back spread out and blocked all lanes driving at around 50 mph.  As the traffic in front of us cleared the staged vehicles got into position and then the police driver was able to take his cue from the director and the chase began at around 120 mph. We achieved the shot in the first take and once filming stopped the vehicles at the back simply moved over and allowed the traffic to pass.

What three points would you recommend, to future location managers, when talking to land owners or land managers?

Never lie.  Never enter negotiations unless you are prepared to walk away and find somewhere else. And remember you have to protect the public from the crew – not the crew from the public.

Is the location manager responsible for bringing the set and/or the location back to its original state?

Yes.  I learnt on “She Devil” what this means. It was my very first location as location manager.  We were filming at a beautiful house which was white – white walls, white carpets and white curtains.  At the end of the three weeks, for the final scenes in the house and in Episode 1 of the story – the house burns down.

Our VFX team constructed this elaborate front to the house which contained all of the smoke canisters and flame bars needed to achieve the effect of the house burning.  Everyone assured me it would be fine.

The day of filming arrived – perfect day, perfect conditions.  The director gave the action and the VFX technicians pressed the buttons on the various control panels.  At that moment, the wind changed.  Everyone was right – everything was fine…except….no one had taken into account that the false front to the house was secured to the building via scaffolding through the house windows and all of the windows on the top floor had a gap of a few inches top and bottom.

When the black smoke had cleared from inside the house, there was no damage.  However, the smoke was oil based and left little dark smudges on anything that was……. white!

With reference to the Internet Movie Database, it looks like you had a break in your profession between 1993 to 1997. Is this true and if it was, how did you get back into the profession after 4 years?

Actually, during that period I was working as a location manager on “The Bill”.  I think I worked on over 80 episodes of the series in those years.

You have worked both as director and the writer for “Ghostwatch Live” (2001); surely with a live production, the writer has a limited aspect and the director has to manage quite a dynamic environment – is this summation correct? How would you describe theses two roles with reference to “Ghostwatch Live”?

Ghostwatch live was an interesting experience in transmedia – this was back in 2001 before broadband was really established and before such programmes as “Most Haunted”.

The production started on-line with a website.  Within the site, we streamed 6 x 3 minutes of drama monologues about the lives of the historical characters from the Tower of London who are reported to haunt the buildings.  The event took place over the Halloween weekend and started with a 1 hr live OB that was transmitted on UK Horizons.  When the OB finished we continued with a 7 hr live broadband transmission which finished at 07.00 Saturday morning.  We then carried on with another 7 hr live transmission from Saturday night to Sunday morning.

Then on the following Wednesday UK Horizons transmitted a 1 hr documentary based around the footage recorded over the weekend. Usually it takes about 6 weeks to cut a 50 min documentary – we did it in 4 days.

For the most part I was producing the show and the entire team took turns in directing through the 14 hrs of broadband transmission.  I helped write and direct some of the drama sequences and wrote and directed the 1 hr documentary.

During the live transmissions we attracted over 500,000 viewers per 7 hr transmission.  Also during the night we had one individual who stayed on-line watching the entire 7 hrs.  And we recorded footage and images that experts are unable to explain even today.

What was the first film that you saw that made you think you wanted to work in the film industry?

It wasn’t really a film.  At school, an inspirational English teacher took it on his shoulders to start a drama group putting on end of production plays in the school gym.  I became involved with the lighting and general building of sets etc. – even to the detriment of my exams.

After the 5th form I moved schools and during the summer holidays I experienced the usual father / sullen teenage discussion, and “what do you want to do as a career?”  It was only after much “dunno’s” on my side that theatre was suggested as an option.  This is possibly the defining moment in my life when I discovered I could actually get paid for doing the thing I loved.

This led to getting a job sweeping the stage at the Bristol Old Vic, which led to a job at the BBC which then led to film.

The film “The Week Before” must have been quite different from the television projects you had worked on before, did the work as a producer differ as well?

It would be usual for a TV drama to have a production team of around 50 people on a production.  A feature film could average out at about 350 people involved in the production.

“The Week Before” which is a 22 minute film had a crew of 8 including cast.

Would you agree with the concept that the role of producer can be described as a shepherd as it watches the inception, the development and then the release of the project?

I would say that was a pretty good description of the role.  My definition of the Producer is the person who has the responsibility of delivering the final film to the financiers – be it studio, Uk film Council, TV station or private financiers.

Who are the producers and the other film creatives that you admire or have influenced your work?

I think there are a few people who have had a defining influence on my career.  Mr. Firebrace, my english teacher from school, director Norman Stone, director and producer Clive Doig, director Mick Jackson, executive producers Lisa Henson, Martin G. Baker and Mike Polis and of course Dave McKean.

As a producer, you have to be a juggler of so many concepts, objects and problems – on one project, what has been the easiest and the hardest to juggle?

Always the hardest thing to juggle on any production is the finance.

You have completed four projects with Dave McKean, with a fifth one nearing completion, do you find the continued expansion of his creative spectrum in line with your work?

There are more – I also produced, Whack, Dawn, Lowcraft, Izzy, post production on The Falconer, Lestat, Kodak, Eurostar, CGI on The Gospel of Us and the Adobe film.  I am not sure how it reflects on what is my body of work but possibly I can answer the question this way.  When I watched Gospel for the first time on the big screen, I said to myself – this is what cinema is all about – the personal view rather that the spectacle.

Out of “The Week Before”, “Neon” and “Mirrormask”, which would say is your favourite film within your role as the producer and why?

Each film is different, there was an innocence to Week Before, Neo[n] was a complex story and of course Mirrormask was a Hollywood Studio picture.

Can you name three parts of the role as producer for “Luna” that you found challenging or inspirational?

Pain, stress and frustration!

The production of the film “Luna” to completion has been quite a long affair, partially due to the global economic crisis, how do you keep the interest level high for you and the rest of the crew over such a period of time?

Sheer belief in the story – I think Luna is a beautiful film.  This is not hype or a marketing line by the producer. I genuinely believe it to be a very special piece of work.  It is very, very different from Mirrormask.  Whilst everyone is excited by the images that Dave produces – Luna demonstrates his skills as a writer.  Luna is a wonderful story full of twists and turns and multiple layers.  Also there are some great performances from the cast.

Why the move into Audio Theatre?

In my view over the last few years the British film industry has changed.  The worldwide economic climate and creation of such technology as the iPad has fundamentally altered , how we see films, buy films and when we watch films.  This has had an irreversible impact on how films are created and distributed. Moving forward I see cinema as a domain for the popcorn blockbuster.  The traditional model for funding and distributing smaller films is unsustainable – worldwide, and the cinema screen is no longer a viable platform for independent films.

Therefore we have to find new ways of telling stories.