Name: Jon Zarych
Role: Location Manager
Notable Works: Death in Paradise, Friday Night Dinner, Kingsman: The Secret Service
A little bit more about Jon...
Jon Zarych left the construction industry behind him, to later become a Location Manager on big named series, from BBC’s Death in Paradise to Channel 4’s Friday Night Dinner and hasn’t looked back since! Zarych’s further notable projects include Kingsman: The Secret Service and it’s sequel, along with 2015’s Point Break!
Jon talks to us today, telling us how he got his big break in the industry and shares what it’s really like to be a location manager. Plus, some great advice on the paths you can take to become a location scout!
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I was born and brought up on the outskirts of London and lived in different parts of the country. I spent the first few years of my work life trying different things and following what interested me in life, rather than a defined career path. This took me to different parts of the world with different industries. I was a musician in a few bands for a while too(!) and I always dreamed of working in something creative, but never quite found the thing I wanted to do…
Interesting! So, how did you become a Location Manager?
I had recently given up a very good job in the construction industry which I had been in for a number years to go and work in Panama in a new industry. The opportunity there didn’t quite turn out to be what I was promised and after some months when I decided I wasn’t enjoying it and came back to the UK I knew that I couldn’t just work to live anymore, I needed to want to go to work, I wanted to find something to be passionate about. I had no idea what that was going to be.
Then one day I was on the way to an event with a good friend of mine who has been a Location Manager for years. We talked a lot about my work and life experience and he felt that my experience would transfer really well into Location Management. As someone who had worked for a salary all my life I had some trepidations of going freelance.
But then 2 things happened, firstly, seemingly out of nowhere my father got really sick and died, and then within months of that the company I had taken a job with on coming back to the UK were looking to make redundancies, and as last person in I was first out.
All of this galvanised that to me there was only ’now’ and I decided I wanted to do everything I could to become a Location Manager. I spent a long time researching and reading about what that entailed, and then when I got offered a break I grabbed it with both hands.
That opportunity was in the form of another Location Manager asking me what I wanted to do, when I told him I wanted to be a Location Scout he asked me to go and scout something and send him my work. Once I came off the phone from him I immediately went and scouted the pub down the road and sent him my work within about 3 hours. I was so excited to have a break. All of my research was now under the spotlight and I didn’t know what he would think. He called me later that day and asked me if I was available the next day, which I was. He said he couldn’t pay me but would give me petrol money (this was all a test to see how much I really wanted to work as a scout). I agreed and worked for £20 for the day cleaning the set of a commercial he had finished shooting. I worked like a dog. At the end of the day he sat me down and went over the photos I had sent him and savaged all my work!
However he said I had passed all his tests and from the next week I was scouting and assisting for him regularly. He always did a great job of making me feel like everything I did was nearly perfect, but not quite, so that I was always striving to be better. I realise now he was giving me the best training he could and making me have very high standards for my work as I was associated to him. I’ve never looked back.
A couple of years later he confided in me that he had been really impressed with the first location scouting I had sent him that day and he had showed it to another LM he knew who had remarked ‘He’ll be taking work from you soon”.
Now can you tell us a bit more about your contributions within a production team? How does your role change from pre-production to when filming begins?
Pre-production for me is all about rapidly gauging what the creative direction and intentions for the production are going to be and getting relevant location options in front of the team as soon as possible. I also need to highlight where I feel the biggest challenges are, whilst also supplying options to show how we might meet those challenges.
The dream is finding the perfect balance between budget and creative ambition and having everyone agree. It can be a tough balance as designers and directors often want to get all the toys out and play, and producers and production managers don’t always have the budget to do that.
I need to try to give options to satisfy all these requirements. It’s a constant and changing process and balancing act as pre-production evolves to the point of shooting.
Once all the options have been chosen then my role turns into a logistics focussed role – here’s the location we want, get the owners/residents/councils/
Are you usually responsible for an entire film/episode or just specific scenes?
This depends on the size of the project. On commercials you can sometimes be a team of one if the project is compact enough. On bigger TV series you may over see a block of episodes and overlap with other location managers. And on a big feature you may look after one location in a team of location managers, working under a supervising location manager.
As a location manager, do you oversee a team of scouts and work closely with them to find the best locations or do you work more-so on your own?
Again, this will be project dependent.
Essentially the amount of locations required, the complexity of them, and the time allowed for pre-production will dictate the team you need, which is also then fluid. You may need to get some scouts in for a few days or a week or more, and then not need them for a few weeks once you’ve made sufficient headway. For most smaller projects I’ll work alone for pre-production and then have a team on set for the shoot.
We can imagine how time consuming it can be to find a location. But when you receive a script, how do you go about finding the perfect spot for a scene? Do you tend to travel a lot or can you find the locations working remotely?
Everyone has their own way of doing this and the one thing I love the most about my work is that I can approach it how I work best!
When I get a script, I read it just as it is and try to get as much of a feel for its pace and tone as I can, then I read it again and do what’s called a breakdown – scene by scene notes on everything that I need to consider. This will then form my basis for the search.
If I haven’t already, I’ll then check in with the director, designer, and production team to cross reference my thoughts and information with theirs to see where the balance needs to be and offer my thoughts if I’ve seen any issues.
Once I’ve done that, I’m into pure researching – doing as much groundwork and information gathering as I can before I spend time travelling. From that I’ll have a really good steer on what I need and can start quickly shortlisting and photographing available locations and putting them forward for consideration.
Once I’m out on the road, I carry everything I need to work remotely with me, so if changes come in or if I need to send information I’ve found to the team, I can do it from almost anywhere (ideally somewhere that has coffee and power, but sometimes from my car in the evening while tethered to my phone).
Once you find a location, what steps do you have to take before submitting them to a production team?
Undeniably the most important thing for me after aesthetic is making sure I can get a shooting crew to the location safely. If servicing the location isn’t straightforward, I need to spend time thinking about how we could service it before showing anyone the option.
How do we get the council, owners and residents on board and how do we get food, water, power, toilets, heat, shelter, vehicles, equipment and people to this location? I’ll need to be pretty sure that can be done before offering it as an option.
Anything is possible with the right amount of time and money but we often don’t have that, so if I find a really complicated location I’m most likely going to the producer with it first to say ‘I’ve found X location, but the cost implications could be X’ at which point, they may ask me to move on to a different location, or they may green light me to proceed if we think it’s achievable.
At that point, I can prepare a presentation for the director and designer to see how they feel about shooting there. If everyone likes it we’ll eventually take the heads of department to the location to carry out what we call a ‘tech recce’ where everyone assesses it to make sure they can also make an achievable plan to shoot there safely.
It’s still possible at this point that something could come up that means we can’t shoot there, but part of my job is to try to think a bit like each department prior to this to minimise the chance of this happening. If there are some very technical points I’m worried about, I will request input from heads of department prior to a tech recce to make sure we’ve covered as much as possible so we are efficient with our time.
Are you usually involved in obtaining a filming permit / license? And, has there ever been a time where the location was ‘the one’ but you couldn’t get a license to carry out filming?
If a production really wants a location but we can’t get permission we’ll continue to work with everyone involved to see if we can find a way of filming that satisfies everyone.
That will be worked on, until either it doesn’t make financial sense anymore or, arguably (and more importantly), the quality of the shots filmed there are compromised.
At either of these points it’s time for a new location, and you learn quickly to emotionally move on from locations that you think might be the one but for one reason or another aren’t achievable. For me ‘the one’, is the one we film.
What is one of the most unusual locations you found that turned out to be a great filming spot?!
We found an abandoned school near a remote beach down in a valley on a Caribbean island that looked very ready to fall down, but it was absolutely the location the script was asking for. It had pigs and chickens living in it and even looked, in the first instance almost impossible to get to!
Once we had it structurally inspected the director fell in love with it and then we had to get everyone there. Some of the team were very sceptical that we could get there and film, but I already had a plan in my mind and the team executed it really well, and the shots looked fantastic.
It’s extremely satisfying pulling off a big challenge like that where it seemed it could have just slipped into un-filmable, but where you know it can be done. Sometimes you have to spin a lot of plates and get a lot of people to follow you.
What’s your worst nightmare as a Location Manager!?
The day before shooting you get a call to say that for some reason tomorrow’s location now can’t be filmed (this is the dream/nightmare that keeps you awake the night before any shoot anyway, but if and when it really happens….).
Can you share an experience that’s been a career highlight, so far?
My highlights have mostly been the feeling of elation when you get a job done really well. The crew leave, the shoot has gone exactly as planned or you overcame some big unexpected issues to get the shoot to go as planned, and you hand back the keys to a really happy location owner who says they’d love to have you back any time. That’s a real highlight and a massive buzz. Personally I’ve also had the opportunity to have a beer and a chat at the bar with some of my entertainment heroes, and that’s been very special. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those and they are great memories, but getting the job done well is definitely my biggest thrill.
Are there any series/films that you’re a fan of and would like to work on in the future?
I’d really love to work on an Edgar Wright or Jordan Peele project! I think their directing styles are next level!
Would you recommend going down an educational route to become a location scout and are there any qualifications that could assist in becoming one?
Education is so important that I think just finding and benefiting from any available resource that’s applicable is always important. That should also never stop, there’s always something else to learn, always a chance to be better.
I would recommend a production guild or screen skills foundation course in the UK that are now established for prospective new location department members. They’re run by some very experienced and great people. Knowledge is power after all, but experience is the other axis, so whatever education you get you still need to be ready to learn every day.
If you can’t afford courses just research location managers and CALL them (emails often go in the bin), then regularly check in to see if they need a hand on a project. Specifically if you want to be a good scout and LM then learn how to take a really good photo and learn good photography foundation skills.
Once you have the basics on board composition is everything – if you can’t show a good frame then I don’t know how you effectively convey your thoughts to a creative team. Bad photos can turn a director off a location before they consider going to visit it.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone who wants to begin their career in location scouting? What can they do to find an opportunity within the industry?
That’s easy – really really really really want to be a scout, if you really want something, anything, bad enough in life then you will overcome all obstacles to get to it. You can’t learn passion, and it’s easy to identify people that don’t have it. When I started I researched and contacted lots of location managers and then routinely politely called them asking for an opportunity until I found one. It’s often a matter of timing, and be ready to potentially work emptying bins on set for a little while. Lastly, a very wise man once told me that the difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that successful people just never gave up. I think it’s one of the best things I ever learned!