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Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

The work of a production manager and how it has changed over time

Main image of Roy Parkinson: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Roy Parkinson was interviewed by Sid Cole in 1987.

1. Breaking down the script

SC: Imagine, Roy, somebody listening to this and who is not in the business or not all that familiar with it, would need to know possibly what a production manager does. Could you say a few things on that do you think?

RP: Yes. Production manager, well first of all you have your producer who then has a script and then he's got to see how much that script is going to cost, the production manager reads through the script and probably at that time not even knowing who the director is going to be. So having read the script you then make a set list and make a number of pages of script as per set. And then roughly, you can work out maybe about three pages a day on an average, so you then work out how long it takes to shoot each set which then gives you the amount of time it's going to take to shoot the picture. And if you've got locations in you then have to allow for travelling to location and travelling back from location. So you eventually end up with a picture that's going to take let's say 10 weeks. Right, you then can then do a budget, x number of people, or if it's a location picture you have to allow for costs on location, hotels, feeding etc., and with your accountant you can work out then what should be the actual cost of the picture in what is called below the line.

SC: Please define that for the sake of our [listener].

RP: Below the line is the actual running costs of the picture, above the line is the costs of the story, the writer, the producer's fees, the director's fees and your principal artists. The minor artists come below the line under the cast budget. You've then got your finishing costs which is really below the line but is budgeted separately. So having arrived at your below the line costs the producer can then add above the line costs. In other words if you've got Ava Gardner or Elizabeth Taylor, it's going to be a lot less if you've got an unknown playing the lead which can sometimes happen. So having got to that the producer can go ahead with the companies making the picture to carry on.

When you're doing the budget you very often have no idea who's going to direct it, but then going back to the previous director, Dick, who I can't remember now, he was such a practical director, having done one with him I realised on the next film I did with him I could tighten up the schedule. I knew he was shooting a lot faster knowing the way he worked.

Then after that the production manager is always thinking the day ahead. By 10 o'clock in the morning I reckoned my day had finished. Then I'd start to think about tomorrow's work. I'd go on the set two or three times, but providing all was going well by 10 o'clock that day was done.

2. Locations and unions

RP: You always had all your movement orders to work out, if you were going on location, whether you were going abroad, or whether a daily location for studio. You had to lay on transport, you had to arrange for trucks to be loaded, catering, numbers, scenes, getting permissions. In those days, I'm going back to 1955, 1960, the production manager did a lot of most of these things themselves. These days you have location managers that can go out and arrange locations and be with the unit the whole day in case any problems pop up. I mean you may have police problems and things, but in the early days, the PM was in the studio, out the studio. I think it's a good think having a location manager because you've got somebody on the spot the whole time, so if anything went wrong, if the police came up and said look here you're blocking up the roadway, he was there to sort things out. As I say, that's come in since 1960 I would think.

SC: Apart from that, you were available for all those things as a production manager but of course also if any sudden unforeseen thing turned up then you would be the person to sort it out.

RP: Oh yes, you were there for all sorts of things, you were also there [for] any union problems, you had to sort out with them.

SC: There used to be a system of pre production meetings between the company which you would be one of the representative or perhaps the representative and the union representatives to discuss what was your requirements and what could be done in terms of the actual agreements which existed then.

RP: Yes, you always had a pre production meeting on all pictures which was basically a good idea because the unions, it was all unions - ACTT [Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians], ETU [Electricians Trade Union], NATKKE [National Association of Theatrical Television and Kine Employees] - all there, they could ask questions and you were there to answer them. Occasionally you had problems and it was a question of sorting it out. Sometimes the union would insist on more people than the actual picture required, but on the other hand eventually it was brought in that you had to be, I think you had to be 27 ACTT. But they could be in different grades. At one time you had to have 4 camera, 4 sound.

SC: [unintelligible]

RP: Yes, but it was eventually varied which was a lot better because sometimes you wanted 2 cameras or something and maybe you only wanted, for the sake of the picture it might have been just a small set picture, you maybe only wanted two assistants and not 3. But by that system it was much more practical, at least from the PM's point of view to work the picture.

SC: Sure. Of course that was partly associated with the nature of equipment, as time has gone on equipment has got more manoeuvrable, lighter, easier to handle and not requiring so many technicians.

RP: That's right. When I said just now that you reckoned you could do 3 pages a day, that didn't always apply because say you had a crane shot of somebody on a staircase scene coming down from a landing with the crane following the person down the stairs, across the room and out the front door, well I knew that shot would take all morning. And that day I would probably put down, in the script it was probably four lines, I knew that shot was going to take all morning, so in that case I would probably put just that one page down for the day.

SC: Those are the sort of shots that are very difficult to learn to estimate, and dialogue scenes of course are very easy to estimate the timing of.

3. Antonioni and Blow-Up

RP: I remember on Blow-Up which Antonioni [Michelangelo Antonioni] directed and that was all made, well there was eventually a studio set but that was all made on location up in Notting Hill Gate.

SC: And the park scene, where were they shot?

RP: That park scene was shot down in Greenwich. There's a row of houses opposite the park in Greenwich where the art director built a different front of it to match the film. But what I was going to say about budgets was we did a budget on Blow-Up. I always reckon the budget I did with the art director was the true budget, what it was going to cost below the line. And I remember we did Blow-Up, MGM said oh no, far too much. The accountant, the accountant I should have said just now, he and I got down and reduced it down to what MGM said. We both knew it was going to cost what we first said, so roundabout three quarters of the way through we'd reached the budget and of course we had to go on and it ended up pretty much what we said in the first place.

SC: There was a problem at the end of that picture wasn't there. Didn't Antonioni shoot something other than he'd originally scripted?

RP: Well, not quite so much but there was a scene in the nightclub. We were going to shoot it at a nightclub in Windsor, then we decided to have, I've forgotten now, two or three weeks lay off while Antonioni saw, well he had seen the rushes but he was also getting a rough cut. Then it was decided to build a set at MGM instead of shooting at this one near Windsor, something to do with the script or the fact that the singer wasn't available - a combination of things that we had a 2 or 3 week lay off for that.

SC: How did you get on with Antonioni, did he speak good English?

RP: He spoke quite good English. He was a little bit of a cold fish, he very much kept himself to himself. When I got the script I think there was 76 pages. So I sat quiet and said eventually well when are we going to get the rest of the script. He [unintelligible] said that's the script. I think I actually had to work out a schedule with him on that. Of course he knew what he was going to do and what was in the script was maybe half a page and he said well I think I'll take three days doing that, because he had it in his mind.

SC: It makes life difficult though for the production manager.

RP: Yes and also for planning, because we were shooting as I say out at Greenwich and when one has organised the next locations and things... He was a bit tricky. On the other hand again he all - on I won't say nearly every shot but - he had two cameras and probably three cameras turning. Even working in - we had a little studio in Notting Hill Gate which was David Hemming's place in the story - and he had a small room, he'd have two cameras going.

SC: Really? It meant an enormous amount of rushes. He saw his rushes.

RP: I think he did. I don't really remember, I'm not sure about that. Maybe he spent the weekend seeing it.

SC: That's another problems you have on location isn't it about rushes. When you're some distance away you have to organise somewhere where the rushes can be seen by the unit.

RP: Yes you can do, but the unit seemed to drop out on some pictures, especially on location. The cameraman goes and the editor goes and probably first assistant goes, and if there's some make-up problems they might go but if you're on location the unit is rather keen to get home. Local location I'm talking about.

4. Changes in the industry

SC: In your long experience what has been the main changes do you think have happened in your sphere of working in the industry since the days when you first came in as a very... as a runner practically.

RP: I suppose it's the lighter equipment, certainly silent generators, because in the old days, shooting at night the problems one had from neighbours complaining of the noise of generators. Silent generators are one of the main things.

SC: There were great problem for the sound people, everybody.

RP: Yes, everybody that's right. I mean you had to stick the generator ages away for sound and often had to post sync because of it. Zoom lens, I think is a good idea.

SC: Now it's used as a multi-purpose thing.

RP: Often you don't have to put down tracks which takes time. Walkie-talkies for the assistants and to the office.

SC: It's amazing how far you can go with walkie-talkies, what a range modern walkie-talkies have.

RP: Yes. And also with the throat mikes too. You can shoot actors far away and get good sound on it. Recently [unintelligible] and now you've got computers and things which the accountants use which [unintelligible. And also you're shooting more films on actual locations, rather than building sets in the studio. Whether it saves money I'm not awfully sure, because some times it's easier to put up a four-wall set in the studio than to shoot on location where you've probably got to get equipment up about 4 stories high to shoot out of a window when you could shoot it in the studio in a day, it probably takes three days to shoot it on location. But that's one of those things to do with the director. [Laughter]

SC: A tremendous amount of stuff is done now on real locations. Actors have told me that they find that rather good because it gives them more of an atmosphere than possibly even the best sets in the studio.

RP: It probably does from the actor's point of view. On the other hand you've got to put up with sometimes extraneous noises and everything's got to be post-synched anyhow.

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Parkinson, Roy (1916-)