The film Breath, based on the Tim Winton novel of the same name, opened in cinemas around the country last month. Set in a fictional town in WA’s South-West, the film was made on location in Denmark. Nina Levy caught up with local production manager Georgina Isles to find out about the nuts and bolts of making a film like Breath.
One of the strange things about singing in a community choir is that you tend to forget that your fellow choristers have lives outside the weekly rehearsals. And so, back in February 2016, when my choir friend George announced that she was heading down to Denmark for three months to work on a film, I was not just impressed but amazed.(You mean you’re NOT a full-time alto?)
Cut to 2018 and suddenly I’m seeing the shorts for Tim Winton’s Breath. It’s a bit of a stellar line-up, with a cast that includes the film’s director, Simon Baker, as well as Richard Roxburgh and Rachael Blake.
And that’s when I remember my choir friend George… although I have no idea what her role was, I’m pretty sure that the film she was working on was Breath. OMG! Excitement! A Facebook message later, I am enlightened. She certainly did work on Breath, she was the film’s production manager, and yes, she’s happy to talk to me about working on the film.
Preparing for the interview, I realise that I haven’t a clue what a production manager does, although it sounds impressive and important. So that’s my first question to George, whose full name (another thing that often gets overlooked at choir) is Georgina Isles.
“For a smaller feature film, a production manager is responsible for hiring the crew and managing them, in conjunction with the producers,” explains Isles. “They manage the money and the flow of money, but they don’t make creative decisions – that has to be done with the producers or the director. It’s a lot of HR stuff too – so if someone needs to be fired, for instance, you have to manage that.”
While Isles is at pains to emphasise that the production manager is an office role, listening to her talk, it’s clear that – desk-bound or not – the production manager is the oil of the film-making machine. “The production manager runs the production office and that’s the heartbeat of the production.” she says. “It’s project management. You have information that needs to be distributed to the moving parts, so they all do the things they need to do. You have to check up on all the departments to make sure that they are functioning properly. You have to make decisions about where to spend money, and where not to. If someone isn’t happy, you need to talk to them – I’ve been in situations where there’s been bullying on set, for example, and I’ve had to intervene (that wasn’t on Breath).”
Even though the production manager isn’t directly involved in the artistic side of making the film, a detailed understanding of film-making is vital for the role, says Isles. “As with managing any project you have to understand what the project needs to be completed. Because I’ve worked in the film industry for 15 years, I know the moving parts. That’s understanding at a personal level, and knowing your crew, but also understanding from a film-making perspective what things are. So it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘That’s too expensive, we can’t have it.’ It’s knowing, well that is expensive but it’s going to look amazing.”
In Breath, for example, says Isles, there are a number of shots from drones. “Drones cost heaps of money and every time you’re booking them, you say, ‘oh these drone guys, they cost so much!’ But then you watch the film and you’re blown away by how beautiful it is. So you need to know what you’re making.”
Even if one hasn’t seen Breath, anyone who has experienced the wild beauty of the Great Southern coastline should be able to imagine why those shots are something special. How wonderful, to have the opportunity to work in such a location.
“Denmark is stunning,” agrees Isles. “Working there was lovely. On your day off you’d go to the beach, to the forest, or up Monkey Rock, or to a beautiful restaurant or winery, or to the brewery. All our accommodation was really nice – we rented people’s houses mostly. The town itself was super welcoming. Everyone was stoked that we were there. We had a number of local people on the crew.”
One of the challenges of working on location, though, is the weather, says Isles. “There are scenes in the film that needed rain [and it was raining] but we needed it to be consistent and we needed it to rain on cue… and so we had to get a rain machine. That happens all the time in film.”
Presumably, too, there are days when the scenes scheduled require dry weather but it’s wet… what happens then? Isles explains that there always have to be contingency plans. “If you’re shooting outside and it’s not supposed to be raining but it’s a rainy day, you have to have scenes you can shoot inside [that you can work on instead]. So you ensure that there are things are on the schedule that you can actually shoot. It’s all about scheduling.”
It all sounds so… practical. “The logistics of film-making is all common sense,” Isles concurs. “The magic is in the camera moves and the lighting and the performances and the sound design and choice of music… and the production design, and the way the production design is then handled by the camera and how the actors move through those spaces. The magic isn’t in the scheduling but you need those strong foundations in order to allow those things to move freely… and that’s what we do.”
Pictured top: Samson Coulter as Pikelet in “Breath”. Photo: Nic Duncan.