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The showbiz landscape

Fatal cliff edges, boggy battlefields and green, storybook hills – these are the Irish landscapes that Catherine Geary brings to the screen. She is one of the most in-demand location managers for film and TV, and has found real-life locations for the fictional ones in everything from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. Even more impressively, Catherine overcomes the logistical nightmare of bringing in a cast and film crew of hundreds to the most remote corners of Ireland. Every day from her home in the small coastal town of Donaghadee, in Northern Ireland, she roams all over the island in her Land Rover Defender, armed only with a rough brief from a director. How does she manage to find places that look even better than CGI?

Interview by Clare Dwyer Hogg, photography by Liberto Fillo

CLARE DWYER HOGG: Thanks for inviting me into your home. With your books and art, and your piano, it feels peaceful.

CATHERINE GEARY:  Those books were there before you came! Not just for show. Yes, it’s definitely a bolt-hole. I lit the fire earlier – I hope it warms up.

CDH: And it’s lovely to have the sea so close to your front door.

CG: Yes, I’m seconds from it. I grew up near here, and I’ve always lived looking at the sea, surrounded by it. When I lived in Dublin, working as a location trainee, something felt disconnected, and I think now that was to do with not being close to the water. Back then, I’d be up at 4am to work, fall into bed at 10pm, and be up four hours later to go back to the set. I was so keen and hungry I said yes to everything.

CDH: When you were location manager on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you were on the west coast of Ireland. It’s a wild landscape, isn’t it?

CG: For me, it’s the real Ireland. For The Last Jedi we were at places like Skellig Michael and Dunmore Head in County Kerry. Every Saturday night I would drive eight hours back north to come home and see my son. I’d get in at 3am, sleep with him, have breakfast and drive back Sunday lunchtime. As I would come back through the mountains in Kerry and feel the coast, something biological would switch. I would feel happy, excitement, the challenge of the week ahead. It was surprising, and it happened every time.

CDH: Why do you think that was?

CG: I read somewhere that the Japanese say the foot of a mountain at the sea is the perfect location. I don’t know if it’s that or the chemical composition of the air, but it’s breath-taking there. It can be a neglected part of the country, though – there’s a lot of poverty and isolation. The landscape is bleak and desolate, and the lives of some of the individuals I met there reflected that.

CDH: Was it you who had to tramp up farm paths to ask for permission to use the land?

CG: Ask them to sign contracts for a film I couldn’t tell them the name of? Yes! I find the people I meet very interesting. In this case, we were mostly dealing with farmers – primarily single men in their sixties, in relative isolation. They tended to think it was all great craic.

CDH: What begins the process that takes you to standing on a cliff, persuading a farmer to build a set for a movie on his property?

CG: I get a call from a film-maker who’s never been to Ireland. Usually we have no previous connection. They fly in for one, maybe two days. I have to quickly connect with them and instinctively understand what they want, while driving them around the various location options. If I get it right, that film-maker might bring in £500 million and you’d have 400 people in work. If not...

CDH: That sounds very stressful.

CG: The artist Chuck Close said “Inspiration is for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.” There’s little time for nerves. You just have to make it happen. If I’m given a brief, I usually feel out the answers to the puzzle.

CDH: You have to tap into a feeling that someone else wants to create. It seems your job starts from a mysterious, quite ethereal, position.

CG: It does. But I find it instinctive. I go with my gut, just as I do with music and art and people. You also have to have some kind of intellectual creative database, so you understand what someone means if they reference an artist or a novel. And then the logistics kick in, if somebody wants something particularly difficult, you’ve got to be resourceful enough to provide it.

CDH: What’s your strategy for handling tricky requests from a film-maker?

CG: I’ve done my job for over 20 years, and I always joke about being a river. A river doesn’t stop because there’s an obstacle. It erodes it, goes over it, finds its way around. Location managers don’t have the luxury of being able to stop when there’s a problem.

CDH: So you’re a force of nature!

CG: Well, you have to join the dots to make it work. For the movie Dracula Untold  they wanted a tree in isolation on the brow of a hill. It sounds like nothing. Didn’t exist. You have to suggest creative alternatives, find a 400-year-old oak tree, or know about a huge yew with wonderful roots that you can go inside. In the end, the art department brought in a tree and planted it on Divis Mountain near Belfast. So there’s a brutal landscape with a fabulously contorted tree!

CDH: And is that tree still there?

CG: No, we took it away. We have a moral and a legal obligation to leave the landscape how we find it. I often get asked for a waterfall, because of Game of Thrones. Much of that series is filmed in a studio here. I have to break it to them that those waterfalls were shot in Iceland.

CDH: OK, tell me a little bit more about Game of Thrones...

CG: The Game of Thrones  locations in Northern Ireland are driven more by practicalities than creativity. The “epic” scenes are filmed in Croatia and Iceland, and they’re managed by a separate team. What we primarily scout for here are areas to build sets and leave them standing for several years, for example a disused quarry or a field next to an existing studio that they can turn into a battlefield. It’s about being cost-effective and close to Belfast.

CDH: You mentioned earlier that you love taking your son with you on adventures. What kind of places do you like to travel to together?

CG: I always want to go north for the ice, snow, glaciers, icebergs. Primarily it’s for me, not work, but at the same time, the more I see and experience, the better I get at my job. Most of our limitations are self-imposed. Travelling helps me nudge mine out of the way. Everybody wants to go and scout for Pirates of the Caribbean – somewhere hot. Not me.

CDH: And your son gets the chance to see it all with you.

CG: It helps me to show him what’s possible. And to be a better mother. I once arranged for a surprise cake 300km north of the Arctic Circle for his eighth birthday. He sulked because it wasn’t chocolate, while I sang Happy Birthday to completion on my own in a full and silent restaurant. That was a moment.

CDH: That’s dedication. Which is another element of your job. Do you always use the same team?

CG: I work with different people, depending on the requirements. I might need a geotechnical expert who understands the temperament of ancient quarry walls. Or who knows how to get people safely into a mineshaft 4km underground. It’s my job to join the dots between the creative and the practical.

CDH: So the projects you work on go quite quickly from imagination to some very detailed...

CG: Logistics? Yes. To work in some parts of Ireland, for instance, we’ve had to put in roads. So I begin with a logistical team to figure out how to get a road over a metre-deep bog, or to build a set 250m up a cliff. How do we get cranes from here to there? How do we get 400 crew members from here to there? And not only that: how do we do it all safely? And make it beautiful?

CDH: It’s an unusual profession that requires emotional intelligence plus a brutally practical sensibility.

CG: Yes. Most people are either creatives or in logistics. But when I started in Northern Ireland, there wasn’t really any film industry yet. It was very different from what it’s like here now, with so many big-budget projects coming for the funding. So I learned how to do everything myself. You’re the first person there, and you’re also the last person there, putting everything back in place.

CDH: Do you feel you’re an anomaly in your profession as a woman?

CG: It is a very male environment. And a strong woman is rarely described as a strong woman: she’s described as tough or difficult. She’s described in ways that are sort of...

CDH: Pejorative?

CG: Yes. I approach things differently because I’m a woman. That makes me as strong as a man, not stronger. Yet when I go into a crew of mostly men, I often feel I have to work three times as hard to prove myself. I’m physically small, and look younger than I am, so it can be trying. You just have to have the patience to keep going. People eventually get to know that I’m happy to roll up my sleeves. What I love about this job is the challenge.

CDH: You call it a challenge. That sounds like an understatement!

CG: Well, I suppose I like being phoned up and told I have two days to do something. Once I got a call from a film agency, asking could I do a recce, which is when you meet a director off the plane and take them round to look at locations. It was for a Bollywood director and producer, and another location manager had pulled out at short notice. Bollywood productions are notorious. They’re renowned for stopping all the trucks in the road and starting to film a dance sequence – no permission, no licence, no nothing. Anyway, on the first evening in Belfast, I told the producer my ideas for the next day’s scouting. She said: “No, no, tomorrow our crew fly in. We shoot in ten days.” We turned it around – putting in period cars, gangsters with weapons, gun battles on rooftops – ending with a huge shootout in the foyer of Belfast City Hall, in which everybody died.

CDH: That sounds like miracle working. What’s your definition of a job done well?

CG: When my job’s been done successfully, the director isn’t aware of us. They turn up, do what they have to do, go home. Nothing stops them: a farmer cutting his corn 5km away that’s affecting the sound department, a tree fallen across the road, the location owner having a meltdown an hour before we’re due to turn up at 6am... They can’t be aware of any of that.

CDH: How does it feel when things don’t work out?

CG: It’s all part of the process. I remember I got the call from the Skyfall team asking if I could find a house they could use as James Bond’s childhood home. I searched everywhere, but there was just nothing suitable. They actually ended up building the house you see in the movie, from scratch.

CDH: But I guess when things go wrong, and there’s a celebrity involved, it makes global news – everybody heard about that Northern Irish farmer asking Rihanna to stop filming her video for We Found Love in his field...

CG: That was interesting because it was blown out of proportion, really. The thing was, he was perfectly within his rights to say that. He had been very affable, but we were outside our contracted amount of time. He wanted to harvest the rest of his crop. Plus, he’d got a call from a tabloid who I think deliberately pushed buttons about morality. Rihanna came up to him afterwards and shook his hand and said, “I’m a child of God too,” which was quite lovely.

CDH: And then you had to arrange the urban Belfast location for the rest of the video?

CG: Yes. The local community helped us enormously. What wasn’t talked about was how hundreds of kids saw that the aspirational music industry wasn’t far away; a global icon came to their neighbourhood. The production team went away really happy, and the video ended up winning awards for its director, Melina Matsoukas. She was brilliant to work with. The local children were happy, too: the house we used had a trampoline in the garden, and Rihanna was bouncing on it while they filmed her over the fence.

CDH: How do you get personal space after working so hard?

CG: I read actual, physical books, play my piano, spend time with my son. I joke that when we travel, it’s like scouting with a really difficult director. Where’s the charger for my iPad? When are we going to eat? Are we there yet? Why are we here? Will the earth be swallowed up by a black hole?

CDH: Have you ever had an inexplicable reaction to a landscape?

CG: Once, when I was near Funningur, on the north-west coast of Eysturoy, one of the Faroe Islands. I felt deeply connected to the scale, the vastness, the brutality, the epic beauty, the continually shifting light, the ever-present sea. It felt like my bones, my blood, were of this place. I told my Brazilian friend Alex Gabassi, the director I worked with on The Frankenstein Chronicles. He told me about the concept of saudade, which means a longing or a primal ache for something that once was. It could be a nostalgic longing for the way you used to relate to someone you see in front of you. Or it could be an ancestral aching for the place your family may have come from. It’s beautiful. I genuinely felt saudade for Eysturoy. It’s a landscape you see across Scandinavia, Scotland and the west of Ireland. It’s something I have never felt in Northern Ireland, having always felt misplaced here. Perhaps on some level my job is about looking for where I am from!

CDH: Would you say your job is a lonely one?

CG: It is isolating, you can spend hours, maybe days, in a car alone. You are a solo force, completely separate from the production team. You have to switch between finding the extraordinary location, like a glacier or a mountain range, and the very ordinary, like an office block or a terraced house. You have to see things a little differently from most, in order to find beauty. On a personal level, I think that I respond most strongly to places where human life is very much the background noise. Where, instead, the landscape stands front and centre.

Taking its name from aontroim, an Irish word meaning “lone ridge”, County Antrim in the north-east corner of Northern Ireland has a spectacularly rugged coastline, typified by Whiterocks Beach, which Catherine loves for its dramatic seas and skies.
"I go with my gut, just as I do with music and art and people."
The Causeway Coast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, close to where Catherine found locations for the films Dracula Untold, Transformers: The Last Knight and the latest instalment of Star Wars. Perhaps the most notable cliffs near here are the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway and the towering Fair Head.
"I always joke about being a river. A river doesn’t stop because there’s an obstacle. It erodes it, goes over it, finds its way around. Location managers don’t have the luxury of being able to stop when there’s a problem."
Catherine is currently finding the perfect locations for an as yet unnamed poetic documentary with DoubleBand Films about the Northern Irish Troubles, scheduled for release in 2019.
"You have to see things a little differently from most, in order to find beauty. On a personal level, I think that I respond most strongly to places where human life is very much the background noise. Where, instead, the landscape stands front and centre."
Taking its name from aontroim, an Irish word meaning “lone ridge”, County Antrim in the north-east corner of Northern Ireland has a spectacularly rugged coastline, typified by Whiterocks Beach, which Catherine loves for its dramatic seas and skies.