Location scout Clayton Tikao is sipping takeout coffee sitting in an SUV overlooking a palm-fringed Fijian beach as we chat via Skype, there for the filming of movie Adrift, a US drama slated for release in 2018. Twelve years ago, Clayton, with business partner Phil Aitken, founded Film Scouts New Zealand, and the pair have since worked on blockbuster movies such as The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe; TV series such as the Power Rangers; and TV commercials for clients like Nikon, Citizen Watches, and Stella Artois, as well as commercial still shoots.
I begin by asking how he came to be involved in the industry.
“Well, I was pretty crap at being a yuppie, so I thought I would try something different!” he chuckles. “Many in the film industry just kind fall into it from a lot of different angles. I was working as an account at the BBC in the UK in a budgetary advisory role and soon came to the conclusion that making movies and TV was far more interesting. So, I returned to New Zealand 20 years ago, and dived right into it, starting from the bottom and working my way up.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Filming of Lord of the Rings would soon begin and the wider world would soon become wise to the beauty that graces our gaggle of islands perched at the bottom of the globe. “Those movies were essentially a postcard to the film industry,” Clayton says. “They were massive then, and they remain massive. Even now, the briefs that we are sent will often ask for Lord of the Rings-type locations that weren’t actually in Lord of the Rings.”
It’s not just the lusciousness of our lands that are so attractive to filmmakers, but the diversity, and all in such a relatively compact space. Mount Taranaki doubled as Mount Fuji for Tom Cruise flick The Last Samurai, Milford Sound was recently used as backdrop for a distant planet in Alien: Covenant, and, earlier this year, Disney shot their landscape scenes here for upcoming movie A Wrinkle in Time, starring Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Zach Galifianakis — a project that Clayton was involved in. All that New Zealand really lacks is a tropical landscape, but that suits Clayton — it means he gets to jet around the Pacific Islands as well.
But typically, Aotearoa is Clayton’s area of expertise (“I’m a Ngai Tahu boy from Banks Peninsula”), and being a local is generally beneficial in this part of the world when dealing with local tribes, communities or scared Maori sites. “Every day is different. I get exposure to a lot of communities across the board, get up close and personal with them, and that teaches me a lot about life,” he says. “I’m the first one there so it’s important that we establish good relationships within those communities so that when the rest of the film crew arrive we don’t have to navigate our way around to find out who are the right people to talk to. We often arrive months in advance of rest of the crew.”
Are communities generally happy to have film crews in town? “Yes, but we do also get knock-backs. I’m very careful to manage expectations within the communities because some people can get stars in their eyes with regards to films. You will have a massive economic boost while the film is being shot but then afterwards, when we are gone, the hoopla all dies down and the stories in the media dry up. So, I’m very honest from the beginning. But even if 99 of the homes are positive about it, there’s always one in every street that will create more hassle than the other 99 combined. It’s also true that some film crews can be very arrogant, so I have to deal with that, to make sure everyone is treated with respect.”
As for the practicalities of finding locations, while briefs for TV ads or photo shoots are generally very specific, knowing him to be so experienced, filmmakers often allow for Clayton to get a little creative. “I’ll often explore outside of the parameters of the brief I’ve been given and throw stuff in there that I think would be good for the story and it often ends up in the film,” he says. “When you’ve been doing it for 20 years like I have, then you tend to become a lot more involved with the creative side of things, purely because I have a good knowledge of what’s available within the budget constraints of the film.” While money is no object for the bigger productions, Clayton needs to be cleverer with the smaller budgets, “cheating” by making the same city appear as multiple locations, something that can often bring the most professional satisfaction.
But that’s only half the battle, once filming is ready to begin, Clayton’s role morphs into one of “project management on steroids”, dealing with all kinds of logistics such as organising trucks, permit consents, and even the building of roads. “The hours are long and you’re in hotels a lot and it’s hard to maintain any form of routine,” says Clayton. “I also have a wife and two kids so being away for extended periods can be tough — they say ‘daddy’s away with the circus!’ That’s the hardest part of the job.” It’s “adventure time” when he does return though, ever curious he’s always looking for new places to explore with the kids.
“But I can’t deny I get to see things and meet people that not many others get the chance to do, and there are still locations I see in New Zealand every few weeks that absolutely blow my mind.”
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces