It’s been some months since cast and crew of World War Z decamped from Malta. And yet, some six months later, Christian McWilliams is already back on our island to participate in the first Malta Film Commission Locations Seminar. When I meet him for the interview, he is enjoying his last day in Malta, making the most of the sun that only now deigned put in an appearance after a near three week absence.
Christian McWilliams’s is one of the most highly respected locations expert in the international film industry. His is the eye behind the spectacular locations in the recent Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol, where he was key assistant location manager responsible for the movie. Christian’s future within the movie industry was sealed at a very young age: on the day when his aunt, a renowned casting director in the UK, took him took him on the set of the first Superman movie. Christian was fifteen years old. There, her met actor Christopher Reeve, hobnobbed with cast and crew and was soon in love with vibe on set.
“I thought to myself, hmm… do I want a career in banking or do I want this?” he tells me with a chuckle.
Aged eighteen he got his first big break, working as runner on the second series of Inspector Morse.
“Inspector Morse was one of the biggest things on UK telly at the time. I was in heaven. One thing about the film industry, it’s not about studying or even about exams. It’s about being willing to work your way up from the bottom rung, always with a smile. And about a genuine love of the industry.”
And work his way up is exactly what Christian did.
“It’s really ironic. I used to earn 60 pounds a week as runner. Last summer we had juniors earning seventy euro a day on the set of World War Z. How the value of everything has changed… When you’re a junior on a movie set you really need to hope that you get the right opportunity that will allow you to make a name for yourself in the particular area you love. I was lucky because this is exactly what happened with me.”
Christian’s second big break, in fact, was when he landed a job as location assistant on the English period drama Howards End, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
“The locations for that particular movie were amazing. Every scene looked like a picture postcard. It was like an advert for everything that England has to offer, practically a campaign for the UK tourist board. Everyone in England saw that movie. And my name was tied to it, so it gave me a name when I was still starting out. A movie like that stays with you and can make your career. I guess that’s what really put me on the map… I’m still in touch with some of the crew in fact, I learnt so much on set and I have fantastic memories of that time.”
The movie in fact went on to gross over 25 million dollars at the box-office when it first came out in 1992. It was entered as Official selection for Cannes International Film Festival and won the 45th Anniversary Award. In 1993, the film received nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture for Ismail Merchant and Best Director for James Ivory. The film won three awards, including for Best Art Direction (Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker). Ruth Prawer Jhabvala earned her second Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Emma Thompson won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Saying that it’s the perfect production to have on your CV is an understatement.
Since then, Christian has been on a number of Hollywood blockbusters… Orlando, Alexander and Prince of Persia to name but three. And now, World War Z, starring Brad Pitt and Mireille Enos. Why was Malta picked for the soon-to-be blockbuster, I ask.
“Malta is already famous as a location simply because so many movies are being filmed here. World War Z was probably the biggest Hollywood production to shoot in Europe last year – and Malta was chosen, which says a lot. There were 577 crew members, at least 2,000 extras a day… massive production. There was such a lot to do. And there was trying to find an empty parking slot in Valletta, of course,” he continues with a laugh.
The invasion of people our island saw last summer did, in fact, create parking issues both for the filming people and for the Maltese themselves.
“I had to set up three different park and ride spots to cope with the demand. One for the crew, another for the extras and a third for the Lands Department because we had nicked all their spots. If Arriva were to employ me to oversee their park and ride issues I’m sure I’d solve all the problems for them,” he jokes.
The he gets serious and adds that in reality, Valletta is a dream to work in.
“I’ve done this in London, where it’s much worse. It’s the most difficult place, I think. I’ve also done it in Dubai on the set of Mission: Impossible 4. There we had a lovely valet system going with the crew arriving and leaving specific personnel to deal with car keys and with car park issues. Even in Malta, it got very close to a valet system at one point.”
He mentions how during those months he became “best buddies” with the Floriana Football Club, from which they rented the football pitch to use for parking.
“Everyone was very helpful and we were glad to create the extra business in Malta. Hey, I should be honorary member of the Floriana Football Club for life! I hope they got themselves a new centre-forward with the parking money we left them,” he chuckles some more. I chuckle with him… a Valletta girl, appreciative any time when the rival club gets a ribbing by someone else.
Christian continues to tell me that Malta was the immediate choice for World War Z. The crew included Oscar-winning cameraman Robert Richardson, whose input invaluable, especially when it came to eliminating excessive CGI animation.
“We were matching Malta with Jerusalem and at one point were relying heavily on CGI. In reality it’s something we try to avoid. At one point we had already picked Qawra and St Paul’s Bay to film but Robert suggested we switch location to Marsa. Well, you all know what Marsa is like. However, if you stand at one point and look in the distance towards Valletta you can see all the fortifications. This was exactly what we were after.”
Christian mentions that the help of the Maltese location team, led by Pierre Agius, was truly essential. Agius, he explains, essentially built a film set in the middle of the roadworks and traffic deviations that was Marsa at that time.
“I’m telling you it was blood, sweat and tears. But we managed. I left part of my heart in Malta. But I also left part of myself in Marsa. But the advantage of shooting in Marsa is that besides the fortifications in the distance you also had the sense of chaos that we needed for those scenes. We didn’t need to artificially re-create it, we found chaos there waiting for us.”
Christian has many highlights from his stay in Malta. Valletta, he tells me, tops the list. He describes how some of the streets look as if they’ve never been touched, how most of the buildings along Old Bakery Street seem enticingly abandoned.
“For a locations person, that’s the ultimate. You see an abandoned building, you want to see what’s on the other side of the door! There are also so many Palazzi that are empty it’sunbelievable. We got permission to enter and film in some of them. You wouldn’t believe what’s inside. It’s like a piece of history. I think I visited about 70 houses in Valletta.”
Another place that enchanted him was The Silver Horse, an old Bulgarian dancing bar in Strait Street. He describes the “appalling decor, kitschy furniture” and even the used glasses that were still on the counter.
“It was like a dream come true for a location scout. Like a treasure trove.”
And, because Malta has such close ties to the British, some of the memories Christian created here are personal.
“I went to see the War Museum and to look at the pictures of The Illustrious. I managed to find photos of my grandfather, who was serving in Malta at the time. The connection to Britain here is still very strong. Sometimes I’ll be having coffee outside somewhere, and it is almost like I’m in the UK. Then suddenly you hear someone speak Maltese… it is such a charming mix.”
The attractions of Malta for the film industry are various, he tells me. Some come here simply to make use of the tank in Rinella. Others shoot here because of the colour of the sea, or maybe because of the weather…the financial incentives are pretty amazing too, he adds. Then there is the fact that the people who were in filming here have been steeped in the industry for generations.
“The crew you get in Malta usually have a very good CV. I was talking to this guy, he had been on the set of Midnight Express and still worked in filming to this day. He was describing how he likes to watch the movie again and again because the cast included some of his friends who today are with us no longer. These people usually transmit their love of film to the next generation… the history here is very interesting.”
During the three months he spent here Christian immersed himself quite fully in the local lifestyle. He mentions Paceville and St Julian’s with a laugh, adding mischievously that the area should be “bigger”. A good portion of those who work in the filming industry are still young and appreciate a good night out on town, he adds.
“I have to say I dropped quite a bit of money in Paceville myself. It can be fun. Of course there were also the days when I wanted something simpler, such as sitting on the water’s edge in Valletta with my feet dangling in the water until midnight, enjoying a drink at one of the homey bars on the coast. I used to visit Marsaxlokk every Sunday – I had my first taste of octopus in Malta. I visited a re-enactment festival in Zebbuġ. It was quite an experience. I tend to fall in love with wherever I’m staying and that helps me do the job well.”
When he is not travelling across the globe, Christian lives with his wife and family in Morocco. Morocco is, in fact, considered one of Malta’s biggest rivals locations-wise. Christian acknowledges this and says that Morocco offers a bigger diversity of locations. However, Malta is generally considered safer and more financially viable. This doesn’t mean can sit on our laurels. There are things that need to be done in order for us to develop our full potential, he says.
“Malta doesn’t offer filming studios. I’m talking about huge warehouses that can be used for filming. Marsa contains a number of such warehouses that can be transformed for filming purposes. They’re abandoned, full or boats that are just rotting away. It’s a crime if nothing is made of them, seeing as how there are directors who are crying for a studio to shoot in. Studio space is a must.”
He also mentions that not enough importance is being given as yet to the idea of showcasing our filming industry: as an example, he mentions that as an entity, the Malta Film Commission needs to grow both in terms of space and in terms of human resources.
“Malta is competing on an international stage! If it wants to keep its position at the forefront more investment, more funding, a bigger Malta Film Commission…all these things are essential. If you look at Film Commissions in other countries, they have enormous facilities, their premises include screening rooms, film museums…this is Malta’s flagship with the international industry.”
Christian also believes that Malta should be more eager to take up opportunities to showcase its treasures. He mentions his disappointment at the fact that despite a number of attempts none of the World War Z cast and crew managed to view the Hypogeum.
“I am aware that these treasures need to be protected and, of course, there is a queue. However, when you have so many big names present in Malta I believe it makes sense to facilitate access, within reason, to treasures like the Hypogeum instead of making them join a three-month long queue. To give you an example, our crew included people who have worked on Indiana Jones. All it takes is for one of these to be struck by the structure of the Hypogeum and re-build a model to be used on some blockbuster. The mileage that Malta would get out of something like that is incredible and I think that the Maltese have not really realised this yet,” he concludes.
This interview was published on The TV Guide (Times of Malta).