Charlie Harrington: My Year in Taranaki

Charlie Harrington has location-managed Hollywood productions for over 30 years, yet he remembers his work on The Last Samurai most fondly.

Charlie Harrington: My Year in Taranaki

By Stefan Roesch

30 years ago, film location manager Charlie Harrington got his big break when he assisted the location manager on The Witches of Eastwick. Sixty-six projects later, he shows no signs of slowing down.

When I tried to organise a phone interview with him, his initial reply was: "Just make sure you send me plenty of reminders - I'm on a complicated movie right now." After two months of emailing back and forth, we finally found a time to catch up.

First of all, I wanted to know how Charlie got involved with The Last Samurai:

"It was the Production Designer, Lilly Kilvert, who hired me. Warner Brothers looked at the possibility of shooting at various places, including Australia and Japan and then we saw a picture of Mount Taranaki in a coffee table book. We were going through a lot of these books looking for scenery. As soon as we saw Mount Taranaki we thought it looked so much like Mount Fuji in Japan. We decided I’d better fly down there and have a look."

For New Zealand Maori, Mount Taranaki is a living ancestor.

For New Zealand Maori, Mount Taranaki is a living ancestor.

How did you go about the location scouting for The Last Samurai?

"I did a lot of helicopter scouting all over the place. I scouted both the South Island and the North Island extensively. Basically, Mount Taranaki was what got us into New Plymouth. And the mayor at the time, Peter Tennent was very cooperative. They let me use their helicopter for a while."

Charlie's flying office.

Charlie's flying office.

"I was looking for two main things: The first was Japanese village that Tom Cruise is taken to and lives in, which we ended up building. I think the town was called Uruti which is probably a bit less than an hour from New Plymouth.

And then the final battle scene where the imperial soldiers fight against the Samurai. There had to be almost a funnel-shaped geological feature where they squeeze the soldiers into so that they can shoot fireballs at them and do all that stuff. It was a specific landscape. I had a few options and when the director and everyone else came down, we had three helicopters. We flew around and they literally pointed to a place from the helicopter.

We also built the Yokohama harbour set down in New Plymouth harbour. We even built part of a fake ship that Tom steps off, the rest of the ship was done with computers."

Part of the Yokohama harbour set.

Part of the Yokohama harbour set.

What was your favourite location?

"I think in the long run, it was probably the village in Uruti. We ended up building the entire village on a sheep farm. The farmers were really easy to deal with. We built a beautiful set and I was very proud of the whole setup there. I was also the hardest location to find."

The Samurai Village was constructed on private farmland near Uruti.

The Samurai Village was constructed on private farmland near Uruti.

"I’m usually dealing with a cinematographer, a production designer and a director, and they might have three different views on it. I showed the location to the production designer Lilly Kilvert first and she loved it. When the director flew in, Lilly basically told him 'this is where the village is going to go'. She is a force to be reckoned with!"

How did you deal with security around the set?

"At the time Tom Cruise was dating Penélope Cruz. To get a picture of them together was a big thing. Before they went to the Samurai village, Tom’s security man came and checked it out. He found a guy across the valley in a tree with a camera, sitting there waiting! He had food and water up there and he was just sitting up there waiting to get his 20,000 dollar shot."

How much did the locations actually resemble Japan?

"The vegetation around Taranaki is very similar to the vegetation in the mountains in Japan. When we brought these Japanese people up to the village to be extras, all of them were like ‘this is amazing, this just looks like Japan’. Even they, coming from Japan, thought it looked pretty authentic."

Do you think the Samurai village set could have been turned into a tourist attraction?

"You know, I build sets all over the world and often people want to keep them. The major studios consider that a liability, in case anybody would get hurt or a structure fell on somebody. The farmer in Uruti wanted to keep the whole thing but ultimately, the studio wouldn’t sign off on that.

The reality is, it would have fallen apart after a couple of winters. That’s what people don’t understand. We don’t build these sets to last. We build them for the camera, we don’t build them for stability."

The production camp at Uruti and the finished set. 

The production camp at Uruti and the finished set. 

How much time did you spend in Taranaki during filming?

"I was there for thirteen months. Me and the horse trainer were the first people there. All the horses for the battle scenes, he had to buy locally and then train them to be around explosives, walkie talks and how to roll over without getting hurt. He spent about eight months training them."

Horse action during the final battle.

Horse action during the final battle.

"And then, because we wanted every face in the movie to be Japanese and not from another Asian country, we charted 747s and flew in kids from Japan and either taught them how to be an imperial soldier or how to be a Samurai soldier. We had to set up these boot camps and then train all the soldiers how to load the guns, how to fire the guns, how to work their swords. It was a very complicated movie in that way."

The "boot camp" for the Imperial Army at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth. You can read more about this specific location here.

The "boot camp" for the Imperial Army at Pukekura Park, New Plymouth. You can read more about this specific location here.

What was the impact on your personal life?

"That was the best part of it. My kids were all at a young school age at the time. We moved into a small town right outside of New Plymouth called Oakura. Most of us lived in Oakura. Tom Cruise, the production designer and ten other crew members got beach houses in Oakura."

Oakura Beach.

Oakura Beach.

"I flew my wife and four kids down. My youngest was six and my oldest was sixteen. The kids went to school and loved it so much that they all said: ‘Daddy, sell all my toys at home. I wanna stay here.’ They wanted me to move there. We all loved. It was the best experience out of all sixty-six movies.

Me and my family got to live in a beautiful, exotic, far-away place. And I’m still in touch with my neighbours in Oakura on Facebook and through email -I’m still talking to them all the time. And my kids still talk to their friends they made down there. We made good friends."

What did you do when you had time off?

"We did some boating and fishing. It’s funny: I play electric guitar and I moved into this beach house a couple of months before my family came down. I was alone with my landlord and I was walking in there with my guitar and my amplifier and I said: ‘Jeez, sometimes I like to play the guitar at night and some of these houses are pretty close together.’ And he said: ‘Ah mate, you moved into the right house here. Over there lives a drummer and the base player lives over here.’

Every fortnight, they had a big party on their deck. Their band was called the Decktators. All the musicians in the neighbourhood would come over and we had these big jam parties. We had lots of fun."

Did you ever make it up the mountain?

"Yes. I did a lot of hiking with my kids. And of course, they had never seen a waterfall before, or anything like that. And I skied up there, too. It was cool, literally, because the same day, I was swimming in the morning near my house and then we went skiing afterwards."

The Manganui ski field on Mount Taranaki.

The Manganui ski field on Mount Taranaki.

"And my neighbours who were in the Rock and Roll band with me, they rode bicycles. So I did a lot of bike rides with them, too. I was only in my forties then, so I could make it a few miles with those guys."

What is special about Taranaki as a place?

"When you can stand on a black-sand beach and go swimming in the morning and look up and see the snow on the mountain that you can go up to and go skiing on in the afternoon. That’s pretty amazing."

"Living in Taranaki was, by far, the best film experience for me and my family."

"Living in Taranaki was, by far, the best film experience for me and my family."

Thanks so much for your insights Charlie!

Imagery provided by Charlie Harrington, Venture Taranaki and Fay Looney. For more Taranaki travel inspiration visit Venture Taranaki.   

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