Late summer greetings – meet Jonah Coombes

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Welcome to our update, including a new regular feature in which we meet inspirational people from the industry. This quarter, we highlight the work of Jonah Coombes. Jonah’s consistent approach to positive community engagement has long attracted our admiration. He discusses his efforts on shoots including Breaking and Entering, Rush, Paddington and upcoming Lady and the Van.

Meet Jonah Coombes

Jonah has extensive experience of arranging complicated shoots through effective community engagement. His first insight into this was in 2005 with the Anthony Mingella film Breaking and Entering, starring Jude Law and Juliette Binoche.

Central to the story was the job of Jude Law’s character, a landscape architect working on the regeneration around Kings Cross in Camden. At that time Kings Cross was being re-developed as the new Eurostar terminal. It was the biggest construction site in Europe and all the disturbance was upsetting residents.

Jonah says, “The film was set within the Kings Cross development and we needed access to build sets at the heart of the construction site. At that time the developers had no management structure in place to really consider the proposals and it wasn’t on their agenda to accommodate a full-scale film unit on location. Crucial to the prospect was understanding the extent of the construction work going on in the area, and the resulting strained relationship the developers had with their local community.

“It occurred to us that on behalf of the Kings Cross development team, we were in a position to provide a positive opportunity to this disgruntled community. And in exchange we hoped to be granted access to the construction site. We filmed all over the area and in between set-ups Jude and Juliette sat with the workers, drinking tea and chatting in the canteen. The good relations were completely holistic.

“As part of the process, my team contacted local youth training schemes, employment agencies and schools. We created five work experience roles on the production team and five paid, entry-level roles – as runners, admin support and so on. About 10 years later someone from my team came across a guy working in production who’d got his break on this shoot and it was wonderful to hear he’d made a success of the opportunity.

“Our outreach created the links the constructors needed to make donations to community groups and start to mend their relationships locally.

“It was so successful, I realised that as part of the production process we should try and take this approach whenever there’s a justifiable opportunity. It is clear that sometimes we ask to push the boundaries when filming in sensitive areas, and I think it’s our responsibility to make use of the opportunity for the good of the communities in which we film.

“This year, again in Camden, I was working on Paddington, a production which had ambitious proposals for a shoot in Primrose Hill. Social deprivation is far from a problem in this affluent neighbourhood, so the approach to community initiatives had to be quite different. For well over a week we would be taking over one of the most prestigious crescents, readying for a four day shoot and the negotiations were complicated and delicate – there were a number of concerns and we needed to establish a plan for engaging with the residents in a positive way.

“We wanted something to help break the ice and so asked a famous (but secret) chef to cook up a batch of the most delicious marmalade you have ever tasted – (which we labelled as Aunt Lucy’s). We then gave out these handcrafted jars to every household and invited them all to the residents’ meeting. It was a great success and set the right tone for our engagement with each other. We also made badges to hand out to residents and local families to help us recognise them in the street and to help them feel a part of what was going on.

“When it came to the actual shoot we rented an empty house in the street as a production office. We created a screening room upstairs with live feed coming through during filming. All residents, including the children, were welcome to come in, spend time in the viewing room, and ask us questions about the filming process. This was really successful – there was a brilliant buzz in the house and a comfortable atmosphere on set out in the street. In addition to these creative proposals, we made a donation to the Residents’ Association to help with their campaign to save the local library from being closed down.

“Another very difficult shoot I worked on recently was Ron Howard’s Rush. We were required to obtain planning consent for a set-build on some open common land near Camberley in Surrey. We worked closely with local councillors, examining how the production could be used to offer community-driven benefits, in addition to the significant increase in spend we’d be bringing to the immediate area over a prolonged period of time. We provided job opportunities for local residents, offered guided set visits to media students in local school and colleges and even erected a viewing platform so the locals could come and watch what we were doing. The lead councillors recognised the value of our prospective community offering and approved the temporary planning application without it needing to go through lengthy committee appeals.

“Next up, I’m looking forward to the community involvement aspect of Lady in the Van, based on a true story that occurred outside writer Alan Bennett’s Camden home. The producers are aiming to film in Alan Bennett’s home – the house where it actually all happened, which is great. This makes it really important – to the story as much as the shoot – to have the residents of the street on board.

“As a general approach to this work we do, I really believe in embracing the communities that host us. Clear communication is everything – and that’s communication within the production, as well as between the production and the communities. All the positive work we do to befriend a community can be swiftly undone with an inconsiderate crew and, whilst protecting the production remit as best I can, I try to encourage everyone (from producers and directors through to HoDs to their trainees) to treat residents and members of the public with the respect they deserve. This is a wonderful industry to work in and I think we should try to engage with others, and use these wonderful opportunities to maximise the benefits for all.”

Further credit highlights for Jonah include:

  • Enduring Love
  • Venus
  • 28 Weeks Later
  • Happy Go Lucky
  • Never Let Me Go
  • The Social Network
  • Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  • The Two Faces of January
  • Saving Mr Banks

For all the rest of our late summer news, please click here.