Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Nat Bocking a property master and a stand-by and dressing props. My role is a lot about logistics, everything on the set and what the actors handle; the hand props and the set dressing. Someone has to acquire it, prepare it, store it, transport it, place it on the set, make sure it works in the scene, move it out of the way and put it back and keep the continuity. Then get it back to the owner or dispose of it as cost-effectively as possible.
I use my creativity to make what we can’t rent or buy, solve problems, manage a million to-do lists and the labour and resources so sets are ready on time for shooting. On any given day I can be filling a hundred jars for a sweetshop, laying out a banquet with 300 extras, covering up a modern street to make it look period or showing an actor how to carve a chicken or fire a pistol. Sometimes I’m the only ‘art department’ on the shoot where I find the props and build the sets. On each job I have a ‘standby’ van full of tools and materials for every eventuality. You never know when you have to repair a neon sign or fix a broken chariot.
Where are you based?
My home is in Halesworth though I keep a place in London. I can be wherever you want me. I have US, Canadian and British passports.
When did you move to Suffolk and how have you found it?
My partner and I moved to Suffolk from Los Angeles in 1999 with our very young children. We had no idea where to move to but we knew we couldn’t afford London and I’d known Suffolk as a child. I enjoy the beauty of the countryside, the relative safety, the healthy air, seaside and being part of a community.
Rural life is great for raising children and for retiring to, but not so great for young people starting out in life. I am hoping I can change some of that.
How did you start out in the industry?
I left school at 16 without qualifications and ended up working for a chain of sports shops during the skateboard craze of the late 70’s. It went bust so I went to the US for a gap-year experience where I saw an ad in the trade newspaper ‘Variety’ which said ‘film construction crew wanted, room and board, no pay’ and I thought that would be a great way to have a holiday.
I was asked to turn an abandoned farmhouse 100 miles east of Los Angeles into 1930’s Texas. I lived on beans and rice in a trailer with a bunch of similar recruits. It was a student film, a master’s thesis project for the AFI. As it happens it was produced by Robbie Williams’ mother in law. His wife Ayda was then a kid running around the set playing with Laura Dern, daughter of our lead actor Diane Ladd.
What’s been your career path?
From there I grafted through no-budget and low-budget films, some became classics that were produced by the likes of Roger Corman and George Romero. This is the best film school there is, James Cameron and Francis Ford Coppola started with Corman. Between those jobs I did temp work through agencies where I drove trucks and distributed leaflets. I had incredible luck when they sent me to work at Universal Studios in the mail room where I stuffed envelopes with Elton John’s royalty cheques! I worked in prop-hire houses which is a great way to meet people and get to know about props of every kind. I did lots of non-union TV and pop videos and then eventually I got into the Hollywood union IATSE. I then worked on TV sitcoms at Warner Bros for many years. That steady work allowed me to save up and I took a year off to go to film school in Canada where I made some short films. You can only learn so much on the job and it was great to do things I’d never get to do working in props, such as actually operate the camera or light a set and learn to edit, in those days we still used sellotape to do that.
When we moved to Suffolk I didn’t expect to work in the film industry so I went into journalism which is really just another kind of storytelling. With my background I got a job at an entertainment news agency, where a young Amy Winehouse was getting work experience. I travelled all over the world as a photojournalist – I covered the Michael Jackson trial – but it impacted my young family too much for me to be gone for months at a time. I worked at Snape Maltings for a few years in fundraising while I did a Masters at Norwich, then I went into community development. I got involved in the grass-roots project FILM Suffolk and after I got made redundant, I decided that there’s no job security in any kind of work anymore so I went back into film at the bottom again.
What productions have you worked on?
Lots and lots. In 2019 I had 25 different P45s including ‘Call The Midwife’ ‘Kingsman III’ ‘Trigonometry’ ‘Alex Rider’ and lots of videos and commercials. The year before I was very busy on ‘Horrible Histories-The Movie’ and ‘Yesterday’. Also relative to Suffolk I worked on the second and third seasons of ‘Detectorists’ as a production assistant and I loved not worrying about props for a bit. I do a bit of production-side work as well.
I have worked as a researcher for a local documentary producer and as a local ‘fixer’ for factual and editorial shoots in Suffolk. I persuaded a Chinese producer I had worked with in London to come to Suffolk to look at locations as we had everything they were using in London but cheaper. They came and spent a couple of million pounds here shooting ‘Grand Wedding of Royals’ in Aldeburgh, Westhall and at Somerleyton Hall for which I was the Art Director. It was a pretty successful film in China.
It was great to be on home turf making six episodes of ‘Nazi Megastructures’ for the Smithsonian Channel last year. We turned Glemham Hall into Hirohito’s headquarters and put up tents to be the headquarters of the Burma railway.
What project have you been most proud of?
My own films made as a student and the one I co-produced ‘With Love From Suffolk’. Nothing else quite beats the feeling of being in a darkened cinema hearing people laugh and cry at something you made. The awards it won are minor but ‘Madagascar Pink’ was showcased as the ‘best of’ Canadian student films at the Montreal Film Festival and I got to meet a lot of cool people with that as a calling card. I didn’t do anything during shooting ‘With Love From Suffolk’ but I am proud that the local authorities involved were persuaded it was viable after I did the contracts, budgets, breakdowns and schedules. The end result worked spectacularly well.
Any funny stories?
I sign so many NDAs these days. I’ve done some pretty absurd things in the name of props but also cool things like being shown around by Secret Service agents to do research on their weapons, tools and techniques. I worked on ‘Sneakers’ and there was a party scene at the Sneakers HQ with loads of party food we had got from a local Thai restaurant and other nibbles which my wife – a food stylist – had made. We wrapped on a Friday night and the AD said the scene was complete so we told our ‘Craft Service’ person (the studio manager) they can chuck out all the prop food on the set. When we got back to work on Monday morning the call-sheet said they wanted to do a pick-up shot of the last scene but that shot needed the table of Thai food. I frantically rang the restaurant and every other restaurant in a radius of five miles but getting that much Thai food at 7 AM on a Monday was impossible. So we went all over the studio lot looking for the dumpster that the food was in. We found it and had to climb inside all the trash to empty it out. We washed the food and ourselves the best we could and had to explain to all the actors without telling the director – who was a bit feisty – not nibble on it. On that Friday Dan Ackroyd had taken home a huge tub of the leftover guacamole my wife had made as he loved it so much. He had established in the scene that he had a handful of satay sticks so when you see the scene you should know by then they were absolutely rotten and smelled rank. My friends say I should do a book and perhaps I will.
Any advice for people entering the industry?
There’s so much to say there. First off; be focussed. Set an attainable goal and work towards that, then go up a step. Avoid anything that distracts from that goal. You will have to make a lot of sacrifices and you have to be honest with yourself about that. Filmmaking is punishing on relationships and your health so take time out occasionally. Don’t be out getting wasted if you want to be ready to work; the phone call with that opportunity you want can come at any time. Focus is to also keep learning what you need to know. I’m always learning new skills or trying to. When James Cameron was just a truck driver he was going to the library to swot up on visual effects. A couple of months ago I helped out a student film as their gaffer, since it’s been years since I touched a light. Secondly, and most importantly, be a nice person that people want on their team. Filmmaking is collaborative and the drama should be on the screen not behind the scenes. Thirdly; there’s nothing you need to have before you can become a filmmaker or whatever role you want except determination and focus. As we showed with ‘With Love From Suffolk’; the willpower of 250 people who want to make their first film can be harnessed to achieve finding the money, the locations, the actors and equipment when we all started with nothing. Or just go out and shoot your friends in the park with your phone. You have a pretty big canvas there already. Every canvas and media has its limits, it’s the execution that matters.
Where do you see the future for your section of the industry?
I am cautiously optimistic that the recent boom in British production won’t be a bubble. Brexit is a big worry. Things like carnets and visas will be sand in the gears. We have some of the best designers and art department technicians in the world but we can’t be complacent. Better weather, more standing sets, tax incentives, and cheaper skilled labour in other parts of Europe have to be weighed against their lack (for now) of other infrastructure so the UK film industry must be encouraged somehow to keep developing our skills and facilities.
I have identified some gaps in the UK market for props that are still difficult or expensive to realise, so I’d love to secure investment in providing them from Ipswich as a social enterprise. I constantly bend people’s ears with my ideas. While the big studios like Pinewood are booked up for the next ten years by Disney, Netflix and such, that leaves the smaller producers desperate for somewhere to go. We have already seen former air bases in Suffolk and Norfolk turned into very basic studios. I hope that the plans at Bentwaters for proper soundstages come to fruition as soon as possible as I am wearing out the A12 going to London. Also there is demand for smaller studios to serve Youtubers and web content so lots of potential there for brave investors.
Any advice for Suffolk based professionals?
If we want our work to be closer to home, then we all need to be ambassadors for Suffolk locations and facilities. There is an ingrained mindset of TV commissioners to remain inside the M25. ‘Detectorists’ producer Adam Tandy told me he pushed hard to get it made in Suffolk while the BBC wanted to use villages like Denham. However because he once had a house near Framlingham, he could make the case for the production value Suffolk offered. Everyone who sees it knows how much our landscape is a character in that series. So if you ever hear of anyone looking for a location; suggest one in Suffolk. That should be a campaign slogan for us all in Suffolk!
On a practical note, when I am shopping and art directing for commercials I find that I can go into Ipswich and easily buy everything I need running around the town centre on foot much quicker than I can go shopping in London. London’s traffic is just miserable and everything is against the car and worse for vans with parking, the congestion charge etc. While that’s all laudable it’s not workable for my ends. So I now do the prep for my jobs in Suffolk and load the van up and as long as I get past Copdock by 05:30 everything is fine.