Cassie Pérez: “You still think this is the best place in the world to live?”
Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “Yep. Of course I do. I mean to say, on a clear day, you can see Norway over that way.”
Cassie Pérez: “There is that.”
Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “And . . . you can see Iceland over that way.”
Cassie Pérez: “What about shops?”
Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez: “I forgot. We don’t have any of them. . . . We’ve got the sky and the sea, and razorbills and kittiwakes. What more do you want?”
—From Shetland, Season 1, Episode 2
“Shetland has always been a place of sanctuary for me. I visited when I dropped out of university, and I just loved it from the minute I got there. It’s a bleak but very beautiful place.”
—Ann Cleeves, author of the Shetland novels
Tim Maskell is the Director of Scottish Location Services. He began working in the film industry in 2006, and has worked as a location manager on many feature films and TV dramas, including Shetland (Series Four to Seven), The Nest, Guilt, Clique, and Agatha Christie: Ordeal by Innocence, The Estruscan Smile, and Only You.
The Shetland Islands are an archipelago in the North Sea, 130 miles north of Scotland, with a population of 23,000. The Scottish crime drama Shetland, adapted from the novels of Ann Cleeves, is filmed on the islands and the Scottish mainland. The show, which has now completed seven seasons, follows the investigations of Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez, played by Douglas Henshall, and his team of detectives. The stories of Shetland are impossible to imagine apart from their setting, steeped as they are in the islands’ brooding skies, barren landscape, and ever-present sea.
I wanted to talk to Tim about the challenges and rewards of filming a crime series on a remote island.
The following interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Frederick: Shetland is very popular in the states. I think one reason is the unusual beauty of the location. My wife said I should tell you this story. We also watch another British mystery series called Vera. And when we watch reruns of that show, I often don’t remember the plot or who the killer is. But I do remember the locations. I remember specific houses or fields. So for me, locations are really important to stories.
Tim: I agree. But you know location managers don’t get the recognition, actually. There are awards out there for all these other people, but locations get overlooked.
Frederick: Are there any awards for location managers?
Tim: Not really. I know the locations team for Game of Thrones got a couple of awards and recognition. But the usual big award ceremonies in the U.K., like the BAFTAs [British Academy of Film and Television Arts], don’t even have a location category. You’ve got designers, composers, and actors, but they don’t seem to recognize locations that much.
Frederick: When did you work as location manager for Shetland? Which seasons?
Tim: I’ve been location managing Shetland since Series Four. I started as a unit manager on Series Two. Series Six, which we shot earlier this year, was just shown here in the U.K. Due to COVID delays, it was shot back-to-back this year with Series Seven, which we just wrapped on the 17th of December.
Frederick: Are there plans to do more?
Tim: At the moment, I don’t believe so. It will probably come down to the ratings of these last couple of seasons. Obviously it’s doing very well. And I guess we’ll just see how it goes. But at the moment, there’re no further plans for any more seasons.
Frederick: So how did you originally become a location manager?
Tim: There’s a kind of ladder process. I started off as a location assistant, which is the lowest rung. You’re managing the set, the guy on the ground, who relays everything back to the location manager or the unit manager. How it happened for me was my mum ran an estate on the west coast of Scotland, just off Loch Fyne, called Ardkinglas Estate. In 2006, a film called The Water Horse was filming there. I was at university at the time, and it was my summer holidays. My mum called me and said they were looking for somebody to come and help out. I didn’t have a clue what that would entail. But I went down and spoke to them. The location team was looking for somebody young, local, and energetic who could be on the team. That was that. I basically just fell into the industry.
I worked as a Locations Assistant for approximately four years, and the first job I did as a unit manager was a musical film called Sunshine on Leith, which starred a Scottish band called The Proclaimers. I started the film as an assistant, and then stepped up to be unit manager. I did unit managing for four years. Then one day I got a call from the film crew on a BBC thriller called Clique. They were looking for a location manager, and I jumped at it. The very next job was Shetland Four.
Frederick: When you started Shetland, did you know the islands?
Tim: No. I’d never been to the islands until I started unit managing the show. But you get to know places pretty quickly, especially as a unit manager. You’re responsible for making sure everybody gets to where they’re going. So you’re drawing up maps and doing things called “movement orders,” which tell people where they’re going. And then obviously you’re heavily involved with the location side of things as well in terms of setting things up and making sure you can get all your trucks there. I got to learn the place pretty quickly, to be honest.
So when it came to location management, I had a fairly good idea of where to go for various things. But also, from day one, we’ve had a local fixer in Shetland named David Gardner. His knowledge is obviously invaluable to us. He actually does a lot of the scouting for us. Then I go up to look at what he’s found and do some additional scouting if necessary and whittle down the locations to what we need.
Frederick: How do you choose locations for the show? Do you work with the director and the producer to figure out the kinds of places you want?
Tim: Yeah, exactly. It’s basically the director, producer, and the designer. The first thing I do is go through the script and do a location breakdown based on what’s written in the script. The scripts have quite good descriptions of what they want. So that starts the process. Then it’s liaising with the director, producer, and designer to make sure you’re all thinking the same thing. It’s just a case of giving them options.
Frederick: Were there times when you couldn’t use a location on Shetland? Were some locations off limits?
Tim: Occasionally. But on Shetland, they’re actually much more open to filming almost anywhere, even sensitive locations, than on the mainland. The only place in Shetland that we haven’t ever been able to get anywhere near is the Sullum Voe Oil Terminal, which is a very large oil terminal and understandably under heavy guard. We’ve filmed on the road to it, but we’ve never been allowed anywhere near it with cameras. Generally they’re very open to everything up there.
Frederick: Is that partly because they appreciate the show being filmed there? Is it because they know that it’s going to attract people to Shetland?
Tim: Definitely. There’s been a shift as well from when we first started going up there to now. There was some apprehension in the first couple of series, just because the Shetlanders didn’t really know how they were going to be portrayed. They just didn’t know how film crews really work. You’ve got 60, 80, 100 people coming up from the mainland to take over the island for a few weeks, so there was apprehension. But after they realized what the show was about and how good the show was and how it portrayed the islands, it was fine. You’re rare to find someone up there now who doesn’t welcome you with open arms. There have been one or two places where people quite clearly don’t have televisions or watch the show. You’d knock on their door and they’d say, “No. This isn’t for me.” But that happened very rarely. The locals are all very welcoming.
Frederick: What building is used for the police station? It’s a very distinctive-looking building.
Tim: The exterior of the police station is the actual Lerwick Sheriff Court itself. And the police station is on the side of it. The main entrance and the doorway that we use is the Sheriff Court. Everything that you see inside the police station is a set built in a studio.
Frederick: And is that set on the mainland somewhere?
Tim: Yes. We’re based in Glasgow. Whenever we shoot, our production office and everything is based in Glasgow.
Frederick: What’s the building that you use for Jimmy Pérez’s house? It’s right on the harbor. It looks like a really beautiful setting.
Tim: Again, it’s exterior only. The interior is a set built. The exterior is in Lerwick, the main town of Shetland, just off Commercial Street, a little house called the Lodberrie. It’s a place that the crew found in Series One that they happened to like. And obviously, once you’ve filmed there, you’re not going to move it. It’s a lovely little house. The inside isn’t great in terms of filming capacity. It’s quite small in size, so it would never have worked to film the interior there, but obviously the exterior setting of it is fantastic, and that’s why it was chosen.
Frederick: Are you using the same studio in Glasgow for the interiors of Pérez’s house and the police station?
Tim: Yes. The only official set-builds are the interior police station, including the Fiscal’s office, and Pérez’s house. The interiors of those two things are in the studio. Pretty much everything else you see is on location. But we do split a lot of locations, which means filming exteriors up in Shetland and then we’ll find interiors back down on the mainland. Those split locations are real locations rather than set-builds.
Frederick: In Series Four, there’s a character named Thomas Malone, who’s accused of killing a young woman named Lizzie Kilmuir. He lives in a very rural, rundown farmhouse. How did you find that?
Tim: That’s not in Shetland. It’s in a place not far out of Glasgow called Loch Thom, and that area is the best “cheat” we’ve managed to find on the mainland that looks like Shetland. A lot of exterior stuff that we shoot on the mainland is done at Loch Thom. For that farmhouse, we actually shot both the exterior and interior at that house. There was a small bit of set-building inside the house to make the living room feel smaller. A neighboring location was used for the scene where Malone gets buried alive and he pulls himself out.
Frederick: So Loch Thom looks enough like Shetland that you can pretend it’s Shetland?
Tim: The thing is, there’re basically no trees. That’s what helps make it look like Shetland. And there’s a bit of water, so water always helps. You know, whenever we’re cheating stuff down on the mainland, we generally look for no trees and a bit of water, and that allows people to think it’s in Shetland.
Frederick: And there’s also a scene in Season Four at a picturesque cemetery. Is that on Shetland?
Tim: That’s the actual Lerwick Cemetery on Shetland. The cemetery sits on a little bit of headland looking out to sea. That’s where that shot was. Because it’s up on a hill, the camera can pan through the gravestones and show the sea and beyond.
Frederick: Are there other locations that aren’t on Shetland itself?
Tim: Yes. There will be in the upcoming Series Six and Seven. In Series Four, there were locations up in Norway for a couple of weeks. But in terms of the Shetland stuff. Detective Constable Sandy Wilson’s flat is a cheat in Glasgow. The exterior of Donna Killick’s house is actually in Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary in Shetland. But the interior of her house is on the mainland. For the most part, when we go up to Shetland, we use the time to shoot as much of Shetland exteriors as we can.
In Series Four, Kate Kilmuir is the sister of the murdered girl. Her house—interior and exterior—was on Shetland. Interior coffee shops and pubs and the interior of Lerwick Hospital are always shot on the mainland. Duncan and Mary’s house is on the mainland. The farmhouse of Jo Halley, the artist, was up on Shetland, and was quite a nice one.
Frederick: Are there challenges that are unique to Shetland as a location manager? How is it different from shooting other shows?
Tim: The main thing is that obviously you’re on an island, for starters. And you’re on an island that’s not close to the mainland, so you might as well be filming in a different country. To get there, you’re either taking a 12-hour overnight ferry, or you’re flying up and down. So I’m flying up and down every couple of weeks for tactical scouting, to look at places, to meet with the council and the police, or do whatever I need to do.
The other challenge is the weather. Shetland is quite a barren landscape. There are not even very many hills. The tallest hill is only about 300 meters [1,000 feet]. It’s a flat landscape, and the wind just whips right in off the North Sea. Because we’re predominantly shooting exteriors, you don’t have anywhere to hide. You just have to go out and get it done—get your waterproofs on and make sure you’ve got a change of clothes. That is definitely the biggest challenge, because they’re so receptive up there to us filming now, that there aren’t really many challenges in terms of finding locations. The weather is probably the biggest thing.
Frederick: Do you try to shoot during a certain season? Is it the summer?
Tim: Yeah, we’ve always tried to, but it doesn’t always work out like that. Series Four was shot May through June, which are generally the best months up there. The driest months tend to be May and September, but obviously by September, you’re starting to lose the light again. It doesn’t always work to film in the summer because the crew isn’t available. Or this year, we had to do two series back to back. We were shooting up there up until October. By which point, you really start getting battered by the winds and rain. When we were shooting Series Two, it was just foggy. The whole time it was like shooting in a Tupperware box. You couldn’t see two feet in front of you. So you’ve gone up to Shetland to shoot all these amazing landscapes and you couldn’t see anything.
Frederick: I saw a news story that said for this latest series you even had snow.
Tim: We did, actually. Our first block of filming for Season Six was in March, and the day we arrived, we had snow. What can you do? Obviously continuity is a big thing. It doesn’t really matter so much with the rain, because unless it’s absolutely pouring down, you can get away with it. But the snow definitely produced a few more problems. Again, we just have to get on with it. You really don’t have a choice. When you’re shooting on the mainland, generally you try to have some weather cover. So if the weather’s bad, you’ll think: where can we go? But up there, you don’t have room to maneuver. Some scenes were moved—scenes that were meant to be played outside on a beach were put into a house. When you watch Series Six, you’ll see all of a sudden there’s snow on the ground, and then the next thing, there’s not snow on the ground. But again, these things just happen. You have to get on with it.
Frederick: It also seems like daylight can be an issue, too. Is that right? If you’re up there in the early spring or the late fall, you’re going to start hitting darkness.
Tim: Absolutely. In the summer solstice, you get about an hour of darkness. And even then, it’s not real darkness. Shetland actually has a golf tournament that tees off at midnight on June 21st because players can pretty much see to play on the course. Then, in the winter solstice, you’ll be lucky if it’s light between half nine [9:30 a.m.] and half three [3:30 p.m.]. You’re really only talking about six hours of daylight. And even then, it can be very dull. If it’s overcast, sometimes the streetlights don’t turn off during the day. We filmed there right up until October this year, and you have to schedule around that basically. You start at half seven in the morning, knowing it’ll be daylight by the time you start shooting. And then by four o’clock, you have to be in a location where you can light it night-for-day to pretend that it’s still daylight. You have to split your day up to make sure you’re getting the best out of the day.
Frederick: Are there any challenges in working with the local people?
Tim: In all honesty, there aren’t. We take on a lot of local labor—for traffic management or extra labor for the day. The local council is always very open to us and has allowed us to do stuff that we wouldn’t have got away with on the mainland. They’re so open, and they like to be involved.
Frederick: And eventually, once they saw what the show was like and how it was, they seemed to welcome you?
Tim: Yeah, absolutely. The funny thing was, in the first couple of seasons, the Shetlanders couldn’t get their head around the TV magic of it. For example, we’d shoot an exterior house in Lerwick. Then Jimmy walks around the corner, and all of a sudden he’s in a different part of the island. Then we’d get Shetlanders messaging on Facebook that what we showed is impossible because that bit of the island is a 40-minute drive away. Or they’d know we were shooting something in Glasgow that was supposed to be on Shetland. It took them a while to get their heads around that. But I think once they got that, they were all right with it.
Frederick: What effect have the locations had on the show’s popularity?
Tim: I think it’s massive. The show is a kind of Scandinavian noir genre. The landscape and the locations really lend themselves to that. If you’d written the same show, and it was just filmed in Glasgow, it wouldn’t have nearly the same appeal. Obviously a lot of people watch it to see those landscapes and those locations, and that’s why they love the show because it’s showcasing an amazing place. So I think it’s got a lot to do with it.
Frederick: When I was doing a similar interview about the show Lewis that’s filmed in Oxford, the location manager told me that, after that show became popular, companies started doing tours of Oxford just to show the locations featured in the series. Do people come to Shetland just because the show is filmed there?
Tim: Absolutely. The show has done so much for the tourist industry up there. Shetland is basically run on oil, and over the last few years, that industry has taken quite a hit. But the tourism industry was boosted from the show. It happened at the right time for them and brought in a lot of revenue. The number of cruise ships stopping in Lerwick every year has probably doubled in the last four or five years. And a lot of that is to do with the show. David Gardner, our local fixer, also works for Radio Shetland. The station tasked him one day with meeting people coming off a cruise ship and asking them why they came to Shetland. Something like 60 to 70 percent said, I’m here to see Pérez’s house. The bus operators had to organize tours to see locations from the show. These are people from all over the world. They love the show in Australia. A couple years ago, we had people who flew to Shetland from Australia just so they could be extras on the show.
Frederick: What do you enjoy about working on the show?
Tim: I’m a bit of a country bumpkin at heart. I grew up on the west coast of Scotland and in the countryside. I just love Shetland. I love the people. I love the landscape. To the point where, before my wife and I moved to the house where we live now, I was actually looking at buying a house on Shetland. I don’t think I’d ever have convinced my wife to do it. I like the show as well. I like the premise, the genre. It’s the show that I’ve location-managed more than any other in my career. It’s got a big place in my heart.
Frederick: Did you have interactions with the actors?
Tim: More so when I was unit managing because I was on set. With location management, I’m more in the background. But obviously, since I’ve been on the show so long, we know each other very well. For example, the other day when we were filming in Loch Thom, Alison O’Donnell, who plays Tosh, came by and said hello. Dougie Henshaw, who plays Jimmy Pérez, had a daughter who’s a similar age to my youngest. So there was a bit of a bond with that. There’s obviously a lot of socializing after hours. But most of the time you’re just filming the show. You’re up there with a group of people you know and get on with and enjoy doing the job.
Frederick: Does the author ever come on set?
Tim: Yes, she has occasionally. She’s always consulted on the storyline because the script is obviously not written by her. But she’s consulted to make sure that she’s happy with what we’re portraying.
Frederick: All right. Thanks, Tim, for taking the time to talk to me.
Tim: Okay. No worries. It was a pleasure. Nice to speak to you. Cheers.
This interview is a companion piece to Frederick’s earlier CrimeReads interview with Ian Pearce, location manager for the British crime drama Lewis, which you can read here.