From West Side Story to Ocean's 8: In Conversation with Rob Striem
Ruth Stainer sits down with renowned location manager and assistant producer Rob Striem to hear about why creativity is so crucial within the film industry and the importance of waiting for the good stuff:
Artwork by Ruby Tait (IG: @Rubyt.art).
Rob Striem, a Native New Yorker who has spent almost all of his life living in Brooklyn, represents almost the pinocle of what it is to ‘make it’ in the film business. Having been in the industry for the best part of 30 years, initially starting out as producer on student film projects before transitioning into the realm of location manager for 20 years and working on a plethora of notable projects including, most recently, Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’. At present, he has now shifted towards the job of assistant unit producer, utilising his wealth of expertise and creative innovation to help him successfully forge a new career path.
Sitting down with Striem in a restaurant in downtown NYC, his inherent passion and creative insights are undoubtedly apparent, and his zest and enthusiasm is immediately captivating from the minute our conversation begins. Striem attended Syracuse Newhouse School, graduating from the communications program with a degree in television, radio and film production. Though when going into the program he didn’t necessarily always know he wanted to be a filmmaker or even enter into the realm of film, “I knew I wanted to tell stories through the media”, he shared, “and the program was wide enough that it gave me the freedom to figure it out.”
After taking the bold initiative to reach out to a film’s production office and ask if there was any interning work he could obtain, in 1995 he gained his first career gig, working as a location assistant for the film ‘Jeffrey’, directed by Christopher Ashley, a comedic adaptation of a stage play based around life in New York as a gay man during the AIDS crisis. Though he shares that parts of the process weren’t “necessarily my thing”, he still gained a great deal of valuable experience.
“It taught me that whether I was conscious of it or not, through doing this work you could have experiences that are unusual or suddenly gain access to places that otherwise you wouldn’t have experienced. I came out of that and started to develop a skill and understanding of this process”, he remarks.
“It was a job I didn’t even know existed in college” says Striem regarding the role a location manager. “As a producer of student film projects, it definitely was a component of my role but I quickly found myself involved in this department and film production. They were the crossroads between production processes and the rest of the world both on and of screen.” At 21 Striem had quickly caught the film bug and as one job seemed to lead to another, he never looked back.
So, what exactly constitutes the life and job of a location manager? The role is “dynamic”, he pertains, with there two phases to the process: pre-production and production. “My life looked very different in each of those stages” he shares, “but one of the things is that it is always moving. You’re going through prep mode and shooting and then it ramps up again. It keeps it interesting for me, on a personal level.” Every job and every film or television production’s process is unique, dictated by the relevant production schedule.
One of the greatest challenges of being a location manager, he shares, is just that: the tumultuous lifestyle and unpredictability it generates, alongside having to forcibly balance creativity with viability. “If you take a director to a place on a half-based notion and they fall in love with it and you can’t deliver it, guess what, nothing else is going to be as good and they’re always going to be comparing it to that. You’ve just wasted their time and a lot of creative energy, it’s like the kiss of death. It’s a bad place to be in”, says Striem.
Indeed, no other job in the business, he shares “feels as difficult as this one”, almost primarily because almost every other job within the film industry tends to exist within the so-called production vacuum. In contrast, however, when it comes to location managers, in the words of Striem, “you’re just relying on the outside world, and it can get tricky.” “On paper, being able to always deliver a good location is one of the things that makes you good at hour job, but it is actually one of those things you have very little control over”, he states.
Achieving a work-life balance in this ever-changing and tumultuous career also proves to be rather challenging, says Striem. “With the production schedule dictating your life, everything gets topsy turvey. You’re working days and nights and suddenly your life is driven by what you’re shooting every day.”
Financial stability is also far from guaranteed, and though Striem has been a well-established member of the Director’s Guild since 2001, providing him with a pension, healthcare and other essential needs that many other freelancers struggle to obtain, the intensity and then subsequent lull that comes after shooting a big project can present anxiety. “You’ll work for an intense period and then take time off because you’re so burnt out but then all of a sudden the pay check stops. It continues to be challenging, but you know that’s part of the double-edged sword, you’re not reporting to the same desk job everyday. I’ve always feared and dreaded the desk job existence.”
Managing family life with the role of location manager is, Striem shares, also a rather difficult task, aided, at least in part, by his intentional decision to choose a so-called “geographical niche”, namely the city of New York. However, this certainly comes with exceptions. In 2014 Striem worked as a location manager for “Spotlight”, a film directed by Tom McCarthy and shot in Boston that went on to win 6 Academy Awards. However, due to the long-distance shooting, the personal challenges it generated for Striem were rather great. “It was taxing on my family. The hours are long and there is very little consistency”, he shares.
Indeed, managing this extent of financial uncertainty and stress as a freelancer in film is one which film producer and close friend to Striem, Steve Nicolaides, knows all too well. “Freelance in the film business is a total blessing and a total curse. It takes a special type of personality”, he shares. “If you have a family, mortgages, responsibilities (…) there’s no guarantee you’ll get another job.”
The freelance life, though anxiety-inducing and financially promiscuous, is, however, he believes to be equally incredibly freeing. “The reward of this gamble is you eventually get to pick and choose what you work on, and with whom. Freedom is wonderful if it doesn’t scare the shit out of you.”
So, how does Striem navigate such freedom and the ability to choose which projects he takes on for months at a time? West Side Story (2021) directed by Steven Spielberg, was the last project Striem took on as location manager before making his career shift, and when the call came through, for him it was a no-brainer. “It’s period, it’s musical, and it’s on this iconic scale so I knew it was going to be hard. There’s no world in which that’s an easy job, but we took it on aggressively and enthusiastically”, he expresses. His unwavering respect for Spielberg also played an unwavering factor, ‘Spielberg is the one wild card I cant say no to”, he says.
Crucially, for Striem, the pay check is anything but the primary motivating factor behind making those judgement calls. Rather, a true vested interest and passion in the project he’s essentially about to commit his life to for the foreseeable future is far more vital. “I’ve kind of always, for better or for worse, hung back and put a lot of weight on the people I’m working with and the project. It’s hard work. For me, I’ve got to have a reason to get up in the morning and put myself through it, other than just the pay check”, he says with great sincerity.
Burnout is, he believes, an extremely likely symptom of the intensity that comes with the freelance life of film, and certainly one he wishes to avoid. “I feel like for me burnout prevention was to not put myself next to assholes”, he states. “Don’t immerse yourself in something you don’t care about, because if you don’t care about it then eventually it’s just going to burn you out.”
Though a balance between having genuine passion and interest versus the inclination and financial need to keep working is one that inevitably comes with difficulty, Striem remains secure in his intricate thought processes behind every decision. “I’ve always chosen my projects carefully and have no regrets”, he states with confidence.
Though dabbling in the world of fast-paced television, namely working on the first series of American comedy television series Sex in the City (later returning for series 5 as a location manager in 2002 due to wanting to help represent the city of New York as a vibrant place after the devastation of 9/11), Striem always “held out” for the good movies, a deliberate choice.
The fast pace shows in which you only get your script two weeks before you have to shoot resembling the likes of Sex in the City are a “crash and burn experience” as he calls it. “You’re compromising creatively and compromising yourself with the way you’re doing business. It’s all about finding a location fast so logistics drive the process. It’s a pace I didn’t like”, he proclaims.
It is this deliberate decision to wait out for the good projects, or ‘the good stuff’ as he calls it, those that are able to light a creative fire and enable Striem to truly put work out with unparalleled passion and a vested personal interest, that led to him waiting so long before shifting from the role of location manager to assistant production manager. “The truth is, I had watched a lot of people pass me in the fast lane. Did I want to be doing those jobs that they were doing? Not necessarily, I was super selective. I didn’t want to step it up on some trashy thing. I wanted to step it up on the level I’ve been working which is probably why I’ve hung back”, he says.
Now, Striem is working alongside Steven Soderbergh as a production manager for HBO Max but has still been able to hold onto the creative aspect he believes is all so important to his work, aided by their personable and trusted professional relationship. Furthermore, Soderbergh too shares in this emphasis upon creativity, something which Striem believes has helped make them such compatible professional working partners. “The creative part has been vital to his process for a long time. He’d be the first one to tell you”, he proclaims.
As is becoming an evident theme for Striem when making decisions in this industry, hanging back and waiting for something he genuinely believes in and where his creativity is honoured is key, and the decision to eventually enter into the role of production manager was no different. “If I was to take the creativity out of it, I probably would have become a production manager faster. But for me I held onto it so when I got offered the role of production manager alongside Sodebergh it was something that I wanted”, he expresses.
Indeed, Striem still continues to drive many of the creative and location-related conversations at HBO Max now, undoubtedly a testament to his unparalleled impact and the creative importance his mere presence holds within those rooms.
Given Striem’s unparalleled wealth of experience, what advice would he give to young graduates hoping to follow in his footsteps? Well, first and foremost, “you have to ask yourself, is this something I really want to do?”, he says. Striem is adamant to stress that securing the role of location manager does not automatically ensure richness nor promise a secure place in the industry, so it really is crucial that you love what you’re doing.
Moreover, creativity is, for Striem, an unquestionable asset. “As a location manager, you’ve got to be creative. I don’t care what anyone says”, he shares. “I know you’re scouting with a production manager and the director makes the ultimate choice, but at the end of the day everyone is choosing from what you present.”
Ultimately, though, for Striem, a lot of what it takes to truly make it in this business is actually rather simple: the ability for one to be authentic, passionate and committed. Essentially you need to really, genuinely, care about what you’re doing. “Within the film world, there’s a personality type – we all dread boredom, and there’s a common sense thing that’s really hard to teach. People either have it or they don’t”, says Striem.
From ‘Ocean’s 8’, to ‘Men in Black 3’, ‘West Side Story’ and ‘School of Rock’, one thing is for certain, Striem certainly has the personality type needed to do great things in film, and his decision to hold out for the good stuff continues to serve him rather well.