Just like buying real estate, in the world of television and film finding the right location for your shoot is everything. And aiding in the process goes hand in hand with finding a good location scout/manager. They will know the ins and outs of contracting, permits, and ways in which NOT to piss of the city and neighbors that you are not necessarily familiar with.
On my first short film I could not for the life of me find one of these human beings due to an unrealistic schedule for prep that was outside of my control, so I set about going it alone. Big mistake! At first I hired a very green location scout with no experience, who kept bringing me back photos that didn’t remotely resemble what was in the script…..as in country vs city – or could at least be fudged to look that way. Question #1 – Can you find someone who is familiar with the area you live, and what does or does not exist that meets your requirements? This is better than having someone driving around aimlessly burning gas for no reason because you’re more than likely on the hook for paying mileage!
During this first film experience someone flagged me on a café we could use for an interior, so I went to look at it with the director and he wanted it… badly. So what could I do but start negotiating without a location person on my side? We came up with what was a fair deal for the number of days we were shooting, and the fact we would be shutting down their business. I did up the contract, and signed it with the address I was given by the café owner.
A couple of days later, as if an angel had fallen from the sky into my lap, someone with location expertise finally arrived on the scene. He was familiar with the location…and the owner who was apparently a bit of a tricky dicky. I was informed that the café actually bordered three addresses…I had contracted for one! Yes I had gone and rented one third of a café! My new god-like location manager took the contract to the café and had a bit of a tête–à–tête with the owner – who in his culture thought this was just part of the usual negotiation process. After having a finger wagged in his face, the contract was revised to include ALL of the café and we moved on from there. Question #2 – Have you contracted for the correct location and specified it in writing?
As is necessary,we posted flyers around the neighborhood and delivered them to businesses up and down the block informing them of our intent to shoot there, the dates and times etc. Response was almost immediate. Calls began pouring into the city. That brings me to question #3. Has your location been burned? This one had been without our knowledge because I never thought to ask. This guy had rented his space so many times, he was no longer in the business of selling sandwiches, but was making his living off of renting to film and television series… and his neighbors were not happy about it because their shops were being blocked!
No one could care less that we were a local short film, not a major Hollywood production rolling into town, with a small crew and very few vehicles to park. In their minds they couldn’t differentiate. They heard “production” and lost it. I thought we were going to lose the location, before once again my manager stepped in, made all the right noises, and came up with a compromise both the city and business owners were happy with. We would not park near the location, but blocks and blocks away, meaning on our tight budget someone would have to be responsible for ferrying cast and crew back and forth. At least it settled things down, and we were given the courtesy of being allowed to park our catering truck on the side street next to the café. Thank goodness we didn’t have precious actors who required trailers! There was nowhere to put them!
Parking and room for production vehicles is a major issue and one that needs to be taken into consideration before a decision is made. You may think a location is perfect, but if it can’t accommodate your needs then best to move on and look elsewhere. Question #4 – Is there somewhere within the vicinity to park for your cast and crew?
Noise is also a major concern. If this is not taken into consideration your sound guy will be having a conniption, having to stop regularly to accommodate the sounds of jets flying overhead, screeching truck breaks, music, and fighting from the dysfunctional couple that lives next door.
It’s important to be aware of what goes on after hours near your location if you’re shooting at night. Does the place come alive? Don’t just go to a location during the day and expect it’s going to be that way after dark. People come home from work, kids get out of school, and bars come alive. There was a restaurant a block up the road whose patio was buzzing in the heat of a summer evening blasting their music. Thankfully they were willing to turn it down for us. Once again could have been a disaster if the fates weren’t on our side and we met people who were reasonable and accommodating. My location manager and his charms worked their magic! Question #5 – Are you going to have to be stopping filming every two minutes to accommodate for sounds you hadn’t counted on?
Another thing is to make sure the location you’ve picked can accommodate your requirements for space. Once we were in, the director wanted to lay track, only of course to discover the tables up against the walls were nailed and bolted in so many ways to the floor it was impossible to remove them without doing a hatchet job. He was creatively limited to certain camera angles and moves as a result. Don’t assume anything when you’re choosing a space to film! What is moveable or not? What can be worked around? (A pillar in the middle of the room supporting the ceiling is one of those items you’ll have to live with, and find creative ways in which to incorporate it, unless you want to become the documentary team for a roof cave in.) The director has to sign off on these strange anomalies and assure you he/she can work with them. Question #6 – Have you looked – really looked at the location from every angle and taken into consideration its physical limitations? A good locations person will be savvy to the issues and will flag you.
One day of this film we had to shoot an exterior driving sequence on a deserted road. Question #7 – Have you gotten the appropriate permits from the city? Once again a location person will know what is required and will take care of getting this for you. I realize that many of you are shooting on low or no budget productions, so would go guerrilla style, which is all well and good if you have nothing to lose. If you have rented gear, crew you are paying, and a schedule that can’t be messed with you can’t afford to be shut down and lose valuable time. Trust me it’s not worth the risk! We were shooting with a crew provided by a broadcaster so there was no question we had to do what we had to do to ensure we were working within the cities rules and regulations for shooting on a public roadway. Even if you’re out in the sticks, someone can place a complaint with the police that you are conducting an unauthorized shoot. That means fines, on top of having them close shop on you. If you can’t afford to be a cowboy don’t be! Weigh the risks before making a decision what route you are going to take.
The reality is that strangely finding a location person was more difficult than any other crew member for me. It took a lot of my time that could have been spent on other things but in hindsight I realize the pluses far outweighed the minuses. A lot of near disasters were missed because of this man’s participation.
Finding a seasoned location manager may not be an option for you, but I did find while I was looking, there were so many professionals I consulted with that were willing to take 15 minutes of their time to speak to me, and make suggestions as to potential locations, or things that needed to be done. Don’t write this off as a possibility. People are willing to pitch in and offer advice, so maybe you can’t find someone who isn’t wet behind the ears, but the professionals I contacted while searching for a candidate all put their two cents worth in. Don’t be scared to ask to pick someone’s brain! You will rarely be turned away.