Independent Filmmaking >> Location, location, location… is true what they say, location really is everything.

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‘Fontana’, 52 Films/52 Weeks

In the realm of very low budget filmmaking it can elevate the production value from 0 to a million dollars in one very simple and hopefully very free step. The studios have the luxury of purpose built sound stages and fabulous, fabulously expensive locations. We do not.

But with the reality of a zero location budget comes a strange sense of freedom and adventure. The freedom to place your story in any kind of setting without anyone telling you ‘that won’t work, you can’t expect your audience to suspend that much disbelief’. The adventure of choice, when there is no money, there is more choice. Even if it means you have to carpool, pay for a little gas and spend time out of your valuable shooting day traveling to and from the location. It will all be worth it when you see the footage.

Not convinced? I wasn’t either, at first.

But think about it. Once you take away the obvious option…bakery…bank…mansion…racetrack etc., everything and anything else becomes possible.

Your scene inside the bank can take place across the street from one, the bloody fist fight on the race track can be outside a bar with the bookie, and the mansion can become your friend’s mother’s pool with a dozen borrowed house plants and a well-placed bikini clad girlfriend. Alternatively, just about anywhere in Lancaster can become just about anywhere in your script, and trust me up there no one will bother you, unless you are setting up another Meth lab…and even then it will only be to enquire when you will be open and operational, not what you are doing in the middle of the road with two cars and a motorbike on its side with fake blood everywhere.

There is a balance of course and I wouldn’t suggest a location that takes you across state lines for a one day shoot. But I did camp out with cast and crew for a weekend in the Angeles National Forest just to get the perfect night time fire lit location for a film, and boy was that worth sleeping on the floor and not bathing for a couple of days…at least to me!

Location can also be all about perspective, if you can imply a place or a time, the audience can do the rest.

Because even though you may have written your film to take place in a bio lab 20 stories underground in Wyoming and you can’t shoot 20 stories under Wyoming, there is always away you can cleverly imply that you are indeed 20 stories underground in Wyoming, in a secret bio lab and not look silly. Posters on the wall of an emergency escape route from 20 stories down, a shot of an identity tag to the secret Wyoming based lab, a Wyoming forever mug on the front of a desk in said lab. The lab being the basement of your other friend’s mother’s house with borrowed tables and freshly painted white walls, thank you 99cent store paint. It’s really amazing just how much, once suggested to the audience, becomes accepted by the audience, and I don’t just mean fake snow and overcoats for a thanksgiving special ABC family movie shot in LA in July. I can just feel the sweat trickling down the backs of the actors, but they are getting a nice pay check so don’t feel too sorry for them.

You too can benefit from this magic, but in our case it is the implication of money spent where none has been.

I guess it’s a con of sorts…

There are also rules and guidelines to filming on location on public and private property of course. Something to do with paying a fee to someone or other and getting liability insurance and applying for a thing called a permit.

Permit, what’s a permit?

Some general rules for independent filmmakers on location.

Don’t annoy anyone, or at least try not to, or if you must, let it be at the end of the shot list and be at the ready to grab equipment and go at any moment. Seriously, it’s all fairly straight forward really, logical stuff.

Don’t block traffic or sidewalks or doorways to businesses and you should be fine. The old faithful “we’re shooting a student film officer!” should suffice in a crunch. Or, alternatively, “Ten more minutes, max!” works well too, when it’s clear by the absence of anyone under  40 that you aren’t really students, unless ‘I’m a student of life’ still counts. Try not to use fake guns in public places, it can make passers-by by a bit nervous, understandably, and although it might make a great dinner party anecdote, your night in the cells in the Simi Valley Sheriff’s station, the reality of what could actually happen to you doesn’t bare thinking about…although it might make a nice short film?

LA is a cave of wonders when it comes to free locations. You really are only limited by your imagination and your crews stamina and sense of humor. I have shot 40’s film noir in North Hollywood at 2 am, 17th century France in the Burbank hills half a mile from a police shooting range, somewhere in the apocalyptic future in an abandoned farm house in rural Lancaster and 80’s Iran in a friend’s house a mile or two away from there. All of these films seem, at least to me, and to those who have seen them, realistically staged and the locations work. With just a few cleverly placed and well thought out set pieces, or whatever is lying around, and less is usually more, you can magically transform just about anywhere into just about anywhere. The camera, and therefore the viewer can be more forgiving than you might expect, especially if the story is compelling and the acting riveting.

I am a firm believer that your location should be another character in your film and when It works it becomes just that. Paying attention to this can only help you make better films.

Learn to look at your location in the same way that a painter looks at a landscape in which he will place his subject. Even the humblest of projects can be made infinitely better and more interesting with a wonderful location.

When do you location scout?

Always is the short answer to that. If you want to make films then you will need locations no matter what type of films you make, so be constantly on the lookout for great locations that you can get for free. You could even take pictures and make notes about them, its infuriating when I need a location and I know I’ve seen the perfect spot but I just can’t remember where or when…or even if It was just a set in a film I saw one time or I dreamt it…getting old.

So collect places like you might collect stamps, or beetles or something, it’s a wonderful thing to have an arsenal of perfect spots, especially when you are in a tight one and need to find somewhere fast because your first pick didn’t work out on the day of the shoot.

Quinceanera’s can play havoc with the sound guys calm.

The other side of the coin is that you can’t allow yourself, or others, to be lazy when it comes to locations. I have been a bit guilty of that at times. I have shot the ‘whatsits’ out of my house and garden and surrounding streets, to the point where all my neighbors know I make films and the same car alarm can be found in several of them, far beyond the possibility of being edited out. Although this plan of using your own home time and time again can seem very tempting, when the reality of waking at dawn on a Sunday to get to Lancaster, or Covina, or Downtown LA seems so cruel a prospect that it’s that hard not to convince yourself that your garden can be the beach on the pacific ocean your story necessitates, or the corner of your own street can double as the meatpacking district at dawn. I know, I’ve been there, snuggled deep beneath my sheets, longing for an extra few moments of Sunday morning slumber. But don’t do it! Resist these civilized temptations!

Ambition is not a dirty word! Be courageous and fling back those cozy bedclothes, stride confidently from your bedroom in the wee hours, onward to your victorious location and beyond!

Just don’t forget to brush your teeth and put your pants on. Even the very, very independent of us have some standards, just a few…