Shooting on Location on a Budget

One of the best things about filming in Southern California and in Los Angeles in particular is the huge variety of locations.

Deserts, mountains, beaches, fancy houses and dead-end streets, rivers, lakes, oceans and storm drains, nightlife, churches, downtown sky rises and skid row. We’ve got it all and it’s all around us begging to be in frame.

Making a movie and shooting it on location should never be a luxury. It should always be a priority and a necessity.  Los Angeles can be another character in your story, not to mention the free background actors walking through your shot.

In a couple of weekends, myself and my intrepid filmmaking tribe will be driving up to Big Bear to film the final scenes of a post-apocalyptic short.  Unfortunately, due to a rather nasty fall in a theatre three years ago, two horribly painful surgeries and more in my immediate future, I am no longer the one holding the camera, the boom or anything else for that matter.  But I can direct, if seated, and I can certainly supply the sandwiches and the support and the wisdom it’s taken me several decades to amass.

Making the decision to drive three hours and rent a cabin, regardless of the cost, was, for this film, absolutely necessary.  Sometimes you can get away with staying local, shooting in your own home even. But if you have a story you must tell and it happens to be set in very specific locations then you must do everything you can to find a way to shoot in the best possible version of what you need.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

Lazy filmmakers are bad filmmakers…

Locations add serious value to your production.  Climb a tree, hang upside down, drive with the camera person straddling the bonnet, steal locations shamelessly.  A couple of weekends ago we shot in MacArthur Park.  We needed some footage of a reporter covering a march or protest.  I googled “protest marches in LA” and found a Facebook page listing a few coming up and we all met there and filmed whatever we could.  There was a protest rally about LGBTQ and we pinched some shots and it was brilliant!!!

The footage was then cut into the clip that we ran on a TV in the background of a scene…immediately elevating our film.  Small details make all the difference in the world!!!

Using your imagination and your network can bring you remarkable results.  We needed an office, someone knew someone and presto!  We got an office for a day. Offices are notoriously hard to get for free.  The cabin is in fact also free…a favor owed one of our tribe. Tthank you, Arcelia!!

I’ve shot in a fish n chip shop in the UK for free because we fed the cast and crew there…even got the chippy owner to be in it!!  We once asked a bored coach driver if he would circle round and drive in the coach park again for us and he was happy to.  I asked some firemen we could use their cherry picker.  We’ve shot in so many parks in L.A. I’ve lost count and many, many streets.  Car parks are so great, especially at night, and the lighting is amazing!  But watch out for the security guards.

Also, and this is very important, never film public transport.  Airports, train stations, metro…very bad idea.  It’s a terrorist thing.

If you are quick about it you can steal shots just about anywhere.  Even films with actual budgets do that.  The “40 Year Old Virgin” stole many shots.  “Gotta Have It,” “Paranormal Activity,” even some Tarantino films, and I am certain just about all indie movies have some scenes, or maybe a lot, that have absolutely no permission and no budget for them and they just did it anyway.

I have actually never been chased out of a place.  Although, I was once asked to leave a multi-story car park. When someone got murdered once across the street from where we were filming, we just kept going.  The police did eventually drive by and see how much longer we were going to be…totally understandable given the circumstances.

Ahhh, I miss the days of leaping out of a car and furiously filming and leaping back into the car and speeding off.  Alas, I now have fusions and so those days are far behind me…very sad.  But I can at least engineer, coordinate, direct, instruct and encourage and, as a producer, absolutely insist that locations matter.

Because they do.They can make the film and give a gifted filmmaker coverage and nuance and mood.  Locations can make something average amazing and even save rough performances.  Plus, I have found that if you are working with inexperienced or nervous actors, giving them less time to get all wound up in their heads can be very effective.  Watch some films from the 70s!!!! Brilliant use of space over performance.  “The French Connection” anyone!? Or my favorite, “The Taking of Pelham 123,” the original with Walter Matthau, of course, not that unspeakably bad remake.

So locations are more important than just about anything else in a zero budget film.  Given how compact cameras are now, not to mention the iphone, there really is no excuse not to try filming anywhere.  Just don’t get caught, or get ready to run if you are!

By the way, I am not encouraging you to break the law….just bend it a little!!

Have fun filming!!!!