Three times shooting on location went wrong (and what we learned from it)
When you’re an indie filmmaker, it’s likely that you’re working with a limited budget; we know we are, and when we first started out we were often making films with no budget. When you’re not part of a huge production company, you’re often going to be shooting on location, rather than building a set in a studio. There are pros and cons to this; you can find amazing, beautiful, picture-perfect sets in your community that help you tell your story, but… things can also get a little weird. We’ve compiled three stories about times filming on location went wrong, and our major takeaways from these incidents that make us better at our job now that we’ve experienced these mishaps.
Number one: The time we tied Raven up inside an active city bus
We’ve talked about this a little before, but now it’s time for the whole story. As a crafty indie filmmaker, I’m always thinking of ways that I can up my production value without breaking the bank. Now, New32 is lucky enough to be based in a city with a robust public transport system, so as I wrote the script for our newest feature, it occurred to me that I could likely get the city to let us film on one of their buses. I thought it would look expensive while in reality being quite cheap or even free, and if the bus didn’t work out, we’d be able to change gears and film somewhere else, no harm, no foul. Luckily, I was right; the city was incredibly generous and donated a bus for us to film on, free of charge, and with a driver to boot!
There were, however, some complicating factors. The buses are so huge that they can’t drive just anywhere. In fact, their routes are specially designed to make sure they can make every turn and get down every street without getting stuck. What this meant was that we couldn’t make our own route; the bus had to drive along its normal route, just like it would on a normal day. Not only that, but the driver kept stopping at bus stops for reasons we still don’t totally understand. What this resulted in is disgruntled people wanting to get on the bus while we were filming. This happened eight or nine times; the bus driver would stop but not open the doors, and someone would start knocking on the door to be let in. We’d crack the door open slightly to explain the situation and they would just barge on in. Without fail, the person was horrified and embarrassed to have just stormed on to a film set. No one rides the bus with the intention of being perceived, so we can only assume this was their worst nightmare. It’s certainly ours.
Not only this, but filmmaking–especially low-budget indie filmmaking–looks extremely strange to people who don’t know what’s going on. On this shoot, for example, we didn’t have a gimbal for the camera we were shooting with. Now, we’re lucky enough to have Raven “Steady Hands” Whisnant on the team, so we thought we’d be good. No such luck. Even Raven couldn’t keep the camera stable enough as the bus drove through the city streets.
Luckily, we’re indie filmmakers, which means we had a creative solution: we bungee corded Raven to the bus.
It sounds crazy, but it worked like a dream. We used bungee cords to attach her to one of the support poles, and then we were able to get the steady shot we needed. However, what this meant was that when people got on the bus, not only were they confronted with an entire film set, but there was also a woman literally tied to the bus.
So what did we learn from this? When you’re making a low-budget indie film, you have to expect the unexpected. There are problems that can be fixed by throwing money at them, but unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. So come to set ready to problem solve, ready to talk to people, and ready to be interrupted. It’s just part of the process. When you expect the unexpected, you give yourself the gift of being ready for anything.
Number two: The time the owners thought we were making porn
We were shooting a short film about a couple on a road trip, and we needed to film in a hotel room. It was a sweet little scene where the couple was in bed, being cuddly and generally cute. The most physical contact was a moment of tickling. We thought we’d done everything right; we’d called the owners ahead of time, discussed the scene and the movie, and gotten their verbal consent to film at their adorable bed and breakfast.
Then we got there and everything started to go wrong.
The owners were an elderly man and woman who, upon our arrival, did not seem to remember the details of the scene. We handed the woman the release form, and she seemed nervous and skeptical, saying she needed to give her husband time to look it over. This meant, of course, that we couldn’t enter the property and start setting up for the scene. As we waited for them to finish looking over the release form, the husband asked us many, many questions about the content of the film and the intended audience. It quickly became apparent that he thought we were going to be shooting porn at his little bed and breakfast, and was understandably quite upset. We had a lengthy conversation about the scene itself (the characters talk, cuddle, and at one point tickle each other) and our intentions for the film (it will be screened at FAMILY FRIENDLY film festivals). Eventually, he acquiesced and signed the release, but it didn’t seem to calm his nerves. He lingered near our room, looking in through the window as we set up, rehearsed, and filmed. As you can imagine, that was quite distracting when trying to film! It felt like just one of the things that happens when you’re shooting on location, but of course, it doesn’t have to be.
What did we learn? Always have the release form signed BEFORE you get to set. Remember, without the release, you can’t film at all, so by not having this couple sign before we arrived, we were risking not being able to get any footage. After communicating your needs and expectations, make sure that you send the release via email and then make sure you have all the signatures you need before you show up to set. It may not have convinced this poor couple that we weren’t shooting porn, but it certainly would have made the whole process more expeditious, and it would have saved a lot of stress on our end; waiting for them to make up their minds about if we could film or not certainly wasn’t relaxing!
Number three: The time everyone was mad we were there
The thing about shooting on location is that you are typically causing a major inconvenience for everyone around you. Anyone on set has to be quiet, you have to move all their stuff around, you have to unplug their things, you’re bringing a ton of people and equipment into the space… It used to be our instinct to understate what would be happening (you won’t even notice we’re there!) but as we’ve learned and grown, we’ve realized it’s actually more useful to overstate the inconvenience so that people are prepared for what we’re going to throw at them.
For a recent film, we were shooting on location at a small restaurant just down the road. We’d done everything right: communicated extensively with the owner, been clear about exactly what we’d be doing and what we’d need from them, had the release forms signed ahead of time… basically, we had all our ducks in a row. The owner was so excited that their restaurant was going to be in a movie, and was so supportive and accommodating of our needs.
There was just one problem.
He was going to be out of town the week of the shoot.
He assured us it wouldn’t be an issue; his staff would take care of everything.
We arrived with our cast and crew and our tons and tons of equipment, to find a very surprised staff. Two things became immediately clear. First, the manager had gotten confused about the date we were filming and was not expecting us for another few days. Secondly, the enthusiasm for the project began and ended with the owner. Basically, the staff didn’t want us there. The restaurant was also open, which posed a problem for us. Despite all this, the staff assured us it was okay–we suspect due to not wanting to go against the owner’s word–and we reluctantly began to set up. As we set up, two of the staff members got in a screaming fight about us being there, which was… awkward, to say the least. Then we had to go ask them to turn the music off. Asking a favor of someone who is extremely mad at you is not the most comfortable experience, but Raven was very brave and did it. The manager agreed to do it and went into the back of the restaurant.
Except… the music kept going. She’d clearly forgotten to turn it off, and Raven had to ask again. The only thing worse than having to ask someone who’s mad at you for a favor is having to do it twice. Luckily this time, she did turn it off, and we were able to get the shots we needed quickly, in between customers coming in to order takeout.
What did we learn from this? Talk to the people on the ground. Of course you need permission from the owner of whatever venue you’re filming in when you’re shooting on location, but you also need the buy-in of the people who will physically be there. Filming is massively inconvenient and there is no worse feeling than showing up and disrupting everything somewhere you’re clearly not wanted. Make sure you express exactly what you need and what the experience will be like. Clear communication–with all parties–is key to a productive shoot. You don’t want to end up in the position we were in, where we spent the entire shoot debating packing up, sending our crew home, and looking for a new location to film at a later date.
We’ve grown so much since we were baby filmmakers, but of course we’re still learning and growing from our mistakes every day. Let us know the funniest thing that ever happened while you were shooting on location!