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The 10 Things You Must Do When Shooting a Movie at 18,000 Feet

By Jon Fitzgerald | Indiewire April 27, 2012 at 9:00AM

“The Highest Pass” started at sea level -- less than a mile, in fact, from the ocean in Marina del Rey. I had just finished a documentary called “The Back Nine” and was ready for another adventure.
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6. Learn to embrace fear.

I knew going in that we would be on some dangerous roads, in difficult filming conditions, but I was not prepared for many of the other risks. One of the realities of the passes of India is the constant flow of huge trucks. These monsters come screaming around corners on one-lane roads. Our driver was honking every other minute, and I was peeking out of the corner of my eye as we missed that truck by a matter of inches, all day long. You see the rusted metal of cars on the bottom of cliffs below and there are no rails. At some point, a few days into the madness, I had no choice but to relinquish the fear. If it was my time to go, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. On the first day of the journey, one of the riders was clipped by a truck and we were in the ER. Fortunately, no broken bones. Same thing on day two. The riders had to learn to ride on these roads and in the rain, through streams and over ice. So they had their own fears to conquer, but the crew was stuck in the iron cage and we had to learn to embrace it. 

Note: A few months after production, one of our drivers was killed in a car accident.

Riders in 'The Highest Pass'
Motorcycle riders in 'The Highest Pass'
7. Be a diplomat.

When you are filming riders focused on their survival and on their own personal journeys, it’s hard to ask them to stop and “do it again.” But this was a shoot without a scout and the production vans could not always keep up. We would pull around a corner and see the perfect shot, but the riders would be miles ahead by then. You have to be selective about your shots and know you only have so many chips to play. And most film crews are familiar with standard meal breaks and overnight turnaround time. This wasn’t happening on “The Highest Pass.” We were chasing the light or trying to get to a destination before fatigue became dangerous for the riders. As the director, you are in the middle and have to understand the art of the give and take. You need the subjects to respect you, but don’t want the crew bitterly going through the motions because they are feeling resentful. 

Show your appreciation. Find the compromises for both sides. And then you have the locals. They don’t care if you’re making a movie, unless George Clooney is one of the riders. You are the outsider and have to play by their rules. From accommodations to local police, diplomacy really helps the cause.

8. Back up the footage.

Regardless of how tired you are after your 15-hour day, you have to download all the cards (movie files) onto G-Raids and LaCie drives. This can take a few hours and you typically want more than one copy whenever possible. In our case, we had three cameras filming all day long so there was a lot of footage to download. It’s important to force yourself to make this happen. Even if you are operating on 4-5 hours sleep a night, at least your cameras can start fresh the next day and you have the insurance of footage back-up. In most cases, there are no reshoots on this type of project.

9. Have an open mind.

If you are shooting a narrative feature, you have the luxury of a script. If you are shooting a documentary, chances are, you just have a treatment, outline or general structure in mind before you roll cameras. In our case, we started with our riders, a goal of reaching the highest pass and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” as a road map. As the adventure unfolded, Adam and I shifted gears. We singled out Adam as a rider (who had just learned how to ride a motorcycle a few weeks before the trip) and made him the hero, with Anand as his mentor. It may seem obvious, but it’s often difficult for directors to be open to modifying a pre-existing structure. Many of the best documentaries ever made changed plans during shooting. Hoop Dreams, for example, was initially going to be a 30-minute documentary for PBS. They realized they were onto something special and tracked the players much longer than anticipated and ended up with what Roger Ebert called "the best film of the decade."

10. Enjoy the ride!

It may seem clichéd, but filmmaking is an amazing opportunity, an incredible journey. How blessed we are to share stories for a living -- from the inception of the idea, through reaching your audience, to the feedback and the effects. Each stage has its peaks and valleys. When we agreed to make “The Highest Pass,” we were not sure what the movie would be, but we had high hopes for an engaging project. With some festival experience, I had a good feeling this film would work on that circuit, but we didn’t expect a theatrical release. 

We bucked tradition and had our world premiere at a smaller event, the Topanga Film Festival. What an amazing experience, to see it on the screen with the right audience, overflowing in the aisles. Then it won a top prize, won a few more awards on the circuit and is being theatrically released by Cinema Libre Studio on April 27. Everyone at the studio truly supports socially relevant films and they are working hard to give the film a fair shot. Our team has had a remarkable experience and look forward to bringing the movie to audiences in a variety of platforms. 

Our initial goal stands. We hope people are engaged and inspired to look deeper into themselves and the world around them. 

"The Highest Pass" opens today in Los Angeles. In the fall of 2011, Fitzgerald launched CineCause, a company that connects socially relevant films, celebrities and news to related causes. Prior to that, he directed three feature documentaries: “The Back Nine,” “The Highest Pass” and “Dance of Liberation.” From 2003-2007, Fitzgerald provided consulting services to many film festivals and indie filmmakers, via Right Angle Studios. He was a co-founder of the Slamdance Film Festival in 1995 and was the festival director at the American Film Institute and the Santa Barbara and Abu Dhabi International Film Festivals.







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