For the last three years I’ve been making my first feature film, “Don’t Worry Baby,” in New York City. Writing, casting, shooting, re-shooting, editing and scoring, coloring… everything. Without fail, every aspect of shooting my film in New York City came down to one thing: Maintaining relationships. Landlord, crew, neighbors, vendors, actors, etc. Everything comes down to this. In New York, where everything is in constant flux, it is never a simple shoot. You are going to need people in your corner. Ideally, people who want the same things you do. They want to see you succeed. You have to use New York’s chaotic energy and make it work for the film. But you also want to keep it as simple as possible.
Here are some tips I learned from shooting my first film in New York City:
Using your apartment as a location isn’t as easy as it sounds.
No matter how chill your roommates are, or how good your relationship with your landlord is, filming in your apartment is easier said than done. While shooting “Don’t Worry Baby,” my roommates had to relocate. I had to live on the set while shooting- at first, it was kind of romantic, shooting my first feature film here, saying goodnight to all the lights and charging batteries (that still haunt my power bill). But that feeling wore off immediately when one of my roommates was so frustrated she moved out when she couldn’t access her room– our wardrobe room for the day. If you can’t use your apartment, you’re going to have to scour the city for a friend who wants to make your film as bad as you do. You need to be able to fix things, (because they will certainly break) and cover your damages. You need to be respectful of locations so you can continue to shoot there or work there for the duration. My apartment was our hub. When my apartment wasn’t a hot set, it was the actors’ holding area and our production office. Even if you aren’t shooting in it, figure out a way to use it. It’s almost free.
Keep set pieces to a minimum.
Aside from my apartment,” Don’t Worry Baby” had a major set piece… and it wasn’t the Empire State Building. It was a preschool. I wrote it into the script because I was sure I could film there and remain in control. You should write what you know and you should write realistically. In New York City, there are so many amazing locations and things going on that it’s easy to get carried away with your imagination. Just because it’s good conceptually doesn’t mean it’s realistic on a low budget.
Good healthy food is essential.
Good food kept my crew happy. Feed your people! Avoid pizza and Chinese food or else the crew will want to nap after lunch. Food is something you can control in New York City where there are enough options to keep everyone happy. Don’t skimp on craft services (better to have too many bagels than one fewer than you need).
Shoot hand-held (if you can).
Shooting hand-held eliminated a lot of our problems. I wrote a script that was made to be shot on a hand-held camera. I wanted the film to feel intimate and real. My decision to shoot hand-held came with some pretty serious perks for shooting in New York City: We didn’t need as many permits, set ups were faster, and the medium instantly became more forgiving. If your film really works hand-held, I can pretty much guarantee a cheaper, shorter and easier shoot.
Get to know your neighbors.
Otherwise it’s really hard to ask them for help. You might not need to bounce light from their roof to turn night into day, as we did– but you will still need their help. Since my apartment was the production’s hub, there was no way to go unnoticed. By creating relationships with my neighbors, vendors and small businesses in the neighborhood, we were always prepared. Filming in New York City might seem like a world of opportunity, but that’s only if you have your bases covered. For example, while writing the film I worked at a sandwich shop on Orchard street. It was natural to write a scene to take place there. When the time came it was the easiest location to land because of my relationships there.
The closer your talent holding is to your hub, the better.
You need maximum flexibility when shooting in NYC. Changing locations with a crew can take hours so we tried to stay near our hub. Plans are changing constantly. Try to find local business that will let you use their space during off hours. Be prepared to answer their questions and have a pitch ready.
Find actors who want to play ball.
Chris McDonald (“Happy Gilmore,” “Requiem for a Dream”) was my production’s veteran. He has made well over 100 movies, and I learned a whole lot just by having him around. When I explained to Chris that we would be boarding the JMZ at Marcey Ave. and shooting off two scenes back-to-back during rush hour, he was actually delighted. “Guerilla filmmaking. I love it!” I was worried that just because we didn’t have our own subway car, or sidewalk, actors wouldn’t be willing to commit. When you’re making an indie use actors and a crew who can go with the flow of your shoot and have the indie attitude.
Don’t underestimate post-production.
Most importantly, save money for post-production. As a writer/director, you’re essentially writing the film three times. Once on paper, second on film, and third in post-production. This movie was edited half a dozen times before it was almost right. No matter how talented your editor, it is always a process. That’s simply the way it is.
As a director, you have to pick your battles and respect the city. Every scene can shut your movie down; there is no relaxing on a shoot in NYC. Everything will constantly fall apart and will only pull itself back together if you have a team to support you and your film.
When you’re filming a movie in New York City, it really takes a village. So find one.
Julian Branciforte is a writer and director currently living in New York’s Chinatown. He attended SVA where he held prestigious internships with Darren Aronofsky and Sam Mendes. Julian wrote and directed his senior thesis, then after graduating in 2011, concentrated on writing and directing feature films. “Don’t Worry Baby,” which will have its premiere at the 2015 Sarasota Film Festival on April 16, is Branciforte’s first feature film.