Ah, the joys of location shooting. It gives you the opportunity to discover a place that lends character, texture and intrigue to your project without having to hire someone create it on a sound stage or a computer.
If you pick the right location, you usually get a lot more bang for your buck. I shot my most recent short film, “The Other Side,” against the stark desert landscape of Palmdale, California. No location is problem free, but we were able to minimize the impact of any issues that arose during production by keeping these tips top of mind.
1. Consider every possible scenario and have a backup plan in place for anything that involves a third party.
This can be summed up as “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” When you leave Los Angeles or New York, you may be shocked to discover that life doesn’t move at the speed of production. For example, our location was in an unincorporated section of desert, which meant that that there were no bathrooms nearby and so we would have to bring in porta-potties for the length of the shoot. Although we planned ahead, our delivery service flaked on us and we had to scramble on the first morning of production to find a replacement. Luckily, we had scouted a nearby library for emergencies. Until we could get another vendor to deliver our facilities, the library provided us with our bathroom.
2. Prioritize communication.
Make sure you have the means to communicate from set, to base camp and everywhere in between. On our production we tried to save money by getting cheap walkie-talkies, but it turned out that they could not transmit across the desert terrain. As a result, some people got lost and we ended up having to send members of our team to various mid-points in order to facilitate communication. Even though were able to side-step the problem, the solution wasn’t as efficient as it could have been. If I had to do it over again I would have spent the money on the better walkies.
3. Budget your incidentals.
During pre-production, set aside 10 percent of your total budget for production incidentals. Don’t cannibalize it for better lenses or that prop you think you need. The truth is that this money will be useful on location. Once you step on set, it’s yours to use, but not a moment before.
4. There are other ways to pay.
When we scouted our locations we found a place that was hands-down better than the rest. As a director, I fell in love with it, but as a producer, I knew we’d have to pay for it. When we inquired about the price, it was much higher than we had budgeted, which is why we decided to try out a different approach: volunteering to clean up the location in lieu of a majority of the fee (we noticed a profuse amount of garbage strewn across the property while scouting it). The property owners were touched by our offer and we ended up getting the location for a dream rate. Remember to always leave the location better than you found it. Seriously, please do this because it will make life easier for all of us.
5. Keep everyone healthy.
This should be obvious but, unfortunately, it is often forgotten. Consider the realities of your location and make sure you are reminding everyone to keep healthy habits. They are working like crazy for you and it’s your job to look out for them. On our set it was incredibly hot, and after almost every take, we were sure to remind everyone to stay hydrated and apply sunscreen. Sadly, I didn’t follow my own advice regarding sunscreen, and I wish I had.
6. Let the location speak to you.
You spend so much time thinking about the film — planning shots and figuring out the best way to tell the story — and then no location truly fits your plan. However, I see this as an opportunity for creativity. Orson Welles said “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.” Once you’re on that location, let it speak to you. Every challenge is a chance to better the film, and when I think about the movie that lived in my head and the one that we ended up with, the latter is considerably better because in creating solutions we ended up with better ideas.
7. Accept that things will go wrong.
Things can and will go wrong. That’s the nature of filmmaking. The most important thing is to cultivate a positive attitude and remember that at the end of the day, you are doing something you love and you’re lucky to get to do it. On the first day of production it felt like everything was falling apart, and I got very stressed. During lunch, however, I took a moment for myself, surrounded by the quiet of the desert, to reflect. Knowing that a hardworking group of incredibly talented people were eating lunch ready to come back to tell a story we believed in, I took a breath, and felt grateful to be there. When we came back from lunch, we came together to make our day. It was one of the most exhilarating six hours of my life. Something I will always cherish. We’re lucky to do this. If you keep that in mind, everything will be that much easier. I think this is actually a larger lesson about life, but I’m still working on that…
Scott Brown is an Emmy-Nominated director whose work has primarily focused on digital storytelling. His independent web series have received millions of views and earned him opportunities to create scripted series for CBS Films, Funny or Die, Dreamworks and many more. He has also directed over 500 episodes of “Larry King Now” on HULU. His short film “The Other Side” has screened at various festivals, including USA Film Festival, Little Rock International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival and more.