Whether you like it or not, the locations in your film are powerful storytelling tools.
From the objects that surround your characters to the cars that drive in the background, it’s all a part of your story. This is your film’s larger fictional world of wonder, something that, in theory, goes on even when the film is long over.
So naturally you want your film’s locations to be better than your bedroom and the neighbor’s backyard… right?
Well, it depends.
Locations need to go hand in hand with the story you are setting out to tell with your film. Not every film requires the same from its surroundings. However this is not an excuse to skimp on location scouting, or even just having a general sense of where you will be setting “the important dramatic scene”.
If you can’t pay for fancy locations, embrace it. Focus on making your story great instead.
As they say, acceptance is the first step.
So what if you can’t close off an entire city street in Los Angeles? If it makes you feel any better, very few indie filmmakers can.
Many young filmmakers have this idea in their head that they’re going to re-create the vast sets of The Avengers with their $1000 budget. It’s just not going to happen. And the sooner you realize that, the sooner you’ll be able to move forward with your indie film.
So naturally, the key takeaway here is that you need to work with what you have. If we look back at some of the indie darlings from the last ten years, we see a lot of people in their twenties sitting in apartments in New York having conversations.
You can set an entire film in one room and have it work… if your script is good.
Ask for favors
Some people never really tap into their network of friends and family when location scouting. Yet you would be surprised what you can find when you ask nicely. Your great uncle’s best friend who lives in Texas? He owns that 20 acre farm, right? And chances are he’s never had a film ask him to shoot there.
On my feature Son of Clowns I needed a backyard that looked like an artist lived there. With strange sculptures, wild grass, and a cozy feel. Not exactly easy to find at first glance. But after asking around, my producer and I found that his artist friend’s backyard fit the bill perfectly. And it even came with a chicken that made a cameo in the final cut of the film.
But you’ll never find these places unless you ask around.
Sidebar: If you don’t respect your locations, you ruin it for everybody
Once you have got that perfect location locked, we need to talk about respect. It needs to go both ways when you are filming somewhere, whether you have permission or not. (More on that later.)
Picture it this way. You and your crew represent the entirety of filmmakers on earth.
Think of the most untrue obnoxious stereotype of a film director. You are probably picturing a middle aged guy double fisting coffees while yelling through a megaphone with a third arm.
Oh. And stress, lots of stress.
This is false. I try to disprove this stereotype every time I make a film. I act like a decent human being with my cast, crew, and especially those that are involved with the production on a smaller level, ie: the folks lending you their backyard for the day.
There’s a tenet in the world of camping and outdoor activities called “Leave No Trace.” It’s pretty self-explanatory, but essentially it means that you need to leave the places you use just as good (or better) than you found them.
I recommend you practice something similar when making films, especially when someone is letting you use a location for free.
Always offer to clean up the location after you shoot. I know it's tempting to talk with your cast and plan for the next setup across town, but this is invaluable.
Personally stepping in to thank your host for allowing you to make that zombie movie and have 50 extras in their yard all afternoon makes you stand out.
When you do everything in your power to show as much respect, gratitude, and courteousness to the location owner, not only do you improve your chances of being asked back to shoot something, but you do a personal solid to filmmakers everywhere by making us look good.
To get permission or shoot guerrilla-style?
Ahh, the age old question for us indie filmmakers. Do we just roll up and shoot, hoping for the best, or do we ask someone who may not even return out emails? It all depends.
When it comes to public property i.e: city streets, parks, etc. you have a higher likelihood of getting permission from one of the numerous film councils in your area. Shoot them an email, and often times they will be excited to have you, especially if its a smaller town. (Sorry NYC/LA folks, shooting publicly there is harder.)
If you are filming in the middle of Wyoming and there is an open field off the side of the highway and there’s no one around for 15 miles, you are probably fine to shoot there. But if you can, still take the time to check if there is someone you can ask or make aware of your production.
With that said, don’t run into a private location with cameras rolling hoping for the best. That’s a great way to have not only your shot interrupted but your entire production schedule as well. Dealing with that is an inconvenience you do not want when making a film.
There are far too many other more important matters to deal with.
A note on set safety
Having no budget is NOT an excuse to ever put someone in danger or film in a questionable area just because you think it'll probably be fine.
Think, check, and ensure the location is safe for all involved. This is what pre-production and location scouts are for.
My golden rule is always safety and common sense. Don't put anyone in a dangerous situation, especially if the no one in the area you are filming in knows you are there.
This is so important. Don’t overlook it.
To sum up, write your script with practical locations in mind, preferably ones that you know you’ll have access to. Focus on story and character instead of spectacle and grandiosity.
Then plan out your locations, ask for usage of properties from your family and friends. Mine your personal network (and the networks of your collaborators) and you will undoubtedly turn over several stones to find locations that truly look much more expensive than they are.
And most importantly, practice respect and gratitude. Be courteous to location owners and try to leave locations better than you found them. This ensures that future filmmakers will have the same opportunities you did.
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