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Don’t Shoot

Many might say the past few years have been good ones for independent filmmakers, largely because digital filmmaking has made movie production so much more accessible to budding directors everywhere. Nevertheless, obstacles facing low budget filmmakers are, and continue to be, many—filming on a tight schedule, publicity, legitimate screenings, and attracting an audience for what is probably a very personal film, all, of course, with no money, can be endlessly frustrating. And then, on top of that, there’s the issue of location permits.

Location permits are not just an expense on their own, but they may come with any number of additional costs—the hire of an off-duty police officer or an emergency medical technician, the stipulation of protection insurance, for example. Often times, independent filmmakers decide that protection insurance is too expensive and opt to shoot without it. But in some instances, without protection insurance, a location permit is unobtainable. And without a location permit, certain locations are off limits to filmmakers. Without necessarily condoning it, let it also be said that there are some ways around shooting without a permit.

Independent filmmakers write a screenplay to fit the budget that will be available to them, which in most cases means no high-priced special effects, large-scale car crashes, and no dangerous stunts are written into the story. And, so, stories set largely indoors with few exterior scenes or shots are ideal, and here, screenwriters and filmmakers can take a cue from playwrights, who tend to stay away from writing complicated sets into their productions in order to keep the budget low and to attract potential investors. If it doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline for the action to be kept mainly indoors, that’s when the producer, or someone, needs to start doing some intensive research on outdoor locations that can be used without permits—neighborhood stores, apartments of friends, your parents’ house, etc.

Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Though some property owners may allow shooting on their property without permits, third-party liability insurance is almost always part of the deal, which is good because it is beneficial to everyone—third-party liability coverage protects property owners against any damages or losses the production crew may cause; any and all damages to the location are covered.

Shooting in slightly deserted areas that don’t get lots of people traffic—on foot or in cars—is another alternative. A major and winning asset of the surreptitious filmmaker is his or her ability to be as non-obtrusive as possible. Hiding equipment and whatever transportation used is very important to keeping crews out of view from those who have the power to shut productions down.

Employing a small crew is another way to stay under the radar. With El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez used one of the smallest crews ever, consisting of himself (doing most everything from cinematography to sound to directing) and his partner, Carlos Gallardo (who plays El Mariachi). Gallardo also helped with special effects and with various camera shots by wheeling Rodriguez around in a wheel chair to replicate dolly shots.

It is against the law for filmmakers to shoot on the subways in Tokyo, or certain other locations in and around that city because of the Yakusa (Japanese crime syndicates) presence. Yet, the Sophia Coppola-helmed crew on Lost in Translation, which takes place entirely in Tokyo, was able to successfully get around certain legal restraints by using a small crew that was discreet enough to get shots integral to the film’s story. In other words, if a certain location is imperative to the film, the filmmaker should find a way to shoot it (and paying for a permit should be the first means to that end). A barebones crew can be great for spontaneity and flexibility, especially in the event of being chased away from a location.

Sony PD170

The right equipment selection is also vital to keeping things simple and inconspicuous. Equipment is easier to hide if it doesn’t look so obvious, like the large cameras and cranes and booms normally associated with a typical film production. Consumer camcorder-like cameras such as the Canon GL2, the Panasonic DVX100, or the Sony PD170 or PDX10 can help maintain a more subtle presence, and because the image signals (the video encoding algorithms) are recorded the same, the signal recorded on an expensive, professional camera and one recorded on a consumer DVCAM or MiniDV are identical. Digital cameras offer liberation from the hassles of the traditional filmmaking process by providing cheap raw footage that needs no chemical processing, long shooting loads, or low-light cinematography. The production team on Y Tu Mama Tambien used one handheld camera and available light to capture one powerful scene in which the National University’s students demonstrate in Mexico City.

Lipstick cameras can also be very valuable in keeping a low production profile. In Michael Mann’s Ali, Mann and Visual Effects Coordinator Mike McAllister used lipstick cameras to great effect—though not in any illegal capacity—while shooting some of the film’s fighting scenes. They rigged lipstick cameras to the boxers so that they could film from the more difficult and challenging angles. Lipstick cameras helped Mann to focus on the physicality of the fight scenes and to give the audience a realistic sense of being right in the ring with the boxers. Not only do these miniature cameras allow footage to be acquired in a covert manner, but they also bring a sense of inclusion into the story that customary sized cameras are not capable of providing.

And, finally, if worse comes to worse, Lie. Lie, Lie, LIE, and say that you are making a student film, because if you’ve done everything above—the locations are not crowded and the cameras look cheap—the idea that you are making a student film is actually quite plausible. Most police officers aren’t shy in letting people know that they have better things to do than hassle students trying to make a film without location permits. As long as the production crew is not blocking traffic, disturbing the neighbors, or preventing businesses from doing their business, the police probably will not give you any trouble.

In the event that the police are having a slow day, however, here are three important tips for the student film story: 1) Select a wholesome looking member of the crew to serve as spokesperson when dealing with the police officer. Note: This should not be the smartass key grip from Brooklyn, but the fresh-faced PA from Nebraska. 2) Make sure the director or another important member of the production crew has a fairly recent student ID, preferably from a college, university, or film school far, far away from where the film is being shot. 3) In lieu of a student ID, try the sob story—the ID was left in the hotel room, at home, the dog ate it, and this particular location is so important to film, which is for a class you’re taking to improve your education, complete your course of learning and graduate studies, and you’ll get flunked if this location shoot does not appear the film.

By observing these tips, any low budget filmmaker can help keep his/her budget, well, low. And with the money saved on skipping the cost of the permits, better catering can be purchased. Let me reiterate, though, that the production may be able to get away with not buying location permits, it is in the best interest of the production to in fact buy location permits.

Bear In Mind
Shooting on both public and private property will almost always require a location agreement. Property owners whose property has been involved in a film production without a permit can stop a movie from being released. Filmmakers are allowed to shoot a physically imposing building (the Eiffel Tower, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Vatican) as long as the building cannot possibly be hidden and is without a visible company logo. Authorities can prevent a film crew from shooting on any location where the production has failed to obtain the proper permits. There is always a possibility that without a permit and signed agreement, property owners can charge a filmmaker and their crew with trespassing.

Notes on Locations
The Massachusetts Film Office has a program that helps filmmakers find no-fee locations. However, it is important to note that none of the available locations are in Boston proper. Las Vegas provides government permits free of charge, with the exclusion of those for environmentally-vulnerable areas, which only require a nominal fee. The city of Providence, Rhode Island offers fee-free access to any public place. As does New York City, as long as the documentation of the proper insurance can be provided

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