Writing Short Films: Location

Location is a really important aspect of low budget filmmaking that a lot of writers may not take in to consideration when writing a short. Fantastic locations add immense production value to your film and if your film looks snazzy, your script is fab and your actors zing, then you can take over the world.

Set your film a location that you have access to.

Really think about what you DO have access to. All the places you might be able to sweet talk someone into letting you use. I used to work in a restaurant, spoke to my boss about a short film I was writing and asked if we’d be able to shoot it there. The answer was yes. Suddenly the film stands out against others that are shot in someone’s lounge room.

Have you got access to somewhere different? A farm? A house by the beach? A skyscraper with a view of the Thames? A nightclub? Somewhere that someone else probably wouldn’t have access to? Go for it. Set your film there if you know you’ll most likely be able to swing the location. Make it easier for yourself to get your work made.

Likewise, if you visit somewhere and fall in love with it, then look into how hard it is to get permission to shoot there. It might be really simple. It might be really difficult. But at least you’ll know how much work you’ll have to do to get your film into production. You might not even have to do any of the leg work if you get a producer or production manager on board, but arm yourself with the knowledge of how difficult it’s going to be to shoot in the middle of the MCG before you write it.

It really is amazing how much difference it makes to set your film in a location that doesn’t scream ‘low budget’. Of course, there are certain films that have to be set in a lounge room or an office or a bedroom – that’s where production design comes in.

Think about what you’ve got in your arsenal and use it to your advantage.

Production: Day Two, Part One.

For Day One, Part One, click here!
For Day One, Part Two, click here!

Day Two dawned chilly. I woke up early as I wanted to hit up our location at about 8.30am to start dressing the set – it was the one day that we had proper set dressing. I’d mocked up a bunch of posters for a noticeboard with varying design degrees to properly make it feel as though the set was a theatre academy. Trivia note: all the names barring four are names of backers of the film. So if you chipped in before the shoot, your name may well be in the film!

Abby (Victoria Smith) and my rad production design.

Knowing that we would have to motor fairly quickly through the day, I was keen to get there before the call time to start prepping things. The location contact said before he left that he’d be there from 7am and I knew that some people would show up a little earlier than the 9am call time, so I thought if I got in there early and started up, we’d manage to get the day off to a good start.

That kind of thinking is all well and good in theory, but when I showed up to the location around 8.30am and it was very much locked and empty and Jack (who had been dealing with the location) was twenty minutes away, I’d definitely say that I was a little concerned about starting on time. It was just after 9am that the location contact showed up and Jamie and Jim (DOP and camera assistant) were both early, so we very quickly chose a corner of the room that took our fancy and began to light it and dress it.

Victoria and I had decided the day before that she would plait a scarf into her hair (see above), which proved to be reasonably tricky to do. She tackled that whilst we prepped the set and tried to decide whether a jaunty angle for notices actually worked or not. I decided that they didn’t.

The morning started to run away from us a little and we were suddenly running around forty minutes behind schedule. This scene was a little finnicky to shoot – there were particular moments that were important to get within their own shot and not in a wide or a mid shot. And, regardless of the promise that we were to have the place to ourselves for the Sunday, we managed to have about three people open the creaky door in the middle of a take. It’s Murphy’s Law that they never managed to walk in when we weren’t rolling, always when we were.

But, regardless of that, we were suddenly moving along quickly. Markus and Victoria were getting through each shot in one or two takes (with rare exceptions for interruptions leading to a third take), we were catching up to where we were supposed to be and Danny and Carolina had appeared ready for their afternoon of shooting. After Markus and Victoria had finished falling in love, we called in Danny and Carolina to film one shot before we broke for lunch.

Running an hour later isn’t catastrophically bad. But when I went outside to have a look at our next location and could hear a thumping of a choir practising Christmas carols in the studio out the back of the theatre, I couldn’t help but laugh, albiet slightly hysterically. Sound issues plague every shoot, but this one seemed to be injecting absolutely everything into our Sunday to see what we could take.

But for now, it was lunch, so I was off to munch on some M&Ms and go over what else we had to shoot for the day.

Oh, and be teased for being Australian. You get used to it after awhile.

Production: Day One; Part Two

Catch up on Part One here.

Knowing that Markus had the kind of giggles that makes everything hilariously funny, I took him out of the room, off set and calmed him down away from the rest of the cast and crew. He managed to regain enough composure to continue on with the scene – he admitted later that he stood in a spot where he couldn’t see Danny before he walked in for every take after that.

We started to power through the scene. Victoria, who was due to shoot her scene at around 3.30pm, showed up at 3pm, as we’d asked, but as we were running a little behind schedule it gave her time to tweak her costume and make-up. So we continued, moving onto close ups of the boys to give us coverage for the scene.

It was during Danny’s close up that a sudden burst of voices ruined the take. I poked my head out the door, expecting the voices to be walking in and out of the theatre opposite – but there were two singers who had parked themselves right outside the door to the room we were in (so close that I actually hit their chair with the door when I opened it). I asked them to move whilst we were shooting and they, thankfully, did so.

About five minutes later, the band started up.

We had two shots left to shoot in that location, so we decided that the best way to get around it was to just go for it and cross our fingers that we got a few clean versions. Amazingly enough, we did, so we wrapped our first location and moved downstairs to set up for the next one. The next was going to be quick – it was only three shots – but as it was late in the day, it meant that we had to shoot night for day because England is annoying and loses daylight astonishingly quickly in November (it was around 5pm and it was nearly pitch black outside already).

Jamie and Jim managed to set up the lights so that the inside looked fine and Jamie framed out the windows and we were ready to rock and roll. We shot that scene very quickly and without too many hold ups and we were going to move on when we realised our next location was right under the theatre where the r’n’b band were rehearsing.

In a blindly hopeful moment, I asked Jack (the soundie) to have a listen and see if we might be able to get away with shooting something. He walked away and I apologised to Victoria for keeping her waiting for so long. Jack reappeared and said it was impossible. We had no choice but to wrap early, so I made the decision to start at 9am the next morning instead of 11am to get the scene we couldn’t shoot then done in the morning.

Unfortunately that meant that Victoria had come up to High Barnet for no reason which I felt awful about, but she was wonderful about it and once we packed up and got out of there for the day.

We’d had a few setbacks on day one and even more to shoot the next day, so I knew we had to be focused to get through everything we needed to and get everything shot. But day one was done and for now, I could let myself relax for a little while until reviewing scenes and shot lists for day two.

Production: Day One; Part One

Day one of With A Little Help From Our Friends was a late start.

Because the location we’d managed to get was a theatre school, they had students in there until 1pm. So we scheduled the call time to be at 1pm on Saturday and we planned to wrap at 5pm and shoot two (and a bit) scenes.

However, Jack had been told on Friday afternoon that they’d hired out the theatre to a (wait for it) r’n’b hip hop band from 1pm -6pm who needed to rehearse, after assuring us that we’d have the place to ourselves for the weekend. They figured because we weren’t actually shooting in the theatre that day, that it would be fine.

The issue here, of course, was that we weren’t shooting a silent movie. As the location was on a main road, traffic noise was bad enough as it was, so the added DOOF DOOF DOOF of bass and drums wasn’t exactly a welcome addition to the soundscape.

There wasn’t much that we could do. We decided that we’d shoot as much as we could and if we had to, shuffle Sunday’s schedule around slightly to shoot a little bit more if we had to.

I headed up to High Barnet at about 11am. I wanted to be there early just in case things went entirely pear shaped and as it got closer to the call time, the more I just wanted to be on set. On the tube ride up, I went over shot lists and schedules and wished that I had reception on the Tube in case anything went horribly wrong. Nothing did. I caught up with Jack and we went and got some lunch (I had an idea for another short in the meantime) and by the time we got back to the location, we could go in.

But we couldn’t start doing anything until the kids were out. And the kids weren’t out until around 1.30pm-ish.

Everyone else was on time though, so we set the actors up in a room with the unit and drinks and I took Jim and Jamie around to show them where we were going to be shooting. After being unable to find a lightswitch for the room (hey, it was behind the desk at reception and nowhere near the room, okay?!), we decided the room was too echo-y for sound, so we changed our minds and chose the room we’d set the actors up in (the ‘green room’, if you will).

After dressing the set, I left Jamie and Jim to light the space and I took Danny and Markus (Des and Max) into the theatre to refresh the scene in their heads. We were going to shoot the entire scene in one go in a wideshot/two shot first, then punch in for close ups and then pick up any other sections that needed a little more coverage.

The boys ran the scene on the stage (which I told them was the girls’ set for the next day. Cue violent jealousy). Because we’d had the opportunity to rehearse, it was a matter of running the scene and only slightly tweaking their performances, as well as taking the chance to discuss alternate options in the week since the final rehearsal. Both Markus and Danny are fantastic actors (I always have to bury my face in my script when they run it to keep from laughing aloud) so it was a matter of them finding the rhythm and beats again. I didn’t want to run it too many times without the camera rolling as the scene can become too rehearsed and stiff, so we headed back onto set.

It was already 2pm by now, we’re already running an hour late. There was the added pressure of the fact that the r’n’b band who were going to ruin our sound hadn’t turned up yet so it became a little bit of a race to see how much we could get shot before they showed up.

But we were ready to go, so we started rolling.

The trouble with shooting a comedy is that the script is funny.

Luckily, I had crew who were focused enough on their individual roles that no-one burst out laughing on set.

However, that didn’t stop Markus from getting the giggles.

We’d done about three takes of the first shot when halfway through, Danny stopped, confused as Markus completely lost it laughing.

We’re running an hour and a half late, my lead can’t stop laughing at my script and the band have finally showed up.

And we’re only two hours in!

Swapping, Changing, Compromising – Locations

Taking a break from talking about auditions and casting (although we’re nearly done there, I promise!), I thought I’d let you guys know what’s been happening with organising locations. About a month ago, I blogged about how we had managed to find a location but were still locking in dates. After casting, one of the actors told me that he’d just been cast in a play and the weekend we were hoping to shoot – the last weekend in October – so we decided to see if we could get the location for the first weekend of November instead, otherwise we would have to consider re-casting him, depending on his availability.

We could.

With the first weekend of November ready and locked in, I started to look at schedules and how I’d run the shoot. As the film is essentially three conversations intercut, I’m going to figure out the best ways to shoot it when we get on location.

But then Jack got a call from the theatre we’re using as a location. A dance company wanted to hire the theatre for both days on the first week of November and there was no way we’d be able to shoot around them. The last weekend of October was still available though or we could look at the second week of November instead. I decided that it was going to be best if we went for the last weekend in October and I had a chat with Danny, the actor who I’d cast as Des to find out what times he’d be available and if he’d be happy to jump from shooting WALHFOF straight into his play.

He said that he was really excited to be on board and was happy to go straight from one to the other and gave me a rough idea of the times he’d be available. They allowed for a much larger scope than I’d thought, so I didn’t have to recast, which was a relief. I told Jack to lock in shooting for the final weekend in October with the theatre and now we’re really ready to steam roll ahead.

Now we just have to hope that no-one else comes along and wants to hire the theatre for that weekend as well.

Fingers crossed.

Closer!

I am incredibly pleased to say that we are one step closer to making With A Little Help From Our Friends! I say one step, however, this week a couple of steps have gone forward and the film is looking like it is definitely going to happen which is exciting because for awhile there I didn’t think it was going to get off the ground.

Firstly, we have a Director of Photography – my friend Jamie has been foolish or brave enough to agree to shoot the film for me. I’ve actually blogged about him before (here and here) and I really love the style he shoots his work in. All the work I’ve seen of his has an almost dream-like quality to it but still manages to balance the real world within the frame as well. I’m looking forward to talking to him further about the kind of style I’d like for WALHFOF, but at the same time I trust his judgment as a cinematographer and a filmmaker and am confident that we’re going to get some absolutely gorgeous images come shoot days.

Secondly, it looks as though we’ve got our location. We’re still waiting on confirmation of dates, but it seems to be a goer. I mentioned here a few weeks ago about the issues we were having finding locations and then spoke in last week’s post about how we were going to tackle a workaround. Jack spoke to the drama school that he had access to and the two of us went on a recce to check the place out on Saturday evening. It’s a really great location and very filming friendly in that it’s quite big with lots of rooms for alternative locations if we need them. There were three rooms that I walked into and immediately knew I wanted to shoot there because it was so visually interesting. Jack is speaking to them to confirm their dates of availability and hopefully we’ll lock something in and away we’ll go!

The shift in location from university to drama school has meant that I’ve had to rewrite the script with the new locations in mind. This, to be honest (and to my relief), wasn’t that difficult. I’d expected it to be a lot harder but the new locations slipped into place really easily. I had to adjust some of the dialogue to fit, changed what the characters were doing in the scenes – from studying books to learning lines etc – and it still stands pretty strongly on its own two feet.

Craig, Jack and I got together on Sunday and had a meeting to touch base on where we are currently at. Craig is confident he can slash the estimated budget we’d been toying with in half, based on our contacts and skills at doing something for nothing. A massive coup came from the fact that we will not have to pay location fees! Because Jack knows the owners of the school quite well and has done a lot of filming in the past, they’re willing to give the location to us for free as long as we work around them with shoot dates. Seems more than reasonable to me. See, low-budget filmmaking is all about cashing in on favours and networking – they’re not lying! Jack is also looking for a space to hold auditions in the first week of September. I’m writing up monologues for the actors who audition to learn that have more of an idea of the character and the type of person that they’re playing and sussing out which other crew roles we might need moving forward.

All in all, a pretty productive week!

Stay tuned to see what chaos unfolds next – as it always does!

Links
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Jamie’s Blog

Thinking Outside The Box

Hi everyone! Sorry the blog post is a little later than usual this week – it’s been a crazy few days in Londonia, as well as trying to figure out what we’re going to do about our location problems.

If you caught last week’s blog post, you’ll know that we’re having some issues trying to find a location that isn’t going to charge us an arm and a leg to shoot there. I’ve been chatting to heaps of people about alternative ideas – renting an empty space and buying bookshelves to make it look like a library set, shooting in a library and then creating the classrooms, reconsidering the locations to make it slightly more accessible… all sorts of solutions but none of them seemed much easier than any other.

Then Jack suggested that we look into drama schools. He had access to one and he thought that he might be able to swing it with the owners. And as he listed the rooms we could potentially have access to, my eyes lit up. It seems like a great alternative to a college and quite a vibrant alternative at that. Plus, as it’s a drama school, we can offer to audition their students and use them as extras as extra incentive. I told him to go for it. We’ve got nothing to lose by asking them, at any rate. He’s trying to organise a time when we can look at it that works for everyone (all our different working hours aren’t exactly syncing up perfectly) and we’ll do a recce for the location and see what we can work with.

Which brings me to my next point – actors.

It’s getting closer to one of my favourite parts of the film-making process. I absolutely adore casting. For me, it’s the part where the film starts to become real. Plus, I love watching people put their own spin on characters that I’ve created to see how differently they can come across.

I’m still working out when auditions are going to be held, but I know I’m going to have to write new monologues for the actors who are coming in. The script as it stands isn’t exactly conducive to auditioning solo  (it is very much focused on dynamics between people), so in the next week or so I’ll be writing four new scenarios – one for each character – to use as audition pieces. I’ve already got my eye on a few actors I’d like to ask to audition through Twitter, but I’ll definitely be exploring a few avenues to get the word out about it.

And as well as actors, I have to seriously start thinking about assembling crew. I have someone in mind to ask about being the Director of Photography but many of the other crew roles are still sadly empty.

I’m going to have to start hunting people out!

Location, location, lo – what?

Hi all!

Sorry for the radio silence over the past few weeks. I’ve been busy gallavanting around the world with precious little time to post to the blog. However, all is not lost and you guys get a post today!

Whilst I’ve been away, Jack and Craig have been chasing up various bits and pieces. Craig is being very brave and attacking the budget and Jack has been politely accosting universities asking about permission to use their buildings for filming.

Locations are crucial to low budget films and short films particularly. I can always tell instantly that it’s someone’s bedroom dressed to look like an office or it’s a bathroom in a pokey flat that’s doubling for a school toilet block. The key to low budget filmmaking is production value. Just because you have no money, that doesn’t mean it has to look like you have no money. You can cheat so much on film. You just have to think laterally.

The other key thing I’ve found about locations and low budget filmmaking is that you want them close together. Ideally, you only want one location change for the entire shoot. Even better, no changes at all. It costs less money, it saves time and it creates much less stress on shoot day and there will be more than enough of that as it is. So be willing to compromise if you have to.

I’m not going to lie to you, blogosphere. This has been pretty tough. Jack is doing a superb job. Our locations are pretty simple – two classrooms, a library and something that looks like a main entrance to a university. We started brainstorming fairly widely – the script is set at a college, but we thought that we might be able to cheat a high school as one as we had access to one. We listed universities that had a film course that might be a tad more lenient when it came to requests to shoot. We had a list of about six or seven (helped immensely by Jack and Craig’s insider knowledge because I know nothing about London universities) and Jack started from that.

We’ve hit two main problems so far.

The first is money. Most places want to charge us a location fee that is generally over £500. One university wanted over £1,000! In a perfect world, we’d get a location for free. At the moment, both those figures are out of our price range. But, again, we will look at compromise. We haven’t done a recce on any locations yet. If there’s one that’s particularly perfect, we’ll figure out a way to meet the figure if we need to.

The second is that a lot of universities won’t allow us to shoot in their libraries. I don’t particularly understand why. At any rate, we were thinking about looking at a second location for the library but a location move on a shoot where we (in theory) don’t really need to move, I’m not entirely enthused about the idea of it. I’m confident we can find somewhere that will meet all our criteria. It’s simply a matter of digging deep enough to find the location gold or working out a compromise that will work for both shoot and script.

Wish us luck!

Any suggestions on how you handle location hunting? I’d love to hear what you guys think!