For the love of all that is holy, never lock in a location that you do not obtain full control of. This is rule number one to location scouting. When you have dialog, multiple actors, background, picture vehicles, and other large elements at play, having civilians also stepping through the set and forcing production to wait and move aside for them as they shop is simply not ideal. Even if the location has light pedestrian traffic, the risk of injury, loss and damage, and unnecessary stress still runs high. And to top it all off, you can never really schedule for a location that makes you hold filming every time a customer even looks at the store.
So obviously, it’s in everybody’s best interests to NOT film at these locations. But sometimes, it’s necessary. This week, I’ve had to lock down three live gas stations in a city/state that is not very privy to what a film production actually means. And thus, we pissed off a LOT of people.
If you’re anyone like me, your initial instinct when hearing that a location will be live during filming is “OHGODNORIPUPCONTRACTFAAAAACK”. You’ll dread the day on the stripboard and constantly pester producers about what the live location will entail. You’ll beg the DP and Director to keep the shotlists simple and clean and stick to the plan in case production slows down (which it invariably will no matter how light the traffic is at the location).
The reality of handling these locations is that you really just got to keep on keepin’ on. What I mean is that wonderful phrase many of us production folks find ourselves saying out of defeat: “It is what it is.”
And it really is. There’s nothing you can do to make the location any more efficient. You are going to hold the roll for a customer who slowly saunters by the camera either scowling that you’re upsetting the norm of his favorite ice cream parlor or smiling and waving at the camera and asking if they can be in it. You’re going to hold the roll for people outside the gas station screaming about getting their cigarettes and kids loudly asking what the name of the movie is. It really and truly is what it is.
The other horrifying reality of shooting live locations is that the owners often don’t understand what having a film production means. They think student with a camcorder or some documentary crew. They don’t understand what you mean by basecamp, lock up, roomtone, can we shut off the cooler for sound?, can we stop customers while rolling?, lunch break, PAs, greeking logos, and having actors play customers instead of letting the real customers in. No matter how much you outline your footprint on the location as a production, the owner will undoubtedly think three dudes with a camera and a boom pole and will be genuinely surprised by the grip truck and the art van rolling up at breakfast. They will try to fight the producers and say you are disrupting their business and they’re losing money. They will make jokes about Hollywood and cause undue stress by getting randomly freaked out when you try to move the twinkie stand 2 feet to the left for a shot.
As an AD, I’m often the first one they come running at when they think there’s an issue. This is not abnormal. They look towards the one who’s making the loudest commands on set and assume they are the True and Only Boss of the film world. There’s no understanding of the true hierarchy at play and they get confused and irritated when I have to hand them over to the production manager or producers for discussion. Yesterday, I heard “But I want HER to meet with us right now, too!” and the producers had to physically stop him from walking away from them and getting me. I was in the middle of getting an actor changed, a debate about angle sorted out, and shooing off the scripty asking me about a logo that was barely noticeable. I had no interest in once again telling the guy that we’re doing exactly what we lined out in the contract we signed.
My approach to filming live locations is to keep as calm as abso-fucking-lutely possible. And that’s goddamned HARD. It’s ok. It really is. Everyone on that set understands what you’re going through and tempers having small, private flare ups is an expected thing. However, whatever you do, don’t have a full blow up in front of the owner. Go back to basecamp if the urge to tear into a producer rises, but keep it off the set at all costs.
Setting a quiet yet productive pace is the best thing you can do. And you’re going to look around at points and think you’re never going to make the day. And you might not. That’s ok too. Always look at these filming locations as a scenario that will probably be changed. Allow yourself to be flexible with the protocol and the schedule in order to just keep getting shit done. Owners don’t like watching a film crew stand around their store and it makes the customers nervous. Obviously you should take your time with complicated set ups, but always be pushing your crew to keep working, even at a snail’s pace.
Be very careful with the amount of time you actually spend rolling. Do a bunch of rehearsals first in which you don’t need to disrupt the business. That way, when you do lock up the location, it’ll only be for a small time period and the actors are already comfortable with lines and blocking before you even press the red button.
As I stated earlier, flexibility is key here. You’re going to move scenes. You’re going to jump back and forth between scenes and maybe even angles. You’re going to force the DP and director to do some things differently from the shotlist to appease the owner and keep the production from being thrown off set. I had to push several simple car interiors yesterday alone simply to make sure we could have the time to deal with standing by while customers were at the counter. Not everything is going to go as planned and that’s OK. Be prepared to make it a flexible day and find your contingencies ahead of time, but don’t feel like you need to stick to schedules that are hurting the production just in the name of protocol.
Finally, patience is so damn important. And that might be the hardest part of this all. As an AD, you’re often used to pushing and pushing and pushing and going faster and faster and keeping everyone moving at a very quick pace. You’re probably not going to be doing that on these locations. So employing patience even when the entire is crew is looking at you ready to shoot is going to be a good tool to utilize. Calmly explain why we have to be in standby so much and make sure everyone’s ready to go the moment the location is cleared to shoot. Work with an amicable producer who can keep a dialog with customers coming in and also act as liason with the owner. Be patient with the customers too. It’s not their fault either. They’re just doing their thing. Don’t rush them and don’t be rude to them no matter how many times you get asked when the movie’s going to air or if any big names are in it.
You’re probably going to have several moments where you want the day to be over or you want to desperately punch the owner in the face. Just remember that you’re not alone (for once) in this stressful state. The entire cast and crew involved are right there with you, so set a good precedent and be patient, pleasant, and flexible. You should be able to make the day you need to make.