In shooting “What’s Up Lovely” there were several techniques that I had to use in order to keep the costs down. Working with a micro-budget forces one to be very resourceful and aware of one’s limitations (sometimes in a good way….sometimes not).
With this film, not having much money meant that the locations we chose either had to be in a place that someone could help us secure for no fee (i.e. a friend’s place, someone’s workplace, etc) or shoot in a spot without prior permission with the risk of getting booted – guerrilla style. This should mainly happen once you’ve exhausted all resources, favors, funding and you still need to shoot at a particular location (without causing disruptions or safety concerns for anyone involved).
Of course there could be creative reasons for a filmmaker to shoot guerrilla style, but for the purposes of this article I am referring to a situation where one would like to shoot in a public space — for example a city street — without permits or permission. Please note I am not talking about private property where you would be considered breaking and entering.
To be guerrilla and shoot in a spot where one does not have official permission there are several steps to take in order to be prepared.
1. Location Scout – this is the first and most crucial step. First finding the spot that fits what you need to tell your story. Once you find it, be sure to scout it at the same time of day you would plan to shoot there (is it a weekend day? A weeknight? Monday vs. Friday?) Be mindful of foot/vehicle traffic in the area. Blocking or impeding any path is bound to draw serious attention and could get you kicked out. Ideally, look for more unpopulated areas.
2. Look for practical light sources – Try to find ways to light your scene using the available light. Do not bring in tons of lighting equipment and gear. You want to avoid getting in the public’s way at all costs unless you have a shooting permit and have permission from the proper authorities.
3. Bring minimal crew and equipment – Bring the essentials of what is needed to complete the scene. Does everyone need to be there to get it done? If not, have them wait on standby at a designated location – or even better give them the day off. The motto for this day should be “less is better”. You should also inform the cast and crew that you plan to shoot in an area without permission to make sure they are comfortable with the situation. If they are not, you need to figure out an alternative.
4. Rehearse in another spot. Assuming you have scouted the location and know its nooks and crannies, have the actors block out the action in another “safe zone” so they know what to do in the actual spot. This way no one is wasting time in the shooting area trying to figure out what to do and how to shoot it. If the action is blocked out ahead of time, the DP/crew can also see what is going to happen in order to move the scene along efficiently with you.
5. Get in and get out. Be sure to get what you need first. What are the essential shots you need to tell the story? Grab those first. Any expendable shots should be held off until the end and considered icing on the cake. If you’re not sure what shots to grab, you probably aren’t ready yet.
6. Be prepared with a contingency plan. Have a backup location should you not be allowed to shoot in your first choice. The last thing you want is to send everyone home. I’m sure juggling schedules to make the day happen was tough enough – so why go through the hassle again when everyone is there ready to go? Have a location A, B and even C if needed. Get that scheduled scene done no matter what.
7. You are a film student. People love them and support aspiring filmmakers. They understand even more that as a student you probably don’t have much money. I’ve experienced it first hand that people in NY are supportive and will leave you to your own devices if you just say: “I’m a film student.”
So for all intents and purpose, this article is meant for your simple reading pleasure. I am neither condoning such behavior nor admitting to having done so in the past.
This is more of what I would do in theory if I had to shoot in a spot without permission. A hypothetical. Yeah, that’s it. If anyone formally asks how I was able to shoot in a certain location, I’ll always respond that we actually filmed on a sound stage made to look exactly like New York City.
***Please note that this does not apply to all situations as some cities have different permit requirements or may not have them at all. Check with your local film commission for guidelines.***