There’s an old real estate joke, “What are the three most important factors in buying property? Location, location, location!” The trueness behind that joke can be applied to the film business as well. The setting of a scene, the community it’s placed within, the backdrop the action plays in front of and through, all contribute to the audience’s experience. Miss a step and you may find yourself in a bad neighborhood in more ways than one. And how locations are selected for films is not as straight forward as you might first assume. So I thought here would be a good place to start for this column’s topic on locations.
Location as character
It has been wisely conjectured that the location in a script can be as important as another character in telling the story. Where the actions take place and the people exist does a lot to establish the tone and direction of a story. Think of especially place-centric films like Nebraska or Manhattan. Would they have told the same story if set somewhere else? Would the characters have the same characteristics if they came out of another locale?
Using location to quickly orient an audience is a screenwriter’s trick with a proven success rate. Idyllic countryside? Probably peaceful and laid back folks. Industrial factory town? People who work hard and just get by. That initial image of place can tell more than several pages of dialog would about where the characters are coming from and what’s immediately important to them.
But as important as the right location is to the telling of the story, there are just as important business and legal considerations that will influence the choices as well. As we’ve discussed previously, some locations carry with them trademark and other legal issues for the production to deal with. Some locations are just inaccessible or difficult to get access to. And even if you do get permission to film in one of these rarely accessible locations, as The Da Vinci Code did in filming at the Louvre, the location may impose difficult restrictions (only film in the middle of the night) or have nearly insurmountable obstacles (where do you get insurance to cover potential damage to irreplaceable, cultural artifacts?) that make the location a logistical nightmare to actually use.
On location vs in studio
One solution to filming at the actual location called for in a script is to recreate that setting on a studio lot. With the number of times we’ve seen the Oval Office depicted in films and TV shows it has rarely ever been the actual room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A good, detail-oriented production and set design team can replicate a particularly recognizable location meticulously – at least to the level needed to be represented accurately on film.
And then there’s the fact that creating, or recreating, a location in a studio can have it’s built-to-order advantages. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo the sets built were meticulously designed to accommodate the particular demands and style of that film, as can be seen in the behind the scenes imagery from one of the shots.
Another advantage of shooting on a set is that the space created doesn’t have to represent something that could actually exist in reality. I recall reading somewhere (but can no longer find the reference) that the elaborate sets created for Rick’s Place in Casablanca were visually spectacular but architecturally problematic. The upstairs was nearly three times larger than the down! And none of it would have fit inside the facade shown as its exterior.
But using a studio isn’t always the best choice. For one thing, the production has to pay for everything that is constructed and shown on screen. Shooting on location, you get access to the doorknobs that happen to be there already. On set, someone has to choose each one and install it, whether the door leads anywhere or not.
Also there’s something to be said for the limitations imposed when shooting on location. It can lead to greater creativity in how you approach getting the shot or telling the story. Peter Bogdanovich often tells the story of his interviewing Otto Preminger and asking why he’d shot Anatomy of a Murder entirely on location instead of in studio. He told him, “Because if I want to move that wall, I can’t. So I must be more inventive.”
Costs and concerns of location shooting
Even with the creative invigoration that might be available from shooting on location, there are other issues that you need to be aware of that come into play when considering it as an option. A location release is the generic term for getting all the legal permissions that will allow a film production to smoothly and efficiently capture and legally use all the footage acquired at a specific locale. A location release needs to be broad enough to include every aspect that might be encountered while shooting at the location, and must be authorized by the entities who are actually empowered to grant the rights. Usually that comes down to the actual property owners or their authorized agents. But just because someone is in charge of the normal operations at a location doesn’t necessarily mean they have the authority to grant access. When in doubt (or even when you are not,) make certain you are speaking to the right people.
When you are acquiring location releases don’t overlook the need to cover other aspects of the area that might need to give permissions as well. Neighborhoods that will be affected by the production (parking, late night shoots, etc.) need to be forewarned and their consent should be sought, otherwise you risk an inopportune and costly interruption in the midst of production. And many municipalities have regulations that require that they be informed and the proper permits acquired. Depending on the shoot requirements, there may be added costs for police overtime or municipal services that need to be added to the production budget in order to shoot there.
An additional budget consideration is the transition from one location to another. The period when all work is completed at one location and production moves to the next is termed a company move. The best scheduling tries to accommodate these between days of a shoot, but if that isn’t possible the time it takes to pack up from one location and convey everyone and the equipment to the next one while everyone is on the clock is an expensive proposition, to be limited in the planning stages as much as possible.
And at each of the production’s locations, the fact that you are treading on someone else’s property means you should take care to make sure nothing untoward happens there. Liability insurance should be acquired that will cover a production in case something goes wrong — a light falls over and catches drapes on fire, a wall gets damaged or furniture breaks while shooting. All of these elements often make shooting in some locations much more expensive than alternatives.
Cheaper location alternatives
A savvy writer can keep the costs of location shooting in mind while constructing the interplay of the script. That way the producers have the flexibility to substitute when a look alike location can suffice. Often, though, even a specific request for a location in a script can be accommodated in a completely different locale. The White House siege picture, Olympus Has Fallen was shot for much cheaper by lensing in New Orleans instead of D.C. (Another film where the Oval Office wasn’t in the real place). There are a lot of cities that stand in for a number of well-known landmark ones but can be shot in for a much lower cost. Occasionally, though, the budgetary hawks don’t get their way. When Danny Boyle was told that his picture Steve Jobs could save $5 million by replacing the three auditorium locations of the film with similar ones found in Eastern Europe his response was, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” Sometimes not moving the walls is the choice you make to bring authenticity to the scene and enrich the actor’s ability to feel the resonant drama of the places themselves and portray it.
The reason some of these locations can be so much cheaper to film can run to the cost of the available elements and staffing found in the new places. And often it comes from government tax incentives. These are various ways for a production to be refunded or recoup money spent on the production as a way of attracting productions to film in the new locations. The governments balance the money given back, in the form of tax credits, refunds or other methods in a myriad of schemes, with the economic benefit of having film crews linger in town for the weeks that a production will take. The amount and details of these incentives vary from place to place and the volatility of these incentive schemes makes relying on them as a budget source a risky venture in and of itself. Being government programs they can be repealed rather quickly and the two years or so it takes to produce a film could be caught under way with no incentive to catch them at the end of the run.
Locations from a writer’s perspective
Keeping in mind the impact that a chosen location can have on the production of a script allows the writer to still remain creative and yet sensitive to the costs and complexities on the mind of the producers. How can you use this knowledge about locations to your advantage? For one, you can make your script more marketable to a certain class of producer by being aware of the budget issues. A script written as a contained thriller is one where all the action takes place in a single location (or very few, related and usually somewhat generic locations.) This allows the production costs to be minimized and consolidated. A script that takes advantage of this limitation often uses the limited mobility as part of the plot motivation. (Remember that not being able to move the walls forced creativity for Preminger? Same thing here.)
Also, when the writer considers locations carefully it’ll save the production money when a location can be any one of a type of facility instead of a specific one. The production departments take their initial cues from the descriptions in the script and so if you are flexible it gives them the flexibility on their end to still get the vision you describe up on screen for the least cost. And of course, understanding the impact of a location you will also set you up for when a specific place just can’t be substituted. Sometimes you need to shoot at Niagara Falls and nothing else will do (or look the same.)
Knowing the impact of your scripting location choices can set you on the road to being a go to writer who understands that creative choices don’t have to ignore the practicalities of production most of the time. And those writers tend to find it easier to get another gig.
Post script and follow up from previous articles
Frequent readers may recall the series of posts I did on the production of the short film Key Transitions that I was involved in this past summer. To give you an update on where that production stands, I’m happy to report that the film has been completed and is entering the festival circuit.
In fact, it is currently having a Kickstarter campaign to help raise additional funds to get the film in front of the biggest audience possible. The campaign will run until May 2nd. The money we raise will allow us an excellent chance to show the film at some prestigious festivals in the coming months. I will be sure to write an article or two about the experience.
- More articles by Christopher Schiller
- Behind the Lines with DR: Location, Location, Location Part 2
- Visual Mindscape: Film Locations as Allegory