The Mythical Limited Location Shoot

Lately I’ve been talking to a bunch of writers who are trying desperately to write the ‘limited location script,’ and to producers who are desperately seeking to option one. The idea, on the surface of it, makes sense. A producer’s dream is a script that takes place in one room with two characters… who will be played by two foreign pre-sales “stars.” While sometimes these scripts can turn out really, really well (Paranormal Activity was rather creepily effective), often I feel like I’m reading (or watching, in the case of the finished films) a play. And not an engaging, intense play, but a stodgy revival.

So let’s question the underlying logic behind the ‘limited location’ film, given modern filmmaking techniques/equipment/budgets. Back when you needed at least four trucks and a small army just to shoot a low-budget feature on 35mm, having to cart all that crap and personnel from place to place took money and time away from the shoot that could have been better spent on the cast. And before the internet and email, changing calltimes and locations, posting directions, and dealing with other logistical issues was nothing short of a nightmare. Even a few years ago, I found myself spending a huge amount of my day figuring out driving directions.

But times have changed, and producers, writers and directors should embrace ‘many location’ stories, or at least not rule them out a priori. Let’s bust some of the myths about the limited location script.

It’s Easier

On paper, it looks like planting yourself in one place for a couple of weeks is wonderful. You can store the gear on site, get rid of your equipment trucks, pick up where you leave off, and everyone will know how to get there. BUT…

… you’re asking the location owner for a lot, without necessarily having a ton of cash for the rental. Unless you own or otherwise control the place, you’re going to have to negotiate a deal wherein the location owner will surrender pretty much the entire space to you in exchange for a credit.

It’s easier for a location owner to swallow this if you’re talking about being there for a day or two or five. Most of the neighbors will probably share this feeling. After about a day the excitement of having a film shoot in their area will wear off. After two or three they’ll be asking you when you’re leaving. After five they’ll start wondering why they agreed to have you there.

Today’s camera, grip and lighting gear, and the crew attending them, is appreciably smaller than it was even five years ago. This means that load-in/load-out isn’t as labor-intensive as it used to be, and the amount of pre-rigging/de-rigging time has gone down. People are shooting films almost entirely with practical and available lights.

The equipment needs for the wardrobe, makeup, production design, and sound departments have not gotten physically smaller, though they have been starved somewhat by the typically anemic indie film budget. So yes, installing your wardrobe racks, mirrors, and screens in one place for two weeks is easier than unpacking and packing them every day. But that shouldn’t be the determining factor for sticking to a one-location shoot.

It’s Cheaper

This argument also doesn’t (always) hold up very well. If you’re going to park in one place for several weeks, will it really cost you less per day than going to a different place every two days to a week? You still have to pay (or account somehow) for parking, crew/cast transportation, and the normal “fixed costs” of the shoot. Location fees don’t go up in a simple, linear way based on the number of prep/shoot/wrap days you need at a given spot. In some cases (clubs, bars, private homes/apartments), the fee may go up quite a bit, simply to cover the inconvenience that the location owner feels upon coming home and finding all the equipment staged in her bedroom.

It’s Faster

If you’re in one place for a few weeks, you can roll in and just shoot once you’ve done your pre-lighting, right? Well… maybe. But things usually don’t work out that simply. If your script takes place over a number of days, with both day-and-night setups, you’ll naturally try to group all the day and night scenes together, so as to minimize the number of setups. However, this schedule will often fall apart once actors’ schedules get involved, or production design concerns rear their heads. This will force you to create a schedule wherein you will end up doing just as many lighting/camera setups as you would if you were simply going from location to location. So, what have you saved?

Okay, so let’s talk about some of the pluses of the ‘multiple-location’ script:

Production Value

It’s difficult to shoot a limited location script and give it the kind of scale that screams “this is a movie.” Not impossible, but difficult. While I believe in limitations as a way of forcing you to be creative, I don’t believe in unnecessary limitations. If you can move down the block, to another apartment, or into a park, and shoot a scene, wouldn’t that offer you an opportunity to reveal something more about the characters or the world of the story? Wouldn’t that give you an opportunity to place your characters in the context of a bigger world? You also increase the chances of having those happy accidents – where the light is just right, or the architecture provides you with the perfect composition, or the people in the background gives the scene a sense of life. These are the things that make films “juicy” and provide some real depth.

Company Moves Can Make Things ‘Funner’

After spending a few days in one place, things can get stale. Very stale. You’ve covered the same room from every angle, you’ve used every inch of space, you’ve run out of nooks and crannies to shoot scenes in. Sometimes moving to a different location will give your brain a chance to refresh. Sometimes it can offer the opportunity to restage a scene in another place, and make it more vital.

It’s More ‘Real’ AND More Dramatic

People work and live in multiple environments everyday in ‘real’ life. And a ‘moving picture’ (webisode, short, feature, industrial, music video, whatever) is in some sense a journey. Thus it should follow that that journey should be SEEN as much as TOLD. How better to communicate a journey than to simply transport the characters from place to place? This also gives you more opportunities to show (through color palette changes, architecture, camera movement, etc.) dramatic change. It broadens your world.

NOW: this doesn’t mean you should write something that takes place all over the world. You should try to contain the number of locations at least a little bit, and do your best during scouting to find places that can do double or triple duty. But don’t worry about it so much. This should be a fun enterprise, right?

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