As a producer of independent film, there are several roles I inhabit. Roles that would be filled by experienced professionals, given a larger budget. But for now, I’m working with a small budget and it’s my responsibility to make sure several things are completed, one of those being as a location scout.
Before I talk too much about this topic, keep in mind that these are my experiences. My tips and ideas may not work for everyone or at every level of production. But if you’re starting from scratch, some advice is better than none. Hopefully this can at least give you some ideas on where to start.
My very first recommendation, is to work very closely with the writer and director, whether these are the same person or multiple people. This may seem like obvious advice. But this means more than just asking them what kind of location they want. It means going through the script page by page. Having them describe the tone and feel of each page. Because on paper it may say ‘farmhouse’ or ‘NYC Apartment’. Does that mean any farmhouse or NYC apartment will do? No, not likely. As you go through each page of the script, an image of the setting of each scene will be created in your mind. So as you search for locations, you can quickly rule out those that may technically fit the requirements, but don’t have the tone and feel that the writer and director are looking for.
Next, if possible, have the writer and director provide photographs of examples of what they are looking for. Especially if you are struggling to get a mental image of what they want. Some writers are more descriptive than others. I am very fortunate that I work with a writer who paints a very vivid picture of the setting for his characters.
Now you have a list of locations and you have a strong idea of what those locations should look like. What do you do next? You start looking. But where should you start. Here are some ideas and ways I found locations for our productions.
- Family & Friends – The most common and the most useful. Ask family and friends if they have a location that fits the requirements. Using a location owned by a friend or family can provide a great deal of flexibility. But depending on your friends and family, it could make it more difficult. I can’t help you there.
- Location Scouting Websites – There are location websites, especially in larger cities where filming is common. But depending on your budget, these can often be out of your price range. But doesn’t hurt to give them a look.
- Vacation Rental websites – This is actually where I find most of my locations. Because it’s a vacation home, I know its furnished, I know its unoccupied, and I know when it’s available. Also, if you are filming during the week, the prices are usually cheaper than weekend prices. You may also want to determine if the location could also serve as your lodging if you’re filming away from your cast and crews home base. If not, these vacation websites are also a great place to meet your lodging needs. As a producer I can’t emphasis enough, a well-rested cast and crew will give you the best they have to give. Treat them well and they’ll treat you well.
- Real Estate website – For our very first film, I was looking for a very specific type of location. I needed something that was rough around the edges. Vacation rentals are designed to be welcoming and well-maintained. We needed something that wasn’t. The great thing about the real estate website, was I was able to enter a location, size and able to view numerous photographs of the property. I focused on properties that had been on the market a long time. My assumption was because they had been trying to sell the property for so long that they may be open to letting us use the property for a small fee. And because it had been on the market so long, I had some confidence that the property wouldn’t sell before we had a chance to use it. A newly listed property could easily be sold before you begin or finish production. Or the owners may setup showings while you’re trying to film. So focus on properties that have been on the market for over 100 days.
There are obviously several more options, but these are the ones that have worked for me and are my go to list when I begin the process of location scouting.
The films I work on usually take place in very remote locations. But if the film you’re scouting for takes place in more densely populated locations, then definitely be aware of permitting requirements.
I must also say that I strongly urge anyone looking to use a location, especially if it’s not from a friend or family member, to obtain production insurance. The last thing you want to do is end up damaging a rental property or home for sale and get stuck with an expensive bill.
Hopefully this list gives you a head start if you’re a first time location scout. Check back in a year and I’m sure I’ll have more and better ideas. Happy Scouting!