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Take One - Preproduction: Actors and Locations

I will assume that by now, readers of this series will be in possession of a completed shooting script.

Hopefully, it will have been left alone for a week or so and having then returned to it with fresh eyes, you will have honed and fine- tuned the text until it is as good as it can possibly be.

In my experience a film can only ever be as good as the script from which it was made. Often, due to the many stages yet to come, it can be a lot worse, but never better. It is therefore in our interests to make this “blueprint” as near to perfect as possible before continuing.

It is perhaps a good idea to let someone else read your work at this stage. I always ask my wife Carol to go through it and listen to her comments. Sometimes she will spot something which I have overlooked, for example an element of the story which I thought had been clearly explained, but obviously had not been set out well enough. Changes at this point in the process are obviously much easier to rectify that they will be later when an addition or insert can look like just that.

ACTORS

As mentioned previously, I almost always know at the writing stage my first choice of actor to play each role. This has now become a habit, which was originally borne out of necessity, when the number of actors who were available to us were extremely limited.

At that time, it made no sense to write parts in our films which we wouldn’t be able to cast.

If you are new to fiction film making, you will probably not be in the position of having readily available actors and so you will now need to find some. There are three possibilities.

  1. Family and friends
  2. Club members
  3. Local drama groups

When I began making films aged 16, option 1 was the only one open to me. It is also the way that such famous film directors as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson began their careers. Even so, place option 1 in the “Only if I am desperate” box. You may be lucky and have a natural acting talent in your midst, but to be honest, the odds are against it!

Option 2 widens your scope. A few clubs do have some competent actors in their midst and you may be fortunate. But remember, people join video/ film clubs for many reasons, but it is unlikely that acting will be one of them.

Option 3 would seem to be your best bet. I first contacted our local theatre group in 1997 and the initial response was lukewarm and limited to two phone calls from interested parties. However, the past seven years have seen the group expand and develop until we now have a varied and enthusiastic selection of actors to play roles

One point to bear in mind though: enthusiasm is great, but it does not necessarily equate to talent.

It probably goes without saying, but perhaps I should briefly mention casting. It is vitally important that the film is cast with the right people. As I have mentioned earlier in the series, suitability is far more important than availability. Your actors should look like the part they are playing.

LOCATIONS

As discussed earlier in the series, I am often inspired by a location and this alone can prompt me to come up with a particular idea.

One such instance was the caravan park we used for the film Watching. This is actually a storage facility which is located about a mile or so from our house. Driving past it nearly every day, I often thought about the possibility of using it in a film. When the idea for the “stalker” film came to me, I realised that the caravan park would be an ideal setting for the kidnapping scene.

There was a time, a few years ago, when I never bothered to ask for permission to film at a chosen location, though to be honest, in many cases we shot in easily accessible and fairly public places such as a park or town centre and almost always on Sundays. This was in the days before Sunday trading reared it’s ugly head and our towns and cities were much quieter than they are now. However, asking permission to film is in fact a fairly painless process and is almost always greeted with an affirmative answer. You can make the initial approach either personally or by phone, depending on who you need to ask.

An actual example went something like this: (Knocks on door)

“Hello, sorry to bother you but we are a group of amateur film makers and we’re actually looking for a location for our next film. We noticed your (caravan park) when we were passing…”

As many people are actually fascinated by the idea of a “movie” being made outside their home, the reaction is often one of surprise or excitement. Usually a few questions are asked, so give more details of the script, explaining what exactly you want to do.

For our comedy Someone Special made in 2002, there were some problems finding our farm location.

On the face of it, our requirements were fairly simple: a field where we could erect a tent and a place to park two cars. I had found one possible farm a few weeks earlier and Carol and I walked up to the house and knocked on the door. A young woman answered. No, she had no objections to us using the fields, but as she only rented the property we asked for the telephone number of the owner. The number was rung a number of times and it was always an answering machine. Messages were left, but days passed and the calls were not returned.

All the time this was going on, the shoot was drawing nearer and our main location had not been secured. Several telephone calls later and at last I managed to speak to the owner, or so I thought! I explained the situation and what we wanted to do.

“Are you willing to pay?” he asked. I hesitated, then told him we were amateurs and had no funding nor made any profits, but would consider a small payment for out of pocket expenses.

“I’ll ask the board of trustees the next time we meet and see what they say”, he told me. Trustees? No-one had mentioned anything about trustees.

As their next meeting was a few weeks away and our film was due to start that coming Saturday, we needed a new location and quick!

The first scene was already being shot and our second filming session was fixed for the following week without our main location being found. There was some frantic driving around country lanes looking for a suitable farm during the next few days until one was found about a 20 minute drive from home.

An elderly lady came to the door. I made my opening gambit.

“Sorry to bother you, but we’re amateur film makers based in Wakefield…” I went into my routine. “We’re making a film.”

“It’s not pornographic is it?” she asked good-naturedly.

I told her that this was not my intention and we had our location.

The moral to the story is to prepare and plan early whenever possible. Of course, it isn’t always possible!

One film required the use of a petrol station. I rang the number:

“No problem. Just tell the staff when you arrive what you are doing”.

Upon our arrival, I spoke to the attendant explaining what we were doing.

“Don’t get any electrical equipment near to the pumps.” He told us.

I assured the young man that this was fine, no problem. I mounted the camera on a tripod a few yards away. It was raining and a dull day but no matter, we set up the shot. The only problem was our old enemy, noise! Being on the main road and with cars coming and going constantly, the couple of lines of dialogue that we had to record were being drowned out by traffic and the sound of the rain.

The solution? To move nearer! Still the voices couldn’t be heard, so we moved a bit nearer still. At this point, the attendant, became frantic and waved his arms around yelling, “Get back, get back!”

Visualising a huge petrochemical fireball consuming the entire forecourt , the young man quite naturally saw potential danger in our actions and believing such wholesale destruction would severely damage any prospects of promotion, asked us to move along.

The moral? Once you are allowed to use a location, never abuse the good will of your hosts.

I can only remember being turned down once and that was to shoot a comedy scene on a private golf course. I was told that the players could not have their game interrupted. So in the end we used the municipal course at our local park without a problem.

One final story about locations, comes from an anecdote which is told on the DVD of North by Northwest. Apparently Hitchcock, who was directing, wanted a shot of Cary Grant going up the steps and entering the United Nations building, where filming was not allowed. His solution was to place a camera in a car across the street and after telling Grant what to do, he filmed his shot surreptitiously.

Not that I would advocate such methods(?) but it is one way to get what you need for your movie.

Pre-production includes a number of other areas to consider, such as props, costumes and make-up. We will look at these in part four as we prepare to shoot our film.

- By Ken Wilson (first published in FVM)

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Page updated on 11 October 2011
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