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Shooting a film on location (rather than a soundstage) can be challenging, so it’s essential to be prepared.

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Shooting on location can help make your film feel realistic (and help save your budget), but it can also be a big headache if you’re not prepared. “Just because I want to shoot there,” says world-class filmmaker Spike Lee, “doesn’t mean that someone wants me to be there.” The legendary director has a few helpful filmmaking tips to make location shooting a little less overwhelming.

A Brief Introduction to Spike Lee

Spike Lee first captivated our cultural consciousness in 1986 with his debut film, She’s Gotta Have It, a story about a sexually empowered woman in Brooklyn and her three lovers, told in black and white. Over his long and varied career, Spike has often drawn from the well of his own life, which encompass everything from historically Black colleges and universities, colorism in the Black community, culture clashes in Brooklyn, love and jazz, interracial relationships, and addiction. Spike Lee continues to make movies—and make moves: In 2010, the Library of Congress selected Malcolm X for preservation in the National Film Registry and his most recent film is 2020’s Da 5 Bloods.

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Spike Lee’s 3 Tips for Shooting on Location

If you’re planning your next project and hoping to avoid shooting on a sound stage, location shooting may be right for you. Check out Spike’s tips to see how Hollywood pros handle location shoots:

  1. Always have a backup plan. Shooting on location can be unpredictable. If your first-choice film location gets rained out, or there’s an event happening at the location that you didn’t know about, you need to have a backup plan. “It’s called a cover set,” Spike says. “You have to always keep some locations in your back pocket.” If you don’t have a cover set (or several) lined up for every day of shooting, you might find yourself needing to tell your film crew to go home. “You don’t want to lose a day,” says Spike. Losing a day of filming can throw an entire shooting schedule into chaos, and can end up being very expensive. When location scouting in pre-production, always collect a list of cover sets to keep your film production on track.
  2. Be ready to make compromises. “This is your first film. You have a scene that takes place on the top of the Empire State Building?” Spike laughs. “Maybe that’s down the line.” Young filmmakers in film school will often write scripts without any consideration for the cost of their locations (for example, notable tourist attractions in New York City or Los Angeles). “You have to know that there’s some things that, on your level, you’re not going to get,” Spike says. But not getting your ideal shooting locations doesn’t always have to be a bad thing—“Sometimes with these compromises,” Spike says, “you come up with more creative ideas.”
  3. Treat the location like it’s your own home. When making movies on location, especially in other people’s homes, the number-one thing to keep in mind is to be respectful. “Treat it like it’s your own home,” Spike says. Make sure that you’re quiet during early morning and late-night shoots, especially those that take place in residential areas. It’s also important to clean up any mess that was made during production when shooting wraps for the day. “That has to be told to your crew,” Spike says. “Because if you don’t do that, you will not be allowed to shoot there anymore—and you’ll be jammed up.”

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