Guerrilla Tactics: Adventures in Independent Filmmaking

Today’s Lesson—Be Tenacious.

Guerrilla Tactics will be a series of entries about my experiences from when I first started in independent production. I’ll share some of the tricks we used to pull off what is always the most important thing when you’re finally on set or location: getting the shot.

Ed Wood - Wide

Rule # 1: You don’t need a permit.

SN Poster

The key art isn’t great, but it was our first feature, and we didn’t have a graphic designer on staff.

On our first feature, Silent Nights, a modern noir mystery, the finale was written as a shootout in a large, spacious warehouse. I had a location in mind immediately, an old storage warehouse I used to drive past on the 101 leaving downtown, right before it merges with the 10. It was 3 stories and had these fantastic, old windows. It was moody, decaying, and it was perfect.

Production was dragging on and we kept putting off shooting the final scenes because we didn’t have the location yet. It got to the point where it was going to be the next major sequence we were going to film, so I drove downtown in hopes of talking to the property manager and getting permission to film there.

Up to this point, there was no reason to suspect we wouldn’t be able to do it. After all, we had already shot at a mansion in Malibu Canyon, a sprawling Spanish style palace with vista scenery so grand you could see Catalina on a clear day from the backyard. How hard was it going to be to lock down an old warehouse?

The trick was that we posed as a student production. No one takes students seriously and there’s no money involved (in this case, as it was our first production, that was definitely true). Having my father on hand as director was easily explained by telling them he was our faculty adviser. People were always willing to help students make their silly movie project, especially in LA, so the warehouse was as good as gotten.

I pulled up to the warehouse, seeing a large sign with bold letters, “FOR SALE – INDUSTRIAL SPACE” along with the information of the realtor. This wasn’t good. There was no one I could talk to directly and realtors aren’t exactly keen on letting people film on property they’re trying to sell. It wasn’t impossible, but what it was going to be was time consuming and we were running out of time. We had to get this sequence shot so we could finish the movie. I must have stared at the sign for at least 20 minutes trying to figure out a way to get the building. After all, we had written the script with this building in mind. We had to have it…or did we?

Nothing goes the way you expect on production. Nothing. It’s perfectly fine to write with things in mind, but you have to assume that you’re never going to get everything you want, because you won’t. That’s life. That’s filmmaking. George Lucas famously quoted that “movies are never finished, only abandoned,” and he’s right. If you waited until everything was perfect, you’d never finish.

Young George Lucas

This was back when George was changing the way movies were being made, rebelling against the establishment. Before the dark times. Before the prequels.

I had driven all the way downtown from the valley and I had nothing but time on my hands. I wasn’t going to leave until I had a location. So I started to drive around the neighborhood. Downtown east of the LA river is a fascinating collection of warehouses, rail yards, and shipping lanes. There’s so much personality in these old buildings. I was having fun just exploring, and that’s when I saw it.

A high, long red brick wall stretched an entire block, wrapping around the corners. It caught my eye immediately. It looked deserted. There was an old rusted metal gate on a cul de sac and a shanty town had been set up on the sidewalk. My first instinct was that this wasn’t right, but I had to come up with something. There wasn’t anything else in the area that seemed to fit. I parked and walked to the gate, seeing that it was slightly open as I approached. I knocked and stuck my head inside. A large courtyard with old metal fixtures, a single story warehouse with faded windows, and (this was what excited me) large pits filled with oil lay in front of me. Turns out the place was an old oil refinery plant that hadn’t been used in years. A friendly property caretaker walked over and spoke with me. He agreed to get in touch with the owner. All we had to do was sign an insurance waver and they gave us the keys for a week.

In the end we got everything we needed and none of it would have been possible if I hadn’t been tenacious and left downtown that afternoon when I saw my original choice wasn’t going to work out. The trick is to persevere and keep going, because someway you’ll end up with something, and often times it’s both beyond what you imagined and better that what you thought you needed.

Don’t fret the setbacks, embrace them, and you’ll be rewarded with something that is often the spark of anything creative: unpredictability.