How They Did It: 11 Keys to Filming in a Small Town

It’s often said that creating a boot-strapped, no-budget independent film is a lot like raising a child – it takes a village. But why stop there? If you’re as lucky as we were when we shot Cement Suitcase, you might be able to enlist the muscle of quite a few villages.

We shot in seven small towns in the beautiful wine country of Washington state and couldn’t have been happier with the beauty we captured and the incredible support that we got. Now that we launched on March 1 on iTunes, Amazon, and Cable VOD, the fans we gathered in the Yakima Valley are still our Facebook warriors, Kickstarter supporters, and Tugg promoters, and we’re hoping they’ll continue to be our base of support.

If you’re used to filming in NY and Los Angeles, you might not be used to this kind of help. You might not even accept it because it feels unnatural and untrustworthy to you. But if you follow these tips, many of which we learned completely accidentally, you’ll be able to harness the power that shooting in a small town can give you.

1. Make a website. This should be the very first thing you do. Some people might tell you this is a piece of PR that you don’t need until after the film is finished, but we found it to be an amazing tool for pre-production. A website legitimizes you in a small town and acts as a net to catch all the help that you’ll need to make the film. Many of our volunteer helpers found us through our website, emailed us, and came out every day to help.

2. Use Craigslist. If you’re looking for help, post on Craigslist or wherever else you can post ads cheaply. We put up notices for the roles we were looking to cast in the area, which led to help we couldn’t have imagined finding otherwise. One person saw our ad, found our website, and emailed us to say that she owned a furniture store, in case we needed any furniture, a bus, in case we needed transportation, and that she was also a professional makeup artist. That woman was Carol Matthews, and she ended up being our makeup artist for the whole film.

3. Cast local actors. Nothing gets people more excited than the chance to be in a film, and do you really want to pay for travel and lodging for the whole cast? We brought in three actors from Los Angeles, but otherwise the entire cast was local. This also really helps to give your film a unique flavor – and everyone will already look the part.

4. Cast local DJs in your film. We discovered this tip by happenstance. We posted our casting ad on Craigslist and a few DJs ended up trying out for the film. We didn’t know it when we cast them, but they had been talking about the film on the radio, which is how a lot of people heard of us and wanted to help out. You should also reach out to local media to let them know you’re making a film. Everyone in small towns get excited, and getting a few articles written about you while you’re filming changes “Stop blocking traffic!” into “Hey, you’re the guys making that film! Do you need me to shut off my car for sound?”

Rick Castaneda 11 Tips For Filming in a Small Town - First Image

This is the scene that got us in trouble. Someone called 911 because they thought Dwayne was having a heart attack. (Left to Right) 1st AC Mark Legaspi, Sound Recordist Lawrence Everson, DP Jeffrey Waldron, Director Rick Castañeda, Grip Rory Emmons, and lead actor Dwayne Bartholomew. Photo by Scottie Minshall.

5. Have a local producer on the ground. I was born and raised in one of the towns where we were shooting, but have been living in Los Angeles for the last ten years. My friends Patrick and Tino, with whom I used to make movies in high school, ran the local casting sessions and also found locations. My dad went around to all the local town councils and got permission to shoot. Without them, it just wouldn’t have been feasible.

6. Get help from local filmmakers/students. Patrick also worked at a local community college, so he set up a meeting with the theater students there. That’s how we found our amazing Production Designer, Michael. I recruited Jesus, a teacher at my old high school, to be our script supervisor. Both were completely volunteer. Jesus and his roommate Angel even let a few other crewmembers stay at their house!

7. Know that things work differently there. On Day three, our Assistant Director freaked out while we were shooting on the main street of Granger without a permit: “Rick! You can’t just shut down traffic in the middle of the day like this!” Our local crew looked back at us, very confused. “Yes, you can!” they said. And they were right.

8. Know which equipment you can get in the area, and which you can’t. If the follow-focus on your 7D breaks during the middle of shooting, you better have a backup, because the nearest rental house is 3 hours away.

9. Need something? Let everyone know. You’d be surprised how people can help. Jeff, our Director of Photography, asked me if we could get a car trailer for all our driving shots. Uh, sure, I told him. Where the hell am I going to get that? Well, it turns out a girl I dated in high school knew a car enthusiast named Gary, and he volunteered to drive us around all day. (Not only that – he ended up fixing our picture car, which broke down on Day Two.)

10. Let the sheriff know you’re coming to town. Also on Day Two, we were shooting a scene by the highway in which our main character runs into a post and falls down. Just as we were wrapping up, a police car and a highway patrol car pull up and ask us where the guy having the heart attack is. Apparently someone drove by and called it in. So, let them know beforehand if you’re going to be in their area. The police can be your friends in other ways, too. I was looking for someone to play a police chief in the film, and who sends me an email but the actual Police Chief! I didn’t even have to rent a uniform.

11. Be Nice. Remember that you are the one trespassing and you must treat the locals with all the friendliness and respect they deserve. Word travels fast in small towns, and if you come across as “those assholes from LA”, you’re going to find your production in trouble real quick.

Rick Castaneda's 11 Tips For Filming in a Small Town - Image 2

DP Jeffrey Waldron (front left) and director Rick Castañeda (front right) study the shot, while actors Shawn Parsons (rear left) and Dwayne Bartholomew (rear right) pose for camera. Photo by Daniel Wyknenko.

That last tip is probably the most important. The friendships we forged while making Cement Suitcase are friendships I still have. We truly built an amazing team that is still helping with the film. Those DJ’s we cast are still out promoting our VOD debut, and the local reporters who covered us in production, are still covering us now as we begin our theatrical run.

In the end, we were pretty lucky. There is no way we could have made this film without that support, and I am forever grateful. I really don’t know if all small towns would be as film-friendly, but if it takes a small village to raise an independent film, maybe shooting in one isn’t such a bad idea. MM

The cast and crew of Cement Suitcase shooting at a local, family-owned winery:

J. Rick Castañeda is a writer/director/producer of feature films, animations and live-action shorts, and co-founder of Psychic Bunny, a Los Angeles studio that handles production, motion design, vfx, and editorial. Cement Suitcase, his first feature, has won five film festival awards, and is now available on iTunesAmazon, and Cable VOD. He’s made over 30 short films, earning recognition from YouTube, Crackle, and Funny or Die, and his 10-episode web series, Coma, Period., about a man stuck inside a coma, was given a rave review in the New York Times, and has over 1,000,000 views. He has also directed webisodes for Disney and MSN.

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