Shooting outdoors anywhere is submitting yourself to Murphy’s Law, but in and around New York City—as I’m sure every moviemaker that has shot there can tell you—it’s even more unpredictable.
All the planning in the world won’t prepare you for what may come, especially with the recipe for disaster that was The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: one of the hottest summers on record in New York City, 27 exterior locations, an IATSE Tier 1 budget (less than $5 million), and 40 days to shoot two features simultaneously. (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her were eventually consolidated into The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.)
The films are about a New York couple living in the East Village. He owns a restaurant on Avenue B, she goes to school at Cooper Union. It was our intention to depict this couple’s world in New York City as authentically as possible and to capture the city that is, as they say, a major character in any resident’s life. New York is as good a collaborator as it is a pain in the ass. We didn’t make things easy on ourselves starting Day One on the Manhattan Bridge, with a company move to Hudson River Park. But though the streets beat us mercilessly, we absolutely loved shooting the concrete jungle.
The Unpaid Extra
Walking in NYC is natural. Shooting a recognizable actor walking in NYC, with a Steadicam and crew following him or her, is not. There is only so much you can control in terms of stray pedestrians and city life in the background of your shots, especially on a tight budget.
New Yorkers can be phenomenal extras, sometimes not remotely caring that a Steadicam operator tracks by them with a camera, and appearing naturally as pedestrians in your scene. On the other hand, they can easily spoil a good take by looking directly at the lens. This is something to look for constantly, because if you miss it on the monitor and move on, it can make a take unusable in editorial, and reshoots aren’t an option on most budgets.
Isolating yourselves on less trafficked side streets is a solution when background activity is too much of a struggle. But if you prefer to roll the dice, as we did, try not to call attention to yourselves when shooting outside. The smaller and tighter the unit, the more you will get away with—especially in tracking shots.
When you can’t afford to own the street, you are shooting with the understanding you are going to be constantly contending with the unexpected, whether it’s someone who wants to be obnoxious and purposely ruin a take, or someone who suddenly realizes they’re walking into a scene, makes an “Oh, shit” face, and freezes. People who purposely avoid the camera become noticeable, bursting the fictional reality you’re trying to create. Stay calm, keep rolling, and send your location assistants, PAs, producers, and whoever else you know to the perimeter of your shot to politely reason with and herd pedestrians. Most are just curious and want to know what is going on. The ones who have no time for you will appreciate being told how to avoid this nuisance, but don’t expect a “Thank you.”
Scout for Sound
Sound can be a nightmare in the city as you contend with sirens, horns, traffic, garbage trucks, people, and air conditioners—all of which you will deal with in one way or another. This soundscape creates a reality that you can and should use.
However, for long exterior dialogue scenes, ambient noise can be extremely frustrating, especially for the actors. The last thing you want to do is ADR an entire scene and take away the spontaneity of a performance. Take into account what is most important in terms of telling the story. Sometimes even relocating the scene indoors is best. We did this with one between Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis, which we moved from a Cooper Square park bench into a restaurant.
You can’t compete with construction drilling; none of the dialogue will be useable. Shoot what you can when you can, even if that means bringing a scene forward that requires less dialogue to work in the location you have. This way, you have a day (or even a few hours) to find another location for your dialogue- or plot-heavy scene.
The city is a beast and keeps you on your toes—but an unexpected surprise may be awaiting you in the suburbs! Using Douglaston, NY to stand in for Connecticut was a great idea. Sure, it wasn’t very far from LaGuardia Airport, but it seemed OK in terms of sound interference when we scouted. What we couldn’t foresee was a runway being shut down, changing the flight pattern for all planes taking off and landing. These now had to fly over our set.
Our sound mixer and cast were forced to contend with planes flying over us at two-minute intervals. Trying to do an important, four-minute-long father/daughter scene between William Hurt and Jessica Chastain was a complete nightmare. Beautifully acted takes by Jessica, William, Isabelle Huppert, and Jess Weixler were all being ruined by jet engines roaring overhead. This stressed us out and made us rush, which will never produce what you want. We would never have shot there had we known this was within the realm of possibility, but some things you learn the hard way.
When scouting a location, bringing your sound mixer with you will save you in the long run. While the director, producer and DP are looking at the visuals and gauging if the crew and trucks can fit, there will be one person whose only job is to listen. If this is not an option, remember to pay close attention to everything you hear. Crickets, for example, don’t shut up during the summer, to the point you and your crew find yourselves diving into bushes to make them stop so you can get a clean take. The suburbs have lawn mowers, pools and children who splash in them, and hyper-protective dogs in the next house barking incessantly because they know that the 40 of you don’t belong. If you can, go to the location more than once before committing to it and make the second trip all about sound. And if you plan to shoot there at night, go there at night!
Weather to Shoot or Not
Exterior shooting means Mother Nature plays a role, and she is not known to take direction. Our first day of shooting on the Manhattan Bridge involved a three-minute tracking shot requiring very specific blocking: our extremely fair-skinned, sunburn-prone lead actress riding a bicycle past two septuagenarians walking along the bridge. It also just happened to be 87 degrees, with bright sunlight and not a cloud in sight. Under these conditions, there is no way you can get many takes without it becoming dangerous for your actors and your crew. We would like to give a special thanks to umbrellas, to ice coolers with wheels, to water bottles, and to a phenomenal crew who made it their mission to keep everyone shaded and hydrated between takes.
Summer shooting can be brutal, and heat is only one of the elements you will face. Out of nowhere, apocalyptic thunderstorms can also appear and tear away your Video Village tent, leaving you scrambling to salvage your equipment. Sometimes, though, weather can help with the continuity of your script. We were attempting a sequence made up of a few exterior shots, but, due to locations and permits, we could not schedule them for the same day. These shots were meant to happen on the same rainy night, yet were to be shot days apart. The weather cooperated. It rained on both shoot nights and we even captured some beautiful lightning in the background. With a little planning and a lot of luck, meteorology can save you the money for a wet down. (Please note: Have a back-up plan for if the rain doesn’t come, even if it is a hose and/or a bucket.)
The Synchronicity of Surroundings
When shooting outside, you have to completely submit to the chaos, knowing that you have no control over it. Following James McAvoy with a camera through Astor Place and having a group of Korean X-Men fans in from Seoul appear out of nowhere. Filming in Little Neck Bay during a tide change that causes the water to be too murky to shoot in. Shooting a scene on a rooftop in Williamsburg overlooking Manhattan and having the clouds and wind go schizophrenic on you so it’s next to impossible to match the wide shots to coverage. These problems are the reason for the phrase “fix it in post”—which, unfortunately, most of us don’t have the budgets for. But sometimes you get synchronicity, sometimes you dive headlong into chaos, and things just magically go right, as was the case for us on our last week of shooting.
One of our key scenes occurs in Tompkins Square Park between the two lead characters. It’s a moment from early in their relationship: Broke and in love, they dine and dash from a restaurant into the park, and suddenly realize they are surrounded by fireflies. Fireflies are a rare occurrence in New York City and our assumption was that we’d be adding them in post via VFX.
Yet on the one night we went to shoot that scene in late August—of all the nights it could have happened—fireflies emerged by the thousands in Tompkins Square Park. We walked into the park to set up and everyone stopped in shock. Even the park ranger who was supervising the shoot was baffled because he hadn’t seen anything like it. A night earlier or a night later, we wouldn’t have gotten fireflies like that. Those frames were infused with natural magic that you just can’t plan.
On a smaller production like ours, we had to give ourselves over to the possibility that anything could happen outside or inside. There was no money to silk out the sky for perfect light, or close off city blocks, or hire mass amounts of extras. Instead, we made everything we confronted part of the films, part of the life in the frames. You have to love the idea of submitting yourself to chaos because to fight it is a waste of energy. Use that chaos to your advantage and capture it in your film, and sometimes, as in the case of our fireflies, you might get an unexpected miracle. MM
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her are released together on DVD, Blu-ray and On Demand February 3, 2015, courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment and the Weinstein Co. The film was written and directed by Ned Benson and produced by Cassandra Kulukundis. Images photographed by Ned Benson, courtesy of the Weinstein Co.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2015.