Making short films is difficult enough on your home turf even though you may have peers to call on, favours to call in, actors to call up – but producing a short overseas is a different “hervidor de pescado”. (See Tip #3)
The decision to make a short film, Skinned, whilst in Chile has turned into quite a learning experience that will be relevant for all short filmmakers shooting anywhere in the world where you don’t speak the language and are not a local.
So here are 7 Tips thats hopefully will ease the pain when making short films in a foreign country…
TIP #1 – Art opens doors.
Art is important to all cultures and all human beings. It is how we communicate universally. Winston Churchill, when asked to cut the arts budget during World War II, may or may not have said “If we cut the arts budget then what are we fighting for?” Either way, the passion for the arts is strong in all but the most capitalist of societies, especially so with the everyman/woman on the streets and small business owners – who are the people you need when making a short film internationally.
It is unlikely that you are going to want to film in a Starbucks when you can film in something more authentic just by asking. When people learn you are making a (not-for-profit) short film they relax, are happy and want to help. Inevitably they tell you about a daughter, a cousin, a friend or an acquaintance who is a filmmaker too. Then, more often than not, they say “yes” to your request.
TIP #2 – Get a local co-producer before you leave home!
You wouldn’t leave home without your passport. For a filmmaker, that’s exactly what a co-producer is; a passport to filmmaking in a foreign country. And I use the term “Producer” loosely. In this case it relates to a street-smart, fluent in 2 or 3 languages person with a love of film and a sense of humour. Choose them wisely. They are representing you to the world, so you’d better like them and they’d better like you! My Chilean producer’s local knowledge has been priceless and has saved countless days of pre-production if were I on my own – days I did not have. How would I find architectural plans for use as a prop in a city where I have no contacts? What about achieving a driving scene? Or filming an office scene (if your hotel looks a bit crap like mine does)? Your local Producer is the answer. Don’t forget to declare them at customs.
TIP #3 – Google Translate is far from perfect.
Upon communicating with one actor who was open to working with an Australian “Gringo” I quickly found that Google Translate was not entirely accurate. Apparently my request, “Can I see your resume?” was misquoted by Google Translate when going from English to Spanish. I won’t explain further but these hilarious text message auto-corrects give you the idea. I found dropping all but the most important words and simplifying the rest achieved the best results. For even better results – see Tip #2.
TIP #4 – Cut the script as short as possible.
This one really applies to filmmaking in general so I won’t expand on it other than to say; the shorter the short film script, the more achievable it is in a foreign country. And, if the truth be told, the more programmable it is in short film festivals. Alexander McKendrick hit the nail on the head with this quote. He was talking about student films but it applies well to all short filmmaking.
TIP #5 – Casting is difficult.
You are a stranger to everybody. This is the fact that, unless you have contacts, is a tricky one to get around.
I had been put in touch with some actors and had communicated with them and things sounded positive. Then, as my departure day started to get closer, communication slowed down. Of course, actors have lives to live outside my short film and my available days to shoot were not clear for a while either. Nevertheless I began to (needlessly) worry that there would be no actors.
Whilst waiting for confirmations from those actors, I finally found this website in Chile and contacted other actors. You can see one of the terrific actors who responded to me and who is currently shooting feature film. The initial email to her, like cold-calling, took quite a bit of crafting so I didn’t come across like a stalker, a psycho or a predator. It helped that I had credentials of some kind that could be verified by her online. So, be very careful with that initial email. I wrote to six actors and five actors responded positively. But I need not have worried. The original actors that I spoke to were true to their word and are on board the project.
TIP #6 – Offering payment works.
I didn’t offer a lot. $200USD per actor for the whole shoot. This sealed the deal. It made the project legit. I have no idea what the going rate for actors in Chile is but they all seemed happy with the amount offered. The suggestion of payment helped with my own confidence with my requests of them too. For example, the actors are doing their own make-up and, predominantly, using their own clothes for costumes. Furthermore, they are sourcing a couple of props. My paying them a fee, no matter how small, makes all these requests more reasonable.
TIP #7 – Shooting at airports is expensive!
Turns out $4000 USD is the non-negotiable price to film at Santiago International Airport. So, I’m improvising. I’ll shoot some establishing shots of the airport when I am out there to leave and the use another glass and steel location for the scene. It will work. I will save $4000.