With boarding pass printed, kayak booked and suncream merrily leaking into my ruck sack I was Malaga-bound for a recce that was simultaneously one of my most enjoyable and most stressful to date.
It was 2017’s Big Summer Project. With time and budget against us we needed an idyllic, yet controllable, water location at peak season for 100 women to skinny-dip in the Spanish sun. We had our eye on a beautiful waterfall, permissions “pending”…
The fixer and I paddled out, squinting in the morning sunshine. In between thinking through the myriad of logistics and my director’s queries I was mentally filling in the Risk Assessment – specifically what percentage of our contributors would be swept out to sea by a freak current versus those who would cut their feet / heads open on the photogenic rocks.
Thirteen days later we filmed at a private lake with no blood shed. In addition to our Malaga mission, recently we’ve filmed in France, Holland, Taiwan, America and Colombia with agencies Amaze, Driven, Saddington Baynes and Havas Lynx. Shooting abroad can be a great international adventure when you’ve put the prep in – here are a few tips to help keep it Famous Five Go Filming rather than crashing and sinking like the Titanic.
1.) José’ll Fix It.
A fixer isn’t a requirement for absolutely every foreign shoot. Much hinges on your contributors and subject matter; the sourcing, permissions and management of locations; the format and planned usage of the content; and of course the small matter of crew and kit.
Consider how different your host country’s regulations and way of life are – how is filming perceived there? Do you speak the local language and what’s the impact of the time difference? What local resources do you need and who is coming over from the UK? What requirements do all parties involved add to the mix?
A good fixer is worth their weight in Euros / Dollars / Yen / Livestock. They will save you time, money and stress – especially if you need to shoot in a country with a culture that’s very different to your own. From Spain where you need to factor “Mañana, mañana” time into your permissions application process to Taiwan where the maze-like complexities of Taipei’s public transport system are enough to bamboozle even the most seasoned traveller the benefits of their local knowledge are felt by everyone – production, agency and client – and seen on the screen.
However, beware Yes Men – if the fixer’s offerings seem too good to be true they probably are. Just as the value of a good person on the ground goes beyond their cost, an inexperienced one will generate far more problems than solutions. When time / money is at its most precious, hiring the wrong fixer can cost you dearly.
2.) Local Crew
Carefully consider the pros and cons of using local talent versus the cost and challenges of shipping UK crew / kit around the world.
Travel and accommodation savings are often to be made when you minimise the number of crew you’re flying out to location, but bear in mind that sometimes the nearest staff may not be that near. For example, the last time we shot in France, near Strasbourg, we hired from Munich – a 4 hour drive away. Beware production Bermuda Triangles!
While local crew can be a great benefit as they will know the limitations (and work arounds) of shooting in their region, they may request more for their working days compared to their UK counterparts. When you’re “passing through” there are limitations to the deals that can be cut – in some cultures negotiation is not the done thing, others might have their hands tied by the country’s trade unions and similar working practices.
3.) No carpet bombing.
It’s tempting, especially if you haven’t filmed in that region / country before and time is tight. You’re waiting to hear back from a couple of recommendations but they’re busy because they’re good – a bit of research later you’ve got a list of promising leads. It can’t hurt to put out the feelers across the board, can it?
Well, yes it can. Many freelancers, especially fixers, work across multiple companies and under various names and word will spread across the pack. Those who are available will know that you haven’t cherry-picked them so will be far less inclined to do any favours.
It’s also worth remembering that not everyone is on your side and it can be harder to judge this from another continent. Some people ask for unreasonable things in a reasonable way and vice versa, while some are just arseholes.
4.) Sod it.
The moment your budget requires a currency calculator there is really only one law that applies and that’s Sod’s Law. For example, the Carnet Conundrum. Carnets seem so old fashioned (and expensive) and no-one ever checks them, right? The moment you “wing it” is the moment that country’s customs go into overdrive – asking why you want to bring an undocumented “Red Weapon” into their land.
Given half the chance, any airline will misplace your kit / crew / will to live. For our recent shoot in Bogota, KLM flew half our gear to LA – leaving us with one weekend to source replacements for the Monday shoot, which of course was a Colombian bank holiday. National holidays pop up with surprising frequency when you’re shooting abroad and will bite you on the arse at any given opportunity – when you know your country, check its calendar.
Prepping and filming when you’re miles from home can be extremely intense. However most people don’t get to travel with their work, especially doing a job that they enjoy. Try to step back from the pressures of the project and look around – try the food, talk to the locals.
Embrace the differences on the day – learn some new ways of doing things. The buzz of challenges overcome and a shoot well shot is amplified when it’s framed by an entirely different visual and cultural backdrop and wrap beers taste all the sweeter when ordered in a foreign tongue.