Filming abroad: How to keep “Costa del Sol” from becoming “Costa del Hell”
Updated: May 23, 2018
Angie Producer sits on a rickety chair surrounded by customs agents and gear spread all over the floor. The customs agents are asking about the serial number and cost of a digital recorder. She doesn’t know the answer and the sound guy is not there to answer it because he was just detained for “impersonating an officer of the law”. After much negotiating and begging, they are released. Of course, the sound guy’s camouflage pants were confiscated and the production had to wire US$20,000 for duties.
This example may seem extreme, however, it is based on actual events. In 2008, I was detained at an airport for wearing camouflage pants and just recently, a producer I know had to leave a cashiers check for US$20,000 as guarantee in order for customs to release their equipment. These are situations that can be avoided by making sure you cover all bases before you pack up and leave. In my years working in the sound and camera departments, I’ve seen plenty of such situations. Now that I am a producer, I always try to avoid being the main character of such stories. Here are some things I think will help in having a smooth production abroad.
Find about the film commission
Start by finding out if the country has a film commission. A good first stop to find out about film commissions is the Association of Film Commissioners International website. If the country has one, it will most likely be listed there. A film commission should have most of the information you need.
Don’t stop there. The film commission will be very helpful and working with them will open many doors for your production but remember, a film commission’s ultimate goal is to get you to come and spend money in their country so they are not allowed to tell you about the not-so-positive aspects of filming in the country if there’s any. A film commission will inform you of any tax incentives, permits, visas and other requirements but you will probably never hear “make sure you carry plenty of bribe money with you” from a film commission employee.
Hire a fixer or producer
I can’t stress this enough. It’s always best to have a local working with you whose interest is for your production to go smoothly and that you get your footage in the can. This is the person that will tell you the things the film commission is not allowed to tell you.
Retain this person well in advance. The process of securing permits and other requirements vary tremendously from country to country so allow at least a month for the fixer-producer to get things done. If you’re planning on filming for an extended period of time and apply for incentives, allow even more time.
When your budget permits it, hire a producer that can budget and schedule your shoot for you instead of a fixer. A fixer can be anyone who knows the country well and is fairly connected but a producer will be familiar with how to meet the needs of your production and will advise you accordingly.
Should you bring your gear? Is the gear needed available in the country? These are questions you can take up with your fixer or try to figure it out on your own with a web search. A good first step would be to figure out if your destination is a carnet country. You can find out by visiting the United States Council for International Business’ website. If the country you’re going to is not on the list, contact the film commission or the customs authority to find out about the process if temporary importation of gear.
I tend to favor renting over bringing the equipment. When you account for transportation and the people hours involved in hauling the equipment, more often than not renting is more cost effective.
Every producer obsessively checks the weather when they’re in production. When filming abroad, it’s a good idea not to stop there and dig further for local trends. In the Caribbean we have the hurricane season, in Asia they have monsoon season. When in New York is summer, in Argentina is winter. These may seem like rather obvious things but they’re often overlooked. Don’t just check the weather, find the trends.
Hire third party liability insurance that covers the staff, the equipment and the locations. Most countries will require it in order to issue permits anyway but if they don’t, hire insurance anyway.
Dress for the location
Getting detained for wearing camouflage is a rather extreme example but it happened and it wasn’t pleasant. Always consult with your fixer and search the web for the appropriate attire for your shoot. It is very common for people to pack based on the sexy poster they saw of the tropical paradise but they’re filming in the mountains where its cool, humid and muddy. Good luck with the short shorts and the running shoes going up a muddy trail with a c-stand on your shoulder.
Plan for your diet
If any of your crew members follow a specific diet, make sure you discuss it with your fixer and make sure he/she understands you. If necessary, have them send you menu proposals.
Another issue with food is getting sick from eating something your body isn’t accustomed to. If you have a delicate stomach or follow a specific diet, pack snacks from home that you know will sustain you. If you don’t have a delicate stomach, pack them anyway. Also, if you’re severely allergic to something, don’t forget to let your fixer know and to be safe, pack your own EpiPen. Every country has its culinary particularities, make sure you plan accordingly.
Often, in order to qualify for incentives, a given number or percentage of local crew members have to be hired. Make sure you consult with your fixer and film commission about their experience, daily rates and if they belong to a union or guild. Find out about the volume of production in the country or region you’re filming at. That is a good indicator of the quality of the crew. It is also an indicator of how welcoming the general public is towards productions, availability of resources, etc.
Have your fixer hire security even if you think you don’t need it. Security isn’t something that will drive up your budget and they are very helpful in crowded areas and when your set is far from where the trucks are parked.
Don’t let things get lost in translation
Needless to say, language can sometimes get in the way. The same is true when the local crew and your crew speak the same language but refer to things differently. Keep in mind that the locals may naively think blonde and redhead are hair colors instead lights. The same goes for c47’s, juniors, seniors, etc. And please, don’t laugh at the gaffer who pronounces the “s” in “fresnel”.
Give yourself time
You made all the arrangements. You made sure all bases are covered and your fixer has got everything under control. Nothing can go wrong. Stay for a couple of extra days and just be a tourist. I’m sure your fixer and the local crew would love to show you around.
You can’t foresee and prevent everything but you can minimize eventualities by planning ahead and partnering with people that will see some things you can’t and have your back if anything happens. When filming abroad your best friends will be the people at the film commission and your fixer. Build rapport with them and make sure you can trust them.