I just got a traffic ticket!
But I'm not gonna go into the details because that's not what this post is about...
Because a measly little ticket is nothing compared to my other heart-stopping experiences with the 5-0.
Two years ago, our short Emma and I became our first film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, we have been accepted 4 times by Cannes, including our latest short Exhale. While Exhale was shot entirely on a standing set in Anaheim (no film permit required), we did not have the same luxury/budget to do that for some of our previous films. Which means there were plenty of guerrilla shooting taking place.
The very first day of filming for Emma and I we had a scene that took place in a public bathroom. I chose one located on a small secluded playground near my old place in Hacienda Heights... or so we thought it would be secluded... Instead our shoot was invaded by a birthday party full of kids. The parents freaked out of course, as we brought our equipment and a little girl into the mens' bathroom along with our male actor. One of the women even threatened to call the police, until I finally sweet talked her out of it. So we decided our best option would be to return later that night after the place had been deserted. So around 11pm, we rallied back and began shooting the most gruesome scene from the script.
Everything was going smoothly, until our lookout ran in and informed us that someone was pulling into the playground parking lot, and even worse... it was a police car. I had everyone clear out and hide behind the building, and I waited for the policeman alone outside of the bathroom. I was mentally preparing myself, thinking that someone had reported suspicious characters at the public bathroom and he was coming to shut us down. I walked towards the light as he approached, and to my surprise, he nodded at me nonchalantly and walked past me. He just needed to go to the bathroom!! Now that should make me feel relieved, however I forgot to mention that our bathroom looked like this...
The image of the police man walking into a murder scene flashed in my head and I called after him, “Excuse me officer, before you go in there I must explain...” He was more confused than suspicious. I told him that we were doing blood tests for our film project and no actual filming was going on. He was skeptical but decided to walk in with me and check out the “experiment.” He was shocked but at the same time impressed about how realistic and morbid the way the scene looked (compliments to the wonderfully talented Maryann Yee. Check out her instagram here). I showed him that it was nothing more than corn syrup and rubber prosthetic fingers. After making me promise that I will wipe everything clean after I finish in there, he went to the woman's restroom instead. The officer and his partner waited in the parking lot for us to clean up. We managed to sneak our camera back in and quietly stole two more shots to end the night.
You'd think I'd learn my lesson after that close call... but our very next film, The Wheels Keep On Turning brought the heat on us again! We were shooting an exterior scene in a parking lot in Redondo Beach during after hours. Unlike our last heist, this one did not involve so much violence. We had two scenes where a group of senior citizens gets picked up by the police after sneaking out of the retirement home at night. So we had our own prop police car on set, with flashing lights and all. That's what ended up catching the attention of the real cops and a squad of two cars drove right onto our set. They were fairly calm, but they sternly explained to us that we are not allowed to film without a permit and having a prop police car with flashing lights is dangerous because uninformed officers would suspect threat.
They proceeded to ask more questions about our film, and it seemed like they took a real interest in the story. Coincidentally, my partner in crime, Fabienne, knew one of the policeman on the scene! Not that she has a track record or anything... ;-) The officer safeguarded a production she had previously worked on in Redondo Beach, a production that had proper permits... *smirk*
At this point, I was expecting them to shut us down. But instead, one of them said, “finish up what you need to do and then get out of here.” I did not react right away, I stood there frozen, not comprehending what I had just heard. I looked at Fabienne, and shrugged. Sometimes it's best to not ask questions, and just be grateful. So without missing another beat, I rounded up the cast and crew and knocked out the last few remaining shots. The police left before we were even finished, we made our day! The best part of this whole experience was, and I still pat myself on the back for it... when the police first arrived on scene, the camera was already rolling, and instead of cutting and stopping immediately, I whispered “Action.” Our lead actor and crew brilliantly finished the take before I got up to greet the policeman stepping out of his vehicle. As a result, we had not only our prop car, but an additional police car driving into the scene (in the background). Needless to say, that take made it into the final cut of the film. PRODUCTION VALUE!!
Just to clarify, I am not advocating shooting guerrilla style. If you have the ability and the budget to do it, always get a permit. There's nothing worst than going through weeks and months of planning just to get shut down on the day. That being said, if you are stealing shots, be on your toes and ready to improvise! You gotta do what you gotta do to get the film done!