Location Scouting for LGBT Indie Films

About ten years ago, I was in my home state of Kentucky, shooting and directing my first feature film: an incredibly trite post-apocalyptic story – the kind most film students need to get out of their system before they (hopefully) move on to more original endeavors.  The genre meandered somewhere between science fiction, buddy comedy, and chamber play, and even though one of the principal characters was gay, I did not consider it a “gay film.”  The sexuality of the character in question had no effect on the plot and was only mentioned during one conversation.

I had secured the use of a local farm for filming and the land’s caretaker (an older man in his 60s or 70s), having never seen how a film was made, was very eager to watch the production.  I happily agreed to let him stand in back and watch everyone work and he did so with great interest for a few hours as we went through the scenes.  Eventually we came to the aforementioned conversation where a straight character lets the gay character know that he’s aware of, and okay with, his sexuality.  It wasn’t a great scene by any means but that really was the extent of it in terms of content.  I yelled, “cut,” stopped the camera and turned around to find the farmer gone.  I quickly glanced around the farmyard to see that he’d gone and shut himself away in his pickup truck many yards away.  Turns out he’d made a B-line there the moment he heard the word “gay” and would remain there until the end of the day when we left the farm.

I’m pretty sure that in his mind we were seconds away from filming a hardcore gay sex scene on his porch and he wanted to escape what was sure to be an eyeful of sin and body fluids.  In my mind we were seconds away from being asked to leave the premises and never return, at the very least.  And at worst I feared he was calling the Klan and loading a shotgun.  As it turned out, we were both wrong, but the situation made me nervous nonetheless.  In the years since, attitudes have changed in this country, for the most part, but a large portion of the population is still stuck in the last century.  There are still a lot of homophobes out there who’d rather not work with us or have us in their homes or businesses.  In most cases, we’re happy to oblige – and often feel the same way – but when one is involved in low-budget filmmaking, pragmatism can sometimes make that difficult.

When you’re shooting an independent film, you’re almost always pressed for time and running short on money.  When it comes to location scouting, you, or a member of your team, may literally go door-to-door asking for permission to use a home or a business to shoot a few scenes.  When the perfect location says yes, and agrees to let your crew inconvenience them for a few hours (or several days), your first impulse usually isn’t to think of a way to talk them out of it.  Often, the home or business owner will ask you what the film is about and the instinct of many filmmakers is to boil the plot down to its most basic elements for the sake of simplicity: “It’s a love story,” “a buddy comedy,” or “a heist gone wrong.” If your film contains LGBT characters or situations, many indie directors will gloss over that fact to get their foot in the door and check the location off their list.  I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself in the past – not because I was ashamed of my content but because I didn’t want to make my job more difficult for myself than it was already going to be.  But, I’ve since learned that when working on LGBT independent films, a quick sell isn’t always the best bet.

While it’s true that you may be in and out of a location in a matter of hours, you should always assume that at some point during that time, the owner will ask you (or a member of your crew) for more details on the shoot.  Most folks are unfamiliar with the process and are fascinated by it.  And when that happens, you can bet someone’s going to spill the beans and lay out the whole story for them, LGBT themes and all.  Usually these days it’s no big deal, but from time to time you’ll encounter someone, like my aforementioned farmer, who has a big problem with you using their space.

Even when your production has a signed location agreement, there’s always the fear that the other party will change their mind at the 11th hour of pre-production – or worse: partway through filming – and try to call the whole thing off.  You can threaten to sue them for breaking the contract but often fighting them may be more work than it’s worth.  Losing a major location mid-production on a low-budget film can mean delays, additional shooting days, overtime pay, and a loss of cast and crew that have other obligations.

From my own experience I’ve learned that the best thing to do when location scouting is to put everything on the table right up front.  When you’re talking to a representative of a local church, or a property owner, let them know from the get-go that you’re filming a story with LGBT characters and content.  They may tell you they have no problems with this – in which case, you can rest a bit easier at night during production – or they may tell you they do.  If so, you’ll find yourself right back on the hunt, but at least there’s a tiny silver lining: you’ll have managed to avoid giving a homophobe bragging rights about their space appearing in a “gen-u-ine” Hollywood motion picture.   And that, in and of itself, can be a pretty satisfying feeling.

Jack Bryant

Jack Bryant

Guest Blogger
Jack Bryant is a screenwriter and professor who currently teaches at Ithaca College in New York. He has worked in various areas of the film industry, from talent agencies to production companies, and on projects ranging from shorts and commercials to feature films and video games. In addition to teaching, Jack is currently working on several projects for the NYC-based Silent Giant Productions, including Fair Haven, a feature film about the adverse effects of ex-gay conversion therapy, set to be released in 2015.
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