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Monday, 20 August 2012 23:37

A Filmmaker’s Guide to Shooting on an Island

Written by  Dyana Carmella
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islands_hawaii_2Island productions offers great rewards via stunning visuals, private locations, low location fees and supportive local governments. P3 recently sailed around the world to some of the most sought-after island locales to question producers and location managers about what filmmakers need to know before locking down the perfect paradise for a shoot. Today’s hottest production islands include Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Fiji and the Dominican Republic, and all these faraway getaways not only offer unparalleled beauty but welcoming film commissions willing to go above and beyond what’s necessary to aid film and TV projects.

Producer/Location Manager Sam Tedesco had worked in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico for 10 years, scouting numerous islands for projects like Weekend at Bernie’s II (shot in St. John and St. Thomas), HBO’s For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story and “Miami Vice.” Currently a partner in a movie-studio project planned for Panama in the wake of the country’s new cash-rebate incentive, Tedesco knows what’s needed for a lush island production. “As far as choosing an island to shoot on, the decision boils down to finding the sweet spot between the creative [need for] good production values and the logistical [need for] equipment access, flights, hotels and, if possible, some local crew and equipment,” he explains. “Of course, in recent years, tax incentives have often driven the process just like in the U.S.” According to Tedesco, some of the major positives of island shooting are great visuals and texture, cultural and ethnic diversity of local actors and extras, generally lower location fees, and the enthusiastic cooperation and assistance from both the government and general population, which results in more control and less red tape when shooting ambitious sequences.

It’s also important to pay attention to other factors when planning for a remote shoot. “[Some issues are] gaining access to equipment and U.S. actors on short notice, weather and logistical access to remote locations via narrow and steep roads, which can be dealt with by downloading equipment into smaller trucks on arrival,” says Tedesco. “Depending on which island you are shooting on, currency, language, security and work visas can also be issues to be dealt with. Not unlike dealing with Mardi Gras in New Orleans, at certain times of year there are carnivals, parades and local crew holidays to factor into the schedule. Getting large numbers of extras of a certain ethnicity can be an issue on one island but not on another. On large projects, the number of available hotel rooms and rental cars could be a factor.”

island_usvi_panama-boatWhile a stunning locale can be a great boon for a film project, visiting productions can have a beneficial or detrimental influence on these chosen locations. “Filmmakers need to be aware that their actions can affect the next project in profound ways,” says Tedesco. “On Weekend at Bernie’s II, we arrived in St. Thomas just as another film was leaving. We soon found out that they had bounced over $300,000 in checks all over the island, and that the manager of our hotel had resorted to locking the dailies in his safe in order to get paid. We had to pay cash in advance for everything we needed, but, by the end of our show, we had turned things around again and left the locals with much more positive feelings about filmmakers for the next project coming in. Filmmakers scouting the Caribbean would benefit from doing some research in advance to narrow the search to islands that have a combination of look and infrastructure, both logistical and political, and making a priority of respecting the local culture and people in all their dealings. Islands are small, and your reputation will preceded you everywhere you go, so being considered fair, honest and respectful will go a long way toward having a successful shoot. With proper planning and smart choices, filming in the Caribbean can be a great experience for the cast and crew and result in a great-looking movie.”

Supervising Location Manager Dow Griffith has worked on over 50 shoots on islands all over the world, including The Bourne Legacy (shot in the Philippines), The Bourne Supremacy (Goa, India), Contagion (Lantau Island, Hong Kong), The Last Airbender (Vietnam) and Tropic Thunder (Kauai). “Whenever you spend the time and added expenses to film on an island, you don’t do it for convenience sake, you do it for the visual environment that will add to the film, which you cannot get in an easier location,” says Griffith. “This might be for a beach harbor, the simmering volcanic activity or the culture. For The Bourne Legacy, we selected two islands in the Philippines. One was for its urban culture in Luzon and the other was for its historical relevance.”

Although the visual rewards are certainly key, there are several negatives that come along with shooting on an island. “[Avoid] exposure to the three Ts: tropical storms, typhoons and tsunamis,” Griffith notes. “Most islands are too small to dissipate serious storms, so you get the full brunt of the weather. Protected areas for sea birds and marine mammals are off limits. Sea pirates in the South China Sea, the Straights of Malacca and off the horn of Africa are niggling thorns in the side. In Samoa, I gathered buses and converted them to equipment trucks. [There’s also] higher transportation costs. I had to cross Seychelles off the list as soon as the price of airfare became apparent.”

On an island shoot, unexpected and uncontrollable situations can occur, but these can also be amusing. “The tsunami in Phuket wasn’t that much out of the ordinary from normal movie production problems,” recalls Griffith. “It rearranged the furniture. Hurricanes on Kauai have taken their toll and caused the need for evacuation. Drinking kava with the village chiefs in Samoa can have its own effect. After a successful shoot in Western Samoa, the leaders wanted to make me a talking Chief of Samoa, and the first-born son of a chief was named after me. So if you travel to Samoa and meet someone named Dow, say hello for me.”

Location Manager Todd Hecht has scouted the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix for high-profile features, like The Shawshank Redemption, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He found that St. Thomas could perfectly replicate Brazil for the production of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, and the warm waters of the U.S. Virgin Islands would prove just right for the January shoot for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Hecht has sound advice for filmmakers prepping a remote island shoot: “Hire a professional location assistant or manager with years of experience and references.”

The current season of MTV’s “The Real World” was shot on Hassel Island off the coast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Commercial Producer Dan O’Hare recently shot a Subway commercial in the house used for the MTV show, and he was pleasantly surprised about everything the location had to offer, in spite of the challenges of shooting on and off the coast an island. “The crew in general were really nice guys and more knowledgeable than I thought they would be,” O’Hare recalls. “The number-one thing about shooting in St. Thomas is [Film Commissioner] Steve Bornn and the [USVI] Film Office. We needed to scout and he had a boat ready for us, and anywhere we wanted to shoot he got a permit to shoot there. The Film Office was super helpful. [Another] great thing is you don’t have to do much when it comes to production design because [the island] is already designed really nice. The logistic side is what you really want buttoned up before you go.” O’Hare notes that his island production didn’t always sail smoothly. “One of the big issues we faced was the payroll companies in the U.S.,” he says. “Paying people on the island was tricky. You can’t do it normally through the payroll companies that we all normally use like Entertainment Partners. Paperwork in general was challenging and when you are working on the island and you don’t have a motor home you can go to. All you have is a boat.”

With his savvy production point of view, O’Hare has some words of wisdom for island-bound filmmakers. “Figure out how to pay everyone first,” he says. “It’s so important to do. It’s the U.S. but it’s not the U.S. Don’t trust anyone who tells you not to worry about it. You should worry about it. And bring your passport. Treat it as if you are shooting in a foreign country and then you will be pleasantly surprised when it’s not that bad. [Do that] instead of treating it like you are shooting in the U.S. and getting frustrated when you have issues.”
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