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making the sausage

Polone: What L.A. Should Learn From Paris About Making TV and Movies

"We don’t talk to the unions, we talk to the people,” said Eric, the French line producer we hired to set up a shoot in Paris for a new show I’m producing for ABC Family, Jane by Design. He was responding to my question about how large of a crew we’d be required by the unions to hire. His answer and many other things relating to the ease and lack of expense of filming in Paris — one of the more expensive cities in the world, according to ECA international — surprised me. I guess I expected things to be more difficult in France than in the U.S., and I was proven wrong.

Time and again when producing movies and television shows in the States, I find myself asking, “Why does [this thing I want to film] have to cost so much?” For budget reasons, we shoot our New York–set show about a teenager who pretends to be an adult to work for a clothing company in Santa Clarita, California; when we recently produced an episode that had two of our characters traveling to L.A., I wanted to get one shot on Beverly Hills's Rodeo Drive to give it some verisimilitude. Our production team wanted to scrap the idea, citing an estimated $25,000 price tag. This seemed truly insane: We needed only one shot, no sound, no visual effects, no stunts, etc. They broke it down for me: Fifteen thousand dollars for the two hours it would take our 70-person crew to set up, shoot, and wrap. The location permit in Beverly Hills would cost $7,500. And depending on when we planned to shoot, we might need to pay a location fee to one or more of the stores on the street where we set up, even if we didn’t interfere with their business. This seemed possible since all store owners seem to sense a location fee is in the offing as soon as they see a production crew. They'll often call the police or sometimes just get in your way or yell while you are shooting dialogue to try to ruin the take. During the shooting of my last film, I stood by as a New York restaurant owner screamed during take after take in protest of our unwillingness to succumb to his extortion. Actually, that $25,000 figure might have been too low.

When my partner on the show, April Blair, and I asked if we could just go out alone with a digital camera and shoot the two actresses walking down the street, it was immediately rejected by the studio, whose owner is the Walt Disney Corporation; this would violate union rules and most certainly lead to grievances and fines. That didn't surprise me. We recently did some location shooting in New York and, to save money, we didn't hire a video playback technician. At one point during the shoot, the director and director of photography thought a shot might have been out of focus; since we were filming with a digital camera, they could easily play it back from the camera on a monitor. Some consternation ensued among the camera team and, eventually, the A.C. agreed to play back the take in the eyepiece so the D.P. could see it, but not on the monitor, where the director would be able to see it as well — guess to penalize the production for not hiring another union technician to handle the playback.

Things are different in the City of Lights. Before arriving, I was told that you could shoot pretty much all over the city with just one permit if you keep the crew to a total of five people. If you have under ten people, as we did, some more specific permitting is necessary, but it is still quite simple and there is no extra fee. Keeping the crew small was easy to do, since there were no union rules on obligatory hires. The D.P., for instance, could also be the sole operator of the camera, which isn’t always permitted in the U.S. And in Paris, people have no problem doubling up duties to make things work. For example, in the U.S., a first assistant cameraman would not download the memory from the cameras to a hard drive. Instead, that would be done by a camera loader. But in Paris, our first A.C. offered to do it, off the clock, unprompted. The D.P. and I bought her dinner and some wine out of gratitude, and everyone was happy.

We had no push back from businesses while shooting on locations. We shot in front of Louis Vuitton on the Champs-Elysée without interference. The police showed up at one point and asked to see our permit, but that was it. During a shot, our lead actress, Erica Dasher, walked up to the window of Dior and nobody said a word. Before shooting, I asked Eric if there was any way we could shoot on the Bateaux Mouche, a tour boat that goes up and down the Seine. He said he’d check, and I wondered how I would pay for the location, assuming the boat operator agreed: A location like that would easily cost $5,000 or more in the U.S. and I only had a little petty cash for emergencies. After a few calls, Eric told me that he found a bateaux that would allow us to film during a trip. I asked how much. “Nothing," Eric replied, as if this were normal. "He just said it was okay.” Clearly the idea of property rights is different in France than to what I’ve grown accustomed.

I am not saying I prefer shooting in France to the United States. We have the best crews and infrastructure in the world, and I’m grateful for any opportunity to work here. I do find it interesting that a major city like Paris and its film community evidence such a different culture than our own, and I think their practices suggest other ways that people, businesses, and unions in the U.S. could conduct themselves when it comes to film production. I have to think that it would be good for Beverly Hills to have an aspirational television show that will be shown around the world, displaying their shopping district as one its heroines would want to visit. And making things easier and less costly for the TV and movie business will only create more business. I was motivated to shoot in Paris instead of trying to fake the scenes on a back lot after Doug Liman told me about his trouble-free experience in Paris shooting his show Covert Affairs. And now I have started thinking about initiating other projects to shoot in Paris, and others to whom I’ve described my experience will probably do the same. It all leads to more money spent in Paris and its film workers getting more work. And, since there is a finite number of distribution slots available for films and television shows in the U.S., if a film is shooting in one place, it is not being shot in another. It is a zero-sum problem. Possibly, more people in the film community and those who make the rules about filming in their cities could benefit from a little “French” thinking?

Gavin Polone is an agent turned manager turned producer. His production company Pariah has brought you such movies and TV shows as Panic Room, Zombieland, Gilmore Girls, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Follow him on Twitter @gavinpolone.