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Staying Safe When Shooting Abroad

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Production can sometimes be a dangerous business. That’s true no matter where you shoot. But as the global production industry has come of age, foreign budget incentives have made international production increasingly attractive. That’s been a great development for our business, but it’s not without its risks. At the PGA, we were disturbed to learn that last year, a few of our members were involved in a violent attack while on location overseas. “It was the last week of a 14-week shoot,” one of the members told Produced by. “We were about a block from our hotel; we’d been staying there almost a month. We had walked the route back from the shops and restaurants across the street dozens of times before, but that last time wasn’t as routine.

“The four of us were jumped by 10 young men as we rounded the corner,” she continued. “These guys immediately split up our group, pushing or holding back the other three people while five of them focused on and surrounded me, repeatedly hitting the back of my head, neck and face with their fists. They finally stopped when one of us was able to get away and flag down a cab. The driver pulled up and yelled loudly at the kids in their native language. Whatever he said, it made them all run.” Alarming as the encounter was, everyone recognized that it could have had a far scarier ending. And almost miraculously, “No belongings or money were stolen from any of us,” she reported. Still, most unnerving about the incident was its proximity. “When we got back to my hotel room,” she recalled, “we could see where the attack took place, directly below us, and could even see where they had approached us from, just to the right. That’s how close we were.”

Producers and their teams are always juggling priorities on location, executing a director’s or EP’s creative vision while prudently managing the production’s budget. But the top priority — always —is the safety and security of the cast, crew and producing team. It’s in that spirit that we wanted to share the observations of some producers with extensive experience with international location shoots, and provide tips and best practices for producers to stay safe while on location abroad. And it’s worth noting off the top that while the incident described above clearly suggests malice aforethought, most such “incidents” while abroad arise from cultural misunderstanding and/or ignorance. Cultural awareness is always a key element of security.

The first tool is research. “Always look at every location as a ‘clean slate,’” says PGA Vice President of Television Hayma “Screech” Washington, who shot all over the world as a lead producer of The Amazing Race for seven seasons. “You may think that a particular area of the world is safe. You may think that another area is unsafe. But you can’t simply trust the conventional wisdom. Go to the State Department website. Every place you can go has a ‘risk factor status.’ Checking those warnings is part of your job as a producer.” Furthermore, there are various forms of insurance to procure, including Foreign Workers Comp, which extends a company’s U.S. workers’ comp policy to cover an employee’s work outside of the country. The coverage is often part of an international insurance package that may include general liability, travel accident, kidnap and ransom.           

Stephen Marinaccio, a line producer whose resume includes shoots in Mexico, Kazakhstan, Malaysia and numerous locations around the Middle East, cites the State Department travel advisories as well as the CIA World Factbook as valuable sources of essential data on the political and cultural stability of a given location. He also makes sure to raise any questions early on in discussions with local film commissions. “I am fairly unabashed when asking those sorts of questions,” he states. “For the most part, every region wants to attract filmmakers and production for the boost to the local economy and reputation.”

Given the sensitivity of the topic, notes Marinaccio, “the best approach to the conversation is usually soft. Ask your questions casually, as opposed to expressing fervent worry. Announcing that you recently reviewed a ‘red alert’ travel warning from the U.S. government is probably not the most constructive way to start the discussion.”

A veteran of numerous shoots in India and Africa, PGA Board member Lydia Dean Pilcher agrees. “Local authorities will give you the best information,” she confirms. “They are the last people to want any incidents. They can let you know where extra security is needed and advise where the troubled areas are — usually the neighborhoods that can have gang populations and high drug use. If language and cultural barriers exist in a location, hire people from the community to liaise with local vendors and residents.”

Pilcher also notes that international threats can be not only political and social, but biological. “It’s important to know what inoculations or medications you may need for the protection of your cast and crew,” she reminds. “For the movies I’ve produced in India and Africa, no matter how strongly we advise on the anti-malarials, usually only about 50% of the crew will take them. Sadly, I’ve had three productions where a crewmember has contracted malaria. It’s a very serious disease that is life-threatening and that is extremely difficult to cure.” The Center for Disease Control has a website full of information for travelers. Consult a tropical disease doctor for specialized vaccinations, such as yellow fever. If you are scouting or traveling through multiple countries, you may need proof of vaccinations if you have just visited a high-risk area.

Once on location, the essential advice is: Have a plan. “If someone gets hurt, where am I gonna go?” asks Washington. “How am I going to get them there? When something goes wrong, your brain locks up. That’s why you need to know in advance what you’re going to do.” Preparation and taking preventive measures are key. Marinaccio describes the measures the production took when shooting a highly sensitive and provocative scene for The Stoning of Soraya M., which was shot on location in the Middle East.

“The actual stoning scene was scheduled for five days,” he recalls. “Because this sequence required 150+ extras, all of whom would see what we were doing, I had reservations as to the security of the shoot. Scheduling this sequence as the last week of shooting in our main location, we shot as much as possible in the first few days, which required no crowd. Then, with the help of local police, town elders and our security, we set up roadblocks into the area. Only crew, residents and previously screened and cleared extras were allowed in. Within the crowd, we also planted security people dressed in wardrobe to monitor any rumblings and report back to production. As it turns out, the caution was not for nothing. We did have a small flare-up and immediately our team sprung to action and took all key crew and cast ‘to ground.’ When things were safe again, we continued.”

While making The Darjeeling Limited, “the 2006 Mumbai train bombings happened a few weeks before our first scout in Rajasthan,” recalls Pilcher. “We took extra precautions to not be in train stations or airports on India’s Independence Day, which fell during the scout. We also took out political risk insurance for that production. Always check the U.S. State Department website... Travel alerts have more to do with short-term events. Travel warnings are usually issued for ongoing situations that feature unstable governments, civil war, etc. Often, elections can be accompanied by instability.”

When shooting abroad, especially in sensitive regions, having some kind of outside security team is an imperative. “You want to consult with a company that specializes in hands-on, on-the-ground security,” emphasizes Washington. You don’t want to have a PA dealing with an emergency. You want to have close protection, if at all possible. You can’t take the chance of not having an eye on your talent. If you can’t afford close protection, at least hire someone to do a risk assessment. But you need to have experts who are experts. Producers aren’t experts; you want to work with a consultant or a company where security is all they do. They don’t have a production responsibility. They don’t care what the shot is or about making the day. And if something goes really bad, on a national/political level, every American is going to want to get out as fast as they can. It’s up to you and your team to do that due diligence, all the way up to securing, if necessary, a SAC phone and a safe house.”

On the other hand, “The behavior of your security is critical,” warns Pilcher. “On The Namesake, we filmed at Howarah Train Station in Calcutta. We had hired 50 security people to manage the crowd control. At one point, a security person swatted a crowd member with a bamboo stick and it caused a surge in the crowd, which then turned into a stampede. Our camera crew was knocked down. Luckily, there were no serious injuries, but the reality of what could have happened was very frightening, and needless to say, we wrapped for the day.”

The savviest producers, Washington observes, recognize that appearances as well as realities matter in evaluating security. “Perceived risk can be just as damaging to the project as real risk,” he continues. “Any perception of negligence on the production’s part is ultimately going to have the same consequence as actual negligence — your show is going to get shut down.”

For the smoothest experience, producers should hire as many local crew as possible and bring only the absolutely necessary crew out of country. Even more important, your out-of country crew should be experienced in traveling and demonstrate an affinity and flexibility for thriving in different cultural environments.

Despite its (usually modest) potential for danger, international production is only likely to become more popular as more nations around the world develop a production infrastructure and take steps to enter the global media industry. For producers and their crews, shooting in far-off locations is one of the most exciting aspects of the job, often providing not only great production value and budget incentives, but opportunities for personal enrichment and a more nuanced understanding of world culture — both at home and abroad. But the excitement of working outside the country should always be balanced by thorough research, prudent judgment and an informed understanding of the risks involved. As in most cases — in life as well as in production — common sense will get you a long way. But there’s no substitute for a competent security team and the right set of vaccinations.

*This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of Produced By magazine.

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