Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How to Make a Short Film: Filmmaking When the Cops Show Up

(Zeke Ward [Left], Coner Dee [Right]
Photo credit: Tianna Halldorson. Meme Credit, Ashley Morris.)
I took a one week filmmaking course a couple years back. (The extent of my formal filmmaking education.) Someone asked the professor how they get permits to film somewhere or what they do if they can’t film somewhere and the cops show up.

His reply? Don’t get caught.

Leaving aside misdemeanors as a go-to policy, as an independent filmmaker doing your independent filmmaking thing, you will rarely have the budget or time to get permits for everything. So what do you do in those circumstances? Encouraging illegal activity aside (something that I would never do, being both a boy scout and a coward), the first thing to do is to know all the laws in your area about where to film. In NYC the rule is basically, if it’s public property and you’re not obstructing anything, you’re good. (I'd recommend having a printout of the law in case you get stopped.) But not all laws are the same everywhere.

Last weekend, my final shoot filmmaking a short film as a student filmmaker with my filmmaking club King's Image Films (KIF), we had to deal with the cops.

We were filmmaking our short film in New Jersey, where we didn’t know the laws there as well. We saw these train tracks and wanted to use them in our shoot. They were amazing train tracks. We didn’t see the “No Trespassing” sign because we were rushed to finish filming.

We were just wrapping up the shoot when we saw the cop car roll up.

The cop was very nice. We stayed calm, explained the situation to him, that we didn’t realize we weren’t supposed to be here, we are just student filmmakers filmmaking a short film, and please be nice to us. He let us off with a warning and got one of us not planning to ever have a career in politics to volunteer our name for their records. He explained to us the dangers of hanging out by a train track (which we knew, but we nodded anyway).

So if the cops do show up?  In my experience, it's the obvious: Don’t act like a criminal. Be respectful, apologize, co-operate, have someone there willing to sign stuff. It’s not a big deal. They usually give you the benefit of the doubt.  I haven’t ever been in the totally regrettable situation where you haven’t finished getting your shots and the cops have already shown up.  My advice is, once again, not to get in that situation in the first place if you can help it.

Or you could just take the filmmaking advice of my professor.

Have light equipment and really fast legs.

Do any of you have stories of run-ins with cops? Sound off in the comments below.


  1. If you do get permission, make sure it's not just verbal. A friend and I one time talked to a bank manager and got her permission to film in their back parking lot at night (this was not in NYC, obviously). Being dumb, nervous 16-year-olds, we left it at that. But when the cops showed up, we had nothing to show them and not even the full name of the bank manager to give them. Turned out alright, but definitely learned a lesson!