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When Disaster Strikes: How My Set Fell Apart at the Last Minute and What We're Doing About It

Filmmaking is a logistical nightmare. This much we know to be true. Every department has to be on top of its game and meeting its deadlines, and the entire cast and crew has to be in-sync for a set to work properly. With so many independent, yet crucial variables that have to come together in seamless fashion, it’s amazing that people are as successful as they are making films. But that’s not to say that things don’t occasionally go terribly and utterly wrong, and that’s just what happened today to a production that I’m DP’ing. Read on for both the story, and what my production team and me are doing about it.

So I show up to set this morning. It’s 5:30am, and I’m all bleary-eyed and yawning, just itching for the crafties to whip out some coffee and pastries. That’s when the director and the producer pull into the parking lot. I can immediately tell that something is terribly wrong when I see the director’s solemn face as he gets out of the car. He shoots me one of those looks (you’ll know the look when you see it), then comes up to me and proceeds to tell me that our lead actor, the one who’s scheduled to be in every single shot of the day, has dropped the film for some unbeknownst reason. It’s the worst case scenario, and there’s really nothing that we can do to salvage the day or the production schedule, so we call off the shoot.

At this point in the morning, it’s clear that we have to formulate some kind of backup plan, and we have to get said plan into motion quickly because time and money are running out (aren’t they always). What we ended up deciding might seem like the obvious choice, but compared to some of the alternatives, I absolutely believe that it was the right one. Instead of deciding to nix the project or put it on a lengthy hiatus due to a lack of resources, we decided that we would recast our lead and continue with the film as planned, but in a much more independent and low-budget way. We’d use the production equipment already available to us for cheap or free, and we’d use locations to which we’d have periodic access (aka our homes and apartments).

Sure, production value is likely to suffer, and the film might not have the technical quality that it would have originally. But as the recent, Oscar-winning documentary, Searching For Sugar Man taught us, story is king, and as long as your audience is engaged in the story and the characters, they’re more likely to forgive a film’s technical shortcomings. My team and I are going to take this theory to the bank and make sure that the script is as tight as possible, that the actors are fully in tune with the project, and that once-complicated lighting and camera moves are simplified to the point of being highly utilitarian. And while this last point makes my inner DP cry a little bit, getting this film made and telling this story are more important than snapping off some killer shots.

It’s unfortunate, but occurrences such as this one are all too common in no/low budget filmmaking, and they can very easily kill even the best-laid plans. The cast and crew are getting paid very little, if anything, and people are donating their time and efforts in hopes of being part of something cool and having new material for their reels. Oftentimes, life just gets in the way. There are bills to pay, kids to take care of, family emergencies, and all sorts of things that just have to take precedence over filmmaking. That’s just the way it is, and we, as filmmakers, have to learn to make the best of these trying situations. Hopefully, that’s what our team did this morning, and hopefully the project will come out the other end stronger than ever.

Have you run into these types of worst-case scenarios in your filmmaking journeys? How have you solved them? Tell us about your filmmaking disasters and solutions in the comments.


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Yup, Been there… done that. Seems like if you ‘move forward with plan B’ of if you punt, the hardest part of the day is ‘letting go’ of plan A.

  • Darren Orange on 03.8.13 @ 7:23PM

    And why does the loss of this actor cause your budget to suddenly disappear? The actor was that valuable? So now because he’s gone everything is going to become cheap or free? Very confused on this.

    • Robert Hardy on 03.8.13 @ 7:36PM

      Well, our production basically falls into the category of no budget, perhaps bordering on low budget on a good day. Because of this, we had cast and crew that were working for free, very graciously I might add, and most of our money was tied up in the equipment rentals (both from our school and from third parties) as well as catering and craft services for the weekend. So now we’ve got a whole bunch of equipment that we’ve already paid for, for a weekend where we won’t be able to shoot.

      • Andrew Smith on 03.9.13 @ 6:59AM

        You can’t afford to pay people but you can afford to rent equipment? Priorities are out of whack. Apart from probably attracting better actors and crew, you’ll also have a better (professional) working environment. Nothing worse than having the people whom you rely on and have no contractual obligation with resent you.

        I also think pizza is probably the worst thing you can serve. You’ll notice everyone is slightly less sprightly and bloated afterwards, and alot of people don’t find that sort of food acceptable especially if they’ve been on their feet all day. You can easily prepare something nice and healthy the day before and keep it in an ice box. If you’ve access to power you can also get cheap portable electric hobs to reheat it.

        • Its very common here for the same thing. When folk are talking rentals its only like $100-200 a day. You can’t really pay a crew on that.

        • You can get cheaper actors but you can’t get cheaper equipment.

      • Darren Orange on 03.9.13 @ 9:15PM

        If that is the case, then why did you not shoot all of your reversals on that day? You can cheat the new actor in later and pick up shots that blend the two together, this would of allowed the day to be productive and not have it be a complete waste.

        • Robert Hardy on 03.10.13 @ 1:35AM

          Honestly, there were only supposed to 2 or 3 clean singles in the entire film because the director and I decided to keep a wider and more open aesthetic. We probably could have gone and shot a few half-scenes with singles only, but I’m not sure that the director would have been pleased by the result.

  • How dies one get in on a recasting session? Pics and resume available on my site.

  • marklondon on 03.8.13 @ 8:22PM

    I’ve had that, on quite a large production. The second actor that took the part (on a day’s notice) won an award for it, so it ended well. :-)
    Worst no-budget story was being arrested (in the classic London violent fashion) for trying to shoot in one of Her Majesty’s parks. This was before the days of DSLRs.
    Glad you decided to plow on. Good luck!

    • Robert Hardy on 03.9.13 @ 1:08AM

      Getting arrested in London makes my “disaster” look like a dainty little hiccup haha. I guess sometimes everything becomes clearer with a little bit of perspective.

  • Long story short: morning of the shoot, my lead actress was in a car accident. (She was fine eventually, but too shaken & injured to shoot) I re-shuffled scenes, got on the phone with as many friends as possible, & was fortunate enough that a playwright had an actress who had the following day off. I e-mailed the script to her & she showed up the next day & proceeded to knock the ball out of the park.

    I subscribe to the mantra of Jack from “Lost”. Allow yourself five seconds of complete panic, then get over it and get to work.

  • When you can’t afford to pay the actors, they tend to be more likely to flake.

    • Robert Hardy on 03.8.13 @ 10:54PM

      Most of the actors and the crew we hire tend to be people who are still learning their craft, and therefore are glad to work for free as long as they get a copy, credit and food. I mean, building a reel so that you can land paid work takes a ton of time and effort. I’m definitely still working on it.

      • Kenneth Merrill on 03.9.13 @ 12:47AM

        I said to some colleagues on our shoot tonight: free work goes a long way. Someone who will work hard for free is in my good book forever, and I will do them favors in return. Favors are often the currency of the super underground indie scene.

        • I completely, and respectfully disagree. I’ve worked in the industry in LA, NY & Boston and can’t recall a single person I’ve talked to who’s gotten a good paying gig out of working for free, myself included. Yes, everyone promises future work or a great recommendation, but honestly, how many really follow through? I think that way of doing things, and that mentality, has only hurt our industry (ie: those craigslist posts we’re all too familiar with). In what other industry can one be expected to perform a specialized task for 8-12 hours and not get paid? If you’re working on a school project, or just getting a few friends together, that’s one thing, but if you’re renting equipment and there’s a director, producer, DP and actors coming to set at 5:30 in the morning, then everyone should be getting paid something! With good DSLRs available to buy for $500 there’s really no excuse now. You don’t need to be renting a $2000+ camera for a project maybe only 2000 people are going to see. And Robert, no offense, but I do cringe at the thought of all those $5 pizzas. I think I might have had pizza on set once, and that was in CT and it was good pizza (CT has the best). On a micro or no-budget shoot you can easily have a PA run to Subway (or even the grocery store) and get enough sandwiches for everyone for an even better price – and their insides will thank you later. Huge packs of water, healthy fruit snacks, crackers & cheese and other snacks can be bought at Costco, BJ’s, Sam’s Club or Super Walmarts for $5-$15. Pizza on set just tells me that someone is lazy and doesn’t understand the real cost of food. If you want to be a professional you have to act and plan as one. There’s no excuse for shitty food and cast & crew not getting paid if money is going towards equipment. Everyone should also be signing a contract or release form. These things don’t always solve the flaking problem, but they will surely help.

          • I’ve worked with crew in NYC where everyone was more than willing to work for free (all professionals, mind you) and of course on my paying directing gigs I get everyone in for a paying gig. I’ll fight with the line-producer to hire my crew, even. It’s only fair plus you’re already a well-playing team and will save time and headache.
            It occasionally does work.
            I’m also amazed at how many professionals are eager to work with you for free if your reel is promising enough…

          • I’ve gotten a number of well-paying jobs (worth thousands of dollars) thanks to people with whom I’d previously worked for free. You have to pick and choose the right people, and you have to be doing it on your own terms. I have mixed feelings about the practice in certain circumstances (like with productions that are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars), but I’ve developed connections I just would not have developed any other way.

            Another example besides the paying jobs – there is a place local to me where I can walk in and grab thousands of dollars worth of equipment for free at almost any time of day assuming they aren’t using it (and 99% of the time they aren’t). Without these connections I never would have been able to make a feature for $2,500 – which happened to be one of my thesis films in school.

            To me it’s about being savvy enough to work for the productions you know will benefit you down the road. It may not be in the form of paying gigs in the future, but it could be in the form of personnel and equipment, which may be just as valuable to you.

          • You guys make some good points, but I feel that your experiences may be the exception rather than the norm. You are definitely right Joe; you gotta be savvy and work for free on your own terms, if at all, and make sure you know who you’re working for.

          • Robert Hardy on 03.11.13 @ 1:41AM

            Hey John, I have to agree with Joe on this one. It really is a matter of picking your battles in terms of which sets you work on for free. There are definitely a ton of people out there with no intention of hiring the people who work for free, but there are also great connections to be made on sets, and those connections can definitely lead to recommendations for paid work since the industry is very much a “word of mouth” industry. It’s really just a matter of watching out for the people who are more likely to take advantage of you, and learning to say no when you think there’s a chance that might happen. So it definitely goes both ways, but it mostly comes down to being smart about who you work for.

            Also, believe me, there are no $5 pizzas on my sets. That shit is disgusting, and it’s a terrible thing to give to your crews. There are no two ways about it. But lord almighty have I been on a ton of sets where that’s been the norm. Hopefully the dog days of $5 pizzas are over for me :)

  • Julian Terry on 03.8.13 @ 9:50PM

    I had my first short film to shoot and I had everything planned. It had a boat race and multiple extras. I was ready to film when my lead actress dropped out the day before…. Stupid model. Anyway, I thought quickly and called this girl I met a month ago and she said she could act. So then my producer and dp never showed up and I took over the project. It was a lot of fun and that girl who filled in became the love of my life. This is the project:

  • john jeffreys on 03.8.13 @ 9:58PM

    Actors always flake. Pay them (or at the least, feed them well and drive them around and stroke their egos), and they’ll stay. Good thing, though, that you can throw a quarter in LA and it will hit at least 4-5 starving SAG talent, the place is teeming with them. I always have 2-3 backups on call in case our lead drops out.

    I love set-horror stories. On our last shoot, our monitor fried within 20 minutes of the first scene and the DP had to pull focus at 1.4 in a dim room off the camera’s onboard monitor, and do the same when we shot a drug-deal scene in a sketchy alleyway a few hours later. He was not happy (to say the least), but I bribed him with delicious pizza and it worked.

    If it’s one thing I learn on every project, it’s that everybody has a price. Pizza and money, that shit makes the world go round.

    • Robert Hardy on 03.8.13 @ 11:01PM

      Yep, pizza and gas-money are the keys to keeping film folks happy on low/no budget sets. But if you knew how many of those Little Caesar’s $5 pizzas I’ve had in the past two years, you’d probably cringe haha. Also, buying your crew a beer or two when you wrap is a total crowd-pleaser :)

  • Working on an action sport piece for broadcast and my lead just injured themselves. We are re-wrapping the story line a bit to adjust. What we had scripted was air tight, but now it is forcing us in a slightly different direction. Such is life….. we role with it.

  • Same here. I was producing and directing my short film, an actor dropped out 2 days before the shoot, after we had costume fitted, and it was period costume. I managed to get a friend who fit the costume, to agree to do it the night before the shoot! I had to frantically rewrite some dialogue to make it work the next day, which wasn’t ideal, and I still regret the bits we had to change because of the actor dropping out.

    Then we suffered from the bane of all low budget filmmaking…weather!

    Day 1, Saturday, beautiful blue sky, not a cloud to be seen all day, it made for amazing light.
    Day 2, awoke to fog and rain! I was SO gutted.

    Only had those 2 days to do it, wrangling that many cast and crew for those 2 days. Luckily it stopped raining about Noon, which allowed us to keep filming, but the light was different, the grass colour was different, and shooting on dslrs meant there was little that could be done in post to match it, as I was doing it all myself.

    Luckily, it turned out ok. Not as good as it could have been due to the lost shooting time with the rain, and the original actor would have worked much better, but you work with what you have.

    This is the film

    • Just wanted to say I loved this short regardless of your setbacks.

    • Dude, I love this one. That’s damn funny stuff. I love the delivery on the “Some would say that was reason enough, sir…” line, so if that’s the guy who filled in, big kudos to him. Honestly couldn’t tell who was the stand-in. Laughed quite a bit throughout this one, and I almost immediately forgot I was supposed to be watching for out-of-color shots. Never really noticed.
      Oh, and that huge tree is awesome!

  • Ben Howling on 03.9.13 @ 6:43AM

    Did you manage to use the hired gear to at least knock off some b-roll or 2nd Unit shots?

  • I think this shows what mature well organized (semi) professional crews would do. I especially like the part where the shots will be simplified. If you are working with complete amateurs the same thing will turn into a nightmare (like my cousin can act), etc.

  • Worst moment? 7 or 8 years ago.

    A 48 hour film challenge with interiors to be shot in a (so called) ‘fully equipped broadcast studio’ a friend had arranged. While we shot ext. the art director, gaffer and assistant went ahead to prep the ‘studio’.

    An hour in, the art director called to say they’d be running late because they had to go out and buy protective gloves, face masks and overalls before starting to to clear up the mess left by the previous days porn shoot.

    Worst moment was arriving with the camera crew and two actresses to discover it wasn’t a wind up. And was even worse than they’d said. I’m broadminded with a strong stomach, this was fucking grim and I felt responsible.

    After immediately giving everyone the option to quit, nobody wanted to. We talked through the options and decided to scale back the shoot (especially the build) and spend time on the clean up.

    Just as we finished cleaning up, the studio owner arrived to say he’d changed his mind. We ‘negotiated’ a couple of hours, simplified further and fit the idea around what we could get in the time.

    The edit didn’t go to plan but relatively speaking…

    We finished film to meet the 48 hour deadline and placed in the top 20..

  • Shortly after my 18th birthday, my best friends and film crew set off to create a 2 minute teaser trailer for a zombie-style flick we were in the process of putting together. We had heard about this abandoned supermarket not far out of town and decided to check it out.

    You’ll have to keep in mind – I was (and my crew kinda was) the most passionate group of filmmaker kids you could ever meet – and we knew nothing about “the proper way” things were to be handled. If I wanted to shoot it there – I was gonna shoot it there. Guerilla was the only way to go in those young and naive days – and nobody on my crew was going to challenge that. We had already shot a 45 minute short film in an abandoned warehouse just two years before – so nobody was scared of possible consequences.

    We scouted the location. Got lots of great shots to pour over before we return to shoot the following weekend.
    We must have been in that place for 5 or 6 hours. We ate, played cards, laughed – all was wonderful.

    The following weekend we purchased a few hundred dollars worth of essentials – like raw meet and food for the cast and crew. We once again stepped over the orange snow fence they had decided to put up around the supermarket… and before we even got our bags unpacked – boom. Five squad cars.

    They could clearly see that we weren’t doing anything wrong nor did we have anything on us that would have gotten us into any trouble… but uhoh… We’re suddenly in hand cuffs. Every single one of us.
    I was possibly the youngest one on location that day… and I watched as all my older friends were put into squad cars and I eventually ran into them in the drunk tank an hour later. One by one everyone gets bailed out. I refused to have anyone spend a cent on my release.

    Anyway… they try to explain to us that an orange snow fence is a “No trespassing sign”
    I was always under the impression a No trespassing sign was a sign that said “No Trespassing”
    Suddenly – the city suddenly fenced off the supermarket and erected a sign (after 3 years of utter abandonment, just to try and nail us) I proved with our footage in court that the only thing there at the time was an orange snow fence – and since they couldn’t prove their fence meant “No trespassing” we all had our money returned to us.

    I can’t say I learned anything for sure… other than the fact that these police officers had nothing better to do and were totally allowed to arrest us for no reason. I’ll stay away from a no trespassing sign – but an orange snow fence is never going to stop me from doing what I want to do if I’ve already decided.

  • On a shoot for my short, our 16mm camera just stopped working towards the end of the day when all the rental places have closed up shop. Apparently the fuse blew out. Also, the building manager apparently called the cops because of complaints about our light stands being outside. All this happened at the same time. Scary stuff. But then we hauled ass and packed the mambo stands away while the DP (Dan Witrock: macguyver’d the camera. We were up and running in 15 minutes.

    Here’s a trailer for the short:

  • Man , you try to tell a story about the pitfalls of film making and what do you get ? A lecture on Morals & Healthy Living. As the old saying goes ” It Takes all kinds” But does it really have to take all kinds over every and all story/ story / Pipedream / Etc ? Really ?

  • The themes and emotions in this post/comments are perennial. Whether we’re trying to get our films made, find our way onto our first productions, or moving onto sets with higher level experience, attitude and timing are often what make the difference.