This post was written by Simon Kienitz Kincade.

At 6:30 a.m., our crew stood huddled under an awning outside Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, trying to stay dry while looking out at the dark, empty Museumplein.

It was the first day of production on our episodic series about a long-distance couple, and what a way to start: filming inside an iconic museum that receives over two million visitors per year. We had followed our museum contact’s instructions and brought our gear around to a nondescript service entrance, but she wasn’t responding to our messages.

As we stood out in the cold, I couldn’t stop the pessimistic thoughts from creeping into my head: “They’re not going to let us in. Of course, this was too good to be true. I knew it.”

But within minutes, the loading dock doors creaked to life, and several employees welcomed our tiny crew into the world’s largest collection of work from one of history’s most renowned artists. Even though we still had 16 more arduous days of filming ahead, this start was just what we needed to believe that our impossible goal—making a full season of television on two different continents with a micro five-figure budget—was within reach.

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Before we had a title, story, or even characters, our creative team had a mission to shoot a low-budget project in both Amsterdam and Los Angeles, the two main cities where we were living at the time. With our mission in mind, we developed our lead characters Mila and Lukas, and outlined six short episodes that chronicled their struggles to grow together while 6,000 miles apart.

Once we had the bones of the story, co-writer/co-director Emily Ann Zisko and I began to brainstorm the best settings for our series to play out. Right away, our minds went to the Van Gogh Museum.

We had spent a transformative day there several years prior and realized that by using Van Gogh’s work as a motif throughout the series, we could create a point of connection for our protagonists and a perfect backdrop for each of their struggles with identity.

We wrote Van Gogh’s legacy into our scripts and set one of the most important scenes of the series finale inside the museum’s halls. But writing a scene is one thing, and figuring out how to film it is another. From that point on, the Van Gogh Museum became our white whale. We knew it was probably out of our reach, but if we could somehow get the location, it would take our show to new heights.

I have to give us some credit. We had a pretty solid strategy in our outreach to the museum that I think other filmmakers could find valuable. The first and most obvious tactic was to be respectful and gracious at all times and remember that nobody owed us anything.

Secondly, we kept our request as small and simple as possible. We knew that getting the museum to shut down for the day, or even a few hours, was out of the question, so we made sure the scene was something that could be shot in an hour. Two pages of dialogue needed to happen during the museum sequence, but we decided that they could be shot elsewhere, and then laid as a voiceover on top of shots of Mila and Lukas walking amongst the exhibits. This meant we could shoot run-and-gun without recording sound—just our two lead actors, a two-person camera team, and myself.

'Play it By Ear'Credit: Simon Kienitz Kincade

Lastly, we presented the museum with as much information as possible on why our series aligned with their mission. If we had asked to shoot, say, a huge zombie massacre, I don’t think we would have gotten the answer we were looking for. But in our initial inquiry, we attached our script and explained that our goal at this moment of the show was to examine the ways we are all capable of self-sabotage in pursuit of identity. What better way to examine this paradox than through Vincent Van Gogh, a man remembered for his self-destructive tendencies as much as his artistic genius?

We put together our best pitch and sent it out to the email on their website. We didn’t have any inside connections or back doors, just Google and hope. As we waited nervously to hear back, we brainstormed other ways to make the episode work if they turned us down. Maybe we could shoot it guerilla-style with an iPhone, à la Sean Baker at Disney World? We had gotten so attached to the museum’s role in our story, but we also knew that part of making an independent film is accepting your limitations and figuring out how to compromise.

'Play it By Ear'Credit: Simon Kienitz Kincade

When we finally heard back, we couldn’t believe our luck. The museum liked our idea and would allow us to shoot for two hours in the morning before they opened to the public for free.

Looking back now, the entire shoot seems like a blur, but that day especially, walking through the empty galleries, staring at paintings I’d seen recreated a thousand times, felt like an absolute fever dream.

Our good fortune in finding amazing location partners didn’t stop with the Van Gogh Museum—it continued all over Amsterdam and even in Los Angeles. From the Dutch tattoo parlor that agreed to let us film a fake tattoo session, to the Malaysian restaurant in Orange County that provided our entire cast/crew with free catering the day we shot there, we found so many people along our journey who were genuinely excited to help us bring our story to life.

Our experience at these locations taught me the most important lesson I took from making Play It By Ear: finding the people who are happy to have you, as opposed to just willing to tolerate you, is invaluable.

'Play it By Ear'Credit: Simon Kienitz Kincade

We took this idea to heart and tried to use it as our guiding principle throughout production, post, and even our release. Rather than fight an uphill battle to get our small (but quality) show onto a prestigious streaming platform, we decided to release it on YouTube, where our most loyal audience could watch the show they helped create, with as little barrier to entry as possible.

Every filmmaking endeavor is unique, and there are many paths to success, but here’s my two cents. Don’t beg to be let through the door into places where you’ll be ignored. Instead, find the other folks out there who value your presence, treat them well, and go from there.

This post was written by Simon Kienitz Kincade.