I’d been told about the unknown. I’d some prior experience with it. The many unpredictable factors that go into making a film. The many occasions in which the fate of production relies on precise circumstances. I understood there would be roadblocks to navigate. And this story is about how the kindness of strangers served as welcome salvation to a few of the bumps in my independent filmmaking. It’s a story about the people of Santa Paula, California, and the production of my short film, “Ambition Of Love.”
First, some background. “Ambition Of Love” is a noir themed film with a period feel, so myself and my producer, James Caffery, needed locations that didn’t scream modern day. James found Santa Paula, and me and my director of photography, Julius Sambajon Jr., went to check it out. I loved it. The perfect kind of town that could exist anywhere in the country, which has made it a popular location for studio productions over the years. Talking to a waiter from the Mupu Grill on Main Street, I learned that residents of Santa Paula welcome filmmakers, proud to have their home featured in movies. But this also means the town is no stranger to the logistics and money involved in hosting productions.
With some online research, James and I learned there were strict rules regarding film permits, and steep fines for disobeying these rules. Problem was, as is often the case with a no budget fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants indie film, we had neither the time nor money to spend on permits. So we decided to chance it. Afterall, during location scouts the town seemed such a sleepy little hollow, we thought we might get away without even being noticed… Little did we know.
On the first night, under cover of darkness, we prepped to shoot in a remote alleyway that ran behind several stores. Julius and I scouted the area earlier in the week, and it was ideal for our purposes. Our key grip went in search of an electric socket along the exterior of a building in hopes to compliment the generator. Now, keep in mind it was cold out, so some of us were wearing coats with hoods pulled over our heads, some with wool hats. I guess you could say we looked a little suspicious. Nefarious, perhaps. At least, that’s what one of the storeowners thought when she saw our hooded key grip creeping passed her shop window, prompting her to call the police and report a robbery.
Before we knew it, squad cars pulled in either end of the alley. Lights flashing, the uniformed officers quickly surmised we weren’t out to rob anyone, but I still worried they’d tell us to pack up production. James and my sister Alison, who is an actor in the film, fed one officer a cover story about how we were out-of-towners and needed a nearby hotel (which was true, just omitting the filmmaking part). Meanwhile, our fellow crew members were telling a different officer the truth — that we were making a movie. They completely sabotaged the cover story. I was disappointed they gave up the game so easily. But then to my relief, the cops were okay with it. But before leaving us to carry on, they warned that at night the alley we were in was a borderline between the “safe” part of town, and the “dangerous” part. While we then wondered/feared what the “dangerous” part of town might consist of (Vampires, quipped James), we quickly shot the scene and left. Well aware, however, that we’d need to come back the next night.
But first, the following morning began with a scene outside a bank on Main Street. Rather than risk being targeted as bank robbers, I decided to grab a quick establishing shot, then move off Main Street to cheat the rest of the scene somewhere more remote. Question was… where? Santa Paula was proving far more populated than we noted during the location scout. A solution was found when my script supervisor/co-producer Vivian Lee talked with the proprietor of the Glenn Tavern Inn. The inn offered to let us film in the lot behind their hotel, for as long as we wanted and without cost. It was secluded. It was quiet. It was brilliant. We even got a room for the cast, and hair & make-up. The Glenn Tavern Inn proved a lifesaver. But the most complicated scene was yet to be shot, and at dusk we went back to the alley. Vampires be damned.
Again we looked like a crew of thieves. This time a heavyset cop was patrolling the area from the get go. He asked who was in charge and all eyes turned to me. I figured no use pretending. He already saw our equipment, and besides, those officers last night were very understanding. So I told the truth. He asked if I had a permit. No, I said. At which point he reported us to his Sergeant… My heart sunk. This guy wasn’t very understanding. Would they fine us? Would we not be able to finish? Was everything we shot last night for naught, as it wouldn’t match whatever new location we’d have to move to?
Actors Adam Dunnells & Alison Zatta
Within minutes the Sergeant arrived. Clearly off duty, he wore street clothes and had a lighthearted air. To my elation he told us not to worry about anything, explaining how the previous police force was stringent with film permits, but those days were over. In fact, he asked me to spread word that Santa Paula is now friendly to independent productions. So with the Sergeant’s blessing, we pressed on.
I’d chosen a small lot behind a particular building to shoot the scene we needed. There were three doors along the rear of the building, and I planned for the actors to exit the middle one. Before long, however, a storeowner from the door to the right poked his head out to see what the ruckus was about. Using her fine people skills, Vivian asked if the man minded us filming, to which he replied not at all. He was bespectacled and soft spoken, with a kind smile and simply happy to help. He even opened his shop to us, letting the cast and crew inside to stay warm, and offering coffee. When the power went out on our generator, he let us use one of his outlets for the rest of the evening. Maybe he just liked having company while working late on a Sunday. Maybe he was excited to be part of the shoot. But honestly, if it weren’t for him we couldn’t have finished the scene.
And that generosity sums up something wonderful I realized while making “Ambition Of Love.” Production may be beset with bumps you can’t account for, as well as bumps you probably should’ve accounted for. And I’m certain that I fell victim to both types. But something I couldn’t account for were the individuals I’d encounter along the way who aided in navigating those obstacles. I couldn’t have accounted for the new people I’d meet, and the kindness of those strangers who helped in Santa Paula. But I’ll forever be grateful.
Christopher Zatta was born in North Jersey and raised in Canada, Belgium and Princeton. After studying film at Boston University, he got a taste for production as a set p.a. on “Mona Lisa Smile,” and then made the move to Los Angeles. He worked as a writers’ assistant in television before becoming a staff writer on NBC’s “Heroes.” “Ambition Of Love” is his first short film. It premiered at the American Cinematheque’s Steven Spielberg Theatre in Hollywood, and can be viewed online at www.ambitionoflove.com. It’s also screening at the 2011 Dragon*Con Independent Film Festival in Atlanta. For updates, follow Christopher on twitter @crzatta.