One thing that surprises most people about the film industry is the logistics. Not only dozens of people having to eat meals, but they also have to all be in the same places at the same times to shoot.
On some productions this means having PA’s shuttle you back and forth, while on others, you get handed a piece of paper with directions and a call-time. The call-time is usually right, but the directions aren’t always so.
And without a GPS or satellite navigation system, you can find yourself very lost, very easily.
Murphy’s Law and Company Moves
Scientists have done studies that show if you are working in the film industry, you are more likely to succumb to Murphy’s Law while on the way to set. They say that the correlation between employment as a filmmaker and the effect of Murphy’s Law is a whopping 35.9% higher than the average blue-collar worker.
OK, so maybe that’s not true.
But it sure feels like it is because the potential to get lost on the way to a shoot is abnormally high.
I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and so I naturally take a lot of work in the United States capital. On a good day, it’s about a 25 minute drive to get into the city. Good days are rare, though: in a study done by the Texas Transportation Institute, Washington D.C. ranked 2nd for “Worst Commute” in all of the United States — and this time I’m not making it up.
Since traffic is wildly unpredictable, I always give myself extra time for job-related drives into the city.
So when I was invited to attend a pre-production meeting for a short film (something camera assistants don’t normally attend, but I wanted to meet the director and key players) I hopped in the car with an hour to spare.
Once in the city, I took the wrong off-ramp thanks to Google’s cryptic directions (I swear they do it on purpose) and spent an hour cruising around DC’s Rock Creek Parkway trying to figure out where I was.
I arrived at the meeting with enough time to say goodbye to everyone who had already been there.
That moment of getting lost and finding my way again would come full circle on the same short film when we were doing a company move within the city. It should’ve been easy, but one of the main roads in DC, Constitution Avenue, had been shut down for a Boy Scout Parade. Without that road, it was nearly impossible to cross where we needed to go.
The director of photography and I didn’t find this out until, of course, we were shackled by our lack of GPS and had to pull over to get directions from a bartender.
Those still didn’t work and quickly we found ourselves lost, again, on Rock Creek Parkway.
In both these situations, we had prepared with directions, with extra time built-in to the commute, and yet, still arrived wildly late by some unknown means.
It was as if Murphy’s Law had collided with Moore’s Law and made a situation exponentially more inconvenient.
Getting Lost for Hours in DC
Talking about getting lost on location always reminds me of one of my favorite stories from a feature film I had worked on in DC. The schedule wasn’t anything crazy, but the major DC traffic made arriving everyday an adventure.
Our locations manager, Hank, wasn’t exactly helpful either. While talented at securing and locking down locations, he left a lot to be desired in the way of finding parking for crew and handing out directions.
It didn’t help this was his first real film shoot.
So I wasn’t surprised on day 12 when I was rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, with a hand-drawn map from Hank in one hand, coming to the revelation that the map was mirrored.
As in, the map the location manager drew for the entire crew was drawn backwards.
Where I had been told to take a right, I was supposed to take a left, and then, when I got on that street, the parking garage was actually on the right, not on the left.
Confused? So was I. So was the production assistant I found idling on the street corner. And so was the Key Grip, John, who I found walking down the street.
“Hey John,” I called out to him, “Where did you park? This map is all wrong.”
He was furious. He started waving his hands, grunting heavy sighs, “I don’t know, man! I have been driving around for 2 hours trying to find this god damn place and just parked somewhere on my own dime. It’s all fucked up!”
“2 hours?!” I said
“2 hours, you know, I’m driving up from Williamsburg and I got here on time, but couldn’t find the parking and was driving around the city. I’ll see you fellas on set, good luck.”
And he sauntered off in haste to go unpack the grip truck which, no doubt, had been waiting for him at the location all this time.
The Napkin Map
By mid-day, the map debacle was a favorite joke among us crew.
I relayed the story of Key Grip John getting furious to my camera buddies at lunch and we had a good laugh over his misfortune. Sure, I had gotten lost too, but 2 hours is a long, long time to stare at a hand drawn map before deciding maybe it was wrong.
So, with a bit of extra time on my hands, I decided to help Key Grip John find his way to set a bit easier the next day.
I flew to crafty — where all my best ideas start — and grabbed a napkin. I whipped the Sharpie out of my pocket and began drawing the simplest and most crude map I could.
When I saw John was leaving for the day, I approached him with it:
“Hey, Hank just gave me this and said these are the directions for tomorrow. I thought you might want them since this morning sucked so much.”
John slowly took the napkin, looked at it, looked up at me, then looked down again.
“Are you serious?!” He raged, “How are we supposed to read this?! I might not show up tomorrow at all…”
I started laughing at this point and he shoved the napkin back onto me.
To this day I still am not sure which is more funny: the fact that John was going to use the napkin or the fact that my poorly drawn map was believable enough to have been drawn by Hank.
When You’re Lost, Hope that Everyone Else is Too
If you talk to anybody who has worked on a film set, I guarantee they have stories just like mine about getting lost or production giving them bad directions.
It’s a function of wildly complex logistics meeting aggressive schedules.
Or it could be the science behind Murphy’s Law.
Either way, my advice for you is to get a GPS device or have one on your phone for emergencies. After the few incidents in DC, I always borrowed one and it has saved me many times from being late to set.
Another takeaway from this story: if you drive to the location and find yourself lost, still, after 2 hours, then put down the hand drawn map and pray to the production gods.
If you’re lucky, everyone else is lost too.
What funny or crazy stories do you have from getting lost on location? Have you ever had a big debacle like the map one? Please share your stories in the comments!