THE BLOG
12/31/2014 09:37 am ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

'Guerrilla' Filmmaking is Inherently Risky

"Guerilla" filmmaking is inherently risky.

First of all, what is "Guerrilla" filmmaking? The dictionary defines it as "activities of an impromptu nature attempted without official authorization." The word "impromptu" in the context of student filmmaking is slightly misleading.

There are times when events or circumstances are of such a once-in-a-lifetime nature, that grabbing a camera and recording it is the only way the event can ever be preserved. This conduct is explained away under the euphemism "director's prerogative." That expression has been part of film lexicon forever. But, in the hands of developing, filmmakers that notion may have dangerous unintended consequences. It is also an exception to the general conduct of "guerrilla" filmmaking.

As Director of Physical Production at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, I oversee the accomplishment of approximately 1,600 projects a year. Our films range from five-minute class exercises to 30-minute graduate thesis projects. Although every project is different, they all have some things in common. They require actors, equipment, crew, location, stages, insurance, post production facilities, personnel support and official on-campus and off-campus permits. Clearly, we are not a guerrilla filmmaking school.

"Guerrilla" films may employ actors, crews and equipment but they tend not to bother with things like permission, notification, explanation or remedies for the unexpected. The assumption is permits cost money and time, notifying might be inconvenient and most significantly, asking permission might result in the word "no."

So why do so many young, and not-so-young, filmmakers think "guerrilla" filmmaking is sexy, mavericky or "pushing the envelope?" In my view, it's laziness, immaturity and worst of all, arrogance. But that arrogance can have catastrophic consequences. I reference, but do not wish to expound upon, the tragedy in Georgia where a young assistant camerawoman lost her life.

I will tell you a story that happened recently closer to home.

I was visiting my sister in Connecticut. I happened to turn on the computer hoping to get my emails. Up on the screen came a CBS news bulletin. It seemed some student filmmakers had gone into a coffee shop and asked the owner for permission to shoot some scenes for a "Christian" film. They really intended to film an armed robbery, complete with actors brandishing AK 47s. Came the morning of filming they staged the action but never bothered to notify any one. The inevitable happened.

A woman on her way to work stopped by the coffee shop as she did every morning. There before her eyes were two men holding the cashier at gunpoint. The woman freaked out and called the police. The police had never been notified, so they thought it was really a hold up in progress and they responded en masse. They burst into the coffee shop with guns drawn. One of the actors, believing the location had been notified that they were staging a scene, turned towards the police while still holding the weapon. That actor will never come closer to dying, until he actually does, than at that moment. Only the grace of God and the quick thinking of a highly professional Police Chief who reached out and took the gun from his hand, did he survive. The next sound heard was the voice of the director yelling: "Cut. Cut. Cut. What the hell is going on here? I'm making a movie."

No sooner had I read the bulletin than my cell phone lit up like a Christmas tree. "Joe, please tell me that wasn't one of ours." Call after call with the same plea.

"Absolutely not," I reassured them. "I can take one look at that coffee shop and know it's not one of ours."

And I was right.

So what would we have done?

For starters, we would not have lied to the proprietor. Next, we would not only have notified the local police of our intended shoot, but sent someone with the prop weapons to the police department to show them. We would have gotten city permits. And, most significantly, and perhaps unique to USC, we would have posted signs. Our signs, that we routinely make available to our students at no cost, are large, use bright colors and proclaim: "USC student filming in progress. PROP WEAPONS IN USE." Those signs would be posted at all points of entry to avoid misunderstanding should the police just happen upon the filming.

There is nothing sexy about someone dying in the course of making a movie. And at USC, as the title of my new book says: Nothing Dies for Film.