After 30 years as an Assistant Director, Production Manager and Producer, I was invited to become Director of Physical Production at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts.
One would think that in jaded, old Hollywood, home to a thousand movie productions, people would be able to differentiate between real life and make-believe, in filming.
But guess what?
"People" would be wrong.
A beginning class was filming a mugging in an alley near school. One man held another man at gunpoint. The gun was rubber with no moving parts. There were a dozen students present. There was a camera on a tripod, dolly track, lights and a truck filled with electrical equipment. But a little old lady walking by failed to make the nexus between the cinematic accouterments and the fact that it was only a movie. She called the police and reported a hold up at gunpoint in an alley.
The police came running. And believe or not, when the LAPD gets a call about a gun and a mugging in an alley, they don't automatically say to themselves': "Oh, gosh, must be film students." They take it seriously. That is why we tell our students, "if the police roll up while you are filming, the actor must immediately DROP THE WEAPON."
Many people believe they can wave a weapon at the police while they explain it's only a make-believe gun. Most police will tell you: "We don't see you... we only see the weapon."
On another occasion, I was sitting in my office on a Saturday when the phone rang and a man's voice blurted: "You almost got my son killed. What-the-hell are you doing down there?"
You can believe that's the kind of dialogue that gets my undivided attention. Some of our students had been filming in a Seven-Eleven store in South Central Los Angeles in the middle of the night. The scene called for a young man attempting to rob the store by pretending to have a gun. In fact, he had no gun. What he did have was a ski mask. The student director told him specifically to place the mask on the top of his head but not to lower over his face until he was inside the store.
The student waited patiently outside for his cue to enter. The director yelled: "Action" and the young actor lowered the mask and stepped into the store. At that precise moment, a Good Samaritan, driving by, saw someone in a ski mask entering a Seven-Eleven and dialed 911. The cops responded quickly. We actually had on film two guys, the size of Delaware, holding shotguns, look right into camera and say: "if we had seen you enter the store, we would have shot you."
The students, thinking they were being diligent, had written a hand-drawn note on a piece of white paper and stuck it in the corner of one of the store windows. Naturally, the police never saw it. That event gave rise to our PRO WEAPONS IN USE signs that every USC student carries to location and places at any point of entry to the set.
We have even gone so far as to insist that students filming on our stages place those sign outside the stage doors.
Always err on the side of caution.