How To Shoot A Nightclub Scene Using Almost No Money

This year at the Seattle International Film Festival, I saw a movie called Layover, which tells the story of how a young Parisian named Simone gets stuck in LA on an extended layover and ends up learning more about her hopes and dreams than she had anticipated. Not only was I impressed with the film, I also loved the story of how filmmaker Joshua Caldwell put it together for about $6,000. Layover is a testament to what can be accomplished with a solid script, a strong directorial eye, a single Canon 5D Mark II camera, and sheer willpower.

In fact, I enjoyed the film so much that (full disclosure) I signed on to become a producer for it. And starting today, /Film readers and /Filmcast listeners can download the film, DRM-free, for $5.95.

One thing that I found particularly impressive about the film was an intense scene that takes place at a nightclub with Simone and her friend. How did Caldwell shoot this scene on such a limited budget? After the jump, see Caldwell's exclusive video explanation of how he filmed the nightclub scene, and read an interview I did with Caldwell and his collaborators.

Q. Tell us about this nightclub scene. What leads up to it and why is it an important scene for the film?Caldwell: I've always been a fan of scenes set in clubs, there's such a texture to them, a fantastic palette of color and light, and I knew that having a club scene in the film, if we pulled it off, would immediately elevate it. Narratively, I felt like it was a crucial turning point in Simone's journey and experience. Up until the club scene, she's been fairly reserved, she's on her way to getting engaged, and I wanted to put her in a position where anything could happen.To me this scene marks the turning point for both Simone and the story as a whole, and it's the moment in the film that allows the rest of the story to be possible.Q. You had a very limited budget for the film. What kind of locations did you consider when it came to shooting this? Did you ever consider altering the script to accommodate your budget?Caldwell: Because of our limited budget, I knew we'd never be able to afford to rent a club for the shoot. I've shot music videos in clubs before, and a day's shoot cost nearly as much as our entire budget for this film! I often say that one of the keys to no-budget filmmaking is writing a script within your circle of resources, so here was my thinking:

I have a friend of mine who is a brand ambassador for an alcohol label, and he's always going to clubs and shooting pictures and video. My original idea was to piggyback off of him as another photographer, get our cast inside, and then shoot the scene without anyone really knowing. Unfortunately, he wasn't comfortable with that.

The next option I considered was to take a couple hundred dollars and get us a table at a club. Since they probably wouldn't allow me to bring a camera in, I would shoot the whole sequence on my iPhone 5. Simultaneously, I was thinking about how I could find a space like a garage that I could use to fake a club.

I never considered altering the script because I didn't have to. I had all these options in mind as I was writing, so I made it so the scene could be executed no matter what they scenario.

Q. In terms of pre-production, how did you go about finding a club to shoot in? How did you pitch it to club owners/managers?Caldwell: While I was considering the options above, my producer Vertel Scott was exploring some more legitimate ways of getting us a location. He had some connections to a few club owners. Our approach was basically to say we'd like to come in with nine people (five cast and four crew), our Canon 5D camera, and shoot for an hour or two and then leave. No lights, no equipment other than the camera, they wouldn't even know we were there.

We scouted a couple of clubs during the time we'd be shooting to see what the lighting and crowds would be like; we brought a 5D to shoot test footage and see if we could make it work.

We needed a place that at least had some light in it, we needed lasers or panels or strobes – it couldn't be a completely dark space. With the club we ended up shooting in, the owner allowed us to come with the cameras and shoot for free so long as we weren't there long and didn't impact the clubs operations. Thus, what looks like one of the more expensive sequences in the film was actually one of the cheapest.

Q. How did you approach shooting the scene? What kind of coverage did you try to get, and how long did it take you?Caldwell: I knew going in that other than the entering of the club and a specific narrative beat, the rest of the scene was just going to be a montage. So it was really about getting as much coverage and variety of coverage as possible. It needed to have energy to it and feel a little chaotic. I wanted a sense of "what the hell did I just watch?" Not confusion but an energy that hit you. And all of that is grounded in Simone's experience. It's all her POV. It was about creating a feeling and an emotion.

When we first got to the club it was early and no one was there. We had another scene to shoot later and a running clock on our time at the club, so we couldn't just stand around. I decided to shoot the moment later in the scene when Simone sees Juliette kissing a stranger. Now, I just said that no one was at the club yet. All I had were the nine people on the cast and crew.

So, here's what we did: We posted up in the lobby area, which was lit red and had an interesting background. I set Bella (Juliette) and her male friend in position and I then lined up the cast and crew, even Nathalie (Simone), two by two, backs to each other. I told them to each take half a step forward. I had our DP stand on the stairs next to us with the panel light and flash and sweep it across the action. I went to the long end of the lens (100mm) framed my shot and then told everyone to start dancing and called action. (See diagram below).

Layover_Club Diagram_01

I wish I had a picture of it, as I'm sure it looked super weird and goofy but because of the long lens, the image turned out how it looks in the film, shadows moving in and out of frame and it feels like we're in a packed club. I did the same when I turned around on Nathalie. In fact, the person to the left of Nathalie in her shot is the guy Bella is kissing in hers.

Other than that specific scene everything else was just grabbing whatever I could. We shot on both the 5D mk II and the 7D. We used the 7D to shoot 60i for slow motion footage. Both cameras were probably at 6400 ISO and on a 1.4 or 1.8 aperture (whatever lens we had).

One of the main things was lighting. I noticed the club had these sweeping pink and blue lights. So I positioned Nathalie and Karl where the light was passing, told them to dance and then just rolled. A lot of the raw footage was too dark but I was waiting for that light to pass over them, knowing it would really cut down in the edit. Since I didn't have control over the light, I just had to make use of what was provided, even if that meant shooting a lot of footage I couldn't use.

Q. In terms of editing the scene together, what kind of mood were you trying to achieve and how did you go about doing that?Will Torbett (Editor): The mood was primarily that of sexual intrigue, set amidst ecstasy-fueled fervor. We have two key story beats: protagonist (Nathalie) meets suitor (Karl) while her friend (Bella) absconds with a lover of her own. Each is conveyed (as with the rest of the film) via Simone's point of view. Thus, her scenes with Karl are immediate, close-up, and more than a little hazy. Karl's appearances here are in brief slo-mo shots, leaving a powerful, lingering impression but one fleeting enough that his reappearance in the next scene is jarring. Simone's discovery of Danielle's infidelity is quick but sobering; they appear mixed in the crowd as a pure POV shot, and our reverse reaction shot is equally brief before Simone darts off in aggravation.

So, in short, the mood ebbs and flows as the ecstasy wears off (though we're drastically abbreviating its usual schedule). Quick, chaotic edits give way to woozy slo-mo, broken by frenzied confusion, sobering indignation, and finally the stone-cold awakening in the parking lot.

Caldwell: I have to hand it to Will. Other than some minor tweaks, the edit on this scene is basically his first pass. He found all of this club footage that Vertel had shot one night during a scout, to show us what the club would look like with a lot of people. I hadn't even considered that footage, but Will made fantastic use of it to help create atmosphere and give the scene some scope and energy.Q. Tell us about the music used during the scene.Caldwell: The film itself was edited to the raw audio track captured by the cameras during shooting. And I really liked it. Because the mic on the 5D isn't very good, the sound was really distorted and grungy, peaking and blown out. And I loved it because it felt so raw and real. It wasn't this perfectly sounding club song. I knew we couldn't get clearance to the songs in that recording, so my original plan was to approach a DJ to create a mix for the scene and use source music. During spotting I mentioned this to Bill Brown, our composer, who offered to give it a go and create a completely original track.Bill Brown (Composer): It worked out really well because we were able to actually tweak the club music to picture and hit cuts and take it all to the next level in the mix using separated elements of the music in 5.1.

When I saw and heard the final dub in the theater I literally laughed out loud I was so blown away by the final result. It's really amazing the way the images and music came together — especially hearing it with a great sound system. The other thing I have to mention about Joshua is how he has such a firm grasp on balancing score to picture. He lets the score take the lead in so many spots in the film and it's magical. This was one of those areas where it just immerses the audience in the scene and really makes us feel like we're right there in the club.

But it's also an emotional thing. Joshua gets inside the characters' heads and experiences by bringing the music to the forefront in those moments. I think the audience connects more with the characters because of his choices both when we're working on the score together and in his final mix. And it's a lot of fun to watch when it's completed.


You can download Layover (DRM-free) for $5.95. You can also get a "DIY bundle" with the film for $8.95, which features director commentary, more anatomy of a scene videos, and an interview with the director too.