Obtaining Permissions

If you have not done it before, you must, while scheduling, begin to consider the question of permissions. Are there points in the shooting where you will need permission to work? Have you discussed that permission, and do you have it in writing? If you are interviewing people in their homes or offices, then their word is probably enough (but watch for higher "officialdom" wanting to get into the act). Most public places, however, such as parks, museums, railways, and official institutions, require written permission.

Make sure that you have asked for all the necessary permissions and not just some of them. For example, a few years ago I wanted to film a concert rehearsal. I spoke to the manager of the theater and the manager of the orchestra, and all was well. When I came to film, however, the orchestra at first refused to participate. No one had asked their permission directly or explained the filming to them. In the end, we went on with the shoot, but there were a few anxious moments.

Another point to check, as far as possible, is whether your permission is flexible regarding date and time of shooting. Sometimes you arrange to shoot on a Monday and then have to shoot on a Tuesday. Obviously, you try to tell the authorities in advance that this will happen. Sometimes you can't, and then it's tremendously frustrating to find yourself confronted by some petty official who takes pleasure in wielding power and stands by the letter of the law—that you have permission only for Monday.

You should also consider the personal release form under the heading of permissions. This is a piece of paper, signed by a film participant, allowing you to use the footage in which he or she appears. Normally, you orally ask permission to shoot and then get the signed, written release when the shooting is completed. Such a release is usually a matter of safety rather than necessity. Few states or countries have rules about privacy, and filming someone on the street is not a basis for legal action. If such a person wants to take you to court, he or she must prove harm. That's normally quite difficult, but it can happen. You shoot a man kissing a woman who turns out not to be his wife, and he then claims your film implies that he is an adulterer. But that's the rare case. So why does one bother with a release? For safety's sake!

The release stops someone you have filmed from making trouble for you at the most inopportune moment. You have filmed a woman talking very frankly about her boss. A week before broadcast, the interviewee gets frightened and goes to court to stop the broadcast, claiming that she has been harmed and never gave her permission. The judge cannot possibly hear the issue in one week, but in order to protect the plaintiff's rights, he issues an injunction to stop the broadcast until the case has been decided. The plaintiff's weapon, used to obtain money or out of genuine fear, is the injunction, because in practice she could probably never win the case. Showing the court the release form stops any threat of an injunction against the film.

Some people insist that you should pay one dollar for the release to make it legal. I don't hold with that argument. The dollar is necessary as consideration if your whole aim is to make a contract. But what you are really doing is getting proof of agreement, which is different. My own feelings are that offering money leads to more complications than it solves, and I have never done it.

Many people use releases on every occasion. I don't. If I am filming a street scene, I don't get releases from passersby or from the people I talk to casually. Again, if I am filming in a home and it seems clear that the interviewee has given permission (otherwise why would they appear?), I don't ask for permission. This has been my practice when I film privately, and so far, I have never come to grief. Most television stations, however, will insist that you produce releases for every interview; they prefer to err on the side of caution.

Obviously, it's valuable, perhaps even necessary, to get releases when you are filming in a very tricky, painful, or potentially embarrassing situation. For example, I always ask for releases when filming in hospitals, schools, or prisons. In those situations, you may really be at risk without the releases. Even with releases, you sometimes have to beware. Fred Wiseman obtained permissions from the superintendent of prisons and commissioner of correction when filming Titicut Follies, yet he still ran into trouble.

Many cities require that you receive police permission if you want to film in the streets and have to put down a tripod. The theory is that you could tie up traffic or cause a nuisance. The permission also soothes the cop who approaches and wants to know what you are doing. Many times you don't have time to get permission, so you just shoot, and nobody seems to care. But you are at risk, so the time spent getting permission is usually time well spent.

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Film Making

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