Indie Filmmaking in the Age of Terror

Today is the 8-year anniversary of an incident that happened on a shoot, to address the questions: "What kind of contingencies does the money go towards in an indie film shoot?" and "What could possibly go wrong?"

MARCH 13, 2004

...So it's 6:30 AM today and my phone's ringing, I imagine it's someone from cast or crew with some last minute crisis that will require solving before 8 AM calltime.
....Soooooo wrong. It's the LAPD. An officer asks me if I'm renting a truck parked outside the Van Nuys state building (where we're shooting this weekend). Yes, I am. We parked it there last night with all the grip gear because we thought it'd be safe. "It's causing quite a stir," the officer says.
...Flashing back to Friday night, we loaded an Unmarked White rental truck with grip gear to begin a 5 day shoot at the State Building in Van Nuys (which you can sometimes get for free if you're an indie filmmaker and you go through certain hoops, yadda yadda). We parked the truck next to the building because I figured, hey, it's next to a police station, it'll be safe overnight. And then went home to stress about the shotlist.
...At 6:30 AM Saturday morning I'm woken up by my cell phone. It's someone wanting to know about the truck parked in front of the State Building. (In my sleepiness I don't pick up the guy introducing himself the first time) He wants to know if I'm the Dominic Mah who rented it. Yesssss, I say, sensing trouble. "It's causing quite a stir." "What kind of stir?" I ask, and then I remember to ask who again it is that I'm speaking to. Officer Somebody from the LAPD.
...So it turns out that during the night, a patrol car in the Van Nuys area has called in about a suspicious unmarked van parked in front of a State facility. Keeping in mind that this is just a few days after the bombings in Madrid and all of our agencies are understandably at a high state of alert. So they call the bomb squad on this unmarked van, they send a bombsniffing dog to it, and the dog sits. Probably it smells some piece of camera gear that is like something used in bombs, I dunno. At this point, the LAPD goes into action mode. They seal off several blocks' radius around the building, and start busting into the truck, breaking the window and the side door locks. They've already got people rousting the rental company owner out of bed so he can go to his office to use the computer to find my name as the renter.
... Meanwhile the officer on the phone is telling me first to drive to Van Nuys right away, then he changes his mind once he figures out I won't be able to get through the blockade. So they send a local police car to get me instead. Within two minutes, a siren is approaching my apt, just about the same time I'm getting out of my pajamas. I throw on clothes and run outside, where the car is pulling up to the front of my building. The officer says, "Are you Dominic Mah?" Yeah, I say. "Ever wanted to ride in a police car real fast?" he says.
... Actually, no. But I get in anyway and off we go with sirens blaring towards Van Nuys. When we get there about ninety seconds later, we have to go through several checkpoints before getting to the place where I parked, in search of something called the CP (I guess this is "Command Post."). When we reach the truck, I have to stay inside the car for a while until they're ready to talk to me. There are dozens of cops, firemen, and federal officers (identifiable by their jackets that say "Federal Officer" on them) around. I hear someone say, "So how much is this costing the city?" By this time they seem to have figure out that there is no imminent terrorist threat and they're all acting a bit embarassed to be there. A man from the bomb squad approaches me, very friendly, and says "Mr. Mah, I'm going to show you some of the things we had to do to enter your vehicle."
... The things they had to do included breaking through the passenger side window and also the lock on the side door, all so they could get inside and rummage around our rented lighting equipment. I was a little too shocked still to be know what to say, and the police, now that I had arrived, were in a hurry to disperse. The bomb squad guy gave me his card and told me how to file a claim with the city. The explained to me several times how the bombings in Madrid had put them on alert, and how we were living in a new world. Then they left before I had the presence of mind to ask them to clean up the shattered glass around the truck. I'm standing there dumbfounded for about ten minutes, and then the crew starts showing up to begin our shooting day.
... Anyway, that was how our little indie movie encountered the War on Terror. It's funny because there are probably hundreds of white grip trucks parked around Los Angeles on any given night. It's just not a good idea to park them next to state facilities without marking them with some sort of contact info. A lesson learned.
... Oh, and I almost forgot the (in hindsight) funniest part. While I was initially on the phone with the police, in my PJs, and told them that the truck was full of lighting equipment, he started running down the airline security questions on me. "Were you present when the truck was loaded?" " friend did it." "What's your friend's name?" "Uh...Wolf." (Instantly regretted saying this.) "What's his first name?" (Wolf is actually his first name.) "Uh....Aasulv....he's from Norway." (Instantly regretted saying Norway.) This was the point at which I was sure that the movie was all over. Instead though, the movie is happily finished shooting and I'm just waiting for a reimbursement from the city for the truck damage.

(...which, post-scriptually, never happened. The small claims court found for the LAPD and I had to eat the $900 damage bill. But as they say, it is all in the game.)

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