The world of documentary filmmaking (and photography) is a fast-paced environment that, more often than not, requires a good bit of travel. And more times than not I’m traveling to places where not only do I rarely know the streets but also the language. This is when hiring a local fixer makes all of the difference.
My own projects have taken me throughout Western Europe, Thailand, and Latin America. Most recently my partner, Jessica, and I headed out to Portugal, Spain and Brazil to film our latest project Old World/New World: Beyond the Tagus. Part travel show, part documentary, this project uses archival research and cultural exploration to search the archives for a lost set of medicinal recipes, taken from Brazil by a Jesuit missionary, and then stolen by English corsairs. Luckily, my partner (and producer) extraordinaire is fluent in both Spanish and Portuguese. This allowed our crew to move about Spain and Portugal with little to no trouble at all, given our ability to communicate effectively. The case of Salvador, Bahia, however, was a bit more complex. Our ability to navigate the linguistic terrain of Brazil was not enough; we would need someone versed in the cultural nuances of the city to help us move about efficiently and safely. We needed a fixer.
First things first, it is HOT in Salvador. With my experience filming in tropical places, I find it best to divvy the day’s shooting schedule between a morning and then an evening session. This is for two reasons. First is the punishing mid-day sun. That heat will melt away your energy in no time. The second is for the the much more pleasing light that happens in the morning and the evening. Sometimes you have no choice and need to film during the afternoon, but when I can I’ll avoid it or shoot indoors. Another challenge that we faced in Salvador was tied to the economic disparity that characterizes the cityscape, which in turn leads to higher crime rates: specifically petty crimes, such as theft. Let me make one thing very clear and upfront; the people from Bahia, Brazil are some of the warmest, kindest folks that I have ever met, with a sense of humor second to none. Everyone we came across went out of their way to either help or welcome us to their city. Though, it is worth mentioning that their advice always came down to one morsel in particular: that, as filmmakers, it was not safe to shoot after dark nor was it wise to shoot in certain parts of the city, at all.
We conceded to the no-shooting-after-dark rule. But, we had to be able to traverse the city, even the parts where we weren’t safe, to tell our story. We needed help, so we hired a fixer. I’ve worked with fixers before, but they were always set up either prior to filming or were friends of a friend. There are also websites, such as WorldFixer.com, but this wasn’t an option when we were in country, already shooting. Luckily for us, one of our contacts had set us up with a guy who picked us up from the airport, so we decided to give him a call. We met and asked if he was interested.
Whether filming or on a photography assignment, there are some basic guidelines to consider before hiring a fixer:
Set The Expectations Up Front
It seems obvious but it is worth mentioning: lay out all of the possible roles that you may need your fixer to play. In our case, we needed a driver, someone to suggest locations and, most importantly, be on the lookout to identify dangerous situations and deter possible robbers. Even though our producer, Jessica, is fluent in Portuguese, we needed a local to help navigate the social and economic tensions that can come with large, international cities. We made this clear to our fixer upfront so as to mitigate any confusion while we were filming. Your local fixer will also have great insider tips and tricks, some of which might make the difference between a good film and a GREAT one.
Define the Compensation
Take into account all of the daily expenses that might not make it into your larger budget calculations: tolls, parking, gas, train tickets, museum admission, water… basically anything that shouldn’t come out of your fixer’s pocket. Something that I feel strongly about is to negotiate a daily fee that would be appropriate and fair in the USA. For example, we asked our fixer, Jorge, what he thought was a fair fee. The amount that he came up with was much lower than we anticipated, so we negotiated up from his original quote (one of the few times that has happened). In the end, we settled on $150 a day plus any expenses.
Show Gratitude and Cultural Sensitivity
We would have only gotten a fraction of the footage had it not been for Jorge’s insider scoop, which is invaluable at the end of the day. Plus, simply his presence in sometimes dodgy locations freed me, and my shooting up. He was as much a part of the crew as the rest of us and our fixer pitched in to to help however he could. The fixer’s role is so important to the rest of the crew, and their title credit in the film is well deserved.
A big thank you to all the fixers out there, we could not do what we do without you. FP
Editor note: Special thanks to Dan for reaching out with this column while en route to Lima, Peru! – Jef