Since every vision of any project is subjective, and everybody’s definition of a small town is different, I will speak about this according to population, main street as the primary location, and a few tips from my experience of scouting and shooting in small town Nebraska.
Firstly, what locations (in town) are required to meet your criteria? Movie theater? Bank? Church? Cafe? Or the entire main street? Maybe it’s the entire town. Two big things to think about: Is your project a period piece and what is the size of the town? For the latter, population defines what a small town will look like. It could be called a city or a town or even a village. Here’s a LIST of towns with a population of 1,000 to 6,000.In some smaller towns or villages, the current version of main street could be an eclectic mix of storefronts, aluminum sheds, or garages. There are vacant spaces and empty lots that could either work for or against you. Here’s a list of smaller towns and villages less than 1,000 people.
If you will be shooting most of your scenes on “Main Street”, consider a small town where the main drag is NOT the HIGHWAY. Your set will be safer, you’ll have less headaches, and there is little chance of angering residents and passers-by waiting because you stopped or diverted traffic. Of course, it isn’t impossible to shoot on a busy road like the one above (or busier) but for reasons of creative comfort and the ability to work more freely, I would recommend another choice. Most main streets off the busy highway tend to look better anyway.Some small towns have more than one main street. It could be where the courthouse sits in the middle of a square (like in Seward above and below) or the “old” main street is a few blocks off the “new” main street. Seward has options of old and new looks and a highway through town.
Brick streets are cool but they aren’t always practical – either as a preferred design or wheeling wardrobe racks or camera carts over them or doing in-car driving shots . If you like brick, make sure the entire street is brick. See the photo below and the blend of brick and concrete.If you’re looking at surfaces of streets, watch for art or design elements. It could be a giant painted Shamrock (like in O’Neill) or a large compass in the middle of an intersection (Ashland). NOTE: the photo below was 2011. Current day, this compass is in tough shape.Your small town should have basic amenities for the crew, especially if you’ll be there for an extended period of time. Food, coffee, hardware, laundry, bar, and a pharmacy are all location assets. Newer brands or best lodging might be in the next town. Don’t forget about a nearby state park or homeowners renting rooms or entire houses. There is indeed such thing as small town hospitality.Annual festivals (that include a parade) are worth exploration.Maybe your project has a small town event scripted in the story or it is a character in your project. If it has nothing to do with the script and you want the run of the place, choose another time or town. Check small town website calendars and make sure you don’t conflict with events like these. It will be crowded and streets will be blocked or – the town may not want you to film at that time (especially if it isn’t related). But if you want a vast supply of people, props, vehicles, animals, colors, textures, flags, food, etc. – an event like this could be a great collaboration.Speaking of location conflicts, make sure your favorite small town isn’t under CONSTRUCTION. The above shot was one of those issues and I didn’t know about until I scouted – in person. Another reason why you should NOT SCOUT (and lock) locations via the internet! If you scout a town and LIKE it – but don’t see any construction, ASK about any plans. A public works project might be scheduled. And an important note about art direction and production design impacted by upgrades and remodels to small towns: From leveling a historic building to installing new curbs and sidewalks or railings and light posts, it all might suddenly look too nice and /or they might have eliminated your period piece look.Most DPs and Gaffers will prefer a location that exposes north or a place that does not expose hard and directly to the sun. Or maybe y’all prefer that sort of thing these days. My inner DP and experienced Location Scout is simply reminding you about the direction of a street (north to south vs. east to west) in relation to the time of day and year you will be shooting.
Finally, I encourage you to reach out to the town leaders and ask them to collaborate with you. We shot in the small town of Plainview for the movie Nebraska. Words can not express the incredible amount of cooperation, engagement, flexibility, and welcoming warmth received by this small town and the citizens. They became our collaborators and contributors.
Scout the many small towns of Nebraska. Drive around the state. Talk to the residents. Share your vision. Collaborate with an experienced pro like me. Be safe and have fun.
Words and photos Copyright Jamie Vesay.