Yes. There are many of them in Nebraska. Since every vision of any project is subjective, and everybody’s definition of a small town is different, we’ll talk about this according to population, the main street as the primary location, and tips from my experience of scouting and shooting in small town Nebraska.
Firstly, what locations (in the town) are required to meet your criteria? Movie theater? Bank?Church? Cafe? Or is it 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 (of scale) the population defines what a small town will look like. It could be called a (small) city or a smaller town or even a village. Here is a LIST of towns with a population of 1,000 to 6,000 people.
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 is a list of smaller towns and villages less than 1,000 people. Murdock (above photo) is under 300.
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 look. It could be where the county courthouse sits in the middle of a square (like in Seward above) or the “old” main street is a few blocks off the “new” main street. A key word used in location scouting is options. Seward has many. Beyond the square, old and new looks, and a busy highway through town – they also have brick streets.
Brick streets are cool but they aren’t always practical – either as a preferred design or simply wheeling wardrobe racks or camera carts over them (if they’re in bad shape). 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).
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, and a pharmacy are all location assets. Newer brands of ample clean lodging might be in town. If you’re making a movie and staying a while, consider renting space in a private home. There is indeed such thing as small town hospitality.
An annual festival (that often includes a parade) is the ultimate small town USA experience. Maybe your project has an event scripted in the story – or this is what your project is about. Certainly if it isn’t, and you want the run of the place, choose another time. 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 (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 beloved small town isn’t under construction. In 2011, the above shot was one of those issues and I didn’t know about until I scouted – in person. This is another reason why I tell the new filmmaker, “Do not scout (and lock) locations via the internet!” If you do scout a town and LIKE it – but don’t see any construction, ask about any plans. Construction or 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 would simply like to remind 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 expressed and received by this small town and the citizens. They became our collaborators and contributors.
Scout the many small towns of Nebraska. Hire an experienced professional like me. Drive around the State and see all of them. Talk to the residents, because they will certainly say hello. Share your vision, collaborate with the town, be safe, and have fun.
Words and photos Copyright Jamie Vesay.