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MICRO-BUDGET HOW TO: Adapt a Play to Film on a Micro-Budget, Part 1

Don't be afraid! You can make your first feature film on a micro-budget, by adapting a play to a film. Rick Mowat shares advice on adapting on a micro-budget.

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Guest post by Writer/Director: Rick Mowat

MICRO-BUDGET HOW TO: Adapt a Play to Film, Part 1 | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Photo via CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

MICRO-BUDGET HOW TO: Adapt a Play to Film, Part 1

Don't be afraid! You can make your first feature film on a micro-budget, by adapting a play to a film.

Everyone wants to make a film. From your regular barista to the local used car salesman, pretty much everyone alive desires to be in the movies. One way or another. And these days it seems like folks want to be a big time director more than a movie star. Few really pursue it however and even fewer ultimately make a film.

There are loads of reasons for this – fear, lack of focus, can't finish a script, don't know the right people, have no idea how to even get started - but one of the biggest obstacles to getting into it, is cost. So, I'd like to discuss a very viable approach to lessen this omnipresent hurdle. By finding a great play, you have the ability to turn that material into a great film. But not so fast.

Script EXTRA: Adaptation, Get It On Paper

A Great Play Can Make A Great Movie

The first order of business is finding a play with great characters, a good story and well-written dialog and preferably a piece that lends itself to the larger canvas of film. First off – forget about going after bigger name playwrights like Mamet, Shanley or August Wilson. Everything they've ever written has already been optioned and it's expensive. Go with an unknown or better “on the way up” playwright that has yet to be discovered.

Obviously, the best way to do this is to see a lot of plays, but if you don't live in New York or Chicago, then read a lot plays or put out a notice for submissions. The property is out there and waiting for a person just like you, to aim a camera at it.

Don't be afraid! You can make your first feature film on a micro-budget, by adapting a play to a film. Rick Mowat shares advice on adapting on a micro-budget.

Stageplay: A Cat's Tale, NYC, 2015: Marty Grabstein & Lisa Barnes, Photo by Rick Mowat

Play Means Micro-budget By Nature

But what's so great about going this route? There are three main advantages of using a play for a film – cost, cost and cost. Most plays are set in one or two locations and this is going to be good for you the filmmaker. You'll have to pay for the option and ultimately purchase the property but this can be done for a very low entry fee. Let's say $1 for the option. Most folks, even broke filmmakers, can afford that. And most undiscovered playwrights will be delighted that someone thinks they're worth a dollar.

Script EXTRA: The Dollar Option

Micro-budget Means Creative Restraints

Now the notion of turning a play into a film is not new. Going back to A Street Car Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams to this year's Oscar winner for best picture, Moonlight, these were all plays first. The next challenge then is to turn your newly acquired play into a screenplay. And a challenge it is. You will absolutely have to expand the piece.

Adaptions Use Additional Locations & Resources

stage to screenplay

Photo Credit: Joe in DC via / CC BY-ND License: Attribution-NoDerivs License

You'll need to break it out from one or two locations into numerous locales. This is difficult. On the one hand you don't want to undermine the strength of the play by breaking it up into a bunch of disparate locations that have little or nothing to do with the original piece. On the other hand you cannot expand too much because each new location adds to the cost and pretty soon you'll be well beyond your budget.

So let's pause here and reflect on, what your budget should be? That's a great question with no right answer other than, as little as you can get away with.

Script EXTRA: Writing the Micro-Budget Screenplay

How To Determine The Micro-budget For Your Adaptation

My first feature (only 15 years in the making!) which came out last year entitled, A Cat's Tale, was adapted from an original stage play by Anna Capunay, a superb young NY playwright. We actually rehearsed and performed the play at a small theater and shot it two days later on location in Long Island. One need not take this approach, but it offers advantages.

How To Utilize Creative Efficiency

We used the same cast and used a lot of the same blocking and they were rock solid on the acting, so we were able to shoot the whole thing in three days. Yes that's right. Three. Total. For a whopping $32,000. In 4K on a Red Dragon! And yes that included some very good post production with ADR a few simple SFX and the works. A lot of long takes and mostly hand held camera work and a very skilled, very efficient crew, also helped achieve this feat. It can be done.

You're probably wondering how many location we used? Mostly we used the living room of a house we got for free. Free locations, by the way, on a micro-budget are kind of the only way to go. But then we also used the kitchen, the front yard, the side patio, a house across the street for exteriors and a donut shop in Soho. That's it. Could we have used more? Sure. But not on that budget and this is forever the push-pull of filming a play. How much is enough?

Great Expectations For Adaptations

When you start going into higher budget (indie) projects, something you can count on in realizing your play to screen production, is various higher ups along the way constantly telling you that, “Gee, if feels like a play.” I believe you have to stand your ground and while at the same time keep expanding it until it doesn't make sense anymore and hope that you can get someone to finally say the magic words, “That's a film.” But remember each new location adds to an ever expanding budget. For our new project, Last Pint, also adapted from an excellent play by a relative unknown but masterful playwright, Fred Crecca, we want to keep the production costs as low as possible in order to put more into a cast. Or more specifically, a known actor (or two) that will be able to help market the film and help us recoup the initial investment.

That is the goal, in my opinion of the indie film. Sure, everyone wants to hit the home run and cash in but if you can break even, you're well ahead of the pack. And you'll be in a position to do another project.

Script EXTRA: Write Like a Production Manager

Building On Great Writing

So again, it takes some skill and many rewrites to come up with the perfect balance of locations versus good interesting story. And a great script is necessary. On this I can hear some of you saying, “but there are so many bad scripts that get made into movies.” Why does mine need to be so gosh darn amazing and earth shattering? Well OK, perhaps that's true but it doesn't apply to you.

Here's the secret that hardly anyone in the industry talks about - incredibly, many investors and even distributors, don't care if your script is any good at all. In fact, it's a good bet that these people won't even bother to read your script...even if they invest in it. But as I mentioned previously, the bigger-budgeted indies, which could be anything between a few hundred grand and 5 million, are very casting dependent.

Cast Determines Budget Size

You need a name (or better two) to sell your film in different territories around the world, as well as North America. So, though the money people could care less if you can write at all - guess who does? The actors! Especially the ones you want to headline your film. They know good writing when they see it. And vice versa. You should also know, that you will not have enough cash for them to just do it for the money. Your project will never be confused with Terminator 12. The money people and distributors interpret name talent attachments to your indie as validation that it's good. So there you go. Make it as great as you can, because probably anything much less than great, won't fly.

Let yourself fly to your first film...

Photo via VisualHunt: License: CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

Thanks to Rick Mowat for sharing his journey in adapting a play to film, how to approach it and succeed! Looking forward to Part 2!

Rick Mowat Bio

Writer/Director, Editor & Producer, as well as the President of SnackPack Productions, Mowat directs film and plays, is a graduate of The Juilliard School with decades of experience in theater and moviemaking in NYC. His latest film, LAST PINT, is a tale of an Irish fugitive on the run, to be shot in Ireland later this year. Mowat has produced and directed commercials and videos for Frye Boots, Nikon, Kenneth Cole, Bovis Lend Lease, The College Board. He’s won awards (best ensemble, best director) for his recent film A CAT’S TALE – an immediate adaptation of a play to a film, and shorts such as The Meet, Marty Learns To Drive and many others. He has acted in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Sweet and Lowdown and The Town I Love; and worked as an improvisational writer/performer including a theatrical comedy that won #1 Critics Pick by TimeOut Magazine. In addition to working as an editor, writer/director, Mowat teaches editing to private clients, and gives seminars for filmmakers learning how to shoot, edit, and direct. You can contact him at :: 917/361-0830.


Get tips on low-budget filmmaking in Paul Peditto's on-demand webinar
Writing and Producing the Micro-Budget Film