In the last article I talked about why I believe every writer should have at least one no-low budget script in their portfolio. I also stated my belief that no-low budget screenwriting is one of the hardest challenges a writer can take on. It’s difficult because a restricted budget appears at first glance to severely reduce the choices a screenwriter has. However, in this article I want to look at some of the techniques a writer can use, which will keep costs down, but without compromising the film.
Most writers seem to have been taught that the easiest way to reduce the budget of your script is to limit the size of your cast and to severely cut back the number of locations. However, rather than just leaving it at that, let’s try to understand why restricting your cast and your locations may save you money. By understanding why this works, we will be able to see other ways of saving money, but without compromising your cast or your choice of locations.
When you are making a film, you usually film out of sequence. What this means is that instead of starting at page one of the script and filming one scene after the other, all the scenes set in one place (one location) are filmed at the same time. So all the scenes in Harry’s Bar are shot at the same time, on the same day. We do this because every time you move location, all the camera equipment, lights, sound stuff, actors, props, catering and other film making stuff has to be moved. Each change of location means packing everything up, moving it to the new location, unpacking it and setting up from scratch. Obviously all of this takes time, way more time than you can imagine, and if you’re paying either wages or hiring any equipment, they are calculated on a day rate. The more days you take to make your film, the more it is going to cost to make. Even if your film’s only expense is petrol and catering, the more you move between locations, the more you’ll spend.
Once you understand how filming works, it’s fairly obvious why the more times you move locations, the more days it will take to make your film and therefore the more expensive it will be. And, as actors charge by the day as well, the more actors you have on set per day, the faster you will burn though your budget.
However, what should also be obvious, is that the underlying issue when it comes to a film’s budget is not how many locations you use or even how many actors you have, it’s about how many days you spend filming. Keeping down the costs is really about keeping down two things:
1. The cost per day
2. The total number of days needed to complete the movie
When you think about it, the math is fairly easy. Ten actors used for a fifteen day shoot is cheaper, than eight actors used for a twenty five day shoot. (10 x 15 = 150 —- 8 x 25 = 200). It’s not about how many actors you need to tell your story, it’s about how many days they’ll be required on set. So, whilst it’s always a good idea to trim unnecessary characters, do it because it’s good for the script, not as a knee jerk budget cutting technique. If you control your shooting days in other ways, you’ll never need to compromise your cast.
Rather than being about simply cutting locations and actors, cutting costs is almost exclusively about controlling the amount of time you spend shooting. Understanding how to cut down the days you spend shooting, is something you can only learn by getting involved in film production and looking at what really eats time in that process. If you understand that and what on set is costing you money that you don’t really need, you’ll really start trimming budgets.
Use Locations Effectively
What I tend to suggest to people looking to cut costs in their movie without compromising it, is not to think about restricting your locations, but instead that they write their story so it makes effective use of high quality locations.
Effective use of location is primarily about finding a great primary location and building your story around that location, instead of writing a story set in generic locations and then looking for locations to make it work. For example, let’s say you have obtained permission to access and film in an abandoned mental hospital. Before you even start writing the script, you go there and take photographs of all of the potential micro-locations you have within that overall location.
Your list should look a bit like this:
EXT - MENTAL HOSPITAL (FRONT)
EXT - OVERGROWN GROUNDS BEHIND MENTAL HOSPITAL
EXT/INT - GROUND KEEPER’S SHACK
INT - ABANDONED RECEPTION
INT - CORRIDORS (multiple)
INT - STAIRWELLS (multiple)
INT - MENTAL WARDS ONE TO FOUR
INT - PADDED CELLS
INT - SHOWER BLOCK
INT - BASEMENT
INT - MORTUARY
INT - CHAPEL
INT - OFFICES (multiple)
With a building like this, the list would actually be a lot longer, but hopefully you can see within this one overall location you have a lot of different places (micro-locations) to tell your story. As long as your production team has enough lights to set up two locations at the same time, your lighting team can be setting up your next micro-location as you are shooting. Which means, that the time spent in moving from one set up to the next, is no more complicated than carrying the camera kit from one part of the overall location to the next. This kind of use of location doesn’t add to the number of days spent in production, because you’re managing your locations to maximise the amount of time spent shooting, as opposed to spending time and money moving the production. Keeping the cameras rolling is how you get the job done effectively.
Basically, smart no-low budget screenwriters start their process with a specific overall location in mind and then write their story to work in that location. This process of bundling or bunching all of your micro-locations into one large, visually interesting place (your overall location) is one of the core skills of no-low screenwriting.
As you can see, this is not the same as restricting the number of locations you use, it’s more about being smart about how you use locations in your script.
The two location based mistakes I see most often in no-low budget screenwriting are:
1. extended scenes, and
2. tedious (compromised) location choices.
No-low budget writers who believe they need to restrict locations to save money, have a tendency to write scenes longer than they need to because they believe this is how you reduce location costs. Writing scenes longer than they need to be is never a good idea, and is a particularly poor idea in a no-low budget movie, where you need to keep your writing tight. This is the wrong way to reduce location costs because it not only takes the pace out of your script, it also makes the film feel slow and look cheap.
The second mistake no-low screenwriters tend to make, is thinking the best way to save money is to use their own homes as the primary location. 99% of student films tend to be shot in student’s homes. The only problem is student apartments are very rarely interesting locations. Again, although it seems like an obvious way to go, using boring locations, just because they are free, will pretty much always compromise your film and make it look like a first year film student’s assignment.
The key to cutting location costs without compromising your film, is to think in terms of overall locations and micro-locations within that overall location. Good locations add value to your film and help to control your costs at the same time. Smart screenwriters know how to work like this and hand producers films that are both brilliant and cheap to shoot.
Write For Actors
Whether you are dealing with an unknown actor looking to get their first break, or an established star, 95% of actors are looking for exactly the same thing: a role which will give them an opportunity to create something astounding. If you are a no-low budget screenwriter, the best way of getting a high quality film on your budget, is to write a story where the individual roles created give actors an opportunity to do the kind of work they really want to. This means, all of the roles need to have some emotional depth to them. The individual scenes need to be fresh and full of genuine drama. This is especially true if it is a scenario that actors have to deal with every single working day. Trust me, if you can find a way to make something as cliched as a police interview scene, fresh, new and full of drama, actors will love you. Or perhaps even better, offer them the opportunity to do something no one has ever asked them to do.
But, how does this relate to your budget?
Well, it’s very simple. An actor’s day rate (cost) varies between thousands of pounds (or $) per day and zero. This amount per day relates not just to their market value, but also in direct relationship to how much they want to do a particular project. Take, for instance, an actor like Steve Buscemi, he’s very open about the fact that he takes on Hollywood projects to put food on the table, and then he gets his personal fulfillment by doing interesting independent projects. Basically, if the project and the role is astounding, you’d be amazed at who you can get to act in your little movie, and how little they may require in terms of payment.
However, before everyone gets overly excited about this, what we’re really saying here, is that you can attract very good actors onto independent projects if the scripts and the roles are EXCEPTIONAL. The key word is exceptional. Even if you’re not looking to attach well established names to a project, the better the script and the better the roles within it, the better class of actor you’ll be able to attract. Not only that, the better the script, the more likely it is that your cast will work cheaper, for a back-end payment (money paid once the film is sold), or even for free. (By the way, everyone in the business knows that “for a back-end payment” and for free is the same thing).
Of course, if you really want to get actors to commit to a project for free, not only does the writing have to be exceptional, you really do need to concentrate on getting the number of shooting days down to a minimum (see the first technique). The better the role, the smaller the time commitment needed, the better your chances of getting your cast well about what you can really afford to pay.
Break The Rules and Think Outside the Box
In 1995 the Danish director Lars Von Trier, and a few others, published the Dogme 95 Manfesto. This was a document which presented a set of rules for filmmaking. These rules were presented as an aesthetic, as both a style and political choice. However, anyone familiar with filmmaking can see that effectively they also work as a set of rules for radically cutting budgets. The Dogme Manifesto reads:
1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.
(Pretty easy to see the saving here. You don’t have any art direction or prop costs. Locations are as found, so no set up times)
2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.
(Again, adding sound in post production and paying music rights are all major costs in filmmaking)
3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.
(If the camera is hand-held it takes much less time to move between set ups. Filming hand-held is faster and therefore cheaper)
4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable - if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.
(Lighting costs money to rent and time to set up - this rule all is about faster, cheaper production).
5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.
(Both cost money)
6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)
(Use of weapons on a film set increases insurance costs and you are also legally required to pay a stunt coordinator and a weapons handler, usually called an armourer).
7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden - that is to say that the film takes place here and now.
(Costumes and props for period pieces cost money, shooting in the present day doesn’t)
8. Genre Movies are not acceptable.
(Genre movies often rely on stunts, complex make-up or various forms of effects, which cost money)
9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm
(My guess is this is what they had cheap access to)
10. The director must not be credited.
(I’ve no idea why they wanted this rule… but, as a writer, I like it!)
OK. I’m not suggesting that as a screenwriter you adopt the Dogme rules. What I am saying is that if you are prepared to challenge, think about and ultimately break conventional thinking about how you shoot a film, it possible to cut filming costs dramatically. Remember in 1995, the whole digital revolution was in its infancy. Von Trier was looking at ways to minimise costs, whilst shooting on film (although by 1998 he was shooting The Idiots on video).
The Dogme Manifesto is just one way of doing this. A few years ago I wrote my own set of rules for no-low budget filmmaking. Just like Von Trier, I was looking to find my own way of working. One where I could produce a good film, with a budget as close to zero as possible, but where I wasn’t exploiting either my crew or my cast. Perhaps in a future article I’ll write specifically about how and why I developed my Lone Gun Manifesto approach to screenwriting and filmmaking.
The important thing here, is to be willing to think for yourself and to create your own approaches to making films.
Writing no-low budget movies isn’t about compromising the quality of your film, it’s about smart use of overall locations (giving you lots of storytelling options), high quality writing to attract good actors, knowledge of how production is normally done, and the willingness to throw out conventional thinking when it gets in the way of what you want to achieve.
The bottom line, is that in no-low budget filmmaking the gap between the money you have to make your film and a larger budget, has to be filled with the screenwriter’s imagination, knowledge and creativity.
- Alt-Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Low Budget Script
- Alt-Script: What the Heck Does Independent Filmmaking Mean?
- Balls of Steel: Ava DuVernay's 'Middle of Nowhere' Journey... and Screenplay
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