A reader for the Nashville Film Festival screenplay competition, Cheryl Laughlin gophers for indie sets throughout NorCal and performs grass roots marketing for micro-budget documentaries via 20KFilms. Follow Cheryl on Twitter @cheryllaughlin.
Microbudget screenwriting fascinates me. Maybe it’s the uber thriftiness, maybe it’s the minimalism. Or maybe it’s because when I daydream about my script getting made, I dream in the $35 million Trainwreck range. And while I’m dreaming (i.e., procrastinating), sometimes I negotiate down to $9 million (Zoe Kazan Ruby Sparks, yes please). Okay, you twisted my arm, a cool $5 mil it is…. I’m in good company with The Way Way Back, right?
But even a few million is a big-budget studio film by comparison to the films being made on microbudgets. While the numbers swing pretty wide, most sources agree that shy of $500K is microbudget. Actually, I love this 2014 survey from Stephen Follows of 524 film industry business pros in the UK that pegs the average at $396,000.
Any more than that and maybe you’ve gone Hollywood. (Well, mini Hollywood but still living with your three roommates in a basement apartment in Reseda while hoping one of them is the next Judd Apatow to coattail you to full Hollywood.)
So I decided to dig in and learn more of the ins and outs of writing for a microbudget feature film. That’s when I stumbled upon indie writer/director/producer Terrell Lamont, a Denver-based filmmaker currently screening his first microbudget feature film, Hush Money.
Sidenote: Apparently Denver is ramping up as an indie film incubator. When I lived there, not so much. So, look out Northern California. If I ever leave, a bona fide bump in filmmaking is sure to follow.
Push the Writing Limits of the Microbudget Film
Lamont aptly calls his production company gritHouse Films, and he’s known from the getgo he wants to write for the microbudget and springboard from there into bigger budget fare. “You are richer than you think,” says Lamont. “Think about your network and which people can get behind your vision.”
That vision for Hush Money, a limited-location crime drama, was written and made for under $100K. Lamont originally wrote only one location with interiors and exteriors of a house, inspired by Steven Knight’s Locke script featuring actor Tom Hardy in his car. But just one location proved too constraining for a crime drama.
The script eventually expanded into seven locations with a main location being his home. (Luckily, he had understanding neighbors who didn’t call 9-1-1 on the fake cops being filmed outside his house.) He wrote for two main characters joined by no more than 10 minor characters.
“Any other characters were brought in by phone conversation or voiceover to match up the writing to the budget,” Lamont adds.
Don’t Fear the Low Page Count
“It was a challenge to write a simple story around the relationship between a reluctant kidnapper and the kidnapped. And I knew from the start I didn’t want a 120-page count,” Lamont shares.
When you’re writing for yourself as a writer/director or simply as an indie writer, low page counts are the norm. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation script numbered only 75 pages. And Lamont followed suit, starting with a 54-page long short. He dug deeper and wrestled with developing characters, conflict and rising stakes. Pages crept up to 78 and finally 88. That final 88 pages was a tight shooting script with little deviation, to stay aligned with the tight budget.
Lamont tried out an eight-sequence writing structure broken out onto index cards for Hush Money. But adds, “Don’t be afraid to write outside the norm for something new and fresh. Structure can sometimes hamper creativity. Go with your gut instincts.”
And his gut instincts led him to write a tight script with a bit of improvisation and on-the-fly script changes.
A few more writing tips…
Choose Your Action Wisely
Since the script was more of a crime drama with thrilling moments, Lamont had to pick and choose stunts. The budget didn’t allow for stunt doubles, and the actors had to be comfortable doing the stunts written in. Lamont chose to include some brief hand-to-hand fighting and smaller quick action sequences.
“Be ready to work every word and action in your script to meet that budget,” Lamont says.
Draw Inspiration from Microbudget Film Pioneers
With a 15-day shoot and two pickup days, Hush Money looked to others who tread the written path before them. The film Locke worked within just a single car setting, while Hard Candy showed Lamont what could be done with just two people in a house.
"Let’s do a film like that and see where that goes,” Lamont shares.
Be Open to Unwritten Magical Moments
Sometimes you want a moment in a script but you can’t afford it. And sometimes the Universe has your back. Lamont wanted rain in a pivotal scene but knew Denver’s 90-degree hot summer weather wouldn’t comply, so he let it go. And against all odds, it started to rain while shooting that scene. Therein lies a bit of the unwritten serendipity of the microbudget.
Next up, Hush Money screened in Denver at EFPtalks with a Q&A on August 31, 2016. Visit hushmoneyfilm.com and Lamont’s Hush Money Production Diary video for more insider tips on writing for the microbudget film.
- More articles by Cheryl Laughlin
- Alt-Script: Five Good Reasons to Write a No-Lo Budget Script
- Jeanne's Screenwriting Tips: Polishing a Screenplay
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Writing the Low Budget Independent Movie