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STORY BROADS: Writing to Direct vs. Writing Spec Screenplays

Writer-director Cameron Chapman explains how writing a screenplay to direct yourself requires an extra set of considerations compared to a spec script to sell to a producer.

Cameron Chapman is a Stowe Story Labs alum, freelance writer, author, designer, screenwriter, and filmmaker living and working in Vermont. She has sold four short film scripts to date, was a quarter-finalist in the 2016 PAGE International Screenwriting Awards for her short script Wildflower, and is currently in pre-production on her first feature. Follow Cameron's website and her Facebook, Instagram and Twitter: @cameron_chapman

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STORY BROADS: Writing to Direct vs. Writing Spec Screenplays by Cameron Chapman | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Image credit: Jakob Owens

There are a lot of screenwriters out there who dream of writing a phenomenal script and then selling it to a producer who will take care of actually turning those words into a film.

I envy you. You can write the script you want without constantly considering just how you would accomplish it when the film is made.

I never wanted to be a screenwriter so much as I wanted to be a filmmaker. I don’t just want to put my words down on the page (just! Ha! Makes it sound so easy…), I want to be the one to make them come to life. Don’t get me wrong, there are scripts I want to write that I don’t really have a vested interest in producing or directing myself. But they’re greatly outnumbered by the ones I do want to make myself.

So for the past few years, I’ve donned my producer/director hat while I’ve written each successive screenplay. Here are some things I’ve learned in writing both shorts and features that I plan to direct and/or produce myself.

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Learn to think about the money

Money is the thing standing in the way of most (great) scripts being turned into films, whether you’re making it yourself or selling it to someone else. But unless you’re independently wealthy, the budget for your first film is unlikely to be much higher than what you’d pay for a decent used car (or maybe a reasonably-priced new car if it’s a feature).

Figuring out how to write a feature that you can shoot for a budget in the low- to mid-five figures can mean the difference between actually getting your feature made or spending the next ten years struggling to put together a couple million dollars in financing.

Things that cost money (this is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea):

  • Multiple locations
  • Large casts (even if everyone is working for free, you still have to feed them and cover expenses)
  • Any kind of special effects
  • Long shooting schedules
  • Costumes and props that you can’t get at a thrift store
  • Complicated shots (dollies, cranes, etc.)

Every single one of those things adds up. Every single thing you add to your script potentially adds a line item to your budget.

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Build on your past experience

Instead of trying to jump straight into a “big budget” indie film, start small. Make a short. Then make a feature for $10k. Use the feature you shot for $10k to raise the funds to make a feature for $100k. Then use that feature as leverage to raise $1M. And so on.

Writing and making a feature for $10k that does well in festivals, or even earns back its budget, is going to look a lot better on your resume than trying to make a $1M feature that loses money and is a disaster. As your budget goes up, so do the expectations for quality. And while money can buy some quality, your skill set is just as important. And that comes with time and experience.

Look critically at your resources

My current feature project was written specifically to be shot in a very limited time span (48 hours, to be exact). That’s because right now, where I’m at in my career, I can’t afford to take weeks off to make a feature. And at the same time, I don’t want to make a ton of shorts. I’m ready to attempt a feature.

So I looked at what I had available to me. A weekend. A house. A handful of actors (I’m casting far and wide on this one, but if all else failed I could assemble a quality cast of that size from local people). Some very basic costumes and props. And the camera I already have (plus a second camera of the same type to simplify editing).

Sit down a make a list of what you have available to you. Are you friends with someone who owns a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop (preferably one that has limited hours that would allow you to use the space when they’re not open anyway)? Do you have an awesome car? Does your old college roommate have an amazing house you could use? Do you have friends who act that you could tap into? Think critically about all the things available to you and go from there.

Shorter scripts cost less

If you write two scripts that are nearly identical in terms of the type of content but one is 80 pages and one is 120 pages, can you guess which one will likely cost less to film?

But it’s not just the number of pages. It’s also the number of scenes. The more setups and breakdowns you have to do, the longer your shooting schedule will be. Granted, really long scenes can also require more takes, so it’s a balancing act. The main thing is that if you can combine shorter scenes or eliminate them, it can simplify the actual filming of your script.

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You have full control

I’ve talked a lot about the potential pitfalls for writing to direct a film yourself as opposed to writing to sell to someone else, but one of the biggest perks is this: you have much more control over your film when you’re directing and/or producing it yourself. You’re only limited by your budget and skill set (and the skills of those around you).

Don’t underestimate how important good problem-solving skills are. Indie directors and producers have to refine their ability to solve problems on the fly, from the writing right on through post-production.

Knowing that you have some choice about which compromises you’ll need to make to get your script made is a huge perk for a lot of screenwriters. Knowing that you can opt not to make changes when they severely damage what your vision was for the script is more valuable than a lot of other, more tangible perks that come with selling a script outright (like a guaranteed paycheck).

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Parting thought: Don’t be precious about your script

When you sell a script to a producer, in the majority of cases you lose control of what happens with that script. Yes, you might be hired to do a rewrite, but they might also hire someone else to rewrite your script entirely outside of your control.

When you’re directing your own script, it can be tempting to lock your script down and stick to it like an engineering blueprint, as if the entire thing might fall apart with even the smallest of changes. But film is still a collaborative medium, even when you’re acting as a writer/director/producer. You have to be open to changing things about your script to fit the resources you have, including your cast and crew. Listen to ideas from others with an open mind, and make changes when it will make the script more doable or better overall.

As you assemble your team, listen to their suggestions (particularly your actors) and consider each one of them. That doesn’t mean you have to follow all of them, but having a cast and crew who feels valued for what they bring to the table starts with valuing their input and expertise.

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