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WRITERS ON WRITING: Crafting the Microbudget Thriller Negative, Rocket Launchers Not Included

Screenwriter Adam Gaines shares the challenges of crafting the microbudget thriller, NEGATIVE, in a way the audience won't miss the lack of special effects and rocket launchers.

Adam Gaines is represented by Brendan Bragg & Jordana Mollick at Haven Entertainment. Download his two collections of one-act plays: MIXTAPE and FIRE SALE on Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble. Twitter: @Nothing_to_Gain

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No one had given me a greenlight prior to a single word being typed before.

That's what director Joshua Caldwell was offering. He had read my indie script PREPAID, a two hander that takes place one night in NYC and we began to discuss a possible collaboration. A project that would be more commercial, something a jam-packed trailer could be cut from that might get butts in seats, but still maintain the character-driven dialogue heavy aspects that initially drew him to seek me out.


Simon Quarterman

He also told me he owned a lot of his own gear, and showed me his first feature that he made for less than the cost of one catered hot lunch on any of the six TV shows I had worked on. There was an understanding that whether we got $5, $5,000, or $50,000 that he had the means and motivation to get this produced.

It was an incentive stronger than money that I couldn't have passed up at that time in my career. I could expand my TV credits like The Bridge and State of Affairs and add a microbudget feature sole screenwriting credit all from a handshake that would effectively bypass most of the standard gatekeepers we would encounter at agencies, production companies, studios, and distributors. It reminded me of the early 90s indie film stories that I had studied and inspired me growing up. I was in. Time to write a movie that I knew ahead of time was getting made.

Script EXTRA: Writing Low-Budget Sci-Fi

Fortunately, I worked on TV shows that encouraged the writers to produce their own episodes, so I had a pretty good understanding of what costs what after the ink hit the page. For the first couple of drafts we didn't know how much we had to work with, so I had to assume it would be limbo award-winning LOW. Meaning we would need to keep it to just a few locations, more interiors than exteriors, set as much as you can in the car, and limit the cast members. Not a problem, especially if you are trying to play in Woody Allen or Richard Linklater's lane, but we had decided it was going to be a spy thriller.

Screenwriter Adam Gaines shares the challenges of crafting the microbudget thriller, NEGATIVE, in a way the audience won't miss the lack of special effects and rocket launchers.

Katia Winter

I was determined not to make this mission extra impossible, so I decided that our spy Natalie (played by Katia Winter) wouldn't have the backing of her spy agency. If she can't call for an extraction, then production never has to worry about getting a helicopter, or a pilot, and don't get me started on the price of jet fuel these days. And she'd be on the run, trying to get out of the business so she wouldn't have her standard bag of tricks. That way production would never have to rent rocket launchers and we could leave those explosive portable devices for James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt to wrestle over.

What did that leave me? Story, Characters, and Dialogue. My three favorites. Let's showcase the natural born skill set of a spy. What about the strange duality that comes with the life: the ability to read people, and yet also be able to emotionally disconnect. Now let's make her an agent from another country and learn how hard it was to blend in here in The States. And let's give her an ex partner, who was also her arranged lover, who is the only person in the country she trusts at the moment because of the situation she finds herself in.

And now if I'm doing my job even close to well, you are starting to forget about the action set pieces and special effects we were never going to be able to afford. And just in case I'm not, I'll be sure to add in interesting conversations not normally found in the genre, like what to order at diners, the detailed origin of marshmallow paste, and a completely fabricated story about an adolescent thief with a very specific palette. Just for good measure.

Film school and creative writing classes will tell you "Write what you know." And you should totally do that, and I 1000 percent agree with that advice. But as the technology gets smaller, and camera, light, and sound packages get more compact and affordable every couple of years, I wish they'd add a lesson in "Write what you can shoot" and just then maybe we'd get more experimental, low budget indie films like NEGATIVE.

NEGATIVE is out today on Digital HD and OnDemand.

Writing and Producing the Microbudget Film

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Writing and Producing the Microbudget Film