Filmmaker and screenwriter Paul Peditto shares his top 10 things to consider when writing your micro-budget screenplay.
“The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optional effects, no horses to feed. It’s no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”–John Sayles
Doing research for a book proposal, I came across these stats:
• Amazon search-keywords: Hollywood Screenwriting: 821 books.
• Amazon search-keywords: Low Budget Filmmaking: 603 books.
• Amazon search-keywords: Micro-Budget Screenwriting: 3 books (and I wrote one of those.)
13,782 movies submitted to Sundance last year. 50,000+ screenwriters who registered scripts with the Writer’s Guild. Lotta folks writing and making movies, pushing into television and web series, seeking out alternate strategies for making it happen. Getting your voice and vision out there has never been more possible. With advances in digital camera technologies and software, you no longer have to wait for Hollywood’s approval. You don't need an agent, or have to advance in a major screenwriting contest, or place well on Black List, or write a freakin' query letter to get a movie made. Let me repeat that, quoting Johnny Lydon: “You don’t need permission for anything.” Talk about revolution…
It all starts with the script, which is why it was surprising there were so few books dedicated to the subject. Here’s a Top 10 on things to think about when writing your micro-budget screenplay:
1. WRITE WITH A PRODUCER’S MENTALITY
Micro-budget is a movie made with money exclusively controlled by you. Meaning money out of your pocket, or your mom’s pocket, or your 1000 Facebook friend’s pockets through a Kickstarter campaign. If you raised, or can raise, $25,000–you better write the script with that $25,000 in mind.
That means being aware of the costs of making a movie. Looking at the script as a producer would at story-stage, not forcing your producers into impossible production/post-production decisions when the time comes.
2. CONCEPT= GENRE + VISION
Pre-dating Robert Rodriquez as the grand-daddy of Micro is Roger Corman. Look at his IMDb page: 408 Producer credits! Is there anyone who has more? His 56 Directing credits date back to 1955. And while Attack Of The Crab Monsters or Teenage Cave Man might not make AFI’s Top 100 movies, very few men can claim to have a “School” created from their aesthetic. Corman mentored and gave a start to many young film directors such as Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Bogdanovich. He helped launch the careers of actors Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.
Certain genres always work for Micro: horror, comedy, thriller, drama. Corman went one-step further, adding campy comedy to his horror, or thriller aspects to a drama. These “mash-ups” of genre were done with simplicity and for a price. After you make a hundred of these you would not only know how to bring them in for a price, but for what appeals to a ticket-buying audience. The man had the ability to infuse genre pieces with a vision specific enough to father the “Corman School”, predating digital D.I.Y. by 40+ years.
On genres, if you're on a tight budget it’s safe to say you should probably stay away from period-pieces or post-Apocalyptic action. Anyone who’s seen Primer knows sci-fi can be done cheap. Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for the infamous $7,000 bucks and is looking to do another micro, so Action is also on the list. Look at Fede Alvarez, who wrote and directed the remake of Evil Dead not to mention the amazing Don't Breathe. How did a young filmmaker from Uruguay get that gig? He made a short film (Panic Attack!) that looked like it was made for a million dollars… for $300! Based on that short film he got noticed and representation in Hollywood. That is how you play the game. Show the Hollywood gatekeepers you can make a high-quality commercial product dirt cheap.
3. WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE (THE ROBERT RODRIGUEZ SCHOOL)
Dude literally wrote the book on the subject. Predating the digital era, his advice of using what you have is more relevant today than ever. Locations, props, wardrobe– the goal is to pay for nothing. While unlikely you can get away with that goal for some expenses should try to never pay for a location. Take the resources you can bring and make an accounting. Dad owns a bowling alley? Set the movie in a bowling alley. Mom runs the local Salvation Army store? Guess the wardrobe and props will be coming from the Salvation Army. Friend owes you a favor who has a truck that can be shot or used for crew transport? Make the call! Beg, borrow, and steal. And this is only to start… time to flush the ego.
You as writer need to understand the basics of film production. Sure, you can read twenty books on the subject, but wouldn’t it be better to get down on a film set or two? To understand that every new location you write= a crew move= $$$. The producer has to pay the crew to pack equipment into company trucks and vans, drive to the new location, and unpack. You want to limit the necessity of company moves.
4. LIMIT LOCATIONS
I wrote an article about August- Osage County and how the play was “opened up” for the movie screenplay. The conventional thinking is you have to do this. This was by no means a micro-budget flick, but the reasoning is the same. If you don’t want a claustrophobic script, you’ve got to move the story to other locations. At the same time you want to limit those to, ideally, what you have access to for free. Apartments, restaurants, and bars are easy to find. Liposuction doctor’s offices–as we found on Chat–are a bit harder to come across. This was a major discussion at script stage– did we absolutely need the lipo office to tell the tale?
You can also be smart and make one apartment appear like multiple locations. Your DP volunteers his place? Nice! We can shoot Character A’s bathroom, Character B’s kitchen, Character C’s living room. This scheduling consolidating will be done by producers but it’s your script they’re locking in, so give them the best opportunity to make the thing happen at budget.
5. EXTERIOR NIGHT SHOTS: TRY NOT TO WRITE ‘EM!
From my production journal entry, Weekend 6 of Chat:
“Exterior night shots tonight. Crowd control issues to go along with more difficulty in lighting it, to go with the sound troubles. Oh, the sound woes! The loose manhole covers that jiggled metallic for every car that ran over them. The beeping gate of the parking garage that rang out like a warning bell on Star Trek Deep Space 9.The drunken Erie Street bar-hoppers whose fascinating drunk speak babble was oh so more important than respecting some dinky micro-budget trying to make its day. The passing EMT van, cop cars, cop wagon, limo, pizza delivery guys, and a dozen other rubber-neckers who slowed vehicles to a crawl to gape out on what might have been the filming of the final first-season episode of Chicago Fire, but alas, was only us.
The same vehicles attempting to park in the two parking spaces cleared out by Chat crew to have ample views of the location across the street. PA’s and the writer himself were dispatched as living lawn chairs in the great Chicago tradition of saving cleared parking spaces. Unfortunately, this only works in winter. The sirens in downtown skyscraper chasms howling. The skateboarders’ click-clacking. The Harley-engines revving. The small dogs of high-rent paying owners, late-night walked whilst yip-yapping. The constant Muddy Waters from yet another ubiquitous Friday night sports bar…”
Good Reader, PLEASE limit those exterior night shots!
6. LIMIT PRINCIPLE AND SECONDARY CHARACTERS
Even if the story you’re writing is character-driven, it doesn’t mean you’ll need 10 principle and secondary characters to tell it. I would suggest limiting key characters to 5 and under. SAG Minimum is $125 bucks a day, but your producing team is not spending that on 10 actors, not and maintain a budget. And you most definitely don’t want to get into the habit of paying some of your actors and not others– word will spread about that making your producers look like supreme dicks.
Force yourself to make sure every character has a purpose. Limit the number of extras, and crowd scenes. Do not write in Wrigley Field, do not write in Union Station. Whether or not these can be “stolen” is a debate for another day. I’m not forcing producers to find a hundred extras unless there’s no movie without them.
7. KIDS, WEATHER, ANIMALS, BLOOD AND VFX: IF POSSIBLE, DON'T WRITE ‘EM!
You’re the writer. You think it’s not your job to know that the simple gun play you innocently wrote in will require a gun wrangler to oversee and train the actors. Or that it requires a Chicago Police Department officer on set for the full day. Or that Chicago cops gets double-time if your shoot happens to stretch into 15 hours. Or that you need someone to convincingly mix blood and apply it to the actors. You didn’t really think about all that when you wrote those two simple lines into the script because…well, you just didn’t. These things you write have to be made to happen, and that costs $$$.
The question you have to ask is– did they need to happen to tell the story and not compromise the movie’s vision?
Kids are only allowed to work half a day on a film set, and the producer must pay for a child Welfare Officer or/and Teacher to be present at all times. Whenever you write a kid in your script, you are paying for an adult who will NOT appear on screen.
With all due respect to the good people of PETA, I still have nightmares dealing with them because we were pinning cockroaches down on doughnuts. I just had to have the main character about to bite down on a doughnut and seeing a cockroach on it. Those cockroaches weren’t street bugs either–they had to be imported–at a cost–and pinned down with PETA’s consent–to get the shot. By the time we were finally ready to shoot I wondered why the f*@&% I wrote it in at all.
8. PAGE COUNT = SOUTH OF 100
What? You’re saying I can’t write a 105 page micro-budget? Nope. I’m saying it would ideal if the page count were south of 100. Every page costs $$$ to shoot. Your mission Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it–is to knock down that page count to the best of your ability. This takes us back to the cut instinct– the reductive mind you need to attack the script.
First draft, no limits, push out, give us your vision exactly as you see it. Page count doesn’t matter.
Follow up drafts, rewriting, cutting down page count, additions where necessary.
White Production draft (the shooting script): Every scene boiled down to necessity (meaning, if you remove it, the story falls apart), trimming every scene, every action line, every line of dialogue for necessity.
My director on Chat, Boris Wexler, has a rule of thumb: We can get eight pages a day. For dialogue-heavy scenes, perhaps 10. So if our per day expense is $2,500 and we're doing eight pages a day, you cutting the script from 101 to 85 means we just saved $5,000 bucks. Consider that.
9. “STORY IS FREE”
Always loved that simple expression from John August. While there might be some downside to not having money for Transformers-style stunts, the upside is it makes the writer utterly essential in the process of micro-budget. People love great storytelling. They are starved for powerful and original work. Writing micro-budget means concentrating on the character-driven, on the dialogue, on the juxtaposition of stuff in your brain the world has never seen before. Eraserhead over Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.Happiness over Battleship.
You’ve talked about it and talked about it. Now it’s there to be had. It just takes a great script.
So what are you waiting for?
Let’s go…write it!