Back (or maybe I should say black – since this is a black film site) by popular demand… I actually wrote this in 2012, and felt it was worth republishing, as the site has grown in readership since then. But also because it’s all still very relevant, as I continue to receive emails and Facebook messages from filmmakers with questions about process, and in watching countless indie films (especially those of the no-budget/low-budget variety), I continue to be astounded by the far too many film production errors that I’d like to think most of us who call ourselves filmmakers would already know to avoid. So hopefully some will find this useful.
Producing a film, no matter the budget, is already quite an involved task; and when you’re working with a minuscule budget, it’s even more of a challenge; so why turn an already difficult (though satisfying) process into an insurmountable one, jeopardizing the making and distribution of your film? I’ve made some short films, as well as a feature film (roughly 12 years ago, not too long after I decided to pursue filmmaking) which I’ve already talked about on this blog. It’s not great, but it’s not horrible either. It is what it is. I never had any delusions that the film would get me into some coveted Hollywood club – after all, I made it for under $5,000 which came entirely from my bank account!
So while I’m not an industry veteran with 20 films on my resume, and experience to spare, I do have some understanding of the filmmaking process, and I think many of you will agree with the tips I list below.
A lot of what I say here is really just what I’d consider common sense – you don’t need years of film school to understand each point.
So here we go… The Shadow & Act 5 Tips on Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Feature Screenplays… and although I’m emphasizing feature films here, the same ideas can be applied to short films as well. It’s really all about the script folks (assuming you’re actually working from one); so if you keep the below 5 items in mind while you’re penning your opus, you’ll be off to a good start, and it’ll make the photography phase of the production process much more manageable. Unless of course you’re wealthy, or have access to a bottomless well of funds from which to withdraw that will allow you to make your film unhinged, or you have the backing of a Hollywood studio, or a financier with deep pockets. But if you do, then this obviously doesn’t apply to you, and you wouldn’t be reading any of it, would you? This is for the rest of us struggling to scrap pennies at a time to support our art:
1. K.I.S.S. – A suggestion I’ve given to others is, before you even start writing, take an inventory of everything you have access to, whether for free, or for cheap – locations, wardrobe, props, equipment, whatever – and then write your script based on your findings.
2. Characters – the fewer the better. No ensemble pieces; Less people to account for. Take a look at some films we’ve featured on this blog, which were made with very little money, like "Medicine For Melancholy," "A Good Day To Be Black & Sexy," "6 Things I Never Told You," "I Will Follow," and others. "Medicine" was a 2-character piece; "Black & Sexy" and "6 Things" were more like a series of short films centered on specific themes, with each short having no more than 2 characters at a time; "I Will Follow" really had 1 star, and a smattering of supporting casts. Some might think that you can’t make an "entertaining" film with 1, 2, 3 or 4 characters, but that you should abandon that line of thought.
3. Locations – first, like the number of characters, the fewer the better, and the reasons should be obvious. Once again, with "I Will Follow" for example, a single house was the primary location; done. Secondly, and just as importantly, relegate much of your script to locations you can fully control – unless you’ve got money to shut down streets, or use parts of airports and hotels. But if you did, you wouldn’t be reading this, would you? 3rd, stay inside as much as possible – especially in any scenes with dialogue. If you’re going to shoot any street scenes, you’ll be best served by keeping those dialogue-free – or with very little of it. Don’t write a scene with a 5-page conversation that takes place on the Brooklyn bridge, for example. That’s an extreme example, I know. But you’d be surprised by some of what I’ve seen. Just do your best to keep your scenes within 4 walls – especially those with dialogue. Obtaining good sound is crucial! Don’t jeopardize that by shooting sync sound dialogue scenes in locations you have little control of.
4. Dialogue – and speaking of dialogue… a common mistake novice writers/filmmakers often make is to write scripts filled with dialogue. There’s nothing that turns producers off more than being handed a script that, upon initially flipping through, is made up of page after page of dialogue chunks. As I’ve experienced with scripts I’ve read, the dialogue is often repetitive and expository. One of the first things you learn in film school is: show, don’t tell. Actions really do speak louder than words when it comes to the language of cinema, so keep your dialogue at a minimum, succinct and brisk. Unless you’re trying to emulate Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, or David Mamet, among others. But why would you be? Especially when working with a tiny budget. Although, I’d say this – if you do have a dialogue-heavy script, keep item numbers 2 and 3 above in consideration when writing. Sure, on your early drafts, you might spill everything out in words spoken by your characters; however, when you’re editing in later drafts, clean up as much as possible, and find ways to have your characters express themselves succinctly, or without words.
5. Length – keep it short. I’d say anywhere from 80 to 100 pages max is good – preferably closer to 80. Again, you’re working with little to zero financing, so the shorter your script is, the less money you’d likely have to spend. Of course there are exceptions, but, in general, it doesn’t take a genius to realize the math here.
That’s it! I could broaden each of the above further, but I think you get the gist of it all. And I’m sure some of you would add some other things to this list. But I think this is really where it all begins for the no-budget/low-budget auteurs.
Again, it starts with the script, and if you follow the above pointers, keeping your script as slender as possible, you’ll then be able to really maximize your tiny budget. And instead of shelling out dough to secure multiple locations, or on food to feed your ensemble cast, or transportation for your cast and crew, invest the money instead in attracting strong actors to give you strong performances, as well in your key crew to shore up your production design, a solid DP, and the best equipment your can afford with the money you do have, to capture the best images and sound your no-budget/low-budget will allow.
If you have other suggestions that you think should be on this list, with regards to writing no-budget/low-budget feature scripts, chime in below…