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One of the best screenwriting teachers around is William C. Martell. You should check his site out. Quite some time he penned this article about writing for Indies on a budget. It’s an ode to Roger Corman and has some timeless lessons that can be applied to writing for digital D.I.Y. movies today.
Now, to show the love and care I have for you Good Reader, and all Script Gods readers, I am resurrecting this article, and presenting it here. It has nothing to do with the fact that it’s November in the year of our Lord 2014 and I am feeling a bit shut in today.
Therefore, without further ado…
I think there are three good reasons why any look at writing Indie films needs to include the only film producer in the world who has never lost money on a single film… and made more films than most studios.
Let’s start with “Piranha”, or that “Star Wars” rip-off “Battle Beyond The Stars”, or the T&A gangster movie “Lady In Red”. All three were written by John Sayles, the king of Indie film makers. “Piranha” was his first produced script… Sayles learned from Corman how to write films that could be shot on a limited budget, and took that knowledge (and his script earnings) to the art house world with “Return Of The Secaucus Seven” in 1980. Sayles wasn’t the only one who started with Corman: Francis Ford Coppola, Patrick Shane Duncan, Martin Scorsese, Terence Malick, Carl Franklin, Jonathan Kaplan, and hundreds of others began their careers with the King of the Bs.
Second: Corman is an actual Indie producer. He’s not affiliated with any studios, he makes whatever he wants to make, his films are privately financed. He makes Indie genre movies…
But even if you do have a great Indie script and want to direct and produce your own film, there’s a lot that you can learn from Roger Corman. The first rule of Indie films: There’s never enough money and there’s never enough time. Studios can solve problems by throwing money at them, but Indies have to use ingenuity, imagination, and pre-planning. Indie films are made by design, and the set is the last place to discover that your script is too expensive to film on your budget. The key is to DESIGN a script that is both easy and inexpensive to shoot.
Time is money. Even on a credit card film where the cast and crew are friends you’ve talked into working for free, there’s a limit to how long they’ll donate their time. These people don’t want to spend their entire lives working on your dream, they have dreams of their own!
So here are over a dozen techniques for writing a film that can be made on an Indie’s limited budget. I learned all of these things the same way John Sayles did, from writing genre movies for low budget producers like Roger Corman.
Every new location means a crew move. The producer has to pay the crew to pack all of the equipment into the truck, drive to the new location, and unpack the truck. That is wasted money. So the fewer crew moves in your script the better.
Say you wanted to do a movie about a pair of Lesbians who share a drive cross country, begin hating each other, but end up falling in love: “When Harriet Met Sally”. That’s hard to do on a limited budget because it’s a “traveling story”, with lots of different locations and lots of characters at each location.
So, let’s change it to a more budget friendly concept: A pair of Lesbians become reluctant room mates, begin hating each other, but end up falling in love. “The All Gyrrl Odd Couple”. Easy to do on a limited budget. There is a central location where most of the story takes place (the apartment). The focus is on the two lead characters (which actually improves the story) and secondary characters either come to visit, or are people they encounter in the corner coffee/poetry shop. Because half of your script shoots at the central location, you can “walk away” at the end of the day – no time or money wasted on crew moves.
If you’re filming about half of your film at the central location, you need to find a place where drama and conflict can take place. “Reservoir Dogs” takes place in the warehouse a bunch of armed robbers are going to meet in to divide their loot. My “Steel Sharks” movie for HBO had two central locations: The sub control room where Gary Busey guided the submarine and the Aircraft Carrier control room where Billy Dee Williams ran the whole operation. We cut between these two locations and the half dozen others so that every couple minutes we were someplace new – no boring backgrounds. Take care to find a location where different types of people will bump into each other – that leads to conflict.
Read the rest of this entry »
With the eternal search for an agent comes all manner of free advice for you, Good Reader, on how to get one, and what to do once you’ve reached the mythical status of being “repped”. Even if it’s micro-budget, chances are you’re going to need other people’s money to make your movie. If you’re writing Indy movies in the 1 to 10 million dollar range, you’ll need name actors to make it happen. Having an agent–and that agent’s Rolodex of names–is the way to make it happen. It’s also a status thing. If you’re repped you’ve got entrance to the Country Club. You appear to “belong”.
If you’re thinking of going the traditional L.A. route, check out this article I wrote for Script Magazine this week. It describes my days at William Morris, and gives you a sort of screenwriter’s etiquette for agents.
“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, Thinking in Pictures
Doing research for a book proposal, I came across these stats:
• Amazon search-keywords: Hollywood Screenwriting: Yields 20 pages, 754 books.
• Amazon search-keywords: Low Budget Filmmaking: Yields 41 pages, 549 books.
There are 754 books available today to help screenwriters in their quest to “make it” in Hollywood. Also, 549 “how-to-go-low-budget” books show the A-to-Z method of making movies for no money. But… what about the space between these?
• Amazon search-keywords: Micro-Budget Screenwriting: Yields 1 book.
Mega-audience for screenwriting books. Mega-audience for “how-to” low-budget filmmaking books. But where’s the book targeted specifically for screenwriters who want to write and make low-budget movies? A book for the 50,000+ screenwriters who registered scripts with the Writer’s Guild last year, who are desperate to find alternate strategies for making their films? Or who, through advances in digital camera technologies and software, no longer have to wait for Hollywood’s approval? Where’s the book for writers who are moving not toward Hollywood, but away from it?
You’d think there would be more coverage here. There isn’t… for a reason. When you go online and search micro-budget screenwriting, soooooo much of the advice covers the same 5 or 10 bullet points. Hell, I’ve contributed a list like that myself.
How do we write a movie for the absolute lowest price possible without compromising the vision of the film?
Let’s expand out on some of those bullet-points with today’s Top 10 list… cue music, Paul…. how to write a micro-budget screenplay:
There’s no definition for what micro-budget is. Elusive. The thousand bucks I pull out of my pocket might equal the hundred thousand bucks an angel financier pulls from theirs. If I’m reaching for a definition, micro-budget is whatever funding you can pull from your pocket, or the pockets of your family, or the pockets of every friend you ever had when you mail the personal email begging for cash during your 30-day Kickstarter campaign. Micro-budget is money you directly control, without strings. The “unlimited-budget-write-your-dream-first-draft” has no place here. You raised, or can raise, $25,000–you sure as shit better write the movie with that figure in mind.
Pre-dating Robert Rodriquez for the grand-daddy of Micro, for me, is Roger Corman. Look at his IMDB page: 408 Producer credits! Do you know of 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 of all-time, 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.
His low-budget B-movies made sure the stories reached the largest number of people by telling it in a recognizable genre. 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 were “mash-ups” of genre done with simplicity and for a price. After you make a hundred of these you would not only know how to bring these in for a price, but for what appeals to a younger audience. Remember, Corman’s “Piranha” was called the “Best film ever made about the Viet Nam War” by Variety. ” 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, it’s probably safe to say you should 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 so Action is also on the list. Look at Fede Alvarez, who wrote and directed the remake of Evil Dead. 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.
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.
For our micro-budget film Chat the director Boris Wexler managed to nail down the Board of Trade offices he worked at to be our cybersex chat offices. Amusing juxtaposition, thinking of what was happening in those conference rooms from Monday through Friday, and then what nastiness we were up to from Friday night until Monday 4 a.m. when we finally stopped shooting our marathon weekends. This location was worth at least $10,000 dollars (if we would have had to rent a similar space) and added tremendous production value. We shot here 10 of the 18 production and a pick up day.
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= $$$. The producer has to pay the crew to pack equipment into company trucks and vans, drive to the new location, and unpack. You want to limit the necessity of company moves.
My good friend Colin Costello, a former Chicagoan who moved to Los Angeles, recently wrote an article about the how a writer needs to be in Los Angeles to be a professional. I asked Colin to define his terms—if, by professional, he means in the strictest sense someone getting paid to practice the art of screenwriting—then sure, L.A. is where the money and infrastructure is. The six TV shows shooting in Chicago right now employ reams of local actors and crew, but the production $$$ making this happen isn’t homegrown. It ain’t coming from Oz, either. These are L.A.-based production companies cashing in on Chicago’s great production resources, locations, and that soft money 30% tax incentive.
Sure, the established Writer’s Guild writer going the traditional route of agencies, pitching, and assignment work would have to be in Los Angeles. But if he thinks that the only way to make it, then I’m willing to debate him any day of the week.
You do not have to be in Los Angeles to make your movie.
Which might lead to the broader question of what “making it” even means.
I never used to write with budget in mind. I had stuff to say, I went about saying it. I knew I was a writer because I was going to write, with or without a payoff. Back in those days it was poetry and plays. The only thing complicated was attempting to pay the bills as a horse-and-carriage driver, a vibrating pillow salesman or even working the graveyard shift at the porno bookstore (Screenwriter Tip: If you take a gig at a porno bookstore to try to write your play in peace, don’t pick the graveyard shift. That’s the busiest shift by far. You’ll want to go morning shift. Write that down.)
Writing plays for non-equity Chicago theater companies, you don’t think about stupid shit like niche or budget or audience. You’ve got the paper-pirate Ar-tist hat on sideways and none of that other bullshit matters.
In a perfect world writers would write the scripts they need to write. Writing with that passion would result in a better script, maybe even a great script. This would garner a great placing at Inktip or Black List and attract the A-List producers who comb online websites for the next big thing. Or maybe it makes semifinals at Nicholl Fellowship and bags you a manager. The script would then be sent on to Jeremy Renner’s production company where you would sign a 6-figure deal, watch major talent attached and the movie make 50 million. You would then be part of the Writer’s Guild, take meetings, pitch and do assignment work.
In a perfect world…
You’ll tell me there are dozens of writers who have been signed off Black List and writers XY and Z who have gone on to make AB and C from such humble spec roots. It’s likely the craps dealer in me that wants to point out that for every writer you can name with a magical spec script story, I could certainly point to a thousand whose dreams did work out quite as well. That Bukowski line about the American Dream, and how the mythology tells us we can all be big-ass winners, while ignoring LOTS of folks in the gutter who never got a taste of the dream.
Great Peditto, so you’re saying stop dreaming? Don’t let rip? Don’t pour out your original and dazzling and passionate ideas?
Nope. I’m saying know thyself…and your project.
By ignoring budget and shooting for the stars you pretty much guarantee needing other people’s money. This guarantees the need of L.A. and the entire L.A. mechanism.
Sure, you might bag a producer off Black List who will option the script and ask you for budgetary changes. It happens.
It also doesn’t happen. Everybody writes the best story they can write. Everybody gives it their all. Everyone dreams of that glittering prize of a writing future you’ve got in mind.
If you’re doing assignment work for an Indie producer or Studio writing within their budget is mandatory. Chances are you won’t have reached this stage without full conception of what your words cost. If they’re budgeted at 5 million and you hand over a 50 million dollar rewrite, they won’t be able to use it, and won’t be happy with you, at all.
Writing the spec script is different. If you feel you need 100 million to tell the tale, go ahead and write it. Just understand that the list of folks who can actually make your flick just got narrowed by the necessity of find 100+ million.
Needing other people’s money, by definition, cedes power to them. It’s why you should consider writing with budget in mind.
From here on in, I will.
Good Reader, I have an apology. I write endlessly about Chat, the damn micro-budget I made last year, because I’m a multitasker. Yeah, I have to fill space at Script Gods. But the good folks at Self-Counsel Press agreed to publish my micro-budget filmmaking book Surviving Outside Hollywood (Life Lessons For The D.I.Y. Filmmaker) so a lot of these posts will go there too. Apologies for the navel gazing…
I’m hoping today’s post helps your own process of writing the first 5 pages of your screenplay. Whether micro-budget or a Studio movie, the first 5 is valuable real estate. You’ve got to nail it or risk losing the reader/audience.
Today we’ll look at the first draft of my script for Chat, and then compare it against what actually became the movie.
Remember that famous expression about movie (I believe attributed to Fellini?) There is the movie you write, the movie you make, and the movie you edit and that the public comes to know as THE movie. But the script you write and film you end up with can be very different sometimes.
All scripts should do four things these first 5 pages: 1-Establish the POV character (protagonist) 2-Establish the Tone 3-Establish the World 4-Establish the beginnings of Conflict.
So, here are the first five pages of CHAT, and the changes that happened(in bold):
INT. CHAT OFFICE HALLWAY- NIGHT (PRESENT DAY)
Floating, down a fluorescent nightmare. A long, narrow corridor leads toward a bathroom door. The door opens wide…WHITE OUT.
This was filmed and presented at the top as is up to the rough cut. The audience feedback we got showed confusion on this opening so it was swapped out for a shot of Falcon, our protagonist, in the same chat office hallway right at the top. Less confusing and more evocative. It also sets up the creepy tone we want, the lead character, and the world in a single 10 second shot.
This is also the first of MANY times I disagreed with the director Boris Wexler. I came up with a new opening that reached more into Falcon’s mind, that was not as literal, that flashed images at the audience and took a piece of a monologue from a future scene and put it right here, right off the bat. Boris preferred his new open, and with directorial “discretion” and diplomatic balm, basically told me we were doing it his way.
INT. FALCON’S DARK ROOM- DAYs
FALCON, 45, eyes open and ringed red, disturbingly fucked up.Dimmer switch at a 5 watt flicker. Falcon lays back and listens to a WOMAN’S VOICE.
Always the falling, bottomless, silent body, spirit at dawn, dawn on nightmare.
This was filmed as is, but moved.
INT. FALCON’S APARTMENT- DAY
Dim world. Fifteen watt lightbulbs, pitched blue. Well-kept home of a scientist– doctorate diploma, honors and awards framed in glass, library of science manuals and biochemistry books– genius stuff.
RAPID SHOTS – FALCON
Peeking out from blinds, drawing them closed fast.
Expertly inserting a set of contacts. The tray with six other pairs of contacts from strong to extreme light protection.Falcon in the medicine cabinet, pops open a large 500 count bottle of Xanax. Knocking the Xanax down with one- two- three cups of espresso. Frail, hair uncut or combed, Falcon nervously dresses in a suit and tie, readying himself.
This was also filmed as is. It establishes Falcon as a scientist, but also as a man with suffers from photophobia, a disease of the cornea. This is a man who can’t handle light, and shuts himself in as a result.
EXT. FALCON’S APARTMENT- LATER
Falcon emerges, holding a large wreath, staring up at the sun. He places powerful protective sunglasses over the contacts, stepping into light.
EXT. STREET- CONTINUOUS
Alien landscape, cars and people move very fast, dizzying. A crying child, a jackhammer at a construction site, the screaming of an EMT van passing with cherry lights blazing. All these exaggerated, hypersensitive for Falcon, who walks with wreath toward…
EXT. CEMETERY- LATER
Falcon bends, laying the wreath again a newly dug stone. He stands back to observe the wreath, the stone, the empty cemetery.
EXT. CHAT OFFICE BUILDING- LATER
Falcon looks up at a piece of paper with scrawled writing, then at a nondescript commercial building. He moves inside.
INT. ELEVATOR- CONTINUOUS
Yellow floor numbers pass, reflecting off Falcon’s sunglasses, an inexorable rise.
All these scene were shot as is and open the movie exactly as described. This takes us through about the first 2 minutes of the movie. Boris felt with good pace. For me, I felt, and still feel, we could have trimmed time off here. But so far, no major changes.