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“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= $$$. The producer has to pay the crew to pack equipment into company trucks and vans, drive to the new location, and unpack. You want to limit the necessity of company moves.
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My good friend Colin Costello, a former Chicagoan who moved to Los Angeles, recently wrote an article about the how a writer needs to be in Los Angeles to be a professional. I asked Colin to define his terms—if, by professional, he means in the strictest sense someone getting paid to practice the art of screenwriting—then sure, L.A. is where the money and infrastructure is. The six TV shows shooting in Chicago right now employ reams of local actors and crew, but the production $$$ 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.
computers : a small picture on a computer screen that represents a program or function
: a person who is very successful and admired
: a widely known symbol
Gotta be lonely, being an icon. Genius is defined by its very absence in every day life. You know you’re in the presence of genius because of its rarity. You know it when you see it.
See more at my Script Magazine article.
Gene Palma was the street drummer in Taxi Driver. C’mon, you remember him…
When it came time to shoot Jane Doe, I wanted him bad for the movie. I tracked him down to the St. Francis Residence. To call St. Francis a roominghouse would be lying. This was beyond stew bum. This was the checkout joint—where they force the door open and find your dead body, a week late on rent no more. No relatives, no funeral words or sendoff, a pauper’s grave. The last lousy deal in a lifetime of lousy deals.
So, I found him. Knock on his door. It opens, barely a crack. “Gene… it’s Paul Peditto. I’m the guy from the movie.” He didn’t understand.”No,” he mumbled, “I…no…” “Gene, we talked.” It took awhile to get through to him. Gene stood before me in purple-tinged hair, uncombed Roy Orbison sideburns and spotted shorts. I tucked a couple bucks into his palm. This seemed to help his comprehension. I told him I hoped he could do a cameo. We’d be shooting in the meatmarket district, tomorrow. “Please, come down.” Christ knew if he’d show up.
Next day, he appears. I introduce him all around. Not a person knows or remembers him. This was a reknowned artist in his own right, long before his Taxi Driver fame. So we shot the scene. Our protaganist Horace shuffles along the meatmarket district, the landscape mostly depopulated, only Gene and his greased back purple-tinged hair, passes him. We did the scene twice, in the can unremarkably. Pretty forgetable moment, actually, unless you knew that the extra guy Horace was passing was a legend.
He walked off, completely anonymous, that day. And died shortly after.
I was honored to meet him.
Charles Bukowski was my friend. Only met him once, at a National Public Radio performance of the play I adapted of his work, Buk, The Life and Times Of Charles Bukowski. This was 1992 and he had seen better days. He was gimpy, slow moving, in and out of poor health. He was still an imposing hulk of a man though, and when he cried during the performance, that was as good as it got for me. We corresponded for two years and some of those letters appear in his third letters book, Reach For The Sun. When he died in 1994 I went out to Los Angeles to pay tribute. He was buried in San Pedro and when I got out there, I found a simple plot. Certainly not the Jim Morrison Pere Lachaise cemetery plot covered with joints and wine bottles, graffiti declaring, “You were the Lizard King!” No, this was more…literary. This wasn’t a rock’n’roller resting here, but a poet. He had a clean, simple tombstone, that looks like this:
Don’t Try. I couldn’t figure out what that epitaph meant. Even driving back, I puzzled—what’s that mean? From the horse’s mouth came this excerpt from openculture.com:
“In October 1963, Bukowski recounted in a letter to John William Corrington how someone once asked him, “What do you do? How do you write, create?” To which, he replied: “You don’t try. That’s very important: ‘not’ to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks you make a pet out of it.”
So, the key to life and art, it’s all about persistence? Patience? Timing? Waiting for your moment? Yes, but not just that.
Jumping forward to 1990, Bukowski sent a letter to his friend William Packard and reminded him: “We work too hard. We try too hard. Don’t try. Don’t work. It’s there. It’s been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb. There’s been too much direction. It’s all free, we needn’t be told.”
Right now you’re asking what the fuck any of this has to do with screenwriting. Just hold onto your ADHD balls, and I’ll tell you.
My thinking is that it means: Perspective. Perspective from the grave. Understanding that NOTHING is as important as we make it out to be—in the light of death.
When I think about so many of my students placing SOOO much importance, for instance, on screenwriting contests placings–it saddens me. A scam has been perpetrated. I can assure you, folks, placing Quarterfinals at the Page Awards, or Nicholl Fellowship, or Austin, in the grand, cosmic scheme, means fuck all.
What is this desperation all about anyhow? Have you ever stopped to ask why it’s so important that you make your movie? Movies are about illusion. How many movies from 1914 have you watched lately? What makes you think you’ll be one of the miniscule few who survives one hundred years from now? Why is that so important that you that you will do whatever it takes to make it happen, including burning your here and now present tense? Is legacy worth it?
Which brings us back to Bukowski. Maybe it’s time to step off, to gain some perspective on your commitment to to proposition of movie-making.