MAverick Screenwriting

Writing For No Budget Films

By James Burbidge

As a writer you are usually freed from financial constraints. All you need to work are a pen and paper (or a computer if you want to get really fancy) and away you go. But when it comes time for someone else to turn your script into some moving images with a cotemperaneous soundtrack money is going to have to be spent. Surprisingly, just how much of it has to be spent is up to you. Budget comes from the script – action scenes, animals etc all cost money and if they’re vital to the story then your script is automatically going to be viewed as a higher budget production.
 
So, if your looking for an indie screen credit, or are writing a script to direct or produce yourself you might want to bear in mind how much those little words on the page are actually going to cost on the screen. Take a look at the list below and try to avoid using all of them in the script or your going to end up with a budget to rival Avatar’s.
 

Actors

More speaking parts means more actors, which means more pay, or at least more free lunches. It also means more casting, more rehearsal time more paperwork and more people to organise – none of which is going to particularly thrill the producer. Keep the number of speaking parts down to a minimum. If necessary, combine some of your more minor characters so that they can be confidante, exposition requester and cannon fodder instead of having three people playing the three roles.

Crowd scenes are obviously going to be a nightmare. There’s no way you can film guerrilla style in a real crowd – everyone’s going to be looking down the lens. Creating a crowd involves 10s or 100s of extras and therefore some sort of open casting process, group rehearsal and again, they’re all going to need feeding.

Lo To No Budget Filmmaking with Elliot Grove Locations

When possible, use free or cheap locations. If you’re writing for a specific project (your own, or a commissioned one) and you know of free locations that you can use, write them into the script. Ask friends about garages, or houses they have in the countryside. If you’re writing on spec at least try to write cheap locations – you’re not Hitchcock, it’s going to cost a bomb to get access to Mt. Rushmore. Local and independent shops/cafes etc are often amenable to independent film shoots. If in doubt, write generic and tell the producer you can change that setting to whatever they have available (NB, don’t generally write generic locations, just in this situation).

Use locations repeatedly. If you set one scene in the garage, consider setting a few more there. New locations need scouting, paying for and time to set up lights etc for the scene. Use a few locations repeatedly and the director will be able to shoot all those scenes on the same day, saving a lot of time (and therefore money).

If an expensive location (like a hospital, for example) is necessary try and make it easier for the director and producer to make it work. Don’t, for example, have your characters talking in A&E with ambulances and wounded people all over the place. Instead establish it’s a hospital with a brief exterior shot (that might be gettable without permission, not that we’re advocating that) and then move to an interior like a doctor’s office that will be easy to set up somewhere else.

Period drama and uniforms

The problems here should be obvious. Period costume and set dressing is going to be hard to get hold of and quite expensive. Likewise modern uniforms and officially marked vehicles etc might be difficult to procure.

Ext. night, dawn and dusk

Shooting outside at night is hard and expensive. Yes, it can be done, and yes it can add great atmosphere but don’t just throw it into your script on a whim. Likewise dawn and dusk are very hard to capture and there will be only a very limited window for shooting in. If a night scene is necessary it might be worth writing it with only available light (lamps, car lights etc) rather than moonlight (which usually involves a crane and expensive lighting equipment). Check out Blood Simple for some great available light shot scenes that really rely on the writing.

Weather

Just like difficult light conditions, creating weather on demand can be expensive and, especially in this country, you can’t rely on it being sunny in summer or snowy in winter. Rain, snow, sandstorms, tornados or whatever else you dream up – are they necessary to the story? Can you make your metaphor in some other way? Otherwise your going to cost the production a ton in rain wands, potato flakes and fans.

Heavy make up

Requires a make-up artist with skill and experience and they don’t usually work for free. It is also time consuming and a nightmare for continuity.

Rights

Music rights, first and foremost, are very expensive. Do not specify a particular track unless you know you already have the rights to it. Specifying a genre is fine – let the music department (or producer/director on a tiny indie film more like) choose something then within their budget. Some music is in the public domain but you will need to check that rights to a specific recording of it are not held by labels.
           
Likewise brands and logos will all need expensive and convoluted clearance. One way around this is to make up your own brand (Big Kahuna burger anyone?) or you could take the more understandable route of being a little generic and non-specific. One point to note here is that Ext. shots on high streets will capture a lot of logos in shop windows (and the shops themselves) so that might be something you want to avoid.

Children and animals

Even if they’re working for free (and they’re much less likely too because their parents are managing them), children are still a big hassle for a production. Not only do they need constant supervision (Health and Safety and Morality) they can also only work a limited number of hours everyday. Add to that a lot of form-filling, holiday-scheduling and acting coaching and they can be quite a burden.
           
Animals, needless to say, can be very difficult to work with on set. They take up a lot of time and you need wranglers etc to look after them and get the required performances. This all costs money.

Stunts and fight scenes

If they’re even medium sized they’re probably going to require stunt-coordinators and maybe doubles. If you’ve written in firearms then a firearms officer will be required on set, and explosions require all that and more. Even if it’s a small stunt it’s going to require a lot of rehearsal and will have to be shot from various angles all of which will take up a lot of time and therefore money. Plus editing a fight scene is massively time consuming.
Scenes of sex and nudity are similar to fight scenes, surprisingly. They limit the casting pool to those willing (or able, for fight scenes) to do it. They require closed sets (less crew, harder job for those remaining) and rehearsal to get right and again, editing them is a nightmare. Try to keep your fights, stunts and sex simple, and where possible, use techniques like cutting away to the result of the scene rather than writing the scene itself
 
Now most or all of these are get-aroundable, especially if you can find someone with the know-how or the equipment willing to work for free. But every solution will take time, effort and a lot of organisation and that in itself will have hidden monetary costs (lunch etc). If they’re crucial to the story then one or two of these elements shouldn’t be a problem. Include too many, however, and most sensible indie producers simply won’t want to make your film.

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About The Author

James Burbidge James performs a plethora of tasks for Raindance; writing articles, editing the newsletter, managing Twitter, helping on courses, organising volunteers and running the script services are but a few of the ones he is allowed to tell you about.
 
When he isn’t daydreaming about daylight he watches films (well, duh!) reads a bit, writes a bit and kicks arse at ultimate Frisbee.

 

 

 

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Writing For Low Budget Films 9 Tips