Alt Script: Four Ways to Control Your Script’s Budget Without Compromising the Film

In the last article I talked about why I believe every writer should have at least one no-low budget script in their portfolio. I also stated my belief that no-low budget screenwriting is one of the hardest challenges a writer can take on. It’s difficult because a restricted budget appears at first glance to severely reduce the choices a screenwriter has. However, in this article I want to look at some of the techniques a writer can use, which will keep costs down, but without compromising the film.

Time

Most writers seem to have been taught that the easiest way to reduce the budget of your script is to limit the size of your cast and to severely cut back the number of locations. However, rather than just leaving it at that, let’s try to understand why restricting your cast and your locations may save you money. By understanding why this works, we will be able to see other ways of saving money, but without compromising your cast or your choice of locations.

Photo courtesy of hdvideomemories.com

When you are making a film, you usually film out of sequence. What this means is that instead of starting at page one of the script and filming one scene after the other, all the scenes set in one place (one location) are filmed at the same time. So all the scenes in Harry’s Bar are shot at the same time, on the same day. We do this because every time you move location, all the camera equipment, lights, sound stuff, actors, props, catering and other film making stuff has to be moved. Each change of location means packing everything up, moving it to the new location, unpacking it and setting up from scratch. Obviously all of this takes time, way more time than you can imagine, and if you’re paying either wages or hiring any equipment, they are calculated on a day rate. The more days you take to make your film, the more it is going to cost to make. Even if your film’s only expense is petrol and catering, the more you move between locations, the more you’ll spend.

Once you understand how filming works, it’s fairly obvious why the more times you move locations, the more days it will take to make your film and therefore the more expensive it will be. And, as actors charge by the day as well, the more actors you have on set per day, the faster you will burn though your budget.

However, what should also be obvious, is that the underlying issue when it comes to a film’s budget is not how many locations you use or even how many actors you have, it’s about how many days you spend filming. Keeping down the costs is really about keeping down two things:

1. The cost per day
2. The total number of days needed to complete the movie

When you think about it, the math is fairly easy. Ten actors used for a fifteen day shoot is cheaper, than  eight actors used for a twenty five day shoot. (10 x 15 = 150 —- 8 x 25 = 200). It’s not about how many actors you need to tell your story, it’s about how many days they’ll be required on set. So, whilst it’s always a good idea to trim unnecessary characters, do it because it’s good for the script, not as a knee jerk budget cutting technique. If you control your shooting days in other ways, you’ll never need to compromise your cast.

Rather than being about simply cutting locations and actors, cutting costs is almost exclusively about controlling the amount of time you spend shooting. Understanding how to cut down the days you spend shooting, is something you can only learn by getting involved in film production and looking at what really eats time in that process. If you understand that and what on set is costing you money that you don’t really need, you’ll really start trimming budgets.

Use Locations Effectively

What I tend to suggest to people looking to cut costs in their movie without compromising it, is not to think about restricting your locations, but instead that they write their story so it makes effective use of high quality locations.

Effective use of location is primarily about finding a great primary location and building your story around that location, instead of writing a story set in generic locations and then looking for locations to make it work. For example, let’s say you have obtained permission to access and film in an abandoned mental hospital. Before you even start writing the script, you go there and take photographs of all of the potential micro-locations you have within that overall location.

Your list should look a bit like this:

EXT – MENTAL HOSPITAL (FRONT)
EXT – OVERGROWN GROUNDS BEHIND MENTAL HOSPITAL
EXT/INT – GROUND KEEPER’S SHACK
INT – ABANDONED RECEPTION
INT – CORRIDORS (multiple)
INT – STAIRWELLS (multiple)
INT – MENTAL WARDS ONE TO FOUR
INT – PADDED CELLS
INT – SHOWER BLOCK
INT – BASEMENT
INT – MORTUARY
INT – CHAPEL
INT – OFFICES (multiple)

With a building like this, the list would actually be a lot longer, but hopefully you can see within this one overall location you have a lot of different places (micro-locations) to tell your story. As long as your production team has enough lights to set up two locations at the same time, your lighting team can be setting up your next micro-location as you are shooting. Which means, that the time spent in moving from one set up to the next, is no more complicated than carrying the camera kit from one part of the overall location to the next. This kind of use of location doesn’t add to the number of days spent in production, because you’re managing your locations to maximise the amount of time spent shooting, as opposed to spending time and money moving the production. Keeping the cameras rolling is how you get the job done effectively.

Basically, smart no-low budget screenwriters start their process with a specific overall location in mind and then write their story to work in that location. This process of bundling or bunching all of your micro-locations into one large, visually interesting place (your overall location) is one of the core skills of no-low screenwriting.

As you can see, this is not the same as restricting the number of locations you use, it’s more about being smart about how you use locations in your script.

The two location based mistakes I see most often in no-low budget screenwriting are:

1. extended scenes, and
2. tedious (compromised) location choices.

No-low budget writers who believe they need to restrict locations to save money, have a tendency to write scenes longer than they need to because they believe this is how you reduce location costs. Writing scenes longer than they need to be is never a good idea, and is a particularly poor idea in a no-low budget movie, where you need to keep your writing tight. This is the wrong way to reduce location costs because it not only takes the pace out of your script, it also makes the film feel slow and look cheap.

The second mistake no-low screenwriters tend to make, is thinking the best way to save money is to use their own homes as the primary location. 99% of student films tend to be shot in student’s homes. The only problem is student apartments are very rarely interesting locations. Again, although it seems like an obvious way to go, using boring locations, just because they are free, will pretty much always compromise your film and make it look like a first year film student’s assignment.

The key to cutting location costs without compromising your film, is to think in terms of overall locations and micro-locations within that overall location. Good locations add value to your film and help to control your costs at the same time. Smart screenwriters know how to work like this and hand producers films that are both brilliant and cheap to shoot.

Write For Actors

Whether you are dealing with an unknown actor looking to get their first break, or an established star, 95% of actors are looking for exactly the same thing: a role which will give them an opportunity to create something astounding. If you are a no-low budget screenwriter, the best way of getting a high quality film on your budget, is to write a story where the individual roles created give actors an opportunity to do the kind of work they really want to. This means, all of the roles need to have some emotional depth to them. The individual scenes need to be fresh and full of genuine drama. This is especially true if it is a scenario that actors have to deal with every single working day. Trust me, if you can find a way to make something as cliched as a police interview scene, fresh, new and full of drama, actors will love you. Or perhaps even better, offer them the opportunity to do something no one has ever asked them to do.

But, how does this relate to your budget?

Well, it’s very simple. An actor’s day rate (cost) varies between thousands of pounds (or $) per day and zero. This amount per day relates not just to their market value, but also in direct relationship to how much they want to do a particular project. Take, for instance, an actor like Steve Buscemi, he’s very open about the fact that he takes on Hollywood projects to put food on the table, and then he gets his personal fulfillment by doing interesting independent projects. Basically, if the project and the role is astounding, you’d be amazed at who you can get to act in your little movie, and how little they may require in terms of payment.

However, before everyone gets overly excited about this, what we’re really saying here, is that you can attract very good actors onto independent projects if the scripts and the roles are EXCEPTIONAL. The key word is exceptional. Even if you’re not looking to attach well established names to a project, the better the script and the better the roles within it, the better class of actor you’ll be able to attract. Not only that, the better the script, the more likely it is that your cast will work cheaper, for a back-end payment (money paid once the film is sold), or even for free. (By the way, everyone in the business knows that “for a back-end payment” and for free is the same thing).

Of course, if you really want to get actors to commit to a project for free, not only does the writing have to be exceptional, you really do need to concentrate on getting the number of shooting days down to a minimum (see the first technique). The better the role, the smaller the time commitment needed, the better your chances of getting your cast well about what you can really afford to pay.

Break The Rules and Think Outside the Box

In 1995 the Danish director Lars Von Trier, and a few others, published the Dogme 95 Manfesto. This was a document which presented a set of rules for filmmaking. These rules were presented as an aesthetic, as both a style and political choice. However, anyone familiar with filmmaking can see that effectively they also work as a set of rules for radically cutting budgets. The Dogme Manifesto reads:

1. Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in. If a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found.

(Pretty easy to see the saving here. You don’t have any art direction or prop costs. Locations are as found, so no set up times)

2. The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. Music must not be used unless it occurs within the scene being filmed, i.e., diegetic.

(Again, adding sound in post production and paying music rights are all major costs in filmmaking)

3. The camera must be a hand-held camera. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. The film must not take place where the camera is standing; filming must take place where the action takes place.

(If the camera is hand-held it takes much less time to move between set ups. Filming hand-held is faster and therefore cheaper)

4. The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable – if there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera.

(Lighting costs money to rent and time to set up – this rule all is about faster, cheaper production).

5. Optical work and filters are forbidden.

(Both cost money)

6. The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur.)

(Use of weapons on a film set increases insurance costs and you are also legally required to pay a stunt coordinator and a weapons handler, usually called an armourer).

7. Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden – that is to say that the film takes place here and now.

(Costumes and props for period pieces cost money, shooting in the present day doesn’t)

8. Genre Movies are not acceptable.

(Genre movies often rely on stunts, complex make-up or various forms of effects, which cost money)

9. The film format must be Academy 35 mm

(My guess is this is what they had cheap access to)

10. The director must not be credited.

(I’ve no idea why they wanted this rule… but, as a writer, I like it!)

OK. I’m not suggesting that as a screenwriter you adopt the Dogme rules. What I am saying is that if you are prepared to challenge, think about and ultimately break conventional thinking about how you shoot a film, it possible to cut filming costs dramatically. Remember in 1995, the whole digital revolution was in its infancy. Von Trier was looking at ways to minimise costs, whilst shooting on film (although by 1998 he was shooting The Idiots on video).

The Dogme Manifesto is just one way of doing this. A few years ago I wrote my own set of rules for no-low budget filmmaking. Just like Von Trier, I was looking to find my own way of working. One where I could produce a good film, with a budget as close to zero as possible, but where I wasn’t exploiting either my crew or my cast. Perhaps in a future article I’ll write specifically about how and why I developed my Lone Gun Manifesto approach to screenwriting and filmmaking.

The important thing here, is to be willing to think for yourself and to create your own approaches to making films.

Conclusions

Writing no-low budget movies isn’t about compromising the quality of your film, it’s about smart use of overall locations (giving you lots of storytelling options), high quality writing to attract good actors, knowledge of how production is normally done, and the willingness to throw out conventional thinking when it gets in the way of what you want to achieve.

The bottom line, is that in no-low budget filmmaking the gap between the money you have to make your film and a larger budget, has to be filled with the screenwriter’s imagination, knowledge and creativity.

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9 thoughts on “Alt Script: Four Ways to Control Your Script’s Budget Without Compromising the Film

  1. Pingback: 8 Tips About How to Make a Micro-Budget Action Film | Winter Film Awards

  2. Clive Davies-Frayne

    Glad to be of some help. And, coincidentally, I started in radio advertising as well. Great training ground for anyone who wants to write for the voice.

  3. Michael O'Daniel

    Clive,

    I hardly know where to begin. Well, let’s begin with “thank you.”

    I hope it was obvious that the comma remark was in jest. I totally buy into writing for syntax… I began my career, such as it was, writing radio advertisements. In order to get the announcers to read the adverts the way they should sound, grammar (and sometimes even spelling) had to take a back seat. Obviously the same applies to writing dialogue for film, only the money is worse. (Jest!)

    Your other critical point, re: asking advice — again, totally in agreement, and thanks for the reminder. Some time ago when it first became possible to shoot digitally and make it look almost as good as film, I was trying to get a no-low production mounted and since it was mostly interiors on a single set, I wanted to shoot 3 or 4 camera HD instead of film, same as you would a sitcom (which was my terrain at the time). I figured there must be a way to change the lighting automatically as the camera angles changed, so you didn’t have to stop and reset the lighting with each shot.

    Of course, everyone to whom I pitched the idea of HD said, “No, can’t be done. Never work.” So I asked a lighting cameraman who just happened at the time to be president of the society of lighting designers (and later the ICG), and his answer was, “Of COURSE you can do it, and here’s how.” I was already accustomed to relying on the advice of below-the-line production people as opposed to the “creatives” and other experts, and he only reinforced that I was on the right track.

    I don’t know any stunt drivers, but I think I can find one. Re: the courtroom scene, I DO know a lot of lawyers, which may or may not be a good thing.

    I now live in the East Bay instead of L.A., but a lot of shooting takes place here, and I just need to get off me arse and meet local production managers, location managers, etc., etc. So let me thank you again, and reinforce your advice that writers can do themselves a great service by getting to know the nuts and bolts of production. It does indeed make life so much easier when you know whether what you visualize as you write is actually feasible to shoot.

  4. Clive Davies-Frayne

    OK, first things first. Technically, low-no budget is anything up to £500K. It may sound like a lot of money, but trying to shoot between £200K and £500K can be even harder than shooting with no budget at all. Once you’ve a budget you’ve got to cover people’s wages, and at least £100K is going to be your post production budget.
    So, if your film must have expensive set pieces to work, you have to do a couple of things. Firstly, you need to find savings from the rest of the movie to finance the set pieces. As I said in the article, this is achieved primarily by getting down the number of days needed to shoot the film. There are a lot of things a director and producer can do to help with this (storyboarding the film and only shooting the storyboard being one thing). However, the best way the writer can help is by doing as I suggested above and writing around one central location.
    The second thing you need to do, is to be creative in the way that you write your set pieces. If you must have a car chase, does it need to be a “Hollywood car chase?” You know, the kind where there are lots of cars involved. If you need that, then chances are you’re going to need a much larger budget. The trick is to understand exactly how the car chase relates to the story… and, to look for creative ways to get what you need for the story without breaking the film’s budget.
    One of the best ways to achieve that, is to seek advice. This is something I wish more screenwriters would do. Basically, when I need to pull together a set piece on a project where I know I don’t have the budget to do it, I call up my favorite stunt drivers and ask them what they suggest. Stunt co-ordinator, stunt drivers and stunt men often have ideas they’ve always wanted to try out, but which they are never asked to do. They also know what can be achieved within the budget, so they can give you clear advice. Build the scene around the dramatic needs, and the stunt team’s suggestions about what can be achieved.
    The real trick to writing great low-no budget is to write along side the professionals you intend to work with. I don’t believe in writers working in isolation, especially when you’re trying to create something good, on a tight budget.

    Finally, I want to bury the conversation about these darn commas. I write the way I talk. Anyone who reads my articles and who knows me in real life, should be able to hear me saying the lines. This is because I am writing to my speech syntax, as opposed to correct grammar. This is a deliberate choice. It’s also one I wish more screenwriters would adopt. You see, the problem with being a grammar Nazi is that it trains you to listen for the mistakes in people’s grammar. This means you hear the mistakes, rather than hearing what people are saying. Screenwriters need to develop an ear for syntax, more than they need correct grammar. This is because 75% of the job of script writing is replicating and creating syntax.
    Now, the problem with good grammar, is it is taught as a way of unifying syntax. It promotes the idea that there is only one, correct, way to present a sentence. The RIGHT way. However, very few people speak with perfect grammar. Even well educated people make grammatical errors in speech, often because they are adapting the sentence as they speak. So, a university educated radio interviewer will mess up her use of tenses in a question, simply because she’s concentrating on how to get the politician she’s interviewing to open up to her. Her grammatical slip becomes part of the subtext of the pressure she is under. Writer’s who are obsessed by writing “correctly” miss these nuances in their dialogue. I rarely do.
    The other point I’d like to make, is that the subtext of someone correcting another person’s grammar is always “I’m just letting you know that I am better than you.” It’s rarely about helping or educating the person.
    Writers who concentrate on subtext and syntax, ultimately become better screenwriters.
    Writers with a passion for grammar, should consider making their mark in journalism, non-fiction or novels. Publishers adore that BS.
    Finally, one of the golden rules of the industry is: don’t offer notes unless you are asked. It’s a good rule… again, one I wish more screenwriters could get their heads around.

  5. Michael O'Daniel

    Skip one period and it’s cause for alarm — misplace a comma and all hell breaks loose.

    All seriousness aside, this is all very valuable and practical information, a great deal of which is just common sense. I would welcome suggestions on how to minimize the costs of such things as location shots that require extras (e.g., courtroom, church), or car chases (no wrecks) that are not gratuitous but essential to the plot (or do such scenes take the film out of the realm of no-low?).

    Thanks!

  6. Clive Davies-Frayne

    I can see what you’re saying, but if I’m honest, I like sentence just the way it is. But, thanks for the grammar tutorial. If I ever decide to adopt rigid or even correct grammar in my writing, I’ll give you a bell.

    What you might want to think about, is why I might believe it is professionally better for me to write the sentence the way I did, rather than the way you did?

  7. Derek

    F.Y.I., your last line of this article should read like this: “The bottom line is that, in no-low budget filmmaking, the gap between the money that you have to make your film and a larger budget has to be filled with the screenwriter’s imagination, knowledge, and creativity.” Call me a Grammar Nazi, if you will.

  8. Carlo DeCarlo

    Thanks for this. I’m working on a no-low budget screenplay adapted from a book I co-wrote. Although I knew some of these budget controls already, your explanations gave me a better understanding of the whys of it. It’ll be a real help as I work on my rewrite.

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