Writers write character. But characters with nothing to do are boring, and movies so written seldom get made. It’s all about story. Serve the story and you are off to the races. Or are you? Time and again writers come against the conundrum of a potential producer loving the story you tell, it’s just that there is no way they can raise the budget that would be needed to tell it. “Love the Jurassic Park story ideas, but, does it have to be dinosaurs? I hear they’re very expensive.”
This article pits the demands of telling a good, compelling story against the business demands of making the film producible within budgetary and time constraints. Writing films are flights of fancy with no limitations. Producing films are practical things with lots of logistics. It may seem dichotomous, but, the two disparate viewpoints can be reconciled.
Serving the Story
I have a saying, “It’s a good day of writing when I’m arguing with my characters. It’s a great day when they are winning the arguments.” Stories resist being put in boxes. When you have a vibrant, living story it needs to go where it needs to go. Trying to make it into something else is folly at best, detrimental at worst. How many movies have lost you when the characters on screen suddenly did something inexplicable, against their established nature, just to move the plot along or avoid an obstacle? Good storytelling needs to be free to go where it has to.
Or does it? (It depends, is the answer in case you were wondering.)
A wealthy protagonist’s fall from grace to poverty and self enlightenment has to establish the wealthy lifestyle enough in the beginning to explain the struggle. But does the script need to be set in a huge, expensive mansion, on a yacht in the south of France, or can the character’s wealth be established in the back of a limo on the L.A. freeway with the windows tinted to obviate any connection to the outside world? Written well wouldn’t any of these establish the precipice from which our lead must fall?
Each of those choices in a script has a production dollar figure attached to its realization. The mansion is a pricey location rental and insurance. The yacht adds travel, accommodation and water safety issues. The limo with blacked windows could be shot anywhere with post foley and sound design filling in for the external world. Considerably different dollar figures involved to bring the character to where the story needs them.
Here’s the rub. Picking from among those choices at first is the writer’s job. But if a skilled writer goes into the situation aware of the production complexities of each choice, the writer can be seen as either disconnected from reality and difficult or practically savvy and workable. If the quality of the story is the same whichever is chosen, which reputation would you want to strive for?
Serving the Budget
Writer’s make choices that serve the story. Do it well and you get accolades. But the practical matter is the producibility of that great script relies on how well the writer serves the budget. Unlike how some writers want to view things, these are not opposite sides of the same coin. You do not have to abandon the quality of the story to cater to an arbitrary budget restriction. A good writer can write themselves out of any restriction, in fact, good writers can prove they are good by being able to write to a specific, practical limitation without extending the limitation to the story’s excellence. Sometimes being held back allows you to explore options that wouldn’t have occurred if you can go anywhere, sometimes to even better results. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” right?
Here’s a secret. There is no budget before the script. Any “budget” number bandied about before a script is written is fallacious. A true budget – one that can be funded – takes a detailed evaluation of a finished script, every scene, character, location, prop, crew requirement and a nearly countless number of other details needs to be pulled from those pages and worked through a spreadsheet to hit real numbers of how much a film will cost to produce. Real producers know this. Real financiers REALLY know this. Until there is a script there is only puffery and posturing. The reality comes after the script is done.
So what does this mean to the writer? It means that every decision made in the script stage affects and determines the final budget required to make the film. So how can you use this to your advantage? Let’s look at a specific, typical example.
One category of low-budget films is particularly suited to shining a light on the issue. A containment thriller is a film that has limited locations but a high tension value to keep the audience interested. The concepts are simple to express, but, the number of variations available even within the limitations allows each writer to find a different way of expressing a strong story while keeping under a producible budget minimum.
Do you set your film on a submarine stuck on the bottom of the ocean? A locked room where kidnap victims use their wits to escape their captor? A nuclear reactor control room in the midst of a potential meltdown? A castaway stranded on a desert island? An agoraphobe trapped in her own house when robbers break in?
All of these varied ideas have limited locations, small casts, reduced production requirements (especially if you are able to rely on stock footage for outside of the box references,) that make them attractive for low budget producers. Each of these ideas gives the audience something to root for, high stakes to lose (for the characters, not the investors in the film,) and each is as different as night and day (another factor that affects budget, by the way.)
Writing within limitations can allow the writer to create a satisfying and producible script. And being able to write within limitations is a skill set that is recognized by producers looking for writers they can work with – someone who isn’t hung up on writing for writing sake, or worse.
Serving an Ego
Egos. We all have one. As writers we often find ourselves writing something that we are really proud of. A cute turn of phrase or twist on a situation that sits on the page and reminds us why we take up writing in the first place. Sometimes we have an inordinate and disproportionate love of these bon mots. Sometimes to the detriment of the script’s producibility.
“But the hero has to be listening to the Beatles White Album as he prepares to confront his boss! It’s a must.”
“The villain has to ride up on a mint condition 1952 Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle and wreck it right in front of his mansion. It’s important to establish who he is.”
There are times when a writer can only see one way of portraying the ideas they have in their head. They see such specific detail in their mind that anything but that way would ruin the whole thing. As you might suspect, both of the above examples would be problematic for production. Getting music cleared for a film is a laborious and costly process. Integrating a specific musical choice into the film ties you to the cost demands of the owners and may not even be licensable. And requiring the use of very rare and expensive vehicles is difficult and costly enough, let alone adding the cost of wrecking a precious collector piece.
Killing your darlings is the phrase that a lot of writers dread. It refers to having to cut your favorite scenes from a script. This is usually necessary to shave time or complexity and is requested by a producer trying to get the script into producible shape. Producers don’t make these requests because they’re sadists and like to watch writers suffer. It is usually seen as a necessity to reach budgetary or other practical production goals. Whether those goals are worth giving up your darlings is a calculation.
Saving Your Darlings, at a (Calculated) Cost
Sometimes sticking with your convictions will prove to be the absolute right choice. Would the movie Being John Malkovich (1999) be the same film without it having to be “John Malkovich”? For Charlie Kaufman it was critical that it was and luckily when the real John Malkovich read the script, he agreed.
Every writer has to make a choice between what they envision in the script and what’s practical. For example, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was already a costly risk (science fiction based on a lesser popular comic book series and cast of characters.) Was it so important to the story to maintain the large list of 80s pop songs referenced in the original comics? The calculus was made and the expense of the songs was taken into account in the budget. The same calculus of “is it worth it” has to be made when you set your film at a specific location versus something generic, or a time period versus modern day. Each writing decision has the practical consequences underlying that choice. If the calculus is made and the decision is to keep it in the picture, then at least you go in knowing the odds of getting it made have shifted.
Serving the Unexpected
Occasionally those choices are taken out of the writer’s hands by circumstances instead of intent. A location suddenly becomes unavailable, the budget tightens because a financial backer pulls out, deadlines change, or actor issues. There is the famous scene change necessitated in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) when Harrison Ford got sick. There the script change ended up being a fan favorite solution. “Why can’t I just shoot him?”
In such cases serving the situational requirements is the necessity. If you can serve both the budget and the story at the same time you’ll find yourself the writer the producer wants to turn to when things get hairy. Price your services accordingly.
Serving the Needs of the Writer
Remember, you’re still the chef. What you put on the plate still needs to be tasty. But many fantastic dishes were created because the initial ideas fell on the floor in the kitchen. It shouldn’t come off as a last second save. Let them believe it was how you meant it all along!
In the long run whether it was the original story you intended to tell or the best you could manage under the budget constraints, the audience should still be entertained. If they leave with the appropriate reactions to your work, then you can be happy (or as happy as we writers ever get to be.) Maybe the next one you write will be able to keep everything in the picture.