how to be cheap: the script

9 May

most of the time, being tight is viewed as a bad thing.  no-one will want to go down the pub with you.  it will lose you friends.  it might even alienate people.

not so in the world of the producer. a first time director’s selling point is the fact they are raw talent with a fresh voice.  a first time producer’s selling point is that they have a commercial script which can be shot for next to nothing (in film terms).

you’re probably thinking, yeah, first time films have to be low budget, everyone knows that.  tell us something new. everyone might know that, but not many first time producers will go through a script solely with the intent of significantly reducing the budget.  I don’t just mean cutting out a couple of unnecessary scenes.  I mean thinking outside of the box and completely reworking it.  you want to make a film set in communist Germany? contain it to just a couple of rooms, like they did in Goodbye Lenin!.  you want to make a film about a bank heist?  Tarantino limited the majority of Reservoir Dogs to one warehouse location in order to film it on just $1.2 million.

of course, every film is different and only you can look at a script you want to make and rework it to save money.  but below are some generalised pointers:

1.  review all the locations in your script carefully.  there are too many variables to list here, so read this location lowdown post.

2.  ask yourself, can you get across your story using no more than five cast members?  can you do away with scenes involving lots of extras?  every cast member you have will cost you upwards of £70 a day in expenses (food, travel, accommodation).  over a whole shoot, and added to their pay, this will make you weep.

3.  think carefully before using animals and children.  these little buggers need extra crew to look after them, and to train them, you’ll generally have to do more retakes, wasting more time (and stock, if you’re planning to shoot on film). they won’t be able to work long days, no matter how many Kinder Surprises you bribe them with. or how hard you whip them.

4.  avoid car chases.  unless you spend a lot on them, they’re going to look BBC.

5.  if you’ve got characters watching a film, or listening to a music track, it’s going to cost you a lot of money in copyright clearances.  pay homage to other filmmakers or musicians in cheaper ways.

6.  although horror films are a popular starting point for filmmakers, their art department costs can be huge.  every time you write “Linda runs terrified though a dark wood – suddenly, a zombie hoarde appears round the corner, ripping her apart limb from limb”, you have to then budget lighting a wood at night, hiring a track or steadicam, making up 6+ zombie prosthetic masks, making a Linda dummy that can be pulled apart, etc etc.

remember, in horror films it is often what you don’t see that is most frightening (think the shower scene in Psycho: basically some dude with a knife behind a shower curtain, and a bang-on score).  try to scare the audience using a build up of tension rather than gore.  set it at night, so you only get the hint of that cheap prosthetic.

one pitfall that low-budget horrors often fall into is trying to make every scene a gorefest (Shrooms is a perfect example of what can happen if you do this with an inexperienced director on board).  not only is it hard to keep the horror momentum going without the audience becoming desensitised to it, it also costs a fortune, and probably means your characters end up underdeveloped.

instead, take a leaf out of Eli Roth’s book – Hostel 1 and 2 are two of the most extreme horrors of all time.  yet the gore is really only focused on the last half hour of each film.  until then, Roth uses the screentime to build an uneasy tension, and a relationship between the audience and characters.  this means when their lives are in danger we genuinely care about them, and also that his budget is kept under control.

7.  alternatively, use a comedy or dromedy (drama comedy) as your first script.  very little art department costs.  done.

8.  focus your scripts on the characters, and get some great dialogue going on.  issues that you want to get across to your viewers can come through the characters, rather than the visuals, so you don’t have to recreate huge scenes.

if you can get your script to adhere to each of the above points, then fair play, I take my hat off to you. but as long as you tick off 4 or so, you’ll be fine.

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