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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location, location, location

9 May

no, this post isn’t about Phil and Kirsty, although I do love those two…they should totally get together, escape to the country, and spawn a hoarde of kids named Oscar, Isabella, and similar.

but anyway…I’ve been budgeting recently, and my locations line keeps screaming out at me, why did you not think about me while you were scripting? why do you curse at me so?  it’s not my fault I’m so large, you terrible producer, you.

it’s true, I did a couple of cursory glances through the script while we were writing, but I never challenged the locations side of it properly.  yeah, I cut out a couple…but I should have done more.  I have about 15 locations, I should have got it down to about 7.  one of them is a dry docked boat.  one of them is in Antigua, for christssake.  do a better job than me.  keep reading.

the fewer locations, the better.  when your crew is setting up, moving, and then packing away again, they’re obviously not getting scenes in the can, although you’re still footing the production bill.

be careful about interior locations in your script.  a cheap interior set (ie, one that belongs to you, or a friend, or that can be hired for free, or that doesn’t need any set construction) can be the greatest way to save money.  you’ll be able to leave equipment set up, can film for long hours, and you won’t be at the mercy of the sun.  however, interiors can also add up to a lot of money if they are not perfect and so have to be decorated, or if they don’t belong to you and have to be hired.  the base price for interior location hire is around £400 a day upwards – grand or unusual interior locations will cost from £1500 a day.

daytime exterior locations are *generally* cheaper to hire than interior locations, or completely free if they’re council owned.  lighting costs will be minimal.  if you are filming during the winter, however, you won’t get long shooting days.  lighting continuity can also be tricky.

nightime exterior locations can be a nightmare unless they are a) close to an electricity source and b) have vehicle access.  lighting wide shots will cost a lot of money.

locations can be a key source of funding.  by filming somewhere that is a bit out of the way (ie. not in London or the home counties) you will have less competition to the regional film funds there.  areas that are a bit unpopular will be more desperate to generate money, which your film could do.

if you’re on a micro micro budget, chances are you won’t be able to stand accommodation or large travel costs.  choose locations which are close to where your cast and crew live.

it’s worth getting a location manager on board from pre-production through filming, but to be honest you as a producer should do your own location scouting throughout development.  you’ll save money, and it will make you think about the filming logistics.

contact councils if you find / have in mind locations that are exterior and not on private land.  you should be able to film on them for free, but might need a permit or to notify the police.  councils also own buildings, so they might be able to help you out with free interior locations, too.  if you know of a location which is on private land, have the confidence to contact the land owner directly rather than dismissing the location and going with a similar one on a locations directory.  you’ll be able to negotiate a much cheaper price than through an agency.

use google maps to location scout from your office before checking them out in person.  it’s an amazing tool, especially now you can drag and drop that little yellow guy under the compass to use 360 degree Streetview.

if you find you have locations written into your script which you can’t find yourself, then approach your regional film agency.  but bear in mind that doing as much as you can yourself, privately, will keep costs in check.  it’s the standard middle man rule.


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commercial doesn’t have to mean cr*p

8 May

ok, so you have all these incredible ideas: you want to make, like, “Lost”, but set in space; you have the most perfect script ever for Jack Nicholson / Brad Pitt / that pouty dude out of “Twilight” in a drawer under your bed; you once had this amazing hour just sitting watching your cat slowly kill a spider and it was the most horrifically profound thing you ever saw, you feel you need to make a film about it right here, right now, and it’s going to blow people’s minds…

stop.  this is your first film.  once you’ve proved you can out-direct Tarantino, then you can do whatever the hell you like.  but for now, you have to make compromises, and that means choosing a script that is both:

1.  cheap, and

2.  commercial

so why can’t you just do what you want, like any other artist would?  after all, filmmaking is an art, right?

well, yes, or course it is.  it’s highly creative – from the scripting, to the set design, to the lighting, to the actor’s performances.  however, it differs in one way: unlike creating a sculpture or composing a symphony, making a film with any kind of artistic value costs a lot of money.  99% of the time you can’t just go out and fund it yourself, you have to raise money, and be organised enough to coordinate financiers, a cast, and a crew.  let’s say you do make your own film: now what do you do with it?  it’s not like a painting, you can’t just sell it and make your money back straight away.  you need distribution…it’s not enough for filmmakers to simply be artists, they have to be business people too.

what I’m getting at here is that a filmmaker has to have a track record in order to persuade other people to come on board with them and create a film.  therefore, a first time filmmaker has such a major setback simply by being a first time filmmaker, that everything they do needs to counter balance this in some way.  in the first instance this is through choosing the right film project to be your first film.

so, back to the two criteria.

by cheap, I mean ideally under the £850,000 mark.  absolutely no more than £1.5 million.  with a first time director, producer and writer team, it is unheard of for sales agents, distributors or film bodies to take a project with a budget bigger than this seriously.  no matter how much raw talent is bleeding out of you onto exec’s floors, no matter how many times you refer to yourselves as “fresh” and “the voice of the youth” (feel free to use those.  they’ll open doors).

now, because your budget will only just cover putting crew up in hostels and feeding them on food from Lidl’s discount aisles, how are you going to make it commerical?  you’re probably not going to be able to afford the £million salaries commanded by household name stars, or huge CGI battle sequences.  don’t panic.  all this means is that you’d be ill-advised to make a romcom, or a straight drama film, or a science fiction film.  romcoms and straight dramas traditionally pull in audiences using their celebrity leads, therefore an investor / sales agent / distributor will probably not touch them with a barge pole if the cast list isn’t up to scratch. with a science fiction film, the CGI is the a-list celeb, and people aren’t going to be impressed if it mostly consists of empty cereal boxes covered in tin foil.  unfortunately, kids have evolved since the 60’s Doctor Who audience.

so, you’re left with horror, thriller, comedy, or dromedy films, as the people going to watch them want to be scared, laugh, or geek out, no matter if Keira Knightly or Leo DiCaprio is or isn’t in them.  for example, the film I’m making at the moment is a horror comedy.  not only this, but it also has “hooks” – by this, I mean it has themes and elements that grab people’s attention and can be used as selling points.  in our case, these are that the story centers around stoners and zombies, and is aimed at a youth market.  all this relaxes everyone slightly: yes, we are first-timers.  but the film is as commercial as possible on a low budget.

the problem about some filmmakers is that they turn a blind eye to this.  if you seriously want to be a successful producer, and you don’t have a track record, you’ll be making it extremely hard for yourself by starting out with a niche arthouse film.  raising finance will be a nightmare, because they just don’t pull in the general public, and this isn’t because the general public have poor taste, it’s because art installation videos and arthouse films are generally dull and pretentious.  feel free to slander me for saying that, it’s true.

however, there is absolutely no reason why a commercial film with the potential to secure theatrical release should be artistically inferior to a niche, arthouse film.  of course, Hollywood studios churn out a lot of crap because they can afford to hide mediocre scripts behind an expensive director and cast.  but low budget films that obtain cinema release almost always balance subtext with engaging plotline, empathic characters, and visually arresting cinematography.  if you want to comment on high-culture issues, do it through a commercial film – at least your voice will be heard by someone.  and if you can’t handle difficult subjects in a way that engages the general public, then chances are it’s because you’re not a good enough writer.  look at This Is England, which brought issues of racism and the BNP party to a huge audience, or Juno, which dealt with teen pregnancy vs abortion in a way that wasn’t completely depressing.  if you can commercialise the BNP and abortion, you can commercialise anything.  anything.

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the seed is sown…

8 May

18 months ago, I quit a steady TV production coordinator job to work (for deferred pay) on an indie feature film.  it was slightly shambolic: no forethought had gone into lighting night scenes in the middle of a 40,000 acre wood; several crew members suffered from hyperthermia while on set; and the ‘making of’ cameraman recorded over 8 solid hours of arguing between the producer, director and lead cast.  all of this was fuelled nicely by the cast and crew developing a united penchance for the local French cider.  myself and the first AD (who I knew previously from a film production degree) looked around, and thought “we can do this”.

after the shoot ended, I slept for two days solid, then woke up and wondered where to begin.  the script we wanted to make was a quirky British horror which my friend had first written when he was 15.  we reviewed the most recent draft, last tweaked for a screenwriting module at university: hmm, minimal character development.  lack of emotional depth.  a lot of dog and syphilis jokes.

screenwriting isn't just about ticking buzz words off a "how to write a screenplay" list. it is far harder than this, and requires both skill and natural talent. recognise when you don't have it, and collaborate with someone who does. hint: if you're planning on producing as well, then you probably don't have it. very few great producers are also great film writers

I drew the conclusion that we needed a screenwriter to rework it, so wrote up a treatment pack outlining the basic story structure and the main characters.  then I sent this out to some writers I found on young writer workshop websites.  although the young writers were all pretty unenthusiastic about it, an established writer who mentors them emailed me back saying he’d be interested in coming on board.  I reeled with elation and shock: this guy had written a film starring Elijah Wood, for chrissake.  this was the fatal moment I became addicted with making the film.  who says flattery isn’t dangerous?

at this point, I was living at my parent’s house.  when their friends dropped by and heard I was beginning to produce a film, they weren’t sure whether to congratulate me or ask me had I lost my senses, do I want to lose my money as well, and why don’t I go back to work for that big company RDF TV in Kensington?

I tried to ignore them, and concentrated instead on giving myself a business studies crash course via Google.  aproximately every 10 minutes I ground my teeth at having taken useless subjects like art and history for GCSE, and even more useless ones like philosophy for A-level.  but eventually I had a company set up to make the film through, and my thoughts turned to creating a plan of attack for developing the project into something tangible, and which was worth money.

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the lingo #2: soho house, home house, the ivy, chinawhite

8 May

the ivy  I can’t look at the words “The Ivy” without hearing an Ab Fab-esque woman in sunglasses bawling them at her terrified PA.  situated in London’s west end, just off Shaftesbury Avenue, it is THE restaurant where the rich and famous “do lunch”.

the only time I was ever almost doing lunch at The Ivy was when I was production secretary-ing about 6 years ago.  myself and a producer (who coincidentally bared strikingly similarities to Eddie in Ab Fab) were on our way to meet a prominent writer and animal activist.  unfortunately, as we disembarked our train at Waterloo, the Eddie-esque producer spotted an injured pigeon flapping pathetically around the platform.  she stripped off her top down to her bra, flung it around the maimed rodent, and jumped back onto the train to hot-foot it to an animal shelter in the countryside, while I scuttled around after her wondering what the hell was going on.  we left our writer/animal lover high and dry, but she didn’t mind of course.  these are the types of people who frequent The Ivy, and this is the type of thing that happens when you start hanging around with them.  I can’t imagine what the outcome would have been if this had happened to, say, a plumber.

soho house  no, not a brothel in the seedy red light area, although almost…it’s at 40 Greek Street, halfway between Tottenham Court Road and Picadilly Circus tube stations.  there are also Soho Houses in West Hollywood and Berlin.  it’s a bit of everything rolled into one – breakfast meet up, coffee hangout, bar, posh restaurant, all under the umbrella of a nice, exclusive members club costing between £600 and £1200 a year to join.  providing you can get a letter of reccomendation, that is…

although I fully support the art of blagging as a first time producer, you’ve gotta be pretty damn ballsy to try and impress someone with “well, let’s meet next week at Soho House and discuss the project further” without actually having a membership.  if you do get through the door, I doubt you’ll manage to sit in there long enough to drink your mint-infused tea.  but if you are successful and stay for a second drink, I highly recommend the freshly-squeezed apple juice: it’s liquid joy.

a typical breakfast at soho house

home house  basically the same as Soho House, but seemingly with more relaxed rules – “Home House welcomes people from all walks of life…the only rule of the House being that nudity is discouraged”.  the only rule??? my mind reels at the possibilities…located off Portland Square in W1 – a slightly posher, less funky area of London than Soho.

chinawhite  once achingly trendy, Chinawhite nightclub in the west end has been somewhat deserted by the celebrity bandwagon for clubs such as Funky Buddha, Rouge and Boujis.

a couple of years ago I viewed a tiny flat on Air Street, but was put off by the fear of constantly tripping over perma-tan over-30’s / inebriated footballers lying in the gutter after a night in the club.  expressed perfectly by today’s issue of The Evening Standard: “last week, in a scene which sums up what Chinawhite once was but has become, Prince Harry was almost seduced on his bar stool by a former lapdancer, Lauren Pope. Harry, of course, is the kind of client the club still wants; Lauren, on the other hand, is what they normally get.”

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the lingo #1

8 May

there’s a lot of ‘biz speak that goes on in the film industry.  some of it’s necessary, some of it isn’t, but nevertheless if you don’t speak the lingo you ain’t gonna earn the trust.  I spent about 60% of the time in my first TV job not having a clue what people were barking at me.  however, this was when I was a lowly production secretary aged 18, so it was acceptable.  people aren’t going to be so lenient if a producer looks blank when confronted with terms such as ‘pilot’, ‘above the line’, ‘EP scheduling’, or ‘BECTU’.  they will start to look particularly worried if you blithely ask if Soho House is a chinese takeaway, mispronounce Verve Clicquot, or fail to verbally thrash the runner when they produce a black coffee for the lead cast member rather than the requested double-ristretto-venti-nonfat-frappuccino.

and if you ever let slip to anyone that you don’t know what the producer’s tax credit is, you’ve lost them forever.

instead, read the lingo definitions I’ll be posting up regularly.  you can thank me later, when you’re accepting weekly lunch invites to The Ivy, simultaneously chatting about the latest article in Variety magazine while tweeting via your blackberry to multiple members of the Allen household.

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dahling, hi

7 May

first off, I just want to make it clear that I’m not some young raa raa, running round Soho with daddy’s credit card, lounging in Home House by day, and shagging D-list celebs in Chinawhite by night.

I’m also not a pretentious arthouse filmmaker who essentially is making films because they’re too lazy to get a full time job.

I think what’s made me take the plunge into attempting to make my first film is:

firstly, the want to make something that is mine, and that I can control – one of the things I find frustrating when working on other people’s projects is having to hold my tongue when I see them going in a direction I don’t agree with,  but which is not my place to call;

and secondly, well, pure, unadulterated impatience.

surely this must be true for a lot of young first-time filmmakers.  when you’re youngish, you have far less to lose if it all goes tits up.  most people don’t have a mortgage, or kids, or perhaps even an other half to think about.  hell, I can barely schedule taking care of my cat (his name is tiberius.  yeah, I know, it’s awesome…).  so it makes sense that we can act a bit crazy and have a shot at something we shouldn’t really be shooting at for at least another 10 years or so.  my parents actually like the fact I’m doing this, they think it’s brave.  it isn’t.  if I was 40 and had a reputation to ruin, money to squander, or a family to alienate, it would be, but I don’t.  essentially, this is a gamble, and I have enough “no-strings” and “years-left” chips spare to throw at it.

this blog will follow my learning curve as I try to blag being a producer, despite only having worked up to production coordinator level before.  I intend to include enough practical information so that other first-timers can be helped by reading it.  time costs money and vice versa, and if I’d known half of what I’ve learnt in the last year and a half, I probably would be around 5 months further down the production line, and about £5,000 less broke. the film I’m producing is a low-budget British independent horror, so pretty standard for a first film.  so yeah, subscribe, and throughout next week I’ll bring you up to speed with the production.

big love xx

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