A crash-course in lndie film-making
adapted from Robert Rodrequiz' Ten-Minute Film School
While there are no sure-fire formulas or prescriptions for commercial and critical success, the following may prove useful if not illuminating if you are considering embarking on a journey into the territory of low-budget, independent film-making:
1. Likable, well-developed, main characters usually appeal to audiences. Of course evil, disgusting and abjectly mean characters also serve their purpose in that they add contrast and challenge to the likable characters. YOU MUST HAVE COMPELLING, FRESH AND WELL-DEVELOPED CHARACTERS, OTHERWISE DON'T GO ON.
2. A Mildly didactic story is acceptable - even with touches of philosophic reverie - so long as the themes are universal and not drooling about anything. Make sure you tell stories that have some importance to YOU - and know why they are important.
3. A "high concept" that has not been exploited, sells the show more often than not. The Blair Witch Project, for example.
If it cannot be summarized as to "what it's about" in one or two lines - it MAY NOT be high enough concept to consider. Word-of-mouth takes people to the movies. Word-of-mouth is usually a line or two that generates interest. Try surveying the public for high concepts. This is a good way to find out where your script or movie concept stands. You have to weigh the risk of leaking the concept against the probability that most films never get produced - especially by producers who steal titles.
4. Find an excellent title that has not already been exploited. Sometimes it is better to keep the title secret until you are dealing with people you can trust. Titles cannot be copyrighted but they can be registered with the MPAA Title Registration Bureau for protection and market coordination -however, if you are signatory to the agreement and another signatory protests your registration, you may have to arbitrate to win access to your own title!
5. The Picture should be acceptable to a G, PG, PG-13 or R audience. Usually low budget pictures are R or PG rated, but they don't have to be.
6. The script should be no longer than 95 pages, and preferably 90 pages, typed in standard screenplay format. Courier type preferred (10 characters per inch).
7. The story should not involve more than three main characters, yet it should not depend too heavily on ONE character such that the picture could be considered a "star vehicle" or "dependent on star casting". The fees charged by "Name Talent" rocket the project out of the low budget orbit. (Sometimes lazy, scared distributors or financiers use this as an "excuse" to NOT finance the project, even if the story can be told quite nicely without Name Talent.)
8. The story should involve, up to 5 minor characters that can be quickly developed. One of the minor character parts could be a cameo vehicle if it were a particularly challenging or interesting part. It can't hurt to keep this in mind.
9. Include up to 5 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 2 successive days each, AND up to 10 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 1 day each.
10. Have no more than 150 extras needed throughout the whole film and not more than 80 appearing in any separate scene at a time.
11. Use no complicated futuristic or period sets, props or wardrobe. Have no extensive vehicle requirements (such as 30 cop cars or a fleet of boats).
12. The story should take us through at least 35 different locations but no more than 42. Although many locations can double, there should be no more than 10 to 20 physically different locations. The cheapest way to make a movie is to shoot it all in one house or location, but you get exactly what this says - a cheap movie. With a little more effort and pre-planning, there is no reason why the cast and crew cannot show up at different local places each morning to shoot.
13. Have no special effects scenes, or limit them to one or two. If two, one moderately inexpensive, but not cheap looking, the other about five times as elaborate and as effective as the first.
14. Have 2 or less exterior night scenes, or no night scenes at all. Night shoots are expensive and draining. If you can’t do it in two days of night scenes, then you may as well have seven days of night scenes as it is difficult and costly to turn your crews' hours around.
15. In general the screenplay should have about 16 to 21 interior scenes and 14 to 18 exterior scenes with about 80% synchronous sound. No more than 10% of the picture should be exterior night, but any amount can be interior night.
16. It is okay to include all or some of the following:
a. Two interior action sequences that break a lot of inexpensive middle class luxuries. The foreign market likes to see the way we live in Australia. Anything up to $9,000 worth can be smashed. e.g., TVs, video players, musical instruments, microwave ovens, coffee makers, lamps, radios, kitchen appliances, lawn mowers, bikes, motorcycles, etc.
b. Interior action scenes can include such low budget effects as breaking fake glass, punching holes through balsa wood doors, walls, floors, ceilings . . . stuff that can be done in a controlled non-studio environment without fire or explosives. Breaking glass sounds are used in El Mariachi to suggest automobile glass is being smashed even when it isn’t.
c. Backstage scenes where we only hear the audience or see stock shots of the audience (as long as they do not have to include a character in the shot).
d. One exterior tracking shot with sync dialogue.
e. One interior or exterior action sequence with fast tracking which lends itself to fast cutting.
f. One interior sync dialogue scene in a car during day or night.
g. One or two non-contrived passionate scenes.
h. At least three scenes in some location that has never been filmed in before.
i. A nightclub scene.
j. An easy-to-film scene in some public spot (where stock footage could possibly be integrated).
k. A sequence out in the COUNTRY, MOUNTAINS, FOREST or by a STREAM (that works well with the established settings in the story).
l. Possible locations (in Australia, for instance) can be ANY AUSTRALIAN HOME/KITCHEN/LOUNGE ROOM, ETC. A VACANT APARTMENT, HOTEL LOBBY, GYM, BEAUTY SALONS, HOUSE UNDER CONSTRUCTION, LUMBER YARD, ANIMAL HOSPITAL, MUSIC STORE, COMPUTER DATA PROCESSING CENTER, SOFTWARE STORE, CHURCH, MOTOR HOME OR CUSTOM VAN, AD AGENCY, ARTISTS STUDIO, A LIFT, ANY OFFICE, COVERED BRIDGE.
Look through the phone book yellow pages to stimulate other ideas.
17. The ending is very important. It should wrap up all the lose ends and provide an up-beat catharsis. The ending should not have to rely on a lot of explosions and things blowing up. How many movies have you already seen where everything gets blown up in the end?
18. Kenneth Gullekson, a well known writer/director, wraps it up this way: "The most important things are a gripping story and engaging characters. Any subplots focusing on individual characters must be inextricably interwoven with the main plot".
CASTING & LOGISTIC PARAMETERS
- The low-budget movie should be character-driven (as likable, well-developed, main characters usually appeal to all audiences, especially our target audience).
- The story should not involve more than three major characters.
- The story should involve up to 5 minor characters that can be quickly developed.
- Avoid expensive or distant locations. No location scenes that require talent, staff or crew travel or per diems.
- No complicated futuristic or period sets, props or wardrobe and no extensive vehicle requirements (such as 30 cop cars or a fleet of boats). Unless they are definitely available for product placement credit or on deferment.
SOME OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER:
- Rationalise the number of locations. A good low-budget film usually takes us through at least 35 different locations but no more than 42. Although many locations can double, there should be no more than 10 to 20 physically different locations. One of the cheapest ways to make a movie is to shoot it all in one house (or location) however it often looks cheap (or dimentionally truncated).
- The screenplay should have about 16 to 21 interior scenes and 14 to 18 exterior scenes with about 80% synchronous sound. No more than 10% of the picture should be exterior night, but any amount can be interior night.
- At least 2 exterior night scenes.
- Up to 2 special effects scenes, one moderately inexpensive, but not cheap looking, the other about five times as elaborate and effective as the first.
- Include all or some of the following:
· Interior action scenes can include such low budget effects as breaking fake glass, punching holes through balsa wood doors, walls, floors, ceilings . . . stuff that can be done in a controlled non-studio environment without fire or explosives.
· Backstage scenes where we only hear the audience or see stock shots of the audience (as long as they do not have to include a character in the shot).
· One exterior tracking shot with sync dialogue.
· One interior or exterior action sequence with fast tracking which lends itself to fast cutting.
· One interior sync dialogue scene in a car during day or night.
· One or two non-contrived passionate scenes. Nothing X-rated, however tasteful or sophisticated sex/romance, with non-gratuitous nudity is okay.
· At least three scenes in some location that has "never" been filmed in before.
· A nightclub scene.
· An easy-to-film scene in some public spot (where stock footage could possibly be integrated).
· A sequence out in the COUNTRY, MOUNTAINS, FOREST or by a STREAM (that works well with the established settings in the story).
· Possible locations: KITCHEN, VACANT APARTMENT, MACDONALDS, UNDER A CAR, CELLARS, FILM PROCESSING LABS, SAND DESERT, MUSIC VIDEO SET, SLICK AGENCY, HOTEL LOBBY, BY PARKED AIRPLANES, GYM, EYE DOCTORS, ELECTRONIC SUPPLY SHOPS, BEAUTY SALONS, HOUSE UNDER CONSTRUCTION, DISCO, LUMBER YARD, ANIMAL HOSPITAL, MUSIC STORE, COMPUTER DATA PROCESSING CENTER, SOFTWARE STORE, CHURCH, BOAT YARD, NEW CAR SHOWROOM, SOLAR ENERGY STORE, GENERAL CONTRACTORS OFFICE, MAP SHOP, MOTOR HOME OR CUSTOM VAN, AD AGENCY, VIDEO SHOP, VIDEO EDITING BAY, DEPARTMENT STORE, ARTISTS STUDIO, HORSE SHOW, COVERED BRIDGE.
- The ending is very important. It should wrap up all the lose ends and provide an up-beat catharsis. The ending should not have to rely on a lot of explosions and things blowing up. How many movies have you already seen where everything gets blown up in the end?
- Kenneth Gullekson, a well known writer/director, wraps it up this way: "The most important things are a gripping story and engaging characters. Any subplots focusing on individual characters must be inextricably interwoven with the main plot".
That is not to say that as you are writing you should be mentally adding up how much every element is going to cost to put on screen. Acting as a writer and accountant simultaneously is hardly going to be conducive to the creative process. Probably the best idea is to do a first draft and then scrutinise the script for any elements that can be usefully jettisoned. First drafts are always full of dead wood.
Location, Location, Location
So what things are likely to push up the costs of a film? The first place to look is in the number of locations that you’ve used. Locations can be a logistical nightmare for filmmakers. To get into a location they almost always have to pay a fee to get access to them. Then they have to arrange to get all the cast, crew and equipment to and from the various places they may be shooting. Every shift of location means that the lights, sound gear and cameras have to be re-assembled which can take hours if the lighting set-up is particularly complicated. A lot of different locations mean a lot of extra money to be spent. Carefully check to make sure that every location is needed.
The type of location you set your film in also needs to be considered. Some places will be more expensive to gain permission to film in then others. Some will be almost impossible to gain access to. Supermarkets are a case in point. It is notoriously difficult to get filming permission from them. In the past some films have even been driven to have to re-create them using studio sets because they couldn’t find anybody willing to let them shoot in one. Building sets is also not cheap as they not only have to be constructed but dressed with props. Space has to be rented to build them in.
Locations, which carry an element of risk can be very expensive to film in, as extra insurance may have to be arranged.
Similarly a big cast will also push up costs enormously. Not only do they have to be fed but in many cases accommodated for somewhere. They will need to be costumed and made up. Transportation will need to be arranged to ferry them from hotel to the location. None of these things are cheap. So make sure that every character is necessary. Quite often a writer will over burden a script with too many characters. A lean cast not only makes sense from a financial point of view but as it gives each character more screen time they benefit from better character development too. In addition, an endless stream of different faces can confuse audiences. Films based on real events often create composite characters for some roles for precisely this reason.
Stunts are clearly not going to be cheap. Not only do they take time to set up and film but they have to be carried out under the supervision of trained professionals. If sequence calls for a car to be blown up then a car will have to be bought from a scrap yard and painted up to look like new. It will then have to be rigged to explode. Again, this all costs time and money.
Make sure that any stunt or effects sequences you incorporate are absolutely vital to the plot. Not only will this bring the budget down but it will make for a better film. Nothing looks worse then a poorly tacked on stunt sequence. For example in the BBC film ‘Face’, a scene involving a shoot out on a London street becomes ludicrous as Phillip Davis strides down the road blasting at a police car with a sawn-off shot gun. The police car then explodes in a huge fireball. Up until this moment the film had been fairly realistic but this set piece came straight out of a Hollywood action movie and just didn’t sit comfortably within the rest of the film.
It’s also tempting to believe that an effects sequence could be done cheaply using computer generated effects. Whilst it is true that cost of using CGI has fallen it can be far from cheap. If it is a film intended for cinema release then the costs involved can get quite pricey, depending on the complexity and number of sequences you envisage.
So far what I have talked about sounds like a tremendous creative barrier but that doesn’t need to be the case. It just requires a little more lateral thinking on behalf of the writer. Besides which you can always save the stunts, special effects and cast of thousands for when you sell that big budget blockbuster to Hollywood!
So you wanna make a movie but you don't want to spend a lot. You're gonna come up with problems everyday on your set. You can get rid of the problem one of two ways - you can do it creatively or you can wash it away with the money hose. You got no money, you got no hose. So let's make a screenplay for a movie you can actually make without having to make your parents poor. Let's make a cheap movie.
How do you make a cheap movie? - Look around you, what do you have around you? Take stock in what you have. Your father owns a liquor store - make a movie about a liquor store. Do you have a dog? Make a movie about your dog. Your mom works in a nursing home, make a movie about a nursing home. When Rodriquez did El Mariachi he had a turtle, a guitar case, and a small town. What do YOU have?