Screenwriting with budget in mind

Since 1996 or so, I have written 10 feature length screenplays. That’s not saying much because no one has read any of them. No one who could get them made, I should say. But I wrote them nonetheless (holy shit, that’s a word?), and am a better writer for it.

Writing with a budget in mind means that you’re going to go the route of so many imaginatives (that’s NOT a word?) out there who dream of being trusted with a reasonable (ultra low) budget to tell a story dear to their heart. It means they’re going to try and tell a story with what equipment they can rustle up, with what actors they can persuade to work for food, with what locations they can use without permits or renting out, etc. ad nauseam.

They will then send their completed mess of a baby out into the world to be judged, hopefully, by merit alone.

There is the saying that ‘if you want to make a $20 million dollar movie, make a $2 million dollar movie, make a $200k movie, make a $20k movie,’ and so on. Seems true enough, with plenty of examples to go around.

Of course, every once in a while, you have a space epic in mind, or a historical drama, and it burns you up until you write it down. As you should.

These days, I have been racking my brain for projects I can shoot with the equipment I have, with low-to-zero outlay. And it’s killing me.

Even 5AM cost $450, money I do not have at the moment to spend on another short that may not get into 85% of the festivals I send it out to. Putting shorts out into the world without a proper social or marketing network is hit or miss.

But this post isn’t about plight complaints. This is, for all intents and purposes, the life of the artist. There are compromises and problems to solve. Money is and always shall be a constant stressful factor, whether it’s for supplies or basic essentials or marketing.

This post is about figuring out how to write a script with budget in mind.

I recently decided to halt production on a project that had, and continues, to burn my brain with imagery, almost to the point of obsession. It’s a great fucking project, which originally started out as a pilot, moved on to become a feature, and then a 13 episode series, with a projected budget of $500k or more.

This put me into a bit of a depression, mainly because I don’t know a single person who could possibly help me get the pilot, which I shot, into the right hands. After some deliberation, Julie, Producer Julie, suggested some film festivals. I said ok. We cut it down into a usable short, and shall send it off to be judged based on merit.

Hopefully.

Nowadays (come ON, that can’t be a real word…), I sat back and think about what I should do with my time as I sit here rotting, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Some time last year I began a romantic comedy script. Low budget. Not, you know, a romantic comedy that takes place on a floating island with people who can fly and space aliens and talking animals and shit. I wrote about 90 pages and, out of those pages, had gotten roughly 2 acts written. So much of it took place in locations I could get for cheap or free, so I was not concerned so much about the length (the future length) of the final script, as much as I was worried I could not get to the point of the film in a timely fashion. There was great dialog in there. Fun characters, interesting scenarios…

So I put the file away for a future perusal.

After deciding that the larger project was on hold, I brought it out again. Now, it’s important to note that, what limited amount of experience I have with feature filmmaking, that is solely because of Enchantments, insights I received from the director of Enchantments, Kelsey O’Brien.

Suffice it to say, it’s a scary undertaking. Scary because much of a feature film takes place in between the pages of paperwork. At least, in the beginning.

Now, let’s break down writing for a budget.

A) Limit your number of characters – Who’s to say exactly what this number should be. Could be five, could be ten. I guess it depends on some of the other factors below, but, also, it depends on if you’re going to shoot union or non-union people. This is going to be a big factor, for so many goddamn reasons, it’s almost a shame. This is a casting issue, technically, not a screenwriting issue, but the fact is that sometimes people write characters for actors they know.

Just bear it all in mind while you’re writing. A SAG production brings its own issues, most involving money.

B) List your assets – Take a page from The Princess Bride. Have a wheelbarrow? List it amongst your assets. Anything and everything that might be able to push your story forward can be an immense help when crafting your script. For my 40th birthday I received a 100 year old pocket watch. It’s constantly on my mind when I’m thinking of simple shorts to shoot as it’s really awesome looking, and genuine. Think about not only what you have, but what your friends and family might have to contribute.

Just don’t break anything.

C) List your location assets – Apartments, office buildings, nearby parks, quiet streets, restaurants or coffee shops… friendships where you might be able to barter or beg for someplace cool looking… all of these locations will factor into your storytelling, and will help you make choices when it comes to both plot and character development.

You know, I thought I was going to have, like, through E, but that’s about it. A lot of the times people will suggest that you write the film the way you have it in your mind, and then pare it down. This is fine if you want to do double work, or you have a rich relative that may die by the time you hit the third draft. These things happen. Best of luck to you.

Personally, I’d prefer to write the script that I can afford, and then go from there.

That’s not to say I haven’t put in scenes that are both complicated and expensive. But that’s what finales are for…

I believe I can shoot my romantic comedy for $30,000. Maybe $20k. Maybe.

Do I have $20-$30k? No. Between now and April, which is when I want to shoot the feature, I can only sell so much blood. Certainly not enough for a feature. Maybe enough for a short. If I had AB-, that might be a different story… I think one can ransom that blood type out.

Do I think I can raise the $20-$30k with the cast I have, and the producers I have? I can honestly say I think it’s a distinct possibility. More of a possibility than raising $500k, anyway.

But, as my producer Lynn said, stepping stones.

Once the script is finished and it’s locked down, and I start casting, I’ll be able to break the script down even more. I can make the casting choices based on realistic budgeting, and then know if I can go SAG or non-union. I can lock down the locations I want, and if I can’t, I can see what is possible and adjust accordingly.

Just remember. There are plenty of films out there that take place in only a handful of locations. There’s a great challenge there, and if you’re smart about it, you can craft your story to take advantage of it all.

Just look at 12 Angry Men, The Man from Earth, Hitchcock’s Rope, the sci-fi film Cube, last year’s Buried… the list goes on and on.

Good luck writing, thanks for reading.

Oh, and here’s a couple of crazy films for you to watch:

And, finally, the proof of concept film Keloid, which has caught the eye of many a big studio:

https://vimeo.com/75781782

Thanks for watching!

John

8 for Vegas – reboot

So, for those of you who don’t know, my first project was a web series called 8 for Vegas. Co-produced with my friend Julie Sisson, we shot it in 2011 over 8 Sundays in and around the summer. 9 episodes, great cast and crew, lots of fun.

Julie and I learned a lot. We followed that up with episode 1 of The Difference Between, casting our good friend Drew Jeeves as the lead. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here:

We shot a large part of this on the coldest day of 2012. I had just purchased my camera equipment, and the three of us, Julie, Drew, and I, traversed the city looking for some great footage.

It was the first stylistic narrative I’d shot, and there is so much of it I love.

From there I went on to shoot episodes of Off Off and Internet Affairs.

Julie and I had an opportunity to shoot a music video last year, and followed that up with a second season of 8 for Vegas. While all of that was going on, I was shooting and editing The Thing.

Now, in 2012 I met some fantastic people. These fantastic people trusted me to either make their projects look good or make them look good, or make MY projects look good. What a bunch of pals.

So, when I saw that Comedy Central was having a contest for pilots, I jumped at the chance to try my hand at 8 for Vegas again. I was convinced that an ensemble sports comedy about a down and out team who are followed around by a documentary crew would be quite funny. Raunchy, but with heart, great characters and arcs, and a talented cast… I really felt confident.

So, I brought some old 8 for Vegas people in, I did some re-writes, and I brought in some new cast members, people I’d met over 2012 and the early part of 2013.

In April we got together on a Sunday at Bleecker Street Bar in NYC. I’ve been in pool league for a long time, and spent many nights there. They allowed us to shoot there, but the timing was going to be super tight. I thought we’d have four hours, which still sounded near impossible.

We get there, set up takes half an hour, and we start shooting. All is well, until the owner comes in and says that we have to be out by 1pm. It was 12:15 and we’d only been shooting for 15 minutes. Uhhh. Yeah, not possible. It took some doing, but I was able to convince the owner to allow us to shoot until 2pm.

So, we had less than two hours to shoot 10 pages.

Here’s the pilot:

I cannot say if I told everyone what was happening… that our production time had essentially gotten cut in half. But boy, was everyone ready to go. They nailed their lines, we were plowing through pages… and in no time, we were shooting b-roll for the episode. We finished out the last two scenes, shot more b-roll, and had everything broken down by 2pm.

I attribute it to a bunch of things. One, Julie didn’t let me lose my mind. Two, we’d learned a lot in that year and a half on how to be economical with shots. Three, we had a great cast and crew who were raring and ready to go.

My thanks go out to Ian Bjorklund, Heather Cambanes, Kelly Grant, Drew Jeeves, Lynn Mancinelli, Aben Ngwa, Marc Palmieri, and Brian Sloan for their time, commitment, and great acting. Holly Hughes our AD, Matthew Bonnell our sound guy, they were great. And thanks to our other cast members, Johanny Mota, James Honderich, Jon Palmieri, and Rolando Rodriguez.

Julie… I can never say enough good things about her.

I loved shooting seasons 1 and 2 of 8 for Vegas. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for those times. I was happy to revisit it, and I hope you enjoy watching it!

John