We all have big ideas and we want to make big movies and would like to go from WHIPLASH to FIRST MAN in a few short years like Damien Chazelle. But the reality is Chazelle is very much the exception to the rule and many writers get burnt out as they struggle to get their scripts produced in spite of winning top competitions and getting their work optioned. That doesn't mean you shouldn't write big projects and reach for the stars, just that it wouldn't hurt to have small films that you know can get made. That's when micro-budget films come into play. Admittedly what qualifies as “micro-budget” is a little fuzzy (see what Steven Follows has to say on the topic) but the bottom line is they are movies made with money you can realistically secure under your present circumstances.
Micro-budget films aren't just for writer-directors. Producers are craving scripts they could produce well on a small budget. The lower the budget the easier it is to recoup the cost, which is more appealing for them. Although micro-budget scripts present clear advantages in terms of feasibility it's often challenging for directors and producers to find scripts that can be truly made on a low-budget – let alone a micro-budget – so it seems that a lot of screenwriters are unaware of the reality of turning their vision into a film. So, the tips below would be a good place to start to remedy the situation:
1. Think like a producer...
Write with a producer's cap on even if you aren't planning on producing yourself. Is it a story that could really be made on a budget without massive compromises that would be detrimental to the story? Not all projects should be made on a micro-budget. So give your script an honest reality check and if you aren't savvy about production talk to filmmakers and take stock of the requirements of your project. While the budget of your micro-budget script can always balloon like the DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED or BURIED you can't always scale back your high-concept project so it's always a good idea to set strict parameters at the outset so that you can make the creative limitations work to your advantage taking into account all the resources you have at your disposal (including what you can access at your day job for example!).
2. Ensure it's a script you are passionate about...
It's not because you can shoot a script on an I-Phone over two weeks that you should do it. Regardless of the budget between the production process and the festival run, it's going to be one or two years of your life you won't get back. The process of making a feature film is incredibly involving so make so make sure you believe in your project. Of course if you aren't planning on producing and directing yourself that's less of concern but let's face it, in the micro-budget world chances are you are a bit of an hybrid between an entrepreneur and an artist (and if you aren't it's time to become one).
3. It's okay to think big...
Movies like COHERENCE which was shot over five nights and explore big ideas in a compact format are gold dust as they transcend the limitations of low-budget filmmaking and take full advantage of the fact they have creative control and can experiment with bold ideas.
4. It's not because you can shoot your script cheaply that you should overlook the development process...
Movies with 2, 3 main characters are incredibly hard to write. Many of the breakthrough micro to low-budget films out there are the product of years spent in development. Small gems like A GIRL WALKS ALONE AT NIGHT and BLUE RUIN don't emerge fully baked, their auteurs spent years crafting their scripts and it shows.
5. Make each character count...
The fewer the better. The fewer characters you have, the more screen time they have and the better you can develop them and actors love the opportunity to have a great character to sink their teeth into. Use the hyper-connected world to your advantage to be able to add more characters without having to bring them on set. There is so much you can do with a phone like in Chris Sparling's BURIED and modern technology can offer cheap solutions to tell your stories. Look at the clever use of technology in the Danish Oscar entry THE GUILTY co-written by Gustav Möller and Emil Nygaard Albertsen who manage to keep their audience on the edge of their seat with a policeman in a call center, a phone and computer screens.
6. Contained locations but you can still move around...
The fewer locations the better of course so the first examples of contained movies that cross your mind might be TAPE and EXAM and the aforementioned BURIED which manages to squeeze actual action pieces in a coffin. But it's not because you are making a micro-budget film that you should necessarily contain your story to ONE location. Ask yourself what locations you have at your disposal and write around them, WEEK-END being a good example of that, or LOCKE where the character is stuck in a moving car throughout the whole film which makes the whole experience cinematic. Just avoid locations you don't have full control over.
7. Keep it short anD SWEET...
I read a lot of micro-budget scripts which are 110 pages, which means the directors will often end up shooting ten pages per day if they only have ten days to shoot. So I recommend you edit the hell out of your script and be ruthless with it. Aim for 90 pages maximum.
8. Don't assume that because you don't have money it should be all talk-talk-talk...
There are so many ways of making things visual on a budget and keep the characters moving. Making a micro-budget film doesn't necessarily mean you have to film a stage play. Look at BLUE RUIN and its incredible visual opening. It's not because you are making a micro-budget film that you should strip away all your great locations and shot ideas that can elevate your piece.
9. Understand your industry context and the marketplace...
Be clear at the outset about your goal. Are you writing your film for yourself, the festival circuit, the commercial circuit or both and be realistic and knowledgeable about the prospects of a small movie in today's indie landscape. Study similar films (“comparables”). Again, even if you aren't a producer it wouldn't hurt to have clarity about the marketplace while boldly embracing the fact you can take a risk with your story or cast that you wouldn't be able to take when more people are investing in your film and want to have a say in the creative process. Show us a white-sheeted ghost wandering in a house if you please like in A GHOST STORY.
10. Beware of SFX and VFX...
If you as a writer/director or your director are a specialist in VFX then fine, you can write a story in the vein of MONSTERS but if you are not, just know you are in for a steep learning curve so refrain from relying on VFX and what will happen in post-production. Embrace your limitations in a creative way and plan ahead like Mike Cahill who spent a long time carefully designing the otherworldly visuals of ANOTHER EARTH before going to camera.
It's just a starting point of course but a good place to start to make the most out of your minuscule budget.
By Ian Long
Sometimes films or TV series work towards an unusually powerful scene or sequence which burns itself onto the memory of the viewer.
This is much more than a mere “twist” (often a disappointingly trite or unearned plot turn), but something which plays really profoundly on viewers’ perceptions and emotions, touching them in ways they may not entirely understand.
Q: But how do we achieve this effect?
A: By being aware of how to use information in a story, and making and breaking patterns of ideas in the minds of audiences.
My Deep Narrative Design workshop on October 7 sets out many ways in which you can create powerful stories using these methods.
For now, though, let’s look at a great example of making and breaking patterns in the first season of HBO’s TRUE DETECTIVE.
Spoiler Alert: this item reveals one particularly surprising moment of the story, although the season has many other intriguing character and plot elements.
The story features Louisiana State Police homicide detectives Rustin “Rust” Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin “Marty” Hart (Woody Harrelson).
The two men embody contradictory sides of the standard “hard-boiled” detective – aspects which are usually contained in a single protagonist.
Hart is an unreflective man of action, all fists and fiery passion, while Cohle is a sort of nihilist philosopher-cum-policeman - detached, despairing, unfathomable. Both share an overarching sense of alienation, of being at odds with life.
As well as twin protagonists, True Detective has an unusual dual-timeline structure. In the story’s “present”, 2012, the two detectives are interrogated about a case they worked on some twenty years earlier.
As we move between the past and present, finding out about the case and seeing how time has changed the men, we learn why they’re being questioned: one of them is suspected of involvement in a recent murder related to the past case.
The Joys of Voiceover
As in many noir-inflected stories (SUNSET BOULEVARD, MEMENTO, DEXTER, etc), voiceover isn’t just an add-on here: it’s a vital part of the story’s design. The narrative just wouldn’t work without this way of putting us inside characters’ minds.
Patterns and Rules
Series creator Nic Pizzolatto set out clear ground rules for the story in his treatment, including this: “The narrating voice may lie, but the images we see never will. So an audience can be sure they know exactly what happened, and also that they can tell when one of the detectives is lying.”
The Unforgettable Sequence
For much of the season, Cohle and Hart's spoken testimony squares with what we're seeing onscreen. But in “The Secret Fate Of All Life,” the fifth of the season’s eight episodes, this pattern is broken.
The duo track a suspect to a meth lab hidden deep in the bayou. Finding two kidnapped and abused children in the compound, Hart is incensed and unnecessarily kills the suspect, who he’s already taken into custody.
But the voiceover we hear from the men as we watch these events tells an entirely different story.
As Hart and Cohle tell us that they came under intense fire and were obliged to retaliate, the scene that we see is quiet and tranquil. And then we watch as the men fake evidence of a desperate shootout which never happened.
They’re subsequently decorated and promoted for their heroism. But they've become conspirators in covering up a murder. It’s a lie on which the rest of their lives will be founded.
The Emotional Impact
I vividly remember the sense of unreality I experienced when watching this scene: a feeling which drew its power purely from the way in which information was “coded” in the story. With it went feelings of bafflement, almost betrayal, as the visual information I was receiving departed so far from the characters’ verbal descriptions.
It’s these moments of thrilling strangeness – when viewers feel cut adrift and experience something genuinely new and compelling – that we need to look for in our stories, and which makes them truly memorable.
And when reading scripts, these are the moments that producers and directors are searching for.
The brilliant title sequence which includes the images in this article were made by Elastic, and you can find out more about the ideas behind the sequence here.
For more details and to book on my Deep Narrative Design workshop, click here.
Thank you for reading, and please let me know of any thoughts or comments.
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