Like so many other things in life, making a good movie hinges on having the right story. And for your first movie, unless the Executive Producer Fairy just left $20 million under your pillow, the right story not only means a compelling narrative, but also includes a story that plays by the rules of ultra low-budget filmmaking.
It’s easy to read those words and immediately feel stifled creatively; however, filmmaking is all about saying “Yes, and.” If you’re not familiar with the phrase “Yes, and,” it’s the first rule of improv comedy. When performing improv, because you’re performing in reaction to suggestions presented to you by the audience members and your fellow troupe members, it is imperative to quickly agree and accept what realities have been presented to you so that you may move forward to the next step, which is “heighten and explore.” You are then in a position to explore how to enhance your situation. As a screenwriter or producer developing your first movie, once you accept some basic parameters, you will often find yourself energized by the restrictions and feel your creative juices flowing.
At this point, I’ll share with you the five key elements I look for when evaluating potential ultra low-budget projects. As you read, remember to say “Yes, and,” and see this list not as a restriction, but as an invitation to heighten and explore.
Most aspiring screenwriters may not fully realize the impact of the page count of the screenplay. Once you enter the pre-production process and are developing a shooting schedule, you break the script into shooting days, and that schedule is partially based on grouping locations and measuring script pages per day. Most low-budget to ultra low-budget films spend 18 to 30 days shooting principal photography. Most crew are only able to shoot 3 to 7 pages of material per day. So when writing or developing your screenplay, realize that every 3 to 7 pages you add represents an additional day of production and the additional costs of that additional day. I’m typically looking for a page count of 88 to 95 pages. That way, the principal photography can be captured in 18 to 20 days. I will say that if you’re super disciplined with following the story rules I’m presenting and you have a solid crew, you may be able to capture closer to 10 to 12 pages in a day for a shorter run of time, like 8 to 10 days.
For our purposes, I will refer to any land property or address as a “location.” When considering the locations that encompass your story, you will need to keep yourself to ten or less. The fewer, the better. Each time you have to change a location you lose momentum, familiarity, and ultimately, efficiency. With each new location, cast and crew will get lost, be unsure of where to park, new neighbors will be annoyed, and equipment will have to be restaged. Each new location is also an additional set to decorate and light. When planning my first movie, I looked for interesting locations that I could get for free and that could be used for more than one story setting. I found a summer camp that included a bowling alley, park, diner, and miniature golf course all within a hundred yards of each other. I also used the interior of my own home to serve as the homes of multiple characters.
In addition to keeping count of your locations, you will need to think of creative ways to use simple uncomplicated locations like houses, offices, schools, parks, churches, etc. Unless you can pull some strings and book hyper-dynamic locations like baseball stadiums, circus tents, and intergalactic space stations, you will need to keep it simple. Keep in mind, you will need to control atmospheric sound for each location and obtain location releases.
Each character you write into the story represents someone to pay, feed, place a microphone on, and capture shots of. I recommend developing a story that centers around two to three main characters to follow. And character-driven stories allow you to most effectively stay within the story parameters we’re discussing. Beyond the two to three main characters, I would keep the number of speaking parts around 10 to 15 at the absolute most.
For technical reasons like microphones and camera set ups, you should try to avoid scenes with more than three people talking.
I would also recommend staying away from casting children or animals. No joke. The phrase “never work with children or animals” exists for a reason.
For my first movie, my story focused on three main characters, had around twelve speaking parts, no animals, and only minimal screen time for children.
Stunts and Special Effects
Some of you may have special skills or connections that allow for one specific stunt or special effect, but for most people and most situations, your story shouldn’t depend upon stunts, special effects, or a lot of driving scenes that include dialogue. All of the above is very time consuming, expensive, and complicated. And when not done properly, can look really bush league.
I also want to take this opportunity to emphasize that though I want each of you who aspires to make a movie to push hard and work to achieve your dream, please do not do so at the expense of your, or someone else’s, safety. I have to confess to, and ask forgiveness for, asking people to do things that were unsafe early in my career. I’m very fortunate no one was ever seriously injured on one of my movies, and I now take safety very seriously. The shot, the scene, the movie, is never worth it, guys. Be creative and think of an alternative.
Copyright Material, Music, and Logos
You may think you can steal a shot of something or get away with showing a logo, but most of the time, unless you just want your project to only show on YouTube, you should avoid them. Don’t create a story that is dependent upon specific brands, a popular song, etc. Those things involve legal hassle and extra money. This also includes simply having one of your characters recite a few lyrics of a popular song. That still requires licensing. With my first movie, I asked my graphic designer friends to help create some logos to cover exiting ones. It actually turned out to be a cool, fun addition to the set. I also asked my musician friends to write an original song for the movie, and they had a blast creating it.
You may be overwhelmed by the number of parameters at this juncture, but remember to agree and accept this reality and launch right into enhancing it. Your movie awaits!
Photo (Flickr CC) by Calsidyrose