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Shadow & Act's 5 Tips On Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Feature Screenplays

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act April 11, 2012 at 12:31PM

Back (or rather black) by popular demand...
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Back (or rather black) by popular demand...

In watching countless no-budget/low-budget, straight-to-dvd movies that most of us will probably never bother to see, I've witnessed far too many film production errors that I'd like to think most folks who call themselves filmmakers would already know to avoid.

I'm not certain whether it's that these filmmakers aren't aware, or they just don't care. I'm hoping it's the former, because if you don't care, then, you have no business being a filmmaker, and you shouldn't be surprised when your film isn't well-received by critics and audiences.

Producing a film, no matter the budget, is already quite an involved task; and when you're working with a minuscule budget, it's even more of a challenge; so why turn an already stressful process into an insurmountable one, jeopardizing the making and distribution of your film? I've made some short films, as well as a feature film (roughly 8 years ago) which I've already talked about on this blog. It's not great, but it's not horrible either. It is what it is. I never had any delusions that the film would get me into some coveted Hollywood club - after all, I made it for under $5,000!

So while I'm not an industry veteran with 20 films on my resume, and experience to spare, I do have some understanding of the filmmaking process, and I think many of you will agree with the tips I list below.

A lot of it is really just what I'd consider common sense - you don't need 4 years of film school to understand each point.

So here we go... The Shadow & Act 5 Tips On Writing No-Budget/Low-Budget Feature Screenplays... and although I'm emphasizing feature films here, the same ideas can be applied to short films as well. It's really all about THE SCRIPT folks (assuming you're actually working from one); so if you keep the below 5 items in mind while you're penning your opus, you'll be off to a good start, and it'll make the photography phase of the production process much more manageable:

1. K.I.S.S. - A suggestion I've given to others is, before you even start writing, take an inventory of everything you have access to, whether for free, or for cheap - locations, wardrobe, props, equipment, whatever - and then write your script based on your findings.

2. Characters - the fewer the better. No ensemble pieces; Less people to account for. Take a look at some films we've featured on this blog, which were made with very little money, like Medicine For Melancholy, A Good Day To Be Black & Sexy, 6 Things I Never Told You, I Will Follow, and others. Medicine was a 2-character piece; Black & Sexy and 6 Things were more like a series of short films centered on specific themes, with each short having no more than 2 characters at a time; I Will Follow really had 1 star, and a smattering of supporting casts. Some might think that you can't make an "entertaining" film with 1, 2, 3 or 4 characters, but that's B.S. and you should abandon that line of thought.

3. Locations - first, like the number of characters, the fewer the better, and the reasons should be obvious. Once again, I Will Follow for example, 1 house was the primary location; done. Secondly, and just as importantly, relegate much of your script to locations you can fully control - unless you've got money to shut down streets, or use parts of airports and hotels. But if you did, you wouldn't be reading this, would you? 3rd, stay inside as much as possible - especially in any scenes with dialogue. If you're going to shoot any street scenes, you'll be best served by keeping those dialogue-free - or with very little of it. Don't write a scene with a 5-page conversation that takes place on the Brooklyn bridge, for example. That's an extreme example, I know. But you'd be surprised by some of what I've seen. Just do your best to keep your scenes within 4 walls - especially those with dialogue. Obtaining good sound is crucial! Don't jeopardize that by shooting sync sound dialogue scenes in locations you have little control of.

4. Dialogue - and speaking of dialogue... a common mistake novice writers/filmmakers often make is to write scripts filled with dialogue. There's nothing that turns producers off more than being handed a script that, upon initially flipping through, is made up of page after page of dialogue chunks. As I've experienced with scripts I've read, the dialogue is often repetitive and expository. One of the first things you learn in film school is: show, don't tell. Actions really do speak louder than words when it comes to the language of cinema, so keep your dialogue at a minimum, succinct and brisk. Unless you're trying to emulate Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, or David Mamet, amongst others. But why would you be? Especially when working with a tiny budget. Although, I'd say this - if you do have a dialogue-heavy script, keep item numbers 2 and 3 above in consideration when writing. Sure, on your early drafts, you might spill everything out in words spoken by your characters; however, when you're editing in later drafts, clean up as much as possible, and find ways to have your characters express themselves succinctly, or without words.

5. Length - keep it short. I'd say anywhere from 80 to 100 pages max is good - preferably closer to 80. Again, you're working with little to zero financing, so the shorter your script is, the less money you'd likely have to spend. Of course there are exceptions, but, in general, it doesn't take a genius to realize the math here.

That's it! I could broaden each of the above further, but I think you get the gist of it all. And I'm sure some of you would add some other things to this list, but I think this is really where it all begins for the no-budget/low-budget auteurs.

Again, it starts with the script, and if you follow the above pointers, keeping your script as slender as possible, you'll then be able to really maximize your tiny budget. And instead of shelling out dough to secure multiple locations, or on food to feed your ensemble cast, or transportation for your cast and crew, invest the money instead in attracting strong actors to give you strong performances, and in good production design, a solid DP, and the best equipment your can afford to capture the best images and sound your no-budget/low-budget will allow.

If you have other suggestions that you think should be on this list, with regards to writing no-budget/low-budget feature scripts, chime in below...


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