Trainee Writer

Adventures of a screenwriter in training…

Looking after the pennies…


Inspired by a comment on Shades Of Grey by Jane Frost (Thanks, Jane!), I’ve finally found time – and a way – of talking about an oft-overlooked issue for the spec writer: budget. But this isn’t just about the cost of shooting your script, but the way everything you write on the page affects somebody on the production team and the importance of being aware of that. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to budget. Nobody wants to spend $100m producing a script by an untested writer – admittedly, there are a couple of exceptions – even if you have written the next Avatar. So in today’s lesson, we’re going to talk about the importance of making sure that your scripts are as production-friendly as possible. In an ideal world, a producer would love to see a script that he can shoot for free. He has more chance of finding a Golden unicorn ridden by a mermaid, of course, but the lower you can make the budget on your specs, the more chance you’ll have of someone producing it.

Making it as low-budget as possible should never mean you sacrifice quality, however. If your screenplay is a retelling of the 300 in space, it’s natural that we’re going to see massive fight scenes, lots of special and elaborate effects. I don’t see much chance you’d sell such a spec anyway – it’s a deliberately extreme example to illustrate my point – but always be aware.

So how do we tell the story we want whilst reducing budget to its bare minimum? Well, if you’re writing space-based sci-fi or the next Die Hard, I probably can’t help you too much. SFX will cost money and they’re genre staples. So here comes my first advice on that score: If you can write them, stick to the low-budget genres. What are the low-budget genres? They’re the ones that, when you walk into Blockbuster, you see hundreds of. (I’m assuming you still use Blockbuster. If you’ve gone strictly Netflix/LoveFilm you need to hunt down a Blockbuster and take a look sometime!) We’re talking horrors, psychological thrillers, comedies, romances, coming-of-age dramas and their crossovers and ilk. You see so many of these being made because they cost much less to produce. And people are making so many of them for exactly that reason: it’s good business. These genres have huge fanbases and a low-cost, which makes them infinitely profitable.

Interesting fact: Remember that scene in Swordfish where the helicopter is flying the bus around Los Angeles? That scene cost $13 Million to shoot. In The Bedroom (starring Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Nick Stahl, written by Todd Field & Robert Festinger, directed by Field and produced by Good Machine Films) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture that same year. Its total production budget? $1.6 million. You could almost have made that movie ten times for what it cost to shoot that one helicopter scene. You don’t have to go big budget to make a big impression.

To keep your budget low, there are some pretty obvious things to keep an eye on. First, you need to reduce the ‘essentials’ as much as possible. Kevin Smith shot Clerks for $28,000. How? It has three locations, around six actors and no special effects. It’s also a classic, won two awards at Cannes, one at Sundance and was nominated for three at Independent Spirit and launched Kevin Smith’s career.  Again, an extreme example, but it’s exactly what producers hope for – a break-out hit that cost (effectively) nothing to make and made a 1000% profit. And guess what? You could easily write the next Clerks if you just keep an eye on your budget as you write.

A good grounding for writing low-budget spec features is to become a student of TV, especially sitcoms. Sitcoms have a core cast of four-six and three or four regular locations. You can test this for yourself if you wish – look at any sitcom and count the locations that appear regularly. Friends had four (five in later seasons), Cheers essentially had two, Frasier three, How I Met Your Mother had two for the early seasons. TV, for the most part, writes to a lower budget. That’s why the lessons learned there are so good.

So what have we learned so far? Keep characters and Locations to a minimum. But how does this affect the rest of the production crew? Location scouts and set designers are often paid by the day – per diem – the less locations you have to find or build and the less locations you have to dress, the less time you need to have these guys on the payroll. That saves money. You can save even more money by keeping the events that go on inside a set as neutral as possible. If you destroy a set in your script, you have to redress it if it appears afterwards. Another day’s money for the set designer. Likewise, if you keep the number of cast members to a minimum, you have to spend less time casting them. That reduces the money you’re spending on casting directors. Also, less actors means less actors salaries. And the two play into each other, too. Try and choose less populous locations for your scenes; a scene at Grand Central Station will require not just hiring the station for a day (tres expensive anyway) or building a replica but also filling it with extras. If each extra is costing $80 a day, that adds up. Nobody is going to believe your lead is at Grand Central in the morning rush if there are five people milling around. Always be considering how busy your scene is versus the cost of it if you want it to appeal to a producer.

Now, my next piece of advice goes against the grain. Assuming you intend to forge a career as a writer rather than having a one-shot hit (if you do, great, but it’ll take much, much longer) then your first sale is most likely going to be a production company you’ve never heard of, one you’ll Google a hundred times to check they’re legit, and they’re going to want the budget to come in just above zero whilst shooting in ten days. An easy way to achieve this is to fly against accepted technique – and it is technically very wrong in the world of features – and tell, don’t show. Obviously, if you’re submitting to top dogs or people who read too many screenwriting books without getting any real knowledge, they’re going to hate this. But here’s a simple home truth: Sometimes you can save money by having actors talk more. Again, Clerks is the best example of this. Rather than showing events that affect the story, the characters simply talk about them. Why? Because showing them required building an extra set, finding an extra location or hiring an extra dozen actors. You have to be skilled at this though. Don’t turn your film in to a monologue or have an extended scene filled with a conversation about ‘that time we were involved in that massive car chase where seventeen people died, that oil tanker exploded and half the LAPD smashed up their vehicles’ unless there’s a punchline. Because people would rather see that stuff. But in situations where you can save a scene by having someone talk about it, do it. I see a lot of writers using flashbacks to show trivial events and, yes, it’s great in theory. It adds colour. But shooting that insert gag where we see the guy running through the Mall Of America in a mankini being chased by dogs is going to cost money. And it’s just as funny as an anecdote in the scene you flashed back from.

Again, reduction of scenes, characters and budgets.

Assuming you absolutely must fulfill some latent desire to write the next Star Wars, I’ll give you a little advice regarding budgets and special effects: Minimise the use of special effects as much as possible, and always be thinking about their plausibility. I always wanted to see a film where the guy gets kicked off the space shuttle and his helmet comes off, forcing his head to explode. But you can’t just force an actor to put an M-80 in his mouth and film it. How are you going to shoot those pick-ups later on? Besides, I bet M-80s taste horrible. To do it more practically – and legally – you’re going to have to use CGI. CGI requires hundreds of man hours by animators and technicians. They don’t work for a daily rate, either – most charge by the hour. If that head-exploding scene needs a hundred animators putting in a hundred hours each at $100 an hour, that’s a million bucks you just added to your budget. I could shoot Clerks 33-ish times for that. Imagine you go more elaborate – Waterworld, for example. I know of several SFX experts who laughed when they heard about that film. Set designers panicked. You, as a newbie spec writer, cannot write that sort of film and hope to sell it as your debut picture.

You may not be a SFX guru yourself, but always be thinking of the plausibility of any special effects. Stunts apply here, too. As a golden rule, if you’ve never seen something similar done, assume it can’t be. It may not leave room for originality, but therein lies the challenge. Earn respect for that first work, though, and people will listen to the next one.

My final word on this – for now – relates to setting again. But not locations. Oh no. We’re going to talk time. See, you may have looked through the first few paragraphs and thought ‘Well, I’ve got a comedy, it has three actors, one location and no SFX. But it’s set in the 1720s.’ Guess what? That’s your budget through the roof. Period pieces cause untold hell for location managers, set designers, prop masters and costume designers. They now have to find or build locations that are architecturally relevant to the time period, design and make costumes that are period-appropriate and make sure that none of the props are anachronistic. Often these jobs cross over each other, causing chaos, confusion, extended production time and major, major headaches and budget problems. This came to mind as I have a passion piece I’ve been planning for a while; a TV teen drama set in the 1920s. I’ve wanted to try this for a while but, in my heart, I know I can’t sell it on spec. I can’t sell this until I have the credits to establish my credentials as a writer, a showrunner and (probably) a producer.  Will it stop me writing it? No. Will I be pitching it? No. Not until I have a reputation that means I can demand that agents, producers, networks and studios trust me with their time to pitch it. So there goes my final piece of advice for spec writers: Avoid period specs entirely.

I’ll be back as I think of more (maybe Jane will spot something I missed. Feel free to weigh in, Jane!) but, in the meantime, I’d like to invite you all to join my Writing Workshop & Forum. We’ve started slowly, but I’m eternally grateful to the eight members who’ve joined so far; we’re all welcoming enough that you’ll enjoy your stay, and don’t be disheartened by the lack of activity so far. We’re still taking baby steps, so come along, post whatever’s on your mind, ask questions and enjoy. Whilst I’m plugging things, I’d also like to recommend a new social networking site for industry personnel, aspiring or otherwise: Stage32. It’s basically Facebook for the film industry. Except without getting a thousand invites to join Farmville every hour.

On a very personal note, I’d also like to plug a favourite charity of mine, which you’ll see advertised in the sidebar to the right also. They’re called To Write Love On Her Arms, a charity that focuses on helping people – particularly young people – who are struggling with depression, self-harm issues, addictions and suicidal feelings. I’m pretty open about the fact that I’ve suffered with all four problems, and I wish there were more charities who were willing to reach out and help folk with them. I don’t want to guilt anyone into doing it or beg, but I would like to ask that if you’ve enjoyed my blog and found anything I’ve posted useful, please click on either the link above or the one to the right and help them out a little. Even if it’s only a dollar, I’m certain they can put it to good use. Who knows? One day I or someone you love could use their help. The work they do is so valuable, so important, and I cannot state my passion for helping them out strongly enough.

Until next time, in the words of Jerry Springer, take care of yourselves… and each other.

K xx

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October 2, 2011 - Posted by | lessons, networks, screenwriting, specs, Theory, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 Comments »

  1. I have always found “talking heads” movies to be pretty boring, except of course, the old classics, where witty characters charmed my socks off. “It Happened One Night,” first comes to mind.

    When studying screen writing, oh, forgot to tell you I was changing subjects, from a female producer/guarantor, she spoke of budgets and writing the screenplay. She gave the following example and as far as I am concerned, couldd have stopped right there; “If your opening scene reads, “A thousand horses came thundering over the hill.” The prospective producer need not read further.”

    I include special “things,” but not special effects…a loud train roaring by, loud machinery or sirens. They serve as tension breakers or “make you jump” when transitioning to the next clip or scene.

    I was fortunate to shoot in an area of the U.S. called the Ozarks and Mother Nature was abundantly kind with rich color, all kinds of animals, running water and usually…right on cue. And all free, of course.

    Comment by Jane Frost | October 2, 2011 | Reply

    • ‘Talking head’ movies can be boring but, if done right, they can also be brilliant. I just gave it as one example of how to reduce the budget on a script. And yes, it was done much better back int he old days. But then again, is that because the writers got worse or the actors did? I certainly can’t think of many modern actors who are anywhere near as charming as, say, Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant. Nor any as compelling as a James Dean or Marlon Brando.

      The example you give is very true. You need some serious clout to get away with an epic opening scene. Getting an epic scene by a reader is difficult in any case, but you can get away with almost anything if you build it right.

      Special things work, but they don’t necessarily increase budget. Sound effects cost practically nothing. But you’re right, they do work a treat when deployed correctly.

      I’d love to hear more about your shoot in the Ozarks. What did you shoot out there?

      Comment by Kriss Sprules | October 2, 2011 | Reply

  2. Hey Kriss. Yet another terrific blog entry. Hard to argue with anything you’ve written.

    RB

    Richard Botto
    Stage 32
    http://www.stage32.com

    Comment by Stage32.com - RB (@Stage32online) | November 7, 2011 | Reply

    • Thank you, Richard, I appreciate your kind words.

      Comment by Kriss Sprules | November 7, 2011 | Reply


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