The One Rule Of Writing For Independent Film (And It’s Not Even A Strict One)
Rules, rules, rules – it can feel everyone wants to throw a new one at you when you get into screenwriting and they are almost always fear-mongering bollocks obsessed with the superficial. Good craft will always trump bootlicking but let’s not dwell too much on that because I want to share something with you that might just become your new mantra.
Before we get into this, I’m addressing screenwriters hoping to break into the independent film world in some form. If you’re the kind of writer aspiring to work exclusively for the big studios on nine-figure budget projects, this isn’t going to be of much use to you.
I also want to say, stop worrying that professional readers and industry members are going to throw your script in the trash over minor issues. The title of this article is shameless click-bait. This isn’t strictly a rule but it will serve you well. Spoiler alert; filmmakers see any issues they have in your script as something that can be addressed. Yes I know, shock horror! It’s like they’re competent, open-minded artists or something.
Having returned from being on the set of a feature film production, where I watched my words become reality, I’ve become hyper-aware of just what impact my writing had on production. Seemingly innocent little references had huge impact in terms of logistics and thus cost while other writing choices helped make the production feel like we had ten times the budget.
Therefore, my one rule when writing for independent film is simply this; “always consider production value.”
It’s important to remember that, conceptually, this isn’t just about saving cost, it’s also about maximising what’s available. Look, things are tough right now, really tough. Investors, who’ve rarely ever wanted to throw money at film productions anyway, have watched the box-office and long-tail returns on film change radically from a marketplace where indie film could find a cult audience during its theatrical run and make massive returns via home video to one where you may be going to Netflix cap in hand after expiring all other avenues and looking to reduce losses. It’s a dire scenario exasperated by the saturated media world of the twenty-first century and sadly accessibility to cheaper production equipment barely compensates.
When we talk low-budget film, you probably reflect on darlings from the nineties indie revolution like Reservoir Dogs. Limited locations, with no huge names, virtually no costume department, and an unproven writer-director, Dogs boasted a budget of around $1.5m in 1991 which was considered shoe-string for the time. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the best part of $3m in today’s money. Thankfully Miramax, for all their concerns over the ear-slicing scene, saw potential in the project and the subsequent box office draw turned a profit double that of the costs with domestic home video alone bringing in ten times that. This was a time when dominating Sundance got everyone’s attention and the movie theatre attending public were sitting at home singing into desk fans for entertainment. Tarantino himself took pride in being a filmmaker who was doing a lot with very little and actors in that era understood small vanity projects came with significant pay cuts. Nearly thirty years later, the landscape has completely changed and a production like Dogs would be a very tough sell and well outside the remit of 99% of independent filmmakers. In fact, legendary indie producer Ted Hope was pleading for us to wake up and smell the coffee over ten years ago.
We have to move on to a new mindset as screenwriters and accept that the producers we are likely to collaborate with, particularly when breaking in, are going to have overall budgets that would have barely covered the permit fees of the low-budget films we love from the past. It’s time to get real, adjust our expectations, and think about how we can deliver what independent filmmakers need to balance the books.
Again, I have to reiterate, this isn’t about jumping through hoops to meet some sort of criteria, it’s about adopting a mindset that lends itself to lean filmmaking. The hope is that more producers feel our spec scripts are well within their realm to make and we’re the kind of writer that can be looked upon to produce great material with budget in mind.
So how can we “always consider production value” when a clear chicken and egg scenario exists – surely to write with budget in mind we have to have experience of budget in practice? That goes without question and I’m certainly aware that I opened this blog post referencing my own experience in Hollywood. However, I was a reasonably accomplished low-budget-focused writer before I saw my first feature production due to two reasons; firstly, I wrote a lot of short scripts and gave them away, meaning I collaborated with near zero-budget filmmakers and secondly, I read everything I could get my hands on about filmmaking history, meaning I learned about case study after case study that punched above its financial weight. That helped me get my first job and turn in an assignment that could be delivered within cost.
Now, am I expecting you to spend five years in the trenches writing shorts for free and reading dozens of books on film history while honing your craft, producing spec script after spec script, discovering your inner artist, and networking like crazy? Actually I am, LOL! I expect that as a bare minimum from anyone who claims this is their dream and wants to break in with all the odds against them. That said, to give you a head start and pass the knowledge on, I would like to share with you some of the budget saving tips I’ve picked up and will always consider when I’m writing.
Concept is still king, with a few other considerations: Typically, I see this axiom applied to studio movies but I think that era has long gone. Intellectual Property (IP) is the new king of the blockbuster and a concept focused mindset has naturally trickled down into a marketplace that’s become increasingly saturated while audiences are bombarded by more and more media sources competing for their attention. Concept is critical when it comes to marketing an indie film now but that can still be a radical premise that targets a chosen niche. What’s exciting here is the opportunity we have to embrace our favourite subcultures and push them in new directions. We simply have to ask ourselves, is that niche a sizeable market and will our concept standout within it?
Sex does indeed sell: Consumers will always lean towards the fantasies they’re attracted to and we live within a highly materialistic culture obsessed with superficially, status, and materialism. Once you add a degree of hedonism and escapism into that, it’s obvious what kind of movies solicit the most attention. I’m not saying sex itself needs to be a key part of our scripts but that our scripts themselves need to be as sexy as possible to maximise investor appeal. This means considering glamorous locations, sophisticated situations, and high profile stakes to set our story within.
Single location simplifies everything: Setting your story in one place is going to streamline production and the logistical benefits are obvious. No time consuming company moves, ongoing familiarity for crew, and perhaps even the option to leave equipment setup between shooting days are just some of the bonuses. This said, the choice of location can make a huge difference as can the time of day. For example, choosing a business location during their peek hours is far from prudent as is anywhere that’s high security. Is there adequate parking and room for production vehicles? Is there power? Interior is always going to be more private and less prone to weather problems than exterior. Night is easy to work with at any time of day thanks to blacking out material – the sun is far harder to replicate on demand.
Time shifts mean a change of shifts: The impact of having to shoot exterior scenes in both day and at night should not be underestimated. Cast and crew need around twelve hours of rest between shooting days so shifting from day to night can mean large gaps of downtime are created. Finishing at 6pm on Monday and moving onto a night shoot means potentially having the next call-time set to 6pm Wednesday, therefore losing a shooting day within the schedule and another day when switching back to daylight hours. The answer is to either pick day or night and stick with it or set all scenes within an internal environment that can be manipulated to look like either. Sunrises and sunsets are even less flexible, particularly in areas such as LA where they are relatively brief.
Every line is a little more time: There’s a general rule that you can only expect to shoot around five pages a day and every take is a race against the clock. Each line extends every take that little bit more and creates an additional beat that can cause an actor to fumble or an external force to trigger a cut. While we should always be writing as efficiently as possible, scripts written for independent productions need to be as lean as can be.
More people, more problems: Similar to the above, every additional character in a scene will add time to the shoot due to the need to capture each performance from multiple angles and in relation to their interactions with other characters. These are also going to be additional bodies on the call sheet that need hair, makeup, costuming, feeding, and trailer space during the day.
The power of props: Generally speaking, props are a very cost effective way to raise the production value at low cost since even the most expensive items we can imagine are available in some sort of cheap form that will pass when used in film. Most common types of gun can be bought as an air-soft model with a realistic blowback cycling action. Large sums of cash have to be sourced from official suppliers but still aren’t costly to rent out. However, avoid naming specific brands if possible to avoid licensing issues.
The value of vehicles: Modern mainstream cars are cheap to hire and easy to obtain on demand, especially within big cities. Performance and prestige cars are always going to be harder and more expensive to source. Something really hard to control is colour and specification. Where it gets particularly tricky is with older cars which can suffer mechanical issues and be impossible to replace like-for-like on short notice. This is before even getting into the potential cost to repair classics damaged during shooting.
Water water everywhere, it’ll put you on on the brink: While boats and bikinis are indeed sexy and raise production value dramatically, they can take just as much back out in terms of logistics. Permits can be hard to obtain, loading equipment onto the boats can take hours, there’s hardly enough room to operate, and half the crew will get sick. If you want boats set them in a port and if you want swimwear put your characters on a beach. Treat filming underwater with the same trepidation you would filming in outer-space.
Never write in children and animals: Well okay, never say never but the old adage proves mostly true. Having children on set brings about a whole host of issues, some of which you cannot control because they’re external to your production. The cut-off age is around mid-teens where young looking adult actors can play the part. As for animals, they have genetically evolved to sabotage any film production they’re part of. You have to always ask yourself if these elements are adding enough production value to justify the complexities of working with them.
Equipment and set demands: This is a tricky one to keep in mind unless you’ve been on set and watched what the crew needs to get the job done. Some stuff is more obvious such as knowing the need for a gigantic green screen is going to put you at the mercy of the wind outdoors or require require a massive soundstage indoors. Some stuff, like knowing a specialised lens is going to be needed to capture the action you’ve outlined, isn’t so obvious. Just try to think about what it may technically entail when you do something like set a scene in the rain, even down to considering the $80 a piece luxury bathrobes and heat packs each actor will need between takes.
Company moves on the company dime: A producer is ideally going to want to set shooting locations in and around an area where the cast and crew can easily commute back and forth to. Every company move that’s beyond trolly pushing distance is an upheaval as everything needed to shoot is packed up and “flown” elsewhere. This is mostly unavoidable on anything but a single location film. The most extreme is a full company move that requires all cast and crew to be given food and board for every night on a remote location. Consider all those hotel room costs if you’re writing a script that’s set in two completely different regions.
Blowing up the budget: Stunts are surprisingly cost effective when it comes to production value providing they aren’t too extreme. Pretty much anything is going to require a performer and a coordinator at least and the expense can escalate dramatically with the number of stunt performers needed as body doubles. Pyrotechnics are best avoided, especially given how well effects like muzzle flash can be digitally reproduced. This all said, it’s best not to get too attached to action scenes as the stunt team on the day will takeover for safety reasons and do the best job they can, sometimes exceeding expectations. All the really matters from the writer’s perspective is maintaining continuity and the emotional beats.
Hook big fish with actor bait: Star power is the raw muscle behind a movie’s commercial appeal from funding to theatre tickets so attracting big names can be critical. A tried and tested route to securing high profile attachments is to create roles that give actors an opportunity to really standout with a low time commitment. Having a supporting character play a key part of the plot or say something profound can be a huge pull, especially if there’s a powerful monologue in there or a strong presence that will really show off their skills.
Page count really counts: A lot of fuss is made about page count with many writers feeling they have to hit some magic number. The theoretical answer to page count will always be that you require the minimum pages you need to tell the story in an entertaining fashion. The reality is far more complicated as one 120pp script can cost half that of one 80pp script. However, thinking in relative terms, it’s always worth going through your script and considering how you can cut the page count down.
So there we have my reasoning and some factors I think are worth considering. The important thing is not to compromise the entertainment value of a script too much while also not blowing the budget for superficial gains. Finding the balance is always going to be hard but please consider this, you can always rewrite to take advantage of a higher spend while a shoestring budget version of a script will likely attract the most attention. Are there any firm rules here, no, but having an appreciation for budget will always be a valuable skillset to gain and expand.