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Writing for Your Budget
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I am tired.  Tired of bad movies.  Hollywood ramps up the marketing of a film to make it have a big opening weekend because they know the film won't last when people realize how bad it is.  Their biggest problems stem from the fact that businesspeople are trying to run a creative endeavor.  Slapping important names on a project will not make it good, especially if those names are given autonomy.  But Hollywood is not the only criminal in the bad movie-making business.  There's another criminal that gets away with it because of poor excuses such as a lack of money, no locations, not enough time...that criminal is you.

You have a much better chance to make an interesting story because you have time on your side, and you don't have to stick with a specific formula set by marketing pros in the basement of General Electric as to how a film makes money.  But you screw it up too.  It's usually your enterprising spirit moving faster than your pen that gets you into trouble, and that's why I'm bringing these tips to you in order to help you think about the big picture before you call your script complete.

If you are writing a film that you want to make yourself, there are many things you need to keep in mind...most of all, your budget.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating for stifling creativity for the sake of the rules of the real world.  But there are things you can do in your writing process that will help ensure you will be able to make the best version of your script.  This is not a 'how-to' for writers, so know that these are simply some helpful tips about how to bring your script to fruition, given your micro-budget restraints.  

"Write your first draft with your heart."
-Sean Connery, Finding Forrester.  

No statement could hold more truth.  You will always be at your most creative when you let your mind soar into space and find amazing twists and turns that may make no physical sense.  Just write your way through the entire story and then start editing.  Before you get too far along in the story structure, consider how you will shoot it.  Don't exclude a space battle or a nuclear explosion because you don't know if you can afford it.  The point of this exercise is to start thinking like a filmmaker while the roots of your production are digging into the ground.    Are there creative ways you can shoot your special effects?  Do you know any CG artists that can help?  Perhaps Action Essentials and Adobe After Effects are all you need.  Thinking about how you will accomplish such things may feed back into your writing, or even help develop the style of your film.  No writer has more creativity and the ability to create a full vision without the understanding of how their film would be shot.  Giving yourself that feedback while you develop your script will give synergy to the overall project that is seldom reached by microfilmmakers.

Locations.  I'm a big stickler on this, because horribly faked locations are a clear sign that a movie has no budget.  We've all seen the bedroom used as an office, and the living room as a church...and cringed.  You need to remember that you are already asking the audience to suspend a certain amount of disbelief just to take in the world your movie exists within.  Show them the seams, and they are out of it.  If you don't really have a church, experiment with a creative way to cheat it.  In the latest Star Trek film, JJ Abrams didn't build a set for the scene between Spock and Sarek in the Vulcan Council Hall.  They found a cool looking hallway, shot with a really long lens, and made the actors move their bodies between shots so that the one hallway could be used as three separate backgrounds.  The shots were tight and no one doubts their believability.  Just make sure you can 'fake it' properly before you decide to let that location into your script.  When I'm writing microbudget projects, I consider locations that I know are available to me before I continue, and what I can adequately cheat from those locations.  With a little creativity, you can cheat quite a bit, but it's also important to have at least one or two important sets that can truly play as what they are.  You can't have an entire film of close ups. 

Style.  There is a great deal of style that comes out of the creativity of microfilmmakers and low budget filmmakers around the world.  Tarantino's style developed during Reservoir Dogs when they were running out of film and had to film the bathroom scene.  They couldn't figure out how to get the camera in the bathroom for a master shot, so they set the camera on the ground down the hall from the bathroom.  Having the master shot was most important, and in the end it showed everyone that the story can hold in that artistic master without cuts.  It's a technique that Tarantino has continued to use throughout his career, based on being limited by his budget.  Team America World Police, while not a low budget project, has an amazing style in that everything is acted out by puppets.  This is not only doable by any low budget production, but served the story well, proving that actors themselves are puppets in many ways.  Find creative ways you can use your monetary limits to serve your story, and you will create your own interesting style.  

Characters.  Do you know any actors?  When I write, I usually have specific people in mind, sometimes they are a combination of traits from a few different people.  Before you get too deeply into your character development, make sure there are a few people around you that would be good for the roles.  A college town is a great place to hold auditions for high school/college roles, but if you're doing a political drama that's set in Washington DC, you better have access to some older, more distinguished actors.  Bad casting is on you, and it's a dead giveaway of a low-pro movie.  Make sure you can fill the roles you are creating.  One great thing to do is to have a reading of your script, and try to cast people that could fill the roles.  Not only will it get them excited to spend a few weekends with you for free, it should also help you hear how they are interpreting the words.  Working closely with the actors, you can start to get a feel for the way they speak.  Some lines are golden on a page but fall flat when they are spoken, and it's not necessarily bad acting.  Sometimes it is just a line that doesn't match the personality of the actor.  Do your best to meld your actors to the roles, and then help out by melding your script to the actors.

One last tip that I can't seem to offer up enough...REWRITE!!!  Let people read your script and listen to their feedback.  You don't have to apply it, but do consider it.  People who read your script are all coming at it from a different perspective, so the more opinions and notes that you get, the broader your audience will become.  Also, when you are writing your first few drafts, you tend to focus on the larger picture.  One good tip is to go back and rewrite the script thinking only about one particular character at a time, making sure their thru-line is good and their characteristics are clearly defined.  This will help you create well rounded characters, and avoid those awkward, unmotivated character moves that tend to serve the story without serving the character.  It's important to continue to fine-tune the script until you can get a few readers offer praise without questions about the plot or character development issues.  It's always important to be objective when receiving input from readers because it will only make your script better.  You may feel that they don't understand how much work you put into it, but you have to remember that they took the time to read it, and their opinion does hold weight.  They are looking at it from an outside perspective with no previous bias, and they don't know where the story is going.  If they don't get it, you need to rewrite.

By no means is this meant to stifle creativity.  In fact, it should help you to become even more creative, learning to solve production problems before you have them...and that's what a filmmaker's job is.

AJWeddingPicture A.J. Wedding is a graduate of Western Michigan University and has won festival awards for his first feature film, "Pop Fiction". As a writer/director, he has won several awards for his short films, and recently garnered worldwide distribution for a feature film titled “The Disappearance of Jenna Matheson” releasing this year. His hit web series, “Infamous” created an instant fanbase, and spawned interest from networks to create a tv series based on it. A.J. currently works with The Production Green, directing and editing commercials as well as developing his next feature film, "Junior Crew."

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