Writing micro-budget feature films

The Crafty Writer’s guest blogger, Keith Jewitt, talks to film producer Jack Tarling about writing screenplays for micro-budget films.   

TCW: First of all what do we mean by a micro-budget film?

JT: There are no hard and fast rules but I am going to be talking about films costing well under £1million and in most cases less than £250,000.

TCW: Can you give us some examples that we might have heard of?

JT: Two highly successful examples were ‘Open Water’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’.  It’s always hard to get accurate information about exactly how much a film to cost to make – these are my estimates based on publicly available data.  ‘Open Water’ cost an estimated $130,000, but grossed at least $9m. Recent examples from Europe include ‘Once’, and ‘Mum and Dad’.  Once cost about £100,000: it went on to take roughly £10m in cinemas and won an Oscar for best song.  ‘Mum and Dad’ is a horror film, funded by Film London through its Micro-Waves scheme which means that it cost under £100,000.  Other examples: ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’ and ‘London to Brighton’.

TCW: So what are the screenwriting skills?  Are there hard and fast rules?

JT: When a producer looks through a script, he instinctively counts up the locations and the characters.  A micro-budget film should usually have as few of both as possible.  However, I’m going to add a caveat – all of the films I have quoted as examples break at least one of the rules.  For instance, ‘Once’ has a lot of locations; ‘Open Water’ was shot from a boat.

TCW: But aren’t some locations available for free?

JT: That’s true – but in film production, time is money and when you move the cast and crew from one place to another, that often means half a day lost.  Assuming the shoot lasts 18 days – that’s about four minutes of film per day – a few changes of location might use up 15-20% of your whole budget!  Also – keep the locations as simple to use as possible.  Avoid crowded public spaces such as trains, airports, bars etc which are being used by the public at the same time.

TCW: And the same applies to characters – as few as possible?

JT: By and large yes.  Actors cost money and even getting several cheap actors involves time spent in casting.  Furthermore, it’s not just a question of how many actors you have in total – you also need to think about the length of each actor’s involvement.  Ask yourself this – can I avoid having all the actors involved for the whole shoot?  In a micro-budget production, it’s not just speaking parts you need to economise on.  Extras could also eat up a large portion of your budget – sometimes literally as all your cast and crew will expect to be fed!

TCW: OK that’s actors and locations – what about the technical stuff?

JT: To make a film you need a camera, lights and sound.  Each has associated costs which we should try to reduce.

TCW: So that means hand-held cameras?

JT: It certainly helps if you can cut down on tripods, dollies etc– and if you have a valid dramatic reason for rough hand-held camerawork, that’s even better.  An example was ‘The Blair Witch Project’, which was (according to the story) put together from videos made by frightened kids in a wood.  Another example: the quasi-documentary style of ‘London to Brighton’.  Less well-known examples: ‘Zombie Diaries’ and ‘The Last Horror Movie’.

TCW: And the lights?

JT: The best light of all is of course the sun.  That’s why the film industry gravitated to Hollywood in the first place, and it puts Northeast England at a bit of a disadvantage.  It may be easiest to take a decision at the outset that the shoot will be mainly outdoors.  A good example is ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’, which is set on Hampstead Heath.  There may be days lost due to rain, which means money down the drain, but that still might be cheaper than arranging to light indoor locations.

TCW: So are night scenes out of the question?

JT: It’s often possible to shoot “day for night” – the work is done in daylight but filters etc are used to make it look as though it’s dark.  Example – This is ‘Not a Love Song’, a film written by Simon Beaufoy of ‘Full Monty’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ fame.

TCW: And then there’s sound …

JT: It’s often very difficult to get this right on a low budget.  Once, as I said earlier, used a lot of music.  This was recorded in a studio and then the studio recording was grafted on, instead of live sound recorded on location – this must have saved money.

TCW: So is music a good way to keep things cheap?

JT: Not as a rule, no!  If music is to have real emotional resonance, it usually needs to be popular songs that the audience know – and getting the rights to use these songs is usually really difficult and expensive.  Once was exceptional because the producers gave a starring role to a relatively little-known artiste, and relied on his (cheap) music to move the audience.

TCW: Does all the emotional impact have to come from the actors?

JT: The things that expensive films rely on – such as stunts, effects, violence – aren’t completely taboo, but you have to use them in a cost-effective way.  For instance, ‘Open Water’ used real sharks, which were hired from a professional outfit for two days.  The sharks ate up a lot of the budget, so it was essential that the filmmakers really made effective use of the footage they got in those two days.

TCW: Is there a common factor which links all of these stories?

JT: Many of the good things about these films are also characteristic of the best blockbuster films.  You need a simple story which can be summed up in one sentence.  ‘Open Water’ is about two people who go diving, get left behind and then threatened by sharks.  That’s about as simple as a film story can get.  Once is also simple, but it’s more character-driven.  A lot of micro-budget films are horror films.  A horror film-maker has some inbuilt advantages: the audience doesn’t generally expect to see big stars in horror films, and a lot of the best horror films are low-budget.

TCW: Don’t big stars sometimes do low-budget films because they like the story?

JT: Yes – usually character-driven stories.  An example is ‘Scenes of a Sexual Nature’, which had a terrific cast including Ewan Macgregor.  If your story is so good that you pull in a big star, you know you’ve done a good job.

TCW: And the length?

JT:Don’t worry if your film is short – most micro-budget successes are under 90 minutes, sometimes under 80.

Jack Tarling is a producer of short films  for Northern Film and Media and the UK Film Council.  He has worked with award-winning director Peter Snowdon and Third Films  Keith Jewitt is the founder of the North East Screenwriter’s Group which meets on the third Saturday of each month at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle upon Tyne.  His films are ’69 Miles to London’ (Shakabuku Films, 2007) and ‘Litterpicker’ (Pinball Films, 2008)

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16 comments on “Writing micro-budget feature films

  1. Rod Duncan on said:

    Great article. Many thanks. Informative and to the point.

    Rod

  2. Fiona on said:

    Thanks Rod. Good to have another short filmmaker over to visit.

  3. Rod Duncan on said:

    Thanks Fiona. I’m writing a full length one at the moment. Being reminded of the things that influence the budget is always helpful.

    Rod

  4. Fiona on said:

    I’m busy on the second draft rewrite of one. It’s set in 1956 so that immediately pushes it out of the low budget bracket. Oh dear.

  5. Rod Duncan on said:

    Depends on the story. If you want a load of exterior scenes in crowded city centres, yes – I see the money draining away. But it should surely be almost as cheap to build a set of a house interior from 1956 as from the present day.

    I remember hearing a director saying that he didn’t like his writers worrying about the practicalities of production, as it inhibited their freedom. Perhaps there would be changes needed later, he said, but that should be separated from the raw creative process.

    Rod

  6. Fiona on said:

    There’s a shoot-out on Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Big Ben … there’s a couple of period street scenes in Chelsea and Lambeth …there’s a big scene boarding a cruise ship in Port O’Spain, Trinidad … roll on James Cameron!

    I agree with your director friend. It’s the story I need to write at the moment. I’ll see about cutting back in rewrites. Where / when is yours set?

  7. Rod Duncan on said:

    The ultimate low budget movie… http://vimeo.com/3903941

    Rod

  8. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Brilliant example, Rod. Excellent interview. Three things stood out for me: the emotional core of the film is what drove it, the filmmakers comments that it’s all about the story and the ‘cleverness’ of the idea – telling the story through signs. Regarding the low-tech nature of it – for the last decade or so audiences have been visually primed to expect high production values because of what’s coming out of Hollywood, anything else looks cheesy. But now with the mobile phone as a potential filmmaking tool, audiences are becoming more tolerant of low tech imagery. If as writers we can see the attraction of writing scripts for low-budget films not simply as a means of surviving the economic downturn, but as a positive and desirable way of teling our stories, we will be more willing to do so. Thanks for posting it.

  9. Rod Duncan on said:

    In this case, the medium is part of the message. I think that is why it works. If I was to go out and try to film a cinematic epic with a mobile phone, I don’t think it would go down so well.

    Having said all that – we must be aware that there are new outlets for narrative, with the arrival of YouTube, the MP4 player and small, portable DVD players. There are vast audiences out there for good YouTube shorts. And at that sort of resolution, you can shoot with a mobile phone and get away with it.

    It is a great exercise – to think what sort of story one could tell in this way. :-) Is that a challenge for us feature writers?

  10. Jack Tarling on said:

    Hello all.

    To pick up on some of the earlier points; I can understand why some writer’s prefer not to even think of logistics when writing as it can interrupt the cretive flow. But then there’s nothing more daunting than a blank page so I think others will thrive by being given some parameters right from the start to get those same creative juices flowing. Although I mainly work in production I do also write and direct occasionally. I guess I’m a bit different because of my production background and the fact that I’ve not yet had the luxury of a large budget to work with, but I always try and write within my means. I do think writers need to be more conscious of the eventual outlets for their work.

    Period films are tricky but if you stick to the other rules of low budget writing and keep the cast and locations etc to a minimum then I wouldn’t rule out doing a period film on a low budget. In fact I’ve done several. We managed to get 6 period cars, a bus, a motorbike and a milk float for just £30 for my Stinger last year which was set in the 1970s. And Ipso Facto recently shot their feature film Souled Out, also set in the 70s, on an extremely tight budget (technically not quite Micro though) and that had lots of locations, vehicles and scenes with 200 extras! Nothing’s impossible but I think I would have passed on that script!

  11. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    That’s particularly encouraging regarding period films Jack, thanks. Rod, I agree with you that the subject suited the medium in Mankind Has no Island, but a few years ago I don’t think they would have got away with the visual quality.

  12. Keith Jewitt on said:

    When I talk to screenwriters, I’m surprised that few seem to be interested in the micro-budget route – perhaps because a lot of micro-budget films are written by directors. Maybe it’s also because many writers are working on showpiece scripts to impress buyers such as the BBC, which aren’t written to be filmed. I’d like to see more collaboration at the grass roots level between aspiring writers and aspiring directors.

  13. Fiona on said:

    I think you’re right Keith. When new screenwriters are still trying to make their mark they’re trying to write showcase stuff to highlight their potential. It’s an interesting debate as to whether this hinders or helps us.

  14. Rod Duncan on said:

    The screenplay for a low budget film that I am working on presently is a psychological crime thriller. That word ‘psychological’ means we don’t have to have helecopter explosions – which is a blessing for the budget. :-)

    Who was it who said that all screenplays could be improved with the removal of 15 minutes and the addition of a helicopter explosion?

    You can read more details of it here if you wish. http://rodduncan.blogspot.com/2009/03/white-angel.html

  15. Fiona on said:

    Hi Rod. Currently in South Africa and having trouble getting internet access. The tension in my screenplay is also of a psychological nature. I’m keeping the helicopter in the garage until I make it big … then I’ll use it to arrive at the red carpet :) Keep getting kicked offline whenever I try to get to your blogspot. Will have a look at it when I get back to the UK.

    Bye for now – gotta beach to visit.

  16. Pingback: Just Write Blog Carnival April 3, 2009 Edition | Incurable Disease of Writing

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