Writing Movies Within Your Means, pt. 1

Forget Set and Go ☛

Film is one of the most expensive art-forms, which means getting films made is hard. One way for screenwriters to get their scripts noticed, and for writer/directors to get their first feature made, is to build affordability into the script.

The challenge is that with each element you remove from your script in order to cut costs, you run the risk of making the film less entertaining. Screenplays that start off with grand ideas often, when the required money proves elusive, reduce their terms: the car chase become a foot chase, the cast of thousands becomes a cast of dozens. But cinema tickets cost the same, no matter how much the movie cost to make; outside of film festivals, nobody really cares how low your budget was. The trick is to introduce low-budget strategies into the very DNA of your story, not to make a cheap version of something that could or should have been made for big bucks.

Luckily some of these strategies for reducing expense do not reduce the impact of your film: in some cases they can even increase it. In the next few posts I’m going to run down, by department, a few of the tricks, starting with location and art department.

Most stories take place in a number of locations and each of those settings costs money. Location fees can be expensive, but they’re not the thing that eats up your budget. Transport can set you back too, but that’s not the big cost either. The real cost is the amount of time it takes to move from one location to another. Not just the move but the set up, finding out where everything is, and generally settling in can all dramatically reduce the number of on-camera hours and the speed of work.

The other great cost of multiple locations is art department. In a standard movie budget, design tends to be the biggest item below the line. For this reason low and micro-budget films will tend to avoid the expensive dressing usually required by historic and futuristic stories, and opt instead for a present-day setting. You can save even more by writing locations that can play themselves: filming your hospital scene in a disused hospital or a closed ward will invariably be cheaper than trying to create a hospital from scratch. Wherever you film, fewer locations means lower design spend.

The obvious way of reducing these costs is to write a story that occurs all in one place. Horror movies are old hands at this. The genre tends to favour remote, neglected places and stories where people get trapped or imprisoned and struggle to escape. Time was they’d build a set of Dracula’s castle and film most of the action there. As budgets dropped, the castle made way for a log cabin in the woods. Then The Blair Witch Project abandoned the log cabin and just filmed in the woods. Since then even the woods were deemed too expensive for A Field in England, which was shot in… well, I’ll leave you to guess.

The ‘one location’ strategy can work for other genres too: Sci-fi films like Cube, puzzle-movies like Exam and thrillers like The Disappearance of Alice Creed and Buried are good examples.

The downside of this approach is that single location films can bore the eye. The fix is to make your single location one with visual variety. If your location is a house, make sure that your story takes us to all its rooms and the garden. Or you might opt for a precinct: a school or a prison, for example. While they charge location fees, they do provide both a variety of different locations under one roof and a compelling narrative reason for the characters to remain there.


The ‘contained’ put into ‘Containment’ thanks to production designer Elenore Cremonese

Sometimes one small location can be made to count for many. Cube was all shot on one simple set with a door in each wall. These doors supposedly led to other identical rooms, which were in reality the same set but with different lighting. Recent British outbreak thriller Containment saw its characters all quarantined in their council flats; in fact several flats were filmed in one, which the art department re-dressed for the different characters.

The polar opposite approach to budget location can also work: you can take to the streets. In many cities permits for filming in public places are cheap or free (often with the proviso that your crew is small and insured, and that you don’t actually close down the street to other users). Films like The Sidewalks of New York, Before Sunrise, A Bout de Souffle and Once were all shot with small crews that ran about the city, shooting fast, often with hand-held camera and no lighting. The advantage of this approach is that it gives you a grand, cinematic canvas on which to work and a cast of a thousand unwitting background artists.

The downside is that you’re open to the whims of passers-by, local residents and business owners. Some areas are easier to film in than others; in London, for example, I’ve always found filming in the financial district, ‘The City’, a joy – everyone’s too busy making money to waste time bothering a film crew – whereas in upmarket shopping area Kensington High Street, the shop managers will be on your back the minute you set up anywhere near their shop, even if you have a permit. Remember too, with street filming you are completely at the whim of the weather.

Tension behind the wheel in Spielberg’s ‘Duel’

There is, however, a strategy that gives you the best of both worlds, combining the visual variety of filming on the streets with some of the convenience of shooting in one location: set your film in and around a vehicle. Spielberg gave us the classic of this genre with Duel, the ultimate story of road-rage (before the term was even coined). Many road movies from Easy Rider to Locke, have also managed to get made on a modest budget. Night on Earth, Taxi (2015) and Ten all opt for a taxi as their venue, taking advantage of the variety of cast and the potential drama in the relationship between driver and passenger.

Filming in vehicles gives you a constantly changing backdrop and a built-in sense of journey, while providing you with some protection from the unpredictability of the general public and the thunder gods. It is not without its technical limitations: rigging cameras to vehicles is a lengthy process, which means that keeping the drama fresh with a variety of shots will take time. That said, modern digital cameras are getting smaller and easier to rig in tight spaces so the potential for this approach to story is growing. You also need to find a sound recordist who doesn’t mind spending several weeks riding around in the boot [trunk].

Whichever strategy you adopt, the key is to focus on the reason why the characters spend their time in the location you’ve chosen and make that intrinsic to the story. Are they trying to hide or to escape? Do they have a job to do, a mission that’s brought them there? Build the story round the building and the audience will embrace the claustrophobia as intentional.

Next time I’ll go on to discuss how the sort of film you write can affect how much might need to be spent on camera and lighting.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

4 Responses to “Writing Movies Within Your Means, pt. 1”
  1. owyn says:

    Great column Guy, looking forward to the next one

  2. Selma Thompson says:

    Some great info here. Thanks! But…beware of insurance/liability problems when shooting in a moving vehicle. Big budget films often have those “moving” cars towed, rather than driven by the actor, to keep the talent safe. And the most expensive scene in “Nebraska”–the one that almost didn’t get shot?: The motorcycle club passing our protagonist on his road trip…

  3. Selma Thompson says:

    Useful info–thanks! But beware shooting in a moving vehicle–serious insurance and liability issues involved. This is why big budget films often actually have a car towed when an actor is driving, to protect both the talent and the production company. The most expensive shot in “Nebraska”, which almost didn’t get made, involved the motorcycle club driving past the protagonists on the road. Lots of low budget films cheat by showing a long shot of a moving car, then cutting to it parked when dialogue is involved.

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  1. […] I’ve looked at how locations can bring down your budget and how to justify shooting on cheaper cameras, but you can also save money through clever use of […]

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