Conversations with the Invisible Man
Writing Movies Within Your Means, pt. 3 ☛
When asked why his movies were so dialogue–heavy, indie auteur Hal Hartley quipped “Talk’s cheap”. To unpack that a little, while it’s clear that having characters talk about things, rather than actually do them, tends to be a cheaper to film, there are other hidden benefits. Dialogue scenes tend to run longer than non-dialogue scenes, so you can shoot more script pages without having to move your crew and kit from one place to another. They often have fewer moving parts than other types of scene: the variables are whether your actors can remember their lines and the quality of their performance. If your audience – like Hartley’s – is likely to turn up to witness human emotion or to think about ideas, rather than to watch things being blown up or people being eviscerated, then dialogue can be your friend.
One proviso, however – if you’re going to try to save money by writing a dialogue-based film you need to be careful where you set it. Filming long dialogue scenes in locations with unpredictable noise will instantly turn a cheap shooting technique into a very expensive one. Recording dialogue might not cost much, re-recording it costs plenty. Werner Herzog set all of Aguirre, Wrath of God on or near a river, but found when he got home that none of the dialogue was usable. He then couldn’t afford to pay his lead actor to do the ADR and so in the final film all of Klaus Kinski’s lines are spoken by a sound-alike. We had similar problems when I worked on River Queen, so generally avoid trying to shoot dialogue near rivers. Fun-fairs, trains stations and airport car-parks are also worth a swerve.
Ironically, however, silence is cheap too. The great thing about dialogue-free sequences is that you don’t have to wait for planes to pass overhead or go again for sound problems. On a tight schedule these things count. The ability to shoot with guide-track also frees up a lot of locations in which you wouldn’t normally think of shooting, due to noise pollution. Come back rivers, all is forgiven. Sergio Leone was a great believer in silent, or should I say non-dialogue, scenes. Like those of his contemporary Antonioni, Leone’s characters spoke with looks and were more intriguing for how little they opened their mouths.
Writing for low and micro-budget isn’t all about reducing the scale of the project, it can also be about widening the scope in a way that costs little or nothing. I call these tricks invisibles, as they generally spring from information you give about your world, for which the audience can see little or no outward evidence.
Such invisibles are commonly used in science fiction; the most obvious example is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Aliens invade earth by duplicating the bodies of the people that they find and replacing them. While in most versions of this story we do see brief scenes where special effects are used to demonstrate this process, for most of the film the aliens look just like everyone else, requiring no special make-up or costume. And the genius of it is that the thing that makes the story cheap to film is the very thing that makes it scary: how do you identify an enemy that looks just the person who only yesterday was your ally?
World events can be effective intangibles too. Simply by having at the start of your story a newscaster telling the audience that an asteroid is about to hit earth, you can invest a world that looks no different from our own with enormous dramatic weight. A good example of this is Last Night, set on the day before everyone knows the world will come to an end. More recently Another Earth is set in a world where an identical planet to our own has appeared in the night sky. True, we do occasionally see this other planet as a simple special effect, but the weight that those few VFX shots bring to the story is far in excess of their presence on screen.
Off-screen characters can work a similar magic. The Big Chill is all set after the funeral of a character we never meet, but we learn much we need to know about his friends from the way they talk about him. Similarly, in The Third Man Harry Lime is a towering central presence in the story, even though when Orson Welles eventually appears it adds up to no more than 5 minutes of screen time. While this only saves you money if you have a star who you want for a cameo, the more important point is that you’re making your story more engaging without spending a penny more.
Staging major story events off-screen presents an even bigger cost saving. Tarantino kept Reservoir Dogs affordable by not showing the failed heist around which the film centres. Cannily he gives us just enough action – people running along streets, gun fights in parking lots – for the film not to feel like a stage play. In 12 Angry Men the murder around which the story revolves is never shown. This keeps the audience in the same position as the jurors – in the dark, trying to work out what happened.
Of all the techniques I’ve outlined, however, this is the most dangerous: the nature of cinema is to show, so if you are deliberately going to withhold a central event, you better make the absence as dramatic as the event itself.
And that’s the bottom line of screenwriting for a low budget: not only making the best of what you have, but making the best of what you don’t. There are as many ways of bringing down the budget of your movie script as the human imagination can suggest, but these three articles are a start. Hopefully they have prompted you to think up some technique that nobody’s used before, something that will not only make your film possible, but will make it memorable.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge