Cast Away

The Joy of Small Cast Screenplays ☛

Times being what they are, and social distancing being a fact of film sets for the foreseeable, we’re all scrabbling around for ways to deal with the restrictions this creates. What seems to be generally agreed is that scripts with small casts will be considerably easier to film. So here are some thoughts on how these work.

One warning I feel I should offer right up front is: don’t think of writing a small cast screenplay with the hope of taking advantage of the current situation. In most cases the lead time between coming up with an idea for a feature and the director shouting “action” is a minimum 2-3 years. By the time you’re done writing, the Covid crisis will all be over. That said, even in normal times a small cast is desirable for low-budget filmmaking. Why not treat yourself and write one anyway.

The practical advantages of making a film with a small cast should be obvious, so what are the pitfalls?

  1. Staginess. Stage plays traditionally have to compress a story so that its ideas can be expressed by a small cast. Playwrights can’t fall back on elaborate visual effects or lavish settings, just like low-budget filmmakers. The one thing both forms can afford in unlimited quantities is dialogue. While there are plenty of small cast films that are dialogue-heavy, a lot rests on how dialogue is used. Playwrights often convey events that are too difficult to show by playing them off-stage and having the characters tell each other about them. This is tempting for low-budget filmmakers too, but give in to that temptation and your script will instantly feel like a play.
  2. Saminess. If you only have 2 or 3 characters it is very easy for the audience to get bored of seeing the same faces and hearing the same voices for an hour and a half, particularly given that you probably don’t have the money to show the audience much else to keep them distracted. For this reason it’s important to make sure that you take your characters through a wide variety of emotions. Each voice will be a lot more interesting if we hear it going through being coaxing, angry, afraid and distraught.
  3. Creakiness. While some small cast features are ideas driven – often focussed around the solution to a puzzle, as with Saw – most are character-driven. This means that for a small cast film to be successful, you have to be able to write characters really well – you’ve not got much else to keep people interested. Creaky dialogue in particular is an absolute killer.

The size of your cast will also determine much about the nature of your story. Single character films tend to be completely different from films with two characters. Three character films in turn have distinct advantages over two-character films.

Solo films usually feature a protagonist who is at odds with his/her environment, often trapped by it: they might be buried alive in a coffin (Buried), adrift on a yacht (All is Lost), stuck on a desert island (Cast Away) or have their hand caught by a rock (127 Hours). The circumstances of their predicament provide the obstacles, antagonist, and objective that drives the story. These films tend to be the opposite of stagey, being naturally thin on dialogue and involving a lot of different ways for the camera to reflect what’s going on in the character’s head. They are, of course, a real challenge to write and, if they are to let the audience into their protagonists’ heads based almost purely on behaviour, they require an excellent actor in their only role.

Two-handers are easier to write – your characters have another human being to bounce off. The challenge to make those characters fully three-dimensional, layered and nuanced is at its peak, however. While two-handers tend to be dialogue-heavy, like My Dinner With Andre, which is just two guys talking in a restaurant, they don’t need to be. My personal favourite is John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific: a Japanese sailor and an American pilot both wash up on a small desert island during World War Two. They continue to fight the war one-on-one. Neither man knows the other’s language, so the dialogue is fragmentary. The film keeps the power dynamic between the characters constantly changing and makes full use of the varied geography of the island, resulting in a very cinematic experience. Similarly Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, while more dialogue-heavy, both keep the action moving from location to location in order to keep visual interest and a sense of momentum. 

Three at sea in ‘Knife in the Water’

Three-handers are easier still and generally a better form than two-handers. Two-handers are limited because each character only has one other person to relate to – there can only be one relationship in such stories (barring off-screen characters) so you have nowhere else to go. When you add another character one relationship jumps to three relationships: A to B, B to C and C to A. Suddenly there are all sorts of possibilities: we can see a betrayal, rather than just hear about one; people can play one side off against the other. Parallel action becomes easier to achieve too: one character can be doing one thing while the other two are having a conversation. Knife in the Water, Dead Calm and The Disappearance of Alice Creed are all good references for three-handers.

With all of these options there’s the question of how purist you want to be. Do you want to make a point of there only being ‘x’ many characters involved, or are you going to be flexible. A bit of flexibility can open up a lot of options without stretching the budget too much. For example, Locke only has one character on screen, however he’s on the phone throughout to characters we hear and with whom he has relationships, so it’s not a pure one-hander. Does it matter? In other films we might briefly meet another character on screen at the start to help set up the story or at the end to round it off. Personally I think whatever makes the story work without breaking the budget should be allowed; maybe I’ll write more about purism another day, meanwhile here are some further thoughts about writing within your means. Until then keep safe, I hope you can use the time when shooting films is difficult, if not impossible, to make your scripts as strong as they can be, no matter how many characters they have.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2020

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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