Writing Low-Budget Film
This copyrighted document has been made available through the good graces of its author, Colin Brunton, and by the Canadian Film Centre. It is reproduced here with their permission. Contact information for the Colin Brunton, and for the Film Center, is included at the end of the document..
This tip sheet is intended as a guideline for writing original low-budget scripts. While it would be difficult to write a script that could be produced on a low-budget containing all of the elements on the list, it would be equally difficult to write one that didn't contain any.
You will doubtless want to include some of these in your script, but
including too many of them may make your script impossible to produce
effectively at the low-budget level. If you include too many of them, most
producers in Canada might think it too hard (or impossible) to raise enough
money to produce it, and will take a pass. But if you can craft a screenplay
that a producer can clearly see as a project that could be produced in Canada
on a low-budget, then your script might see the light of day.
If your producer ends up raising more money than he/she thought during the initial writing stages, then it will be a fairly easy (and fun) mission for you to rewrite it to add more production value. But if your producer makes a brave and/or irresponsible attempt at producing your script with a totally inadequate budget, then you can count on either (a) suffering through countless rewrites as the production progresses, or worse, (b) hearing about someone else (much less talented than you) suffering through countless rewrites as the production progresses.
Some of these basic "rules of thumb" require little explanation, some require a closer look, but all of them can be solved during script stage. Some of them simply make filming more complicated, but others are enormous money-eaters and time-wasters.
By coming up with creative alternatives that work within the boundaries of the budget, you may very well discover that they've improved your script (and saved your producer money). Producing any feature film is a challenge; producing a low-budget feature film in Canada can be hellish, and the time and energy that the producer and director could use being creative are often directed at simply getting through the production. If you can provide them with a relatively easy script to produce - a script that contains only a few of the following elements -they should be able to spend that much more time improving on it during production by doing their jobs properly, and not just struggling through an impossible script.
Included are very simplified explanations that are more suited to a producer, but as a writer of a low-budget film, it is extremely helpful to you, your producer and your director if you understand just why your producer is telling you things seemingly out of the blue, like: combine those nine characters playing trombones into one guy playing the triangle; change "Ext. Night Graveyard" to "Int. Night Funeral Home Backroom"; rewrite the scene with Corrie letting loose with an Uzi on Scott to Corrie letting loose with a barrage of personal insults on Scott; change "cross-country skiing" to "croquet"; have the Travis character hum the theme song from "Barney" instead of the "Ramones" song; make the 9-year-old boy a 20-year-old woman; make the Tecca and Bill characters walk to the store instead of driving (and don't let them go inside, and we'd really like it if they spoke in sign-language); lose the prominent red hair that the Gilda character has hanging out of her nose; cut 18 and 1/8 pages; drop the epic battle scene with fifty extras in full battle-gear and replace it with a title-card that says: "The Battle Raged".
Some writers, even after hearing only "Combine those nine characters playing trombones into one guy playing the triangle" will already begin to drift off and get lost in their own thoughts, thoughts along the lines of "This guy is an IDIOT! Doesn't he know what the nine trombone players mean!? It might be hard to believe, but its very likely that your producer actually has intelligent, well thought out reasons for telling you these things, and is not an untalented, glib, and frustrated writer taking out all of his/her rage on you, the genius.
The basic rule for most of the examples is that "time costs money", and a number of the following elements take longer - and therefore cost more money - than some people might guess. Other examples, like Special Effects (SFX), firearms, and period pieces, are obviously expensive, and should be used sparingly, if at all. So whenever something's going to take time or cost money, think of a creative way to get around it by reworking your script.
The elements to watch out for are:
The less speaking parts you write, the easier it will be for the producer to be flexible and able to juggle the production schedule. You should aim for less than ten and no more than twenty characters that have dialogue or significant roles.
As the project nears production, the budget restrictions may require you to exclude any extraneous characters, i.e. any characters who are not absolutely necessary to tell your story. In many cases two or three characters can be combined as one new character, or characters can simply be dropped from the script. You're better off to do this on your own while still working on the screenplay rather than later on with the producer frantic for a last minute rewrite.
This should be seen as a good thing: you can usually steal at least a couple of good lines from the characters you've dropped, and you've simplified your script and eased up some pressure from your producer and director.
In addition to the money your producer will have to pay the actors, bear in mind the other hidden costs and complications: each actor will have to be fed, and if you're on location, may require a per diem and accommodations; some may require transportation to and from the set; they'll each need specific wardrobe and make-up; and the more actors you have, the more problems - professional and personal - the director and producer will have to deal with.
You should aim for no more than one location per shooting day scheduled, and if six different rooms in one house are each used for separate scenes, count that as six locations, not one.
So, if your producer thinks that the film will be shot in twenty-five days, then aim for no more than twenty-five locations. If your producer thinks that the film will be shot in thirty days, aim for no more than thirty locations. If your producer thinks that the film can be shot in four days, find another producer (or get paid up-front).
If you've written a scene that takes place in a specific location that is not used anywhere else in the story, it may be wise to re-write the scene so that it takes place in another location that has been booked for a number of days, or that you've written a number of scenes for.
For example, if you've written a simple dialogue scene that's only a half a page long (and therefore approximately 30 seconds long), and that takes place in "Joan's Garage", it might be a waste of time to move to that location for a scene that may only take a few hours to shoot. The solution could be to either move the scene to a location that you've set a number of scenes in - "Bill's Shoeshine Stand" - or rewrite another scene to take place in "Joan's Garage", therefore filling up the shooting day. If your producer's going to pay Joan $1000 for the use of her garage for a half a day, but is able to rent Bill's location for $40 a day, and it's been booked for 3 days, it's more time-effective and cost-effective to rewrite the scene and set it in "Bill's Shoeshine Stand".
If you write scenes set in stores or businesses, the production of these scenes will be expensive. Your producer will likely have a very strict and limited time in which to "get the day", and depending on the budget limitations, may have to shoot after hours, which has its own set of problems.
If you write the script so that it must be shot "on location", i.e., more than an hour or two of travel time away from your production office, your producer will have to balance the virtues of the location itself with the many problems he/she could encounter: added phone and courier expenses; added gas and transportation expenses; accommodations and living expenses for each cast and crew member.
If there are any problems with cast, crew, or equipment (and there might be), the production will simply be that much farther away from the production supplier or production office. And the farther you move from your production centre, the less comforting and more dangerous the world becomes. The daily run to deliver rushes to the lab will also involve a multitude of other errands and demands by the cast and crew that will be performed by an underpaid and over-worked production assistant who is risking his/her life on a gruelling and mind-numbing daily basis for your script.
If the producer decides that its cheaper to commute to location each day, gas and transportation will increase; there will be a greater chance of car accidents; the shooting day will be cut down by the amount of time it takes to travel back and forth.
Few low-budget movies can afford "real" special effects, such as explosions, special prosthetics, or computer graphics, so these scenes should be avoided.
While there are always some relatively inexperienced SFX people keen to get a break on a feature film, it is usually (but not always) dangerous - both physically and for your budget - to take a chance on unproven talent here. Any special effect that doesn't look professional or effective could end up on the cutting room floor. This will be not only be a waste of money spent shooting the scene, but worse, it could require the scene to be shot again, and possibly rewritten.
If you've written scenes involving guns or rifles, your producer will have to make sure that a licensed gun handler is on set at all times. This could be a special effects coordinator, or it could be one of the art department crew. A special effects artist will have to be hired for any "hits" you want your firearms to make. If the gun or rifle is fired, a pay-duty policeman will have to be hired. In some instances, the pay-duty officer may have to be an Emergency Task Force officer. The fees for EMT police are higher than regular pay-duty police.
If you've written scenes with explosions, the complications can be daunting. A Special Effects coordinator will have to be hired; the local fire department will have to be notified, and in some cases may have to be hired as well, along with a truck; as with stunts and other special effects, it would be cost-effective to cover the scene with multiple cameras, thus using more film stock, the hiring of extra operators and assistants, etc. The area the explosion takes place in will need to be secured by additional pay-duty police.
There's a thin line between who may be responsible for certain effects. Sometimes the props person can handle it, sometimes you'll need a professional special effects artist. If you require a prop to do anything specific or unusual on cue, it could be either one.
Aside from "typical" stunts like car crashes, people covered in flames, etc., there are more banal actions that should be regarded as stunts. Basically any physical action that may endanger the cast or crew, or any physical action that an actor is not willing to do should be considered a stunt.
Sex scenes should be regarded in the same way: you can't assume that any actor you might have in mind for a certain role will get involved with sex scenes or nudity. Your producer will have to negotiate with the agent for permission, and it will usually cost more. Scenes involving nudity also take longer to shoot, especially if you've written in lots of close-ups of fingers clutching bed-sheets. During production it will be a "closed set", and only a fraction of the crew will be working on the scenes, taking up precious time. In some cases, body doubles may have to be used, which is just another body on set that the producer has to feed, transport, pay, apply make-up to (and lots of it). The producer should however not have to worry too much about wardrobe.
Whenever you have a stunt, the producer may be required to also hire a stunt coordinator in addition to the stunt person.
No matter how simple a stunt may look in script form, for the stunt to be truly effective it will require much more time to shoot properly than a regular scene.
If the stunt is something like a fight scene, the production will also - for that scene - require more editing and shooting time, which will impact on the production and post-production schedule. A typical page of dialogue may take only one day to rough-cut and a few hours to film, but a good fight scene could take a week to edit and two or three days to film.
Any visual effect that you cannot achieve while filming should be considered an optical: titles superimposed on the screen stating the location or time; super-slow motion or reversed shots; some dissolves and fades. These are all optical effects that will be expensive.
Most films have some opticals: opening and closing credits; subtitles stating a location or time or as a prologue to the film; optical dissolves and fades (as opposed to dissolves and fades you could either do in-camera or at the lab); super slow-motion shots; reverse shots; super-imposed shots.
Sub-titles, however, can be very cost-effective. Producing three or four scenes to get across the idea that ten years in your story have passed could be replaced by adding the sub-title "Ten Years After".
Generally you should just be aware of the costs involved, and use them sparingly.
Scenes that are set on public roadways or sidewalks are very common, and unless your story takes place entirely in interior sets, you won't be able to avoid including them, but as the writer you should be aware of the costs and complications. And obviously, if your scene(s) shot on roadways or sidewalks contain any of the other elements in this Tip Sheet, then it will be even more complicated, time-consuming and expensive.
If you set a scene on a public roadway or sidewalk, your producer will probably need some form of police control. If shooting occurs on a road, it is required by law.
If you're shooting on a sidewalk, the producer will need permission from any store owners or home owners nearby, and this permission could involve a location fee. A crew member will have to spend the time issuing one-sheets warning that a film crew will be invading the neighbourhood. The producer will need crew to stop pedestrian traffic, and if they aren't brought on specifically for that purpose, it's going to be taking them away from any other duties they might have.
If you've set a scene on a sidewalk in front of stores, the producer may have to "buy out" the store(s) that will be in frame: impeding pedestrian traffic will cause the store to lose income. The producer will also need written permission to show any company logos in the shot, and if the store belongs to a chain or franchise, if there's a Blue Jays pennant in the window, or a pop machine out front, gaining this permission could take a long time, and could be futile.
If you've written a scene set on a sidewalk, the producer will want to hire extras as background atmosphere. Bear in mind that not only will the production have to pay for the extras, they'll have to feed them, and possibly provide transportation. In some cases, they may have to be provided with wardrobe and/or make-up and hair. All of these elements could require additional crew, and make shooting just that much more difficult.
Shooting night exteriors encompasses all of the problems of regular exterior shooting, but is complicated by the demand for lighting.
The most time-efficient manner in which to simulate moonlight is to rent a large light (which probably won't be part of a standard lighting package), a special mount for the light, and a construction crane (which definitely won't be in any standard grip package). The rental of a construction crane and operator could cost upwards of $2000 for a 10 hour day. In addition to this cost, time will have to be budgeted for setting up the crane and light. Depending on the location of the crane, pay-duty police may have to be hired to direct traffic and ensure safety.
The production could try and use "practicals" (i.e. existing lights, like streetlamps, even car headlights - if you can write it into the script so that it makes sense). The problem with this method is that you won't be able to physically cover as much area as you would with a large light and crane, and the director's flexibility for coverage will be severely limited.
The third way of lighting exterior nights is using every available light, extension cord, and grip stand the production has. If the production is forced to do it this way, they'll have to think about hiring some extra electrics and grips - setting up virtually all of the lighting equipment will take a long time.
Whichever method is used, more than likely the production will have to hire a generator truck for the night. A gennie, with an operator, and covering the cost of gas, can cost upwards of $600 for a night. And always bear in mind the hidden costs for extra meals and transportation for any additional crew.
If the production can't afford a generator truck for power, they have to make sure that they've arranged for houses and businesses in the area to allow them to tie-in to their power supply. If there's a good gaffer on the crew, he/she should be able to accurately calculate exactly how much money's worth of power the production is drawing from wherever you've tied-in to. Then the producer pays the owner half.
Most scenes taking place in public areas will require extras (or background atmosphere) to fill the frame, and make the scene look more realistic. The costs for hiring extras can easily get out of hand.
If your film is going to be produced using ACTRA members, the first ten extras on any given day have to be paid scale. Therefore, if you have a scene that involves ten extras, this is going to cost the production around $1,000 - not to mention the meals, transportation, and any make-up and wardrobe that may be required.
A more difficult use of crowd scenes is when the crowd has to interact with or react to the actors or the action. This becomes complicated because you'll want to include reaction shots, close-ups, etc., and that is only going to take up more time rehearsing, lighting, etc. You may also find it hard to resist having one of the extras speak a line of dialogue, which will upgrade the extra to an actor, and cost more money.
If for example, you've written a scene set in a restaurant or bar, and the action in the scene requires some sort of response from members of the crowd, the production will have to spend the time to rehearse, apply make-up, and light each character who responds to the action. If the reaction is anything more than a simple look, the production should also make sure that the extras they've hired have some acting experience, or your simple reaction shot could end up taking longer than anyone could have imagined. And again, like using inexperienced people for SFX, if the shot doesn't work, it could end up on the cutting room floor.
While writing a script, it's unlikely that you'll know exactly when the film will begin production, so you should avoid writing scenes that depend on a specific season. Worse than writing a script that takes place during a specific season is writing a script that takes place over a couple of specific seasons.
In the same vein, writing specific weather for a scene can be very costly.
If for example, you feel that pouring rain or snow would add to the texture of a scene, the producer will have to budget, for rain: a rain tower, a water truck, and experienced personnel to handle the equipment. If you want snow, it's more complicated: the producer will have to rent a wind machine, bags of potato flakes, a special effects coordinator and an operator or two, and depending on how wide the shot is, might also have to rent fake icicles and snow blankets for the background. If they're shooting in the dead of winter it might seem ridiculous to have to actually rent fake icicles or snow blankets, but you have to maintain continuity.
To further complicate matters, any use of a rain tower or simulated snow will require almost perfect weather conditions to make the shots effective. If you have a day with occasional gusty winds, the look of the simulated rain or snow is going to change from shot to shot. Ideally, you want to shoot these type of scenes when there is no wind and no precipitation, something virtually impossible to count on during the shoot.
Other big problems shooting in winter include: a potentially grumpy cast and crew; equipment freezing; film stock snapping; extra budget for more food; an increased number of car accidents; snow continuity; less daylight.
While mention of a specific piece of music may be just the thing to get across the mood of a scene, securing the rights can be very expensive, and sometimes impossible.
Bear in mind also that if a character quotes a line from a song, or even hums part of a song, you're still going to have to pay for the rights to use this, and there is no truth in the long-held myth that you can get away with a few bars of a song and not pay any fees. The exception to this rule is music that is in the "public domain" (i.e. the music to the "Barney" theme song, which is a copy of the public domain song "This Old Man", but not the lyrics, which were written by Mr. Barney himself, and are protected by copyright). This will require research to find out whether or not the song you have in mind is indeed in the public domain.
If you feel that it is absolutely necessary to mention music in a scene, I would suggest simply naming the genre itself (i.e. rockabilly) as opposed to a specific song you have little chance of securing the rights to (i.e. Elvis Presley's version of Mystery Train).
A period piece is any film that doesn't take place in the present, whether it takes place a hundred years ago, twenty years in the past, or twenty years in the future.
If you want the props, set-dressing, picture vehicles, and wardrobe to look authentic, the respective departments will need that much more time to source the materials. And because the materials are not as available as their present-day versions, this will cost more money. It should go without saying that replacements for all of these will be equally if not more difficult, so if it's taken the art department five weeks to find 16 pairs of circa 1972 flare jeans, and half of them get stolen, lost or destroyed a week into production, the production has a big problem.
Don't take lightly the wisdom of avoiding the use of animals and children in your script. There are a number of problems that could cost the production time and money.
A well-trained animal could add great production value to your story, but the producer has to make sure that you he/she gets a well-trained animal, with a reputable animal trainer. You might think that while your dog Sparky is pretty charismatic and obedient, Sparky just might freeze up when the lights are beating down on him, there's 20 to 50 strangers staring at him, he's just wolfed down three doughnuts from craft services, and he's got to obey a complete stranger. I'm not talking about Sparky running through a burning building and rescuing the screaming orphans - I'm talking about Sparky barking on cue, or walking beside somebody, or looking in a certain direction, or just sitting still. As with SFX, a producer can't afford to be penny-wise and pound-foolish: if you can't resist writing in a part for an animal, make certain that the producer is willing to budget for the best animal coordinator he/she can find.
Children are another matter. Children under 18 can only legally work a certain amount of hours per day, which will greatly impact on the shooting schedule. Even if they've acted in a couple of commercials, or done some theatre, its very unlikely that they have years of feature-film acting experience under their tiny little belts, so the director and producer have to be prepared for a number of takes, extra film stock for the day, general frustration, simmering rage, etc. Children require special attention on set: one of the parents should be there at all times, or a special crew member who's sole job is to take care of little Casey's needs. For legal purposes (and moral, for that matter), your producer had better make sure that whoever is assigned to little Casey sticks to him like glue - if anything goes wrong, the production could be in a lot of trouble.
If you write a scene that takes place in a car, your producer will have to hire a special camera-car (a vehicle rigged up with shooting platforms, a skilled operator, and a built-in generator for lighting). Scenes set in moving vehicles are very expensive and time-consuming.
Your producer can't assume that once he/she pays out the fees required he/she is going to get usable shots. It is the producer's job to pin down roads that are smooth. Once the camera-car is on set, the production will require a police escort. If you want to include other vehicles as background atmosphere, the producer will have to rent them and coordinate them. If you've written the scene to include dialogue, the producer and sound recordist can usually assume that they will only be recording a guide-track (i.e. a track that will be unusable in the finished film, but will allow the editors to sync up the footage so the actors can dub in the dialogue later). For purposes of continuity and speed, its usually best to have multi-cameras operating so when they do manage to get the perfect take on the perfect stretch of road they won't have to attempt it again for the close-ups. The extra cameras, of course, will require extra operators, more film stock, etc.
Trains are virtually impossible to shoot on. It is very unlikely that the producer will get permission to shoot on a moving train in Canada, unless it is with one of the very rare privately-owned exhibition-type train stations.
The best the production can usually hope for is to shoot on a stationary train, and simulate the movement. The production will have to have the grips simulate the motion of the train, the electrics and grips simulate the exterior light or dark, the art department simulate anything you might want your characters to see out the windows, and possibly a SFX coordinator to supervise the whole ordeal. The cost and time for all of this, let alone the exorbitant fee for the rental of the train itself, will be extremely prohibitive.
Remember that your producer will have to budget in either the cost of renting and/or having your art department or wardrobe department manufacture any special uniforms, or signage to distinguish vehicles.
Certain vehicles and wardrobe items can be easily rented for a day, such as police uniforms and/or vehicles; other, more esoteric items - like an ice-cream truck or an old-fashioned milk truck - will be difficult and expensive. If you write a scene where a police cruiser pulls up in front of some kids and arrests them, you can easily rent generic police uniforms, and either rent a fake police car, or have the art department manufacture signs and decals to make the car you've rented look official. But if the police pull up in a cruiser in front of a motorcycle gang's clubhouse, you'll either have to rent the leather jackets and manufacture the biker logos for the backs, and customize the rented motorbikes, or else exploit your close personal relationship with the bikers clubhouse down the street and have them take a stab at acting. To further complicate this scenario, if the police are working undercover and decide to raid the bikers hide-out while disguised as ice-cream vendors, you'll have to mock up a vehicle to look like an ice-cream truck, and rent or manufacture ice-cream vendor's uniforms for the police.
Any scene that requires special make-up, whether it be for vampire fangs or simple cuts and bruises, will take a long time to prepare for each scene. This could really limit the production if they've found an extra couple of hours one shooting day for that semi-important shot they missed last week - it just might be impossible if its going to take three hours to get the make-up perfect.
If it is absolutely vital that an actor have a specific tattoo, or hairstyle, or beard, the production must be prepared to be able to duplicate it on a day-to-day basis (and possibly months down the road, if they require any essential reshooting).
E & O insurance is insurance that will be required for the film separate from the standard insurance for accidents, shooting days, etc. The purpose of this insurance is to assure your investors that they will be protected in case the production is sued for slander or improper use of a copyright.
Some examples of what Errors and Omissions concerns can be found in "Too Many Locations", "Specific Music" and "Uniforms, official Vehicles".
Basically you have to keep in mind that if you use a brand name, feature a still (or moving) photograph, a celebrity's name or likeness, or virtually anything in your script that you have not invented specifically for the film, the producer will be required by the insurance company to get written permission from the company or individual to use it. On the other hand, the insurer may judge that such use will not infringe on any copyright, etc., and therefore permission would not be necessary.
If for example you write a scene that has "Nancy" reading a National Geographic magazine, the producer will need the written permission from National Geographic, and might also need written permission from the photographer. The permission could take weeks or even months. For whatever reason, they may not grant permission, and if they don't, but it is vital that "Nancy" be reading a magazine about geography, then the art department will have to mock up a magazine cover, which will take more time and money.
Although this might be a lot of information to keep in mind while
writing your script, it's worth knowing, and should make your relationship with
your producer and director a little bit easier.
If you have an understanding of some of the things they have to worry about, then (a) you'll really appreciate the fact that you decided to be a writer instead of a director or producer and (b) you should be better able to negotiate compromises, have a smoother collaboration, and in the end, a better film to show for it.
If you can grasp why they want "Travis" to hum the theme song from
"Barney" instead of the Ramones song that you feel is absolutely essential to
defining "Travis's" character, then you could offer them a compromise by
suggesting that if you write out the schoolbus blowing up in the snowstorm,
then you might be able to afford a few bars of the Ramones song you want. If
you feel that they're not buying your argument and think that the schoolbus
scene will be a bigger crowd-pleaser than Travis humming the Ramones tune, you
could start grasping at straws and feebly suggest you change the schoolbus
scene to a title-card that simply states: "The Schoolbus Blew Up."
As I noted in the beginning, you probably won't be able to write a script containing all of these elements that can be produced on a low-budget, nor will you be able to write one that doesn't contain any (even though every low-budget producer dreams of it). But if you understand the hows and whys a bit more, you should be able to make your writing job a little easier, and begin to gain a reputation as a writer firmly rooted in the reality of producing low-budget films in Canada.
About the author: Colin Brunton produced and directed his own short films and worked as a production manager on a variety of low-budget films before co-producing ROADKILL and HIGHWAY 61. He is currently the executive producer for The Feature Film Project, an initiative of the Canadian Film Centre, and between June 1993 and December 1994, executive produced BLOOD & DONUTS, RUDE, and PLAYING HOUSE.
Update 2001: Colin Brunton is now a partner in MAINLINE CREATIVE, a development company for film and TV based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Reader's reports, budgets -- anything you need help on. Telephone 416.975.2571. His new e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c)1994 Canadian Film Centre.
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1 On the other hand, your producer might very well be an untalented, glib and frustrated writer taking out his/her rage on you. Buyer beware.