BLOCKBUSTERS ON A BUDGET - PART 2
by William C. Martell
Last chapter we found a high concept "event movie" story
where big action occurs OUTSIDE (where it can be done in
miniature) and smaller action occurs INSIDE (on a set). My
"Steel Sharks" script is a huge submarine warfare tale about a
Navy SEAL Team fighting their way off an enemy sub, while F-14
fighter planes, an aircraft carrier, and one of our own subs
attempt to rescue them. A big Tom Clancy-style techno thriller.
This issue we re going to take our concept to script, and I'll
explain some of the techniques used to make our blockbuster on a
There are two elements which are frequently used to keep low
budget films low budget: Centralized Locations and Confined
Cameos. Using these elements in big budget studio films can
offer tremendous savings both above and below the line. I used
them in "Steel Sharks" to create a giant event film which could
be shot on a $3 million HBO World Premiere budget.
If you've ever been on a film set, you know the excitement
lasts about 5 minutes... after that it's boring. Most of the day
is spent moving the camera and setting the lights while the stars
sit in their trailers.
Low Budget films have found a partial solution to this. By
having a large portion of the film take place at a central
location, that location can be pre-lit to save time setting up
shots. Most low budget films have a primary location where half
of the film takes place, then several secondary locations. This
reduces down time for crew moves and allows a production to
maximize the number of pages shot per day. A low budget film
averages at least five pages a day, compared to the page or two a
studio film can roll between packing and unpacking the trucks.
On "Steel Sharks" almost a third of the film takes place in
the Control Room of Gary Busey's 688 attack Class submarine. The
periscope area was lighted, and we spent a day shooting all of
the periscope scenes. Because the main lights were set up, a
change in camera angle meant only touch-up work with fill-lights
in the event there were shadows. Without the down time of
re-setting lights, we could zip through a major chunk of the
script. A low budget film might average fifty set ups a day
because the script is DESIGNED to be shot in the most efficient
On "Steel Sharks" the north half of the Control Room could
be lighted, all of those shots done without much down time, then
the south half of the Control Room would be lighted for the next
day. We worked Gary's butt off, and kept him out of his trailer!
Though "Steel Sharks" was directed MOW style in masters and
close ups, nothing prohibits a more creative director from using
the basic lighting set up with more creative camera work. Robert
Rodriguez managed over 50 MOVING CAMERA set ups a day on his Made
For Showtime film "Road Racers".
For your script, you'll need to find a handful of locations
where most of the story will take place. This sounds difficult
at first, but our story is going to take place on an interior
set: A space station, a submarine, a 747, Apollo 13, a speeding
bullet train, etc. These places don't have many sub-locations in
the first place. Our plot isn't going to be like "North By
Northwest", but more like "Silver Streak". "North By Northwest"
travels all over the place. "Silver Streak" takes place in about
3 train cars... and the TRAIN travels all over the place.
"Steel Sharks" was designed with two primary locations,
about 30 pages at each. More than half the script designed for
fast and easy filming. The second location was the CDC (Combat
Direction Center) onboard Billy Dee Williams' aircraft carrier.
Williams plays an Admiral who spends much of the movie
coordinating the rescue operation from satellite transmissions on
wall sized video displays. We shot 25 pages on the CDC set, and
another 5 with Williams on the deck of the aircraft carrier with
the ocean in the background or planes taking off. Because
Williams spends 25 pages on a pre-lighted set, we were able to
zip through his scenes, saving time and money.
The remainder of the script takes place in a variety of
different locations, all in 5 page (one day) increments. Though
another 25 pages of the script takes place on the Iranian
submarine set, it takes place in many different rooms and
passageways of the sub, and contains so much physical action, it
was much slower going. The central location cut out time wasted
with crew moves, but each portion of the submarine set had to be
lighted. I tried to keep it at 5 pages per room, frequently re-
using the same room in a later scene. Other locations included
the Navy SEALs training course, a village in Iran, the building
in Iran where they are keeping the scientist prisoner, and the US
Navy Headquarters in Bahrain.
This is a low budget trick for maximizing your expensive
talent. Let's say you can afford to hire Robert Vaughn for one
day. You want to maximize his screen time, so you confine him to
a location. Instead of spending valuable star time moving the
crew from location A to location B, you make sure EVERY SINGLE
SCENE Robert Vaughn is in takes place at Location A.
Let's say he's the Chief Of Police. You stick him in an
office, light it, and shoot every single scene between the
Renegade Cop and the Chief Of Police: Chewed out, one last
chance, badge and gun taken away, arrested by other cops, finally
convincing the Chief to let him finish the case. These scenes
are weaved through out the film, making it seem like Robert
Vaughn was in the whole thing.
Now take that idea, and multiply it by 6 different locations
and 6 different confined cameos, and you have an ALL STAR CAST
which seems to be in the entire film. Karen Black as the
witness. Martin Landau as the Senator who may be involved.
Michael York as the suspect. Teri Polo as the widow of Renegade
Cop's partner. Stan Shaw as the Renegade Cop's mentor, who owns
a bar. You get the idea.
Each actor works ONE day at ONE location to maximize his/her
On "Crash Dive", I created an Admiral character who was
confined to the communications room of the Pentagon for the
entire film. We hired Frederic Forrest to play the role, and
even though it appears as if the Admiral is in the entire film,
in only took a few days to film his scenes.
On "Steel Sharks" I expanded the way confined cameos work.
The producer wanted to hire two names for a week each in
supporting roles. By plugging my confined cameo actors into my
primary locations, I was able to maximize both talent AND sets.
Both Busey and Williams became co-stars in the film, rather than
just supporting roles. Usually one of the primary locations
"belongs" to the lead actor (like Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca", or
Kathy Bates house in Misery ), but in "Steel Sharks" the
primary locations belong to a pair of confined cameo co-stars,
and the lead travels through the secondary locations.
MORE DIET TIPS
Another element in making "Steel Sharks" a blockbuster on a
budget was accuracy. When pitching "Crash Dive", I showed the
producers an article from Variety on how "The Hunt For Red
October" had received US Navy cooperation, which enabled them to
shoot actual Navy maneuvers and war games free of charge. The
Navy requires that the script accurately depict US Navy life,
procedures, and policy. So RESEARCH and ACCURACY in the writing
and development of the script allowed us to shoot on an actual
aircraft carrier on maneuvers in the Pacific. "Steel Sharks" has
REAL F-14 fighter planes, REAL submarines, REAL Navy helicopters
(a great sequence with a SEAL Team in SCUBA gear jumping from a
hovering helicopter into the ocean!), and a REAL aircraft
carrier. Billions of dollars in production value for the cost of
a little research.
When we think of big event films, we usually don't think
much about characterization and quality, and that's a big
mistake. One of the easiest ways to attract name actors to your
project is by giving them a showcase for their talents.
Sylvester Stallone costs $20 million if you re making a
mindless action picture like Daylight , but will do "Copland"
for scale plus ten. Though I don't think a studio could get away
with paying Tom Cruise less than his going rate, if the role
offers him a chance at an Oscar nomination, he might be willing
to live without a couple of his usual perks.
On "Steel Sharks" I made sure all of the major characters
had at least one big dramatic scene. William's Admiral has a
meaty speech about sending men to war and knowing they might not
come back. I'm sure that scene was one of the reasons he signed
for the film. Good characters in a quality story are the most
important (and least expensive) element in attracting actors.
"Steel Sharks" used another money saving method: We reused
the set from "Crash Dive". In the "golden age", movies ALWAYS
reused sets to save money. The battleship from "The Sea Hawk"
was not only used in a half dozen other Warners pirate movies,
but became part of a New York dock set for "Gentleman Jim". This
year we have three summer films which take place on cruise ships:
Speed 2", "Out To Sea", and "Titanic". All three from 20th
Century Fox. All three used DIFFERENT sets! What a waste of
money! The massive multi-million dollar Titanic set sits
unused in Mexico. Why not shoot the other two films on it?
Producers could save millions just by recycling. "The Fifth
Element" has amazing costumes, sets, and creatures. Why not
reuse them in another film? An instant sequel! "Planet Of The
Apes" reused sets and costumes in four subsequent films. Each of
the sequels had the big budget production value of the original
without the cost. The second film passed the lead from the
pricey Charleton Heston, to the more affordable James Franciscus.
Imagine amortizing the sets, costumes, and creatures of "The
Fifth Element" over three films. Though the first film might
cost you $100 million, the three films might have an AVERAGE
budget of $45 million... easily recoverable in today's market.
OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY (SHOTS)
It's common in low budget films for a writer to wrap a
script around an existing set. These are usually assignments.
Another "golden age" recycling method which is often used to make
blockbusters on a budget is using stock footage. An airplane
battle from one 1930s studio film always pops up in ANOTHER film
by the same studio... Just with a different star in the cockpit
shots. This trick recycles expensive stunts or effects and adds
millions in production value for the cost of a user's fee.
In "Black Thunder" we wanted to augment our (miniature)
Stealth Fighter Plane dogfight sequence with some other big
budget aerial action. We were able to buy actual footage of the
SR-71 Blackbird spy plane in action, and I used it in several
major sequences (putting our hero and his side kick in the
cockpit). I incorporated an air war sequence from another film
into Act 3. Over a dozen F-16s and MiG fighter planes. A huge
air battle with big explosions turned our little film into an
epic war story. All for the cost of the stock footage.
While searching through stock footage for "Black Thunder", I
found an amazing air to air attack and crash sequence from
another film. I've wrapped a story around the sequence and am
pitching it around town.
Studios could save money by using big action stock footage
and amazing FX work from the big budget films of 15-30 years ago
(forgotten today). Thousands of films with expensive large scale
sequences which could be recycled into new films to add that cast
of thousands or amazing explosion sequence. There's a fantastic
sequence in "Airport 75" where a man is lowered on a tether from
one 747 to another... You could wrap a whole new action film
around that scene!
If you re thinking about developing a low budget blockbuster
around stock footage, let me explain how to find a "donor" film.
No one wants to sell valuable footage, so the key is to find
great footage in a worthless film. The donor film has to have
flopped, so that the rights owner will see selling stock footage
as a way to recoup some of his losses. Stock footage from a
popular film is expensive.
Disney made a film four years ago called "Aspen Extreme"
which flopped, but features some amazing avalanche footage. I'm
sure they'd sell it to a producer. Maybe do a variation on "Key
Largo" in a ski lodge, using the avalanche to trap our hero and
his friends with a group of vicious criminals.
Amazing miniature footage can be found in "Raise The
Titanic" from twenty years ago. A half dozen mini-subs exploring
the ocean's floor; plus an amazing sequence where the Titanic is
brought crashing to the surface of the Atlantic, water spraying.
A big budget effect, and most of the shots still look amazing.
Another sequence has the Titanic towed into New York harbor. I
could come up with a dozen sunken ocean liner ideas which could
harvest this footage. Recycling yesterday's big scale events to
boost a reasonable budget film's production values, turning it
into a blockbuster.
It's important to find a new spin on the stock footage. You
couldn't use the "Raise The Titanic" footage for a film about the
Titanic... the rights owner wouldn't let you. But anything else
is fair game. You're only limited by your imagination.
These methods are just the tip of the iceberg. There are
dozens of other tricks used by low budget films to compete with
studio blockbusters. If the studios began using these methods on
a third of their big summer films, they could give the audience
the event films they crave... without going broke in the process.
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