(WHAT I LEARNED FROM ROGER CORMAN)
by William C. Martell
Wait a minute! What does Roger Corman have
to do with
Indies and Art films? Okay, he distributed Fellini's 1974 Oscar
winner "Amarcord", but doesn't that killer fish movie "Piranha"
that he made four years later cancel that out? Maybe not. I think
there are three good reasons why any look at writing Indie films
needs to include the only film producer in the world who has
never lost money on a single film... and made more films than
CORMAN: MR. INDIE
Let's start with "Piranha", or that "Star Wars" rip-off
"Battle Beyond The Stars", or the T&A gangster movie "Lady In
Red". All three were written by John Sayles, the king of Indie
film makers. "Piranha" was his first produced script... Sayles
learned from Corman how to write films that could be shot on a
limited budget, and took that knowledge (and his script earnings)
to the art house world with "Return Of The Secaucus Seven" in
1980. Sayles wasn't the only one who started with Corman: Francis
Ford Coppola, Patrick Shane Duncan, Martin Scorsese, Terence
Malick, Carl Franklin, Jonathan Kaplan, and hundreds of others
began their careers with the King of the Bs.
Second: Corman is an actual Indie producer. He's not
affiliated with any studios, he makes whatever he wants to make,
his films are privately financed. He makes Indie genre movies,
just like Miramax's Dimension Films division ("From Dusk Till
Dawn", "The Faculty"), Artisan Entertainment ("Blair Witch
Project", "Stir Of Echoes", "The Ninth Gate") and Regent
Entertainment ("Gods And Monsters", but mostly low budget action
films like "Red Team" and "Catch Me If You Can"). There are more
Indie genre movies made than non-genre movies.
Take a look at the top Indie films of recent years and
you'll find that many of the success stories are horror films
like "Blair Witch Project", thrillers like "Run, Lola, Run" and
"The Usual Suspects" and "One False Move", action films like "El
Mariachi" and "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", sexy noir
thrillers like "Bound" and "Blood Simple", and sci-fi films like
"The Cube" and "pi". The way to make a splash in the Indie film
world seems to be combining the marketability of a popular genre
and the quality of an art house film.
"The Blair Witch Project" will do more for Indie films (not
to mention the careers of film makers Myrick and Sanchez) than
all of the other films that screened at Sundance this year. More
people will see "Blair Witch" than all of the past Sundance
winners combined. A third of the films screened at Sundance will
not find a distributor in the USA (not even video) and will just
collect dust in the film maker's garages. "Blair Witch" will
probably break $125 million in domestic box office, and the DVD
version will be a hot seller with an extra 4-6 hours of new
material. When I wrote this the makers of "Blair Witch" had told
their story to more than 20 million people. The Indie and Art
House films that reach the largest audiences are the ones that
fit a recognizable genre. The less mainstream the film is, the
smaller the audience.
The third reason why Roger Corman is relevant to any
discussion of Indie films: Opportunity. You want to write the
next John Sayles film? You can't. He writes them. You want to
write the new Ed Burns film? Can't. Same thing. Want to write a
film for John Waters? Good luck! Non-genre Indie films don't need
writers. They aren't hiring.
They aren't buying. 95% of them are made by writer-directors. If
you have a great non-genre Indie script, you should be taking
directing classes and learning how to schedule and order
equipment... plus be looking for funding.
Indie films playing in Los Angeles when I first wrote this
Adventures Of Sebastian Cole", "Trick", "Autumn Tale",
"Illuminata", "Twin Falls Idaho", "Run, Lola, Run", "Tea With
Mussolini", "The Dinner Game", "The Blair Witch Project", and
"Celebration". Every one of them is from a writer-director. Not a
single screenplay was sold in the making of any of these films.
No opportunity for writers like us. The non-genre Indie world is
looking for DIRECTORS, not screenwriters.
IT'S THE BUDGET
But even if you do have a great Indie script and want to
direct and produce your own film, there's a lot that you can
learn from Roger Corman. The first rule of Indie films: There's
never enough money and there's never enough time. Studios can
solve problems by throwing money at them, but Indies have to use
ingenuity, imagination, and pre-planning. Indie films are made
by design, and the set is the last place to discover that your
script is too expensive to film on your budget. The key is to
DESIGN a script that is both easy and inexpensive to shoot.
Time is money. Even on a credit card film where the cast
and crew are friends you've talked into working for free, there's
a limit to how long they'll donate their time. These people
don't want to spend their entire lives working on your dream,
they have dreams of their own!
So here are over a dozen techniques for writing a film that
can be made on an Indie's limited budget. I learned all of these
things the same way John Sayles did, from writing genre movies
for low budget producers like Roger Corman.
Every new location means a crew move. The producer has to
pay the crew to pack all of the equipment into the truck, drive
to the new location, and unpack the truck. That is wasted money.
So the fewer crew moves in your script the better.
Say you wanted to do a movie about a pair of Lesbians who
share a drive cross country, begin hating each other, but end up
falling in love: "When Harriet Met Sally". That's hard to do on
a limited budget because it's a "traveling story", with lots of
different locations and lots of characters at each location.
So, let's change it to a more budget friendly concept: A
pair of Lesbians become reluctant room mates, begin hating each
other, but end up falling in love. "The All Gyrrl Odd Couple".
Easy to do on a limited budget. There is a central location
where most of the story takes place (the apartment). The focus
is on the two lead characters (which actually improves the story)
and secondary characters either come to visit, or are people they
encounter in the corner coffee/poetry shop. Because half of your
script shoots at the central location, you can "walk away" at the
end of the day - no time or money wasted on crew moves.
THE CENTRAL LOCATION
If you're filming about half of your film at the central
you need to find a place where drama and conflict can take place.
Last year's Los Angeles Indie Film Festival hit "Next Time" is a
film about race relations - it takes place in a laundromat near
USC where both college students and working class Black families
do their wash. "The House Of Yes" is about a family reunion at
the house the kids grew up in. "Albino Alligator" takes place in
a roadside bar. "Reservoir Dogs" takes place in the warehouse a
bunch of armed robbers are going to meet in to divide their loot.My "Steel Sharks" movie
for HBO had two central locations: The sub control room where Gary Busey guided the submarine and
the Aircraft Carrier control room where Billy Dee Williams ran the whole operation. We cut between these two
locations and the half dozen others so that every couple minutes we were someplace new - no boring backgrounds.
Take care to find a location where different types of people will
bump into each other - that leads to conflict.
Now that we've come up with our central location, we'll want
a few other locations to "open up" the script. How many total
locations will you have in your Indie script? Usually between
four and eight. That's not very many, but it's all you can
afford. You may go as high as ten... but if your script has 20
locations and you only have 18 shooting days, you're in a
Remember to build contrast between your locations. If your
central location is indoors, make sure some of your secondary
locations are outdoors. We don't want a claustrophobic
One of my tricks is to take a ruled 3 x 5 index card, number
it from 1 to 8. Every time you type a new slug line, write it
down. When you've filled the card, no more slug lines: you have
to choose someplace already on the card.
"Establishing shots" (without actors) don't count as
can be shot by a 2nd unit team with the B camera while you're
stars at another location.
Beware INT. and EXT. of the same
may be different locations for filming purposes! On one of my
films we shot
the exterior of a house in Beverly Hills and the interior (with
miles away in the San Fernando Valley. We couldn't find a house
that had both a
great interior AND a great exterior. Your INT. and EXT. may be
two locations - so plan
your script as if they were.
LIMIT SPEAKING ROLES
Indie movies don't have casts of thousands. Every speaking
character has to be paid SAG minimum ($640 a day), so the fewer
speaking roles the better. When you add meals and costumes and agent's fees and the cost of the free DVD you have to give the actor, it's about $1,000 a day for every character who talks - whether they say one word or a hundred. Try to keep your cast at ten to fifteen.
This actually makes for a stronger script because you are forced
to make sure every character has a purpose.
Also limit the number of extras, and crowd scenes. You may
think nothing of having a scene in a poetry reading, a scene in a
restaurant, and a scene at a concert... but that's THREE crowd
scenes where you will have to pay $50-$100 per person to fill the
location. One "extra location" is about all an Indie film can
handle, and make sure we're talking about a DOZEN extras, not a
A couple of good character roles that can be cast with known
actors who NEVER LEAVE a single location can add production value
to an Indie movie. Put your mentor character in that secondary
coffee shop location and have her dispense wisdom in a series of
scenes weaved throughout the script. Let's say you have six
coffee house scenes that are each about three minutes long -
those can be filmed in two days. Hire a known actress for the
mentor role and it will seem like she's in the whole movie!
A few character parts like this (each one confined to a
single location) woven through the entire script, can give your
film an All Star Indie Cast, without spending much money!
Don't write about things you can't control. Kids, weather,
animals, special effects. Kids are only allowed to work half a
day on a film set, and the producer must pay for a Child Welfare
Officer or/and Teacher to be present at all times. Whenever you
write a kid in your script, you are paying for an adult who will
NOT appear on screen.
Animals are like kids: They come with human trainers who
have to be paid, even though they don't show up on screen.
Animals and kids don't always do what they're told, which costs
the production valuable time.
Writing a scene where it's raining outside is much easier
than forcing it to rain on a bright, sunny day. Weather effect
require a crew of technicians with expensive equipment. The same
with special effects - you are paying for people who don't appear
on screen. That's a waste of money!
REMEMBER THE AUDIENCE
Film is mass communication. The ART in film making is story
telling. Telling a story to a large group of people. That means
your story has to be INTERESTING. No one wants to pay $8 to hear
a boring, self-centered story. If you want to "tell stories for
yourself" you don't need to make a film - just lock yourself in a
room and tell yourself all of the stories you want to hear.
Eventually, they'll come and take you to the nut house.
Tell an interesting story that millions of people will want to
That millions will PAY to see. You want to get your story to the
possible audience - that means your story has to be something
they want to hear.
When we're sitting alone in our rooms writing it's sometimes hard
remember the millions of people on the other side of the screen.
out there... waiting for us to entertain them. Don't let them
Covered earlier. They way to make sure your story reaches
the largest number of people is to tell it in a recognizable
genre. Remember that "drama" is the default genre of every film (including comedies) - so you will
appeal to a larger audience by having "drama plus" - plus thriller, plus comedy, plus romance, plus action,
plus horror. Just because you're in a genre, doesn't mean your story isn't dramatic with dramatic scenes.
So look at genre - Roger Corman's "Piranha" was called the "Best film ever made about the Viet Nam War" by Variety!
"Shakespeare In Love" was a romantic comedy.
Just because a film is a thriller doesn't mean it's stale
and boring. "Run, Lola, Run" is a great example of a wild,
imaginative story that is still a fairly basic "beat the clock"
thriller. Each of the three acts of "Lola" shows the exact same
sequence: Lola has to race across town to get enough money to
keep a gangster from killing her boyfriend. But each time,
variables change the outcome: she hurts her leg, she gets hit by
a car, she hops a ride in an ambulance, etc. Not only is this a
cool idea, it saves money! They film the same scenes three times,
just adding the variable!
Other ways to use your imagination is to let the audience use their imaginations.
In the Val Lewton horror movies from the 1940s like "Leopard Man" and "Cat People" you *imagine*
seeing the killer cats, but mostly just hear them or see their shadows. In my "Steel Sharks" script
I have a scene where characters have to be quiet as an enemy submarine passes by - the cost of shooting
the full subs passing each other for this scene would have taken away from the sub battles (more
important), so I had the characters point to the passing sound of the enemy sub... and the audience
*imagines* the sub passing close by! Without money, you need to crank up the imagination!
SHORT BUT SWEET
Every page equals money spent. Indie films aren't epics -
they are usually around 90-100 minutes long. That minute-a-page
guideline means your Indie script will probably be shorter than
it's big budget brother. Roger Corman's scripts are usually
between 85 and 100 pages long... John Sayles' "Return Of The
Secaucus Seven" is under 100 minutes. Page count matters! Every
page of script will cost you more time and more money!
Indie films may not be able to afford great actors, so make
sure your story and dialogue carry the film. The special effects
aren't the star, the actors aren't the star, so the STORY must be
the star. A clever concept with lots of great twists adds
entertainment value. Great dialogue exchanges with clever lines
will help make up for that cast of unknowns. The only thing you
can depend on is your script, so make sure it's the best script
(This may not apply to the Greenlight Contest because you WILL
get good actors - all of that publicity will create an interest
your project the average indie doesn't have. But still make sure
you have a script that's well written enough to carry the film -
important no matter what the budget is!)
VISUAL STORY TELLING
Stage plays are about people talking, screenplays are about
people doing things. Watch "Vertigo", "Blood Simple", or "The
Fugitive" with the sound off and you'll see how complex
characters involved in interesting stories don't need to talk to
be understood. Sure, dialogue is necessary - but remember you
are writing a movie. Give the audience something to SEE. Two
people sitting across from each other talking is BORING. Make
sure there is action in every scene. Use visual story telling
techniques. Make it a movie, not a stage play!
Whether your script is a comedy, a thriller, or a drama, you
have to make sure it is well paced. Have conflict in every scene.
Conflict is the fuel of drama, and film is a dramatic medium. If
a scene doesn't have any conflict, it doesn't belong in your
A baker's dozen tips on how to write an Indie script that
designed to be shot on an Indie budget. Just add director's
classes and win the Greenlight Contest and you've got a
SCRIPT SECRETS STORE - time to monkey around!
Was DEATH RACE not nearly as good as the original DEATH RACE 2000?
Should Tom get an Oscar for TROPIC THUNDER? Is HOUSE BUNNY the most politically charged film you've seen more than once on the big screen?
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