TUESDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:
DO IT YOURSELF
Most of the advice on this website is geared toward people who want to write scripts to *sell*. Folks who just want to be writers. But some of you may be interested in making your own films - having total creative control (yeah, right). About a decade ago I wrote the Screenwriting 101 column for the Independent Film Channel's magazine, and I regularly hang out at fim festivals with film makers... and have even made some of my own films. This year I plan on producing a film, so let's take a look at the TOP TEN THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW WHEN WRITING YOUR OWN FILM....
ONE: Well, you still need to write a good script... but you need to write a good script that can be made cheap... and still be good. That's more of a challenge than writing a script where budget doesn't matter. RESERVOIR DOGS was written to be shot for $60k on my friend Fred Olen Ray's 16mm camera. Tarantino wrote the script to take place in a warehouse - an easy location to find. After Bender passed it to his acting teacher who passed it to Harvey Keitel, the budget went up... but it was still made cheap - as a $1.5 direct to video movie for Live Entertainment. The limited theatrical release was a fluke (you probably saw it on video).
TWO: You need a great high concept or an interesting hook. High concept is not the same as high budget - SIXTH SENSE is high concept but not high budget. RESERVOIR DOGS is *not* high concept at all - there's no *unique* factor in that story. What you want is an idea that's cool on its own, not cool because of stuff you need to make the idea work. Think of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS - aliens take over your friends! TERMINATOR - a killer android that looks human (there's this great Philip K. Dick story called SECOND VARIETY about killer androids who pass as human to get past security - you never know who is one!). PRIMER has some great limited time travel and multiple versions of
the protagonists... and was made for what's in my checking account right now. For inspiration watch some TWILIGHT ZONE episodes: made on the cheap but often with wild and fascinating ideas. Find the wild idea where the *idea* is what's cool. I'm writing big budget script next year about people who can *instantly* change location with a pocket sized device. It's a chase thriller. The reason why you need a high concept for an indie film? The same reason you need a great idea in any other script - you want your story to be unique and interesting.
Though having a compelling and interesting concept will still be important, the other way to go is to find a niche
audience that is not served by the mainstream media. Something with a very strong and loyal audience - even if there aren't billions
of them. I have a friend who focuses on Lesbian leads, another who made a Western because there is a small but loyal
audience for that genre. Finding that niche audience, then finding a great concept or hook to interest them is critical to finding
When I was at the VSDA a couple of years ago they had a panel on independent distribution - maybe 8 indie distribs. They said that there were about 27,000 independent feature films made every year - and only a very very small percentage get *any* form of distribution at all. If you want to be in the 2% that an audience gets a chance to see, you have to have a great story idea - one they haven't seen before. There are *thousands* of films submitted to Sundance every year for something like 60 spots. If your film doesn't star Sigourney Weaver, what else is there on the submission form that will make them want to see your film? The *idea*. Again, it may seem unfair that people judge an entire film on a logline - but an orginal concept is indicitive of creativity in other aspects of the film. A bland idea may mean bland characters and bland dialogue and bland situations.
THIRD: What have you got access to? I call this the "Robert Rodriguez School Bus" - do you know someone with a bus you can use in the movie? If so, put it in the script! Make a list of all the interesting locations, props, vehicles, stunts, actors... whatever you can get! My first paid gig, NINJA BUSTERS, started with a list like this. The producers had access to locations like an automobile graveyard, a night club, a Chinese restaurant, a dojo, a warehouse, an apartment building... and elements like a friend who owned a Jaguar XKE and a friend who was a famous body builder and another friend who owned some standard poodle show dogs and one of the investors was a member of a motorcycle club... My job was to take all of these things and wrap a script around them. It's not as difficult as it may sound - characters have to live *somewhere*, why not in the apartment complex we have access to? And the villain had to drive a car, why not a Jaguar? And the villain had a henchmen, why not have him be a huge body builder? And they went to the nightclub and ate Chinese food and... well, I used everything on the producers "free list" in that script. When you are making a film for very little money, you need to use whatever you have! So make up a "free list" and use that stuff in your script!
FOURTH: Limit and centralized locations. Every new location means a crew move, where time and money is spent that does *not* show up on screen. Think CASABLANCA rather than a road trip. Maybe 4-6 locations *total*. And you want to mix up the locations - too much time spent in the same room will drive the audience crazy. You need EXTs. and INTs. You're probably going to have around 40-45 scenes in your 90 page script, so you want to alternate locations to keep things moving. A *variety* of locations. RESEVOIR DOGS uses different rooms in the warehouse, and different *times* in the warehouse - like the planning of the crime. Use common sense with locations - nothing expensive.
FIFTH: Limit your characters to 10-15 speaking roles. And you want interesting characters, because you don't have the money to entertain the audience with all kinds of big FX and explosions - so the people have to be interesting. You're going to use *dramatic explostions* - even if you're writing an action flick. You also need "actor proof" dialogue - stuff that will sound great even when the worst actor you can imagine is cast (they will be). A big budget film can depend on the actor to make the character work, in a low budget film it's all in the script. Any characterization is through actions and situations - not *acting*. You may end up with local actors in every role - and *unpaid* local actors at that! We can't depend on great delivery of a line, the *line itself* has to be great.
Here's a trick I often use with non-actors. NIGHT HUNTER starred Don "the Dragon" Wilson, a world champion kick boxer who broke into acting in Cameron Crowe's SAY ANYTHING as John Cusack's mentor and idol... and turned that into an acting career as a B action star. Don is great at kicking people in the head, but not a great actor, and my job was to protect him - and make him look like a great actor. So I did two things: create strong situations that would do the acting for him, and partner him in most scenes with a character who would be played by a professional actor and put the burden of the scene on the pro actor. I made Don's character a damaged guy who didn't say much - mostly brooded. Then I put him in situations that would be emotionally painful for his character - and all Don had to do is walk into the scene and look tortured. The *scene* did the acting. In other scenes, the leading lady would have all of this amusing dialogue that would only require a couple of words of response from Don - in that tortured soul mode. In those scenes, a skilled actor made Don look really good. In scenes where Don was required to act, I gave him dialogue that did all of the work. Lines with multiple meanings that made him look deep, clever lines that made him look clever, and those bad-ass lines that action stars get to say.
If you have access to a good actor, you can write some great scenes for them and that will make everyone else look good. But if you just have the people you can round up playing roles, make sure the situations do the bulk of the acting, and make sure they have some great "actor proof" dialogue - clever lines, lines with multiple meanings, and sometimes short to the point lines that make them sound totally in control. A low budget film puts the weight on the shoulders of the writer.
SIXTH: No kids, no weather, no animals... nothing you can not control. You want ext-day instead of ext-night (lighting is expensive and time consuming).
SEVEN: One extras location... but you can thread it through the script. Another trick is "confined cameos" - have good roles that are confined to one location with many scenes in the script - and you can cast a "star" in that role and make it look like he's in the whole movie.
EIGHT: FX, Stunts, Etc. A car chase is more expensive than a space ship battle! I know that's hard to believe, but a car chase is done for real - you close down a street, have stunt men, and crash cars. A space ship battle can be done with models - and the world is full of FX geeks who want a break.
It's probably easier to get some kid in Kansas to play around on his laptop for cheap, than it is to get stunt men to risk their lives for cheap. Plus, you have to pay for all those cars you wreck (but think practical first). One thing to consider - if you're writing an action film, the action is the *star* - so make sure you have enough action to sell the script. I'd come up with one amazing stunt or FX bit that the producer can put in the trailer. Think of this as the high concept action scene - make sure it's unusual and cool.
Guess what? Film is not reality. Think of how you can piece together an amazing stunt or cool action scene through editing. While you're at it, we live in a world of internet, right? Get a friend in some exotic land to shoot some "second unit" footage with an actor dressed in your character's costume and use it... with your star cut in with close ups. With film, anything is possible... if you can figure it out.
EIGHT AND A HALF: That said, no CGI (unless you know an actual expert who will do it free or within your budget). In the old days when we shot things on film, the joke was always: "We can fix that in the lab". Out of focus? Under lit? Camera fell off the tripod in the middle of a shot? We can fix it in the lab. Obviously, you can't fix any of those things in the lab so you were screwed. These days instead of "fix it in the lab" people say: "We can fix that with CGI". You can't. If you are doing a monster movie and you think you are going to do the monster with CGI? Think again. You don't have access to anyone with that level of talent. Best thing to do is *always think practical* and only use CGI to clean up small stuff. Spaceship? Build a model, use digital to remove wires. Anything that requires an expert to do well? Go practical instead. CGI is not some magic band aid. Build it for real... just like people did a decade ago.
NINE: If you are making an action movie or thriller, think PERSONAL. Fist fights, foot chases, shoot outs. Person on person violence. That's the great thing about low budget action - you remove the buffers and have action scenes that are more personal. Think about what makes this fist fight unique. Without all that money, you have to use *imagination* and *creativity* to make the action scenes interesting. I like to put on my Jackie Chan hat and find weird weapons in every day life.
TEN: Dog Juice. Because you don't have stars or big FX or any of the other things you'd find in the average $100 million Hollywood film, you need to take things to the limit. Faster pacing. Bigger stakes. Bigger emotions and actions and everything else. And think genre. RESERVOIR DOGS, EL MARIACHI, PRIMER (sci-fi). The movies that sold big at Toronto Indie Film Fest a few years ago were *horror* movies. The Weinsteins paid millions, not for dramas, but for MANDY LANE and BLACK SHEEP. Even the indie distribs want *genre* films. They are easier to find an audience for. Just because it's a genre film, doesn't mean it's dumb or undramatic. The best genre films *subvert* or *re-invent* the genre. They do the unexpected...
And that's what all great scripts do - something we haven't seen before tht startles and excites us.
Blockbusters On A Budget 1
Blockbusters On A Budget 2
Indie Writing (The Corman Way)
High Con On A Budget 1
High Con On A Budget 2
Good luck on your film!
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E BOOKS PAGE
E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
I am expanding all of the Blue Books from around 44 pages of
text to around 200 pages! Some are over 250 pages! See what is availabale and what is coming soon!Also, I've been writing Novelletes and there
will soon be novels.
E BOOKS: BLUE BOOKS & NOVELLETES
MY OTHER SITES
B MOVIE WORLD
Cult Films, Exploitation, Bikers & Women In Prison, Monster Movies.
FIRST STRIKE PRODUCTIONS
Producing my own scripts, investment possibilities, pipe dreams.
NAKED SCREENWRITING CDs
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Each Blue Book is 48
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THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The
nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines,
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