I started screenwriting when I was ten. I wrote epic stories that took place in weird and wonderful worlds. They were both spectacular and breath-taking. The only problem was that they would have required a budget in the hundreds of millions to produce.
About two years ago, I got a punch in the face from the fist of reality, and became a producer because I realised something very important. In independent film, he who controls the money, makes the rules. Literally – you can have anything if you can pay for it.
Producing changed the way I thought about writing. And here I share with you my tips on writing for low budget, based on mistakes I’ve made.
Screenwriting Tips For Low Budget Filmmaking
I hope this can serve as both a lesson and a career strategy to new screenwriters and producers.
1. You’re a screenwriter. Imagination is never your problem.
Writers know how to write. They know how to think imaginatively and create worlds and stories which can have audiences on the edge of their seats, or take their breath away. Unfortunately, before you write the next Lord of The Rings or Avatar, you’re going to have to do something a lot more low key. Why? Because YOU have the power to make a cheap film yourself. And your first credit is the first step on the road to being able to one day write your own fantasy epic and having a realistic chance of seeing it on screen.
2. Write something that you can produce yourself.
Many writers are arty people. I’m one. I know. We’re a right brain lot. We dream. We concern ourselves with possibility rather than probability and practicality. So when you raise the idea of producing to a writer, sometimes they’re not that keen. But there’s one reason why writers might want to produce in the very beginning: Because it means you don’t have to find a producer.
So write something that you can produce yourself. It’s going to be a story you can tell cheaply (unless you’re a rich person). And the aim of this is not to make the best film ever made. It is to get your first writing or producing credit on a feature film. Of course, make the best film you can. But if it sucks, don’t worry about it too much. Your next film will be better.
3. Write for locations you know you have access to.
One of the greatest challenges of a producer is to find locations for the actors to play out the scenes in the script. Location rental can cost a lot. And sometimes locations can be difficult to find and or get access to. When I wrote my first low budget film, I had written what I thought was a decent script. And it probably was. The problem was that although it had very few locations, they were not locations I could easily access. And when I came to produce the film, I quickly realised this. It was a hard learned lesson. So I had to go back and write another film that I knew could be filmed in locations I had access to.
4. Write something with a lot of talking.
Complex action sequences take a lot of time to shoot. The first time I got on a film set, back in 2011, I was amazed by the kind of time lighting takes. So if your film contains a complex action sequence with lots of different shots making up a sequence, you’re asking for a very long and painstaking shoot. It is your first film. Keep it simple. Think soap opera. Talking heads. Talk is cheap. And it is your challenge as a writer to find ways to make that compelling and interesting. (Soap operas put me to sleep!)
5. Maintain creative control.
At the end of the day, following these screenwriting tips for low budget filmmaking is about keeping the power in your own hands. Don’t write anything that you don’t have the skills or resources to film yourself. If you spend months or years waiting around to get a producer attached or to get a certain actor attached before somebody is going to give you production money, your destiny is not under your control. It is in the hands of others. And you cannot control other people.
Keep your shoot simple by limiting both the locations and the action. Talking really is cheap. Writing for low budget is like having a producer (yourself) looking over your shoulder when you write and catching you in the act of writing something that will be impractical for you to film.
I genuinely wish you the best of luck with getting your first film made. For most of us it is an adventure we’ve been dreaming about since childhood. I hope my advice helps you make it happen!
Adam Patel is a British screenwriter and producer who has worked on several independent films. You can visit his blog for more film making articles and content as well as news of his latest projects. And if you like it, please follow on Facebook!