Writing for independent film is very different from writing a big budget movie. While both types of movies need a great screenplay, Hollywood production companies can afford to do whatever they want, and no budget is too big for them.
When writing for an indie movie you really want to be realistic about what you can afford and what resources you can get. In this particular case, we’re talking about how to make a movie for under five thousand dollars, based on my last feature film, The Job.
7 Surefire Steps To Writing For Independent Film
Movies like this have been made many times in the past and everywhere: it’s not a rocket science. What you need to do is to limit your story to the following: location, cast, and time. Those are the three main ingredients that will send you easily over budget when overlooked in the pre-production stage and especially when writing a screenplay.
As an example of what not to do, let’s say you have ten characters. Your story takes place in this luxurious hotel. You have a few scenes next to the ocean, and maybe even a nightclub. And it all takes place during the 80s when rock and roll was in the air.
That’s great. But now being realistic, how much would that cost?
We’re talking about a multi-million dollar movie here.
You’d have to hire a hotel and get permits plus insurance for your production because no hotel will let you shoot on their premises without permits. Then you’ll have to cast actors, rehearse with them, and pay for rehearsal spaces and audition spaces. Then on top of all of that, you’ll have to add wardrobe and props from the 80s.
You get what I mean. You don’t want that.
What you want is to have as few as possible locations, characters and props. Then you get creative. You can make a great film that’s set in just one or two locations. There are several well-known bank robbery movies that only use two locations, and there was also a movie about a guy lying in a coffin for ninety minutes and talking on the phone.
If they could do it – you can do it too. I want you to get used to this attitude from now on. Every time you have a problem, say to yourself “If they could do it, I can do it!” Attitude is very important, not just in filmmaking but in any business. When it comes to writing for independent film, the more you write, the more you will learn.
Here is the exact method I use when writing for independent film. When you use this method to craft your screenplay, I recommend using different ink color for each scene. This will give you a visual representation of the story. Do it by hand. Do not do it on your computer. It has to be by hand or it will not work.
1. Start your Screenplay with a Title
I’m a big believer that a title is something that carries the story into the open world and to the people. Your title has to be simple, have meaning to the story, and be memorable. After the title, some writers move on to the treatment or synopsis straight away, inspired by the sound of the film. But not you, not now.
2. Number A Piece Of Paper to One Hundred
When you finish, you will have two pages of numbers. Those are your scenes and this will serve as a visual reference to your story. This will provide an overview of what works and what needs changing. Some writers use index cards. I prefer using a paper just because of pure simplicity and time saved. Once you have your numbers, take out a pen or a pencil.
3. Write Down Each Scene
Start with number one first. This is your opening image. This is what the audience sees first. So you’d better make sure it’s fucking awesome! Write in this format only: EXT. STREET – DAY. I presume you know all the slang of the writing, that EXT means exterior, INT means interior etc. Y
4. Move To Scene: Fifty
Do the same thing: write down your scene. This scene is called the midpoint. This is exactly what it says it is. It’s an event that happens at the sixty minute mark in EVERY movie. This is where your characters get back on track again and start reacting to the surrounding events.
5. Go To Scene: One Hundred
This is the end of your movie. This is the last scene people will see before they will go home, or get back to their everyday lives. It has to be GREAT. You want your film to be remembered. And by ending a film beautifully, you will accomplish just that.
6. Go Back To Scene: Twenty
This is an event that truly kicks your movie into motion. This is where the story truly begins. All that happens before here is just to introduce your characters and set up the story for this event. Let’s say your character gets in a car crash. Now he is in a wheelchair. And he is sad, because he was a star basketball player with scholarship at of the best universities in America. Is his or her life over? No! He has to live on!
7. Now Go To Scene: Seventy
This is the concluding point of your story. Here your character either succeeds or fails miserably. So that you can have a better idea of what I’m talking about, look at my above example and imagine your character got back on his or her own legs. Or he succeeded in something completely different from what he originally intended. Or he did not succeed. That’s up to you!
The Goal Is To Finish Your Screenplay
When you finish this exercise, sit down and open the screenwriting program of your choice. If you have money, you can research one of the fancy solutions like Final Draft or use Writer Duet. You can also find can use free screenwriting software alternatives. Once you have your screenwriting software, you write your story.
When writing for independent film, it’s important to listen to your guts and to your instincts. Open your mind, relax the fingers and don’t think about it. You already know what you want to write about. Now let your unconscious mind do the rest. Be patient and be grateful for every great page you finish.
Remember we did those scenes we numbered? On average, a feature film screenplay is ninety pages long. Each page of script equates to roughly a minute of screen time. If you type JUST ONE PAGE for each one of your scenes, you will have a finished movie script consisting of one hundred pages, plus a title. Boom!
When you finish your pages, go have a drink, because the work is not done yet…
When writing for independent film, most veteran screenwriters will tell you that nothing is written. It is rewritten. That’s how it works. Get back to your script a week later or even the next day, and you will find things that don’t work and need to be fixed. Once again, follow your gut and do as many rewrites as needed.
Once you’re happy with your screenplay, CONGRATULATIONS!
You just got yourself a movie script written by you.
Now go make that movie.
– – –
Hank Orion’s debut feature film Despair is a psychological thriller about a psychotic woman who invades the lives of a married couple in Scotland. Hank’s second feature film, The Job, completed in 2017, is a heist story about a bank robbery. It was filmed in just two days, with one camera, one lens and one light. Hank followed this up with his third feature film, a thriller called The Boy With A Knife, about a cunning psychopath traveling the world.