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42 Minutes for $1,200: Producing a Micro-Budget Film (Part I)

December 5, 2016

In the first official blog post in this series, I'm going to cover the writing and pre-production process for a micro-budget film and I'll talk about how to craft a script that balances boldness with practicality.  The film I'll be taking you behind the scenes of in these posts is a political thriller called "The Horsemen". The film follows a journalist, Jack Carter, who is held prisoner by an oppressive government years after a divisive election. During the course of the film, he recounts democracy's swan song to a young soldier while flashbacks to six years before Jack's imprisonment show the campaign of controversial presidential candidate William Douglas. The film was written and directed by Andrew Dalton and I, and our writing process began in December of 2015. Andrew and I had been creative partners previously on a short thriller film called "Tides" and we had begun plotting our next project upon completion of that short film. Our writing processed stretched from that December to April of 2016, as we ran through drafts and story ideas. We had an idea that originally was centered around four people who are trapped in a bunker after the apocalypse and are left to reflect how the world came to that place. Scheduling wise, Andrew and I knew that we would have two weeks of prep and three weeks of production in the late spring of 2016 to produce this film, which brings me to my first piece of advice.

 

Tip #1: Establish the Scope and Know Your Restrictions Ahead of Time
As Andrew and I began our discussions of the film, we knew a few factors that became important in shaping the project: we knew our timeframe (5 weeks for prep and production), we knew our budget would be very tight, and we had a general idea of some of the actors and crew we would have available to us. When we first began drafting the project, the original idea was to produce a three episode mini-series, with 30-minute episodes. We began to plan this approach out, but we quickly realized that it would stretch our resources very thin, so we reassessed the project and decided a 45-minute film would strike a proper balance between our resources and the scope we would need to tell the story we planned on.

 

Tip #2: Be Flexible!

 

Creative endeavors often require a high degree of flexibility and even in the writing phase, it is important to remain open to new ideas that may come due to creative restraints. When we first began scripting, Andrew and I had thought about having the production take place in only one location, which would eliminate time lost due to multiple locations and allow us to create more content in less time. We realized though that to build a set of the location we had in mind - an underground bunker - it would require more of our budget than we could part with. This factor ended up pushing the script in a different and more interesting direction, that saved us money and expanded the scope of the film far beyond the original single location and four characters. It was at this point that our project began to change significantly, but the large amount of time we had set aside for writing allowed for major rewrites and story shifts to refrain from impacting our schedule.

 

Tip #3: Solve Challenges Before They Become Problems
One of the great things about scheduling a prolonged period for screenwriting is it allows you to solve many production problems ahead of time. Once Andrew and I had established the basic storyline, characters, and structure, we both began writing the actual script for the production. It was in this process that our initial set of challenges began cropping up. Locations quickly became the biggest issue, for example, the main character is supposed to be held in a concrete prison cell. It became clear that finding such a location would be outside the means of the production, so as opposed to just moving forward and continuing to write that location, Andrew and I decided to set the scenes in a military encampment. We found through research that we could procure the materials to set up a military tent for only a small cost, and as an additional plus we already had access to land to build the encampment set on. By making a choice in the writing process, we were spared from confusion later on in the production process and didn't have to deal with the challenges of trying to re-set and re-block a scene that was written for a different location and a different mindset.

 

Tip #4: Play to Your Strengths
When planning a micro-budget film, remember that it's okay to play to your strengths and the strengths

of your cast/crew! One of the many reasons Andrew and I work together is that we balance each other well, and so we divide many of the production roles accordingly. I tend to err on the side of lighter content, whereas Andrew errs on the side of darker content, so when scripting we divide up the storyline accordingly to ensure that the sections we are writing play to areas where we feel we are the most qualified to lend our talents. As co-directors, we divide the work of directing similarly as well - Andrew works with the actors to accomplish the emotion requirements of every scene, while I oversee the technical and overall creative elements of the film. Also remember special talents that are not necessarily film-related can be a huge help to the writing and production process. In addition to filmmaking, Andrew and I have interest and experience in politics, which ended up being a tremendous asset to this film. We also knew that this film would require a lot of non-narrative expositional elements, so I was able to use my background working in local television to craft realistic TV news segments. My prior experience was an asset to the production, and sped up our writing process! 

 

Tip #5: Make the Tough Decisions Early
One of the best ways to simplify writing and production on a micro-budget film is to make many of the tough filmmaking decisions that typically come after screenwriting before a single world is even written on the page. Locations are a big factor here, especially if you know you will have access to certain locations or properties. Utilizing these locations effectively and transparently in the script can lend to a broader feeling of scope throughout the production, without having to attempt to find locations that match a fantasy from the script or substituting a location from the script with something that ends up not matching the style of the film. Another huge factor that can save an enormous amount of time is casting the film - perhaps not officially, but at least unofficially - before you even write the script. Crafting characters based on available actors and their strengths can end up becoming an enormous asset to your film. When writing "The Horsemen", we essentially cast the entire film ahead of time and therefore we didn't have to struggle to find actors that matched the characters; we already had actors that had characters tailored to them.

 

With these few tips, you can craft an exciting and engaging script within any budget! In the next post, I'll discuss how to get funding, as well as other non-financial methods for reducing production costs while achieving large-scale results.

 

If you liked this article, make sure to check out part two of the series here!

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