Top 10 Tips for writing great low-budget DIY films

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I make a lot of DIY micro features and I’m often asked the screenwriting secret to having produced seven feature films in the last seven years.

Detailed here are my Top 10 Tips to writing your own no-budget film.

1.REVERSE ENGINEER EVERYTHING. Start with what you have at hand before you start writing. Start by working backwards. Make a list of all the things in your life you have that can be used to make an original film.

Work at a bar or a Laundromat? Use that for a location. Have a dog and a pickup truck? Use them for the backbone of your script. Don’t reinvent the wheel and call it fire.

2. MAKE A LIST OF RESOURCES YOU CONTROL. Use them for your screenplay. What equipment do you own? Do you have an extensive wardrobe? Access to cool furniture or props? Have a barn or a farm available? A garage where you keep your scooter where they won’t mind if you film? Who do you know will let you shoot at their place and for how long?

Design your original cinema around original locations, set pieces and locales you can control filming with gear you have. #makealist #filmeverythingonthelist

3. DON’T WRITE AN INTRICATE SCRIPT and then try to find the money to make it. Why are you writing a period piece? No science fiction! Nothing involving complicated visual effects! Do you have a death wish? Why do you have 36

people in your script?

Who is going to pay for the stunts, props, wardrobe and art stuff you need? Get over yourself and then realistically assess your story based on practical terms. You aren’t making a Hollywood movie. Make an original film.

4. DON’T WRITE EXTENSIVE DIALOG SCENES (in the middle of downtown anywhere). Talking heads bore audiences. And talking heads we cannot hear, shot in downtown traffic, are even worse. Drop the Mamet and Tarentino profanities and design short dialog and compelling stories that are witty and uniquely you.

Make a visual story stripping out as much talk as possible. Design eloquent cinema told in enigmatic close-ups, find pastoral landscapes, gritty alleys. It’s up to you.  Just don’t depend on talking heads to save your picture.  They won’t.

5. OUTLINE YOUR SCRIPT BEFORE YOU WRITE THE FULL DRAFT. Start with a structure and blueprint your three-act structure (if you use one). Detail in your beats every major event and limit yourself to a total of 86 pages.

Keep it short and punchy with lots of things going onscreen. Create a visual structure you can stand back and look at before you get started writing in depth.

6. COUNT THE NUMBER OF ACTORS. Write the theme/subtext on wall and use it. Figure out the underlying story (subtext/message) and see how many players you really need to make your picture work and tell that story. Keep the number of actors you have to feed or pay to a minimum.

Design a story based on ideas, themes and the core issues important to you. Put that idea in front of your computer to remind you about it.

7. LESS IS MORE; 88 PAGES MAXIMUM. Why write a 120-page script when you are paying for every page onscreen?  Less is more and here is a perfect example. 

Figure out how you can shoot the film in the most economical amount of time (usually weekends) and you will soon see how page count equals time spent on set. 

Cut it down! Remove extraneous dialog. Make it lean and mean.

Consider the idea that your full length-film may be better served as a web series or online showcase in chapter format. Eight-eight minutes is a long enough running time to qualify at any film festival as a feature film and if you ever sell the film to a TV broadcaster, this will fit nicely into a two-hour block.

Why not plan for some money?

8. RURAL IS EASIER TO SHOOT THAN CITY. Get out of town fast. You will get a lot more bangs for your buck if you stay off the beaten path.  Avoid city centers and concentrate on outlying areas, small towns, villages that have never seen a film crew and stay out of over-populated and film savvy areas.

You can’t afford hefty location fees, police support, paid permits to park your meager transport – so don’t bother.  Small Town USA (or anywhere) will be a lot more accommodating.

9. USE CORRECT SCRIPT FORMAT TO AID YOUR BREAKDOWN. There’s no excuse for an improperly formatted script. Use Celtx if you’re truly broke, or pay for Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft to do it like the rest of us do. 

You need to be able to break down your script into filming blocks for your Call Sheet and Schedules – and a properly formatted script goes a long way to making the whole process much more manageable.

10. SCRIPT, SCHEDULE, BUDGET — IN THAT ORDER. First you write the script, then you figure out how many days it will take so you can accurately budget it. If you change one of them, they all change.

Lose money? Change the script and schedule.

Longer script? Change the budget and schedule. You can rarely shoot a longer script for the same amount of money that you originally planned. You have to keep an eye on all three if you want to succeed.

Writing a no-budget film means that you need to structure your work around shootable and available locales with tools and support uniquely your own.

By working backwards and reverse engineering everything you write, you will actually being going forwards — and making a real film based on real elements that you realistically control. #domorewithless

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