I’m currently knee deep in post-production for a micro budget feature, and have made a point a point to regularly share some of my experiences, lessons, and stories as I continue to navigate the process of making this film. As some of you know, I recently put out some other articles documenting the feature – including this post about our camera setup, and this post about how we executed our moving car scenes.
That said, in this new series of articles: How To Make A Micro Budget Feature Film, I’ll be focusing on some of the top level fundamentals of making a film on this scale from end to end. The goal is to roll out multiple posts over the coming months that can serve as a foundation for anyone looking to develop, shoot, and finish a feature film, completely within their own means.
To kick things off, I want to start at the beginning of the process – Story Development & Writing – as this is the phase of the process that has the greatest potential to make or break any film, especially those that are executed within a limited scope.
Contrary to what many filmmakers believe, micro budget films actually offer some major creative advantages over higher budget productions – namely in the concept and story departments. While filmmakers often assume that a limited budget will equate to limited creative choices, in reality the opposite can be true. Sure, there are some undeniable limitations associated with making film without any real financial backing… Which means you probably aren’t going to be making a period piece or VFX spectacle, but that’s really only one side of the coin.
What’s arguably more important are the ways in which micro budget films allow us as filmmakers to have less restrictions on our work. A budgeted film may have the money and resources to shoot across more locations, integrate certain practical or visual effects, and so on… But that also comes with a caveat – there are more cooks in the kitchen. There are investors and other stakeholders who not only want to make their money back (which can mean less creative risk taking), but who also may want to have a say in the creative choices that you make during the development process. In other words, more money doesn’t mean more creative freedom – in most cases it means less.
What you may lack with regards to budget or resources, you can make up for ten fold in the story department. You have the unique ability to take huge risks with your story, characters, themes, and other major pillars of the screenplay that bigger budget projects simply aren’t able to. You can tackle subject matters that haven’t been explored yet, or experiment with unique creative approaches to the execution of your story that wouldn’t be possible on a larger scale film.
I’m not here to tell you how to write your story, but simply to point out that the micro-scale of your film can actually be a massive creative opportunity… So if there is only one lesson you take away from this article, it should be that you have the ability to tell a more original, and less expected story than many independent filmmakers with far more money behind their films.
With all that said though, working with little or no money certainly comes with it’s own set of challenges and in many respects can limit your practical choices during the writing stage. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing, but is simply a reality that needs to be identified as early as possible during the development process in order to work it to your advantage.
In other words, if you’re writing a micro budget feature, chances are you’re also producing and/or directing the film, which means you seriously need to take into account production requirements when developing your story.
Personally, I like to start the story development process by limiting some of my creative choices, and only later will I explore story ideas more deeply within the parameters of the “rules” I have set up for myself.
For instance, on “Shadows On The Road”, the feature film I directed in January, there were some clear cut parameters put in place before the script was even written. For instance, I knew the film would be centered around just two characters, that it would be shot almost entirely using daylight or natural light, and that we would shoot almost everything guerrilla style.
These were all logistical choices that were made up front to ensure the scope of the film remained manageable, but were also guiding principles that helped shape the creative intention behind each scene in the story.
On a micro budget scale, you don’t have the luxury of writing as many locations, characters, and effects into your script as you feel like… So why start that way? In my opinion, a lot of filmmakers take a backwards approach to the writing process. They start with a great concept, but one that isn’t nearly feasible on a micro budget. Inevitably, at some point they have to scale things back so much to work on a micro level that the finished product looks like a cheap version of a bigger budget production. That’s not the path you want to go down.
Instead, you want to focus on making the best film you can make within the constraints of your resources. Every film has limitations – financially, creatively or otherwise. The difference between those that fail and those that succeed lie in the filmmaker’s abilities to embrace those limitations, and not fight them.
When developing a story on a micro scale, you have more creative options in some regards (story, character, theme), and less in other regards (locations, effects, cast), so the more clearly you can define the parameters in which you’re working, the more successful your process will be.
WRITING THE SCREENPLAY
Assuming you’ve followed some of the principles I’ve laid out above, you should have a really solid foundation for your screenplay that will leverage your logistical limitations to bring about creative solutions that wouldn’t have otherwise existed. Ideally, you’ll already have your ideas written down in some format (a treatment, beat sheet, cue cards, etc.), so you can hit the ground running once you start to tackle the full screenplay.
The stronger your story outline is, the less heavy lifting there will be in the screenplay department as many of the decisions you make along the way will be practical ones. There are of course the crucial creative decisions you’ll make when writing – such as dialogue choices, scene descriptions, and so on… But that applies to every screenplay, not just micro budget screenplays.
Executing a film on this scale (and doing it well) hinges on your ability to make practical and technical adjustments during the writing phase as you adapt your concept/beat sheet into screenplay format.
For example, you may have written a scene on your beat sheet that takes place in a public location (such as a shopping mall) where you know you’ll need to shoot guerrilla style. That’s all well and good, but as you start writing the scene into your screenplay, you realize the dialogue is running long, and it will therefore be too difficult to execute at that location without having permits to shoot.
Does that mean you need to scrap the scene? Absolutely not. But it does mean you will need to figure out how to best adapt it so that it is manageable within the constraints of your production. For instance, you might choose to write the scene in a way that relies almost entirely on visuals, since you know that recording audio in a confined public space while shooting guerrilla style will be nearly impossible.
Although this may feel like a limitation that is pushing you away from your original vision, it actually may force you to create a more visually interesting scene, since you can’t simply rely on dialogue and standard coverage. In this case, you would need to look for visual solutions to your logistical hurdles, and if you look hard enough I can almost guarantee that your end result would be be stronger than your original concept, simply because you’ve had to challenge yourself.
This is just one very basic example, but the same principle can and should apply to every single scene that you write. You will always be balancing your ability to write a film that is feasible to shoot on a micro budget, but that is also interesting to watch… And both facets are equally crucial.
If all you focus on is making the film logistically possible, you run the risk of pulling the heart out of your story and ultimately making a boring film. You don’t want to strip away all of your great locations, shot ideas, and other unique elements that make your film truly stand out, just to make it feasible to shoot. While it goes without saying that your film needs to be executable from a practical standpoint, that should never come at the expense of quality or substance.
For every logistical snag that you run into when writing your screenplay, it’s up to you to find a solution that not only solves the problem, but also elevates your film to new heights.
As you move from one stage of the writing process to the next (story development, beat sheet, screenplay, etc.), you will constantly need to keep these principles at the forefront of your work. Each stage of the writing process will pose it’s own set of challenges, but in the end it’s up to you to use those challenges as a means to strengthen your film.