I’ve met a lot of filmmakers who want to make a micro / no-budget film, but don’t believe they have the right idea for one.
They have written some un-produced screenplays at much higher budget levels, but nothing they actually intended to make.
Now, they want to find a way to adapt their work to a smaller scale, but find it very difficult.
In past newsletters I’ve written extensively about writing a no-budget screenplay from scratch. But what about adapting an existing script to be done on a DIY level?
What would that look like, and it is even possible for all films?
The short answer is yes.
I believe any screenplay can be adapted to any budget level, and in the vast majority of the cases the essence of the idea can remain in tact, even if the superficial decorations change.
But the bigger your script is in the scope, the more drastically it will need to change to be done on a DIY level.
It’s one thing to adapt a $2MM horror script that was written with minimal characters and locations. It’s another to take your $100MM superhero epic and pair it down to the barest of essentials.
Both can be done, it’s just a matter of how much the material will change throughout the process.
Below, I’m sharing a few fundamentals to keep in mind when re-writing for a lower budget level. So long as you keep these principles in check, I believe you can adapt any story you’d like to be shootable within your means, without losing the core of what makes it great.
Theme, Story, Hook
Almost everything about your script can and will change when adapting it for a lower budget. But if you want to maintain the DNA of your movie, it’s critical to identify what makes the script unique to begin with.
When you strip away the facade, the set pieces, the action sequences, and any other surface level qualities – what’s left?
What core themes are explored? What does the story teach us? What about the situation or execution will hook the audience?
Your first step is to identify these fundamentals, write them down, and keep them top of mind as you begin the re-writing / adaptation process.
With these cornerstones in place, you effectively tether the foundation of your old script to your new one, while leaving plenty of room to deviate in every other way.
If you’re writing a screenplay to be optioned or sold, you don’t have to worry about how your production will be configured.
But if you’re writing it with the intention to produce yourself – this is one of the very first things you have to take into account.
How you plan to produce your movie will dictate everything…
Do you plan to shoot it by yourself or with a full crew? Will you be able to schedule it all in one block or will it be spread over a 6 month period? What limitations will you have in terms of gear or production support?
These decisions will have a profound impact on your screenplay and creative workflow as a whole.
You’ve already written a version of your script without production style in mind. Now it’s time to re-write it to be congruent with the realities of how it will be executed.
Another crucial variable to consider early on is your page count.
If your original script is a 130 page epic, it’s probably not the best idea to shoot it as-is. More pages = more shooting days, which of course require more time, money, and resources.
For the lowest budget DIY films, I believe a script of 70 – 90 pages is plenty. My last screenplay was 72 pages by design, and it helped me avoid an uphill battle from the get-go.
Setting a page count goal tells you exactly how much you can keep and how much you have to lose when adapting your screenplay.
And because you’ve already identified the most important themes and ideas (along with your production style), you have a clear roadmap for what belongs in the script and what doesn’t.
Story Days, Locations, Characters
The final three variables to assess before re-writing your script are the amount of story days, locations, and characters in your film.
Story days refers to the timeframe in which your movie takes place. A biopic that spans the lifetime of a protagonist will create far more complexity than a more intimate story told in realtime over a single evening.
Similarly, a story with more locations and more characters will clearly be more cumbersome to produce than one with fewer elements in play.
Depending on your starting point (and how small of a scope you want to adapt to), these variables may need to change drastically, or not at all.
Assuming they do need to change, the process then becomes about consolidation…
Is there a group of 5 characters that could really be represented by a single person? Would the story be just as strong if it took place in 3 locations instead of 10? What would happen if it was set over a single weekend instead of a year long period?
You may have to make some very substantial changes in these (and other) areas to make your film produceable on a DIY level.
But so long as you do so with the intention of maintaining the core foundations of your story, they can actually elevate your final product rather than stifle it.
Hopefully this has been helpful for those of you looking to adapt a script for your next feature film. While it’s always tempting to start something fresh, sometimes the best idea is already sitting in your desk drawer.
When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:
1. Make a feature film today: The No-Budget Feature Film Blueprint
2. Build your network and sharpen your craft in our community: The Backlot
3. Color grade & polish your footage with my post-production tools on: Cinecolor