“Visiting the set of Piranha and talking to the people involved in making it helped me learn one of the basic rules of film production, which is talk is cheap and action is expensive.”
The term low budget is relative. Some talk in terms of a $10 million film being low budget, others talk about $500,000. being low budget and others talk about $10,000. being low budget. Talking about film costs is like taking about affordable housing in Manhattan, New York versus Manhattan, Kansas (The Little Apple)—they’re two different worlds.
In his book Thinking in Pictures, writer/director John Sayles talks about the writing parameters for writing low budget films using a union cast and crew. But in general most of his considerations ring true for any size productions. If you’re trying to keep your costs down on a script you are writing, Sayles says the first requirement is an understanding of what costs money in making a movie.
“Anything set in a historical period costs more for costumes, props and sets than the same story in a contemporary setting would (unless you’re doing Adam and Eve in Griffith Park). Shooting on location brings with it the expense of lodging, per diem, travel days, long-distance phone calls and shipping of film materials. Each speaking part you add means another day or more of Screen Actor Guild (SAG) minimum wage, even for a few lines. Music you don’t own the publishing or performing rights to can cost a fortune. Precision camera movement calls for a crew that can pull it off—the best people in those categories are expensive to hire. Star actors cost a lot more than SAG minimum and can run you into lots more maintaining them in the style to which they’ve become accustomed. Special effects and stunts are more expensive and increase your insurance bills. Action scenes and stunts are more expensive to shoot in terms of shots and man-hours per screen minute than dialogue scenes are. Special equipment—cranes, Stedicams, helicopter mounts—all cost a lot. Each additional day you shoot has a price tag on it.”
Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan
There are those that think you shouldn’t inhibit your writing by worrying about the expense of shooting. Just tell the story as best you can. But it’s not easy to get any film made, so if you’re not working on Steven Zaillian-sized projects at least consider this post food for thought. Every film has concerns about costs and sometimes whole scenes are cut because of budget restraints and others need to be re-written to accommodate the budget.
One famous scene in a studio film that was changed from how it was originally written was in Rocky when Rocky Balboa pays the skating rink maintenance guy to let Adrian and him into the rink when it’s closed. The scene was originally written to take place on a busy skating rink, but the producers decided they didn’t have money in the budget for all the extras, so it was re-written to basically be just Rocky and Adrian and it turned out to be a solid scene. Probably better than how it was originally written.
“Embrace your limitations” should be the motto of the low budget filmmaker. (Actually, I think I first heard that phrase was from DP Nancy Schreiber on the DVD commentary of the $150,000. film November in which she won a cinematography award at Sundance for shooting.) Don’t worry about what you can’t do, focus on what you can do.
Sayles writes, “The ideal low-budget movie is set in the present, with few sets, lots of interiors, only a couple speaking actors (none of them known), no major optical effects, no horses to feed. It is no wonder so many beginning movie-makers set a bunch of not-yet-in-the-Guild teenagers loose in an old house and have some guy in a hockey mask go around and skewer them.”
But it doesn’t have to be a horror film. Here’s a short list of films of various budgets that all took advantage of shooting mostly in one location (some with no wardrobe changes over the course of the film):
12 Angry Men
The Breakfast Club
Take note that those last three films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. ”Embrace your limitations.”