Tuesday, October 17, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 1: Writing

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

I have received a lot of questions about my film Wait since releasing it online in August. Two of the most common questions are: How did you make it?, and What took you so long to release it?

While I was making Wait, I occasionally posted on this blog to let readers know how it was going, similarly to how I did when I made my short film, Earrings, in the spring of 2012. But making a film is hard, and writing regular updates about a tumultuous day of production became increasingly less important. But now that everything is done and Wait is available to the world, I thought it’d be interesting to go back and detail how I made the film. Please know that me discussing my film is in no way a reflection of the quality of the film itself. I’m simply trying to shed light on the process of making a microbudget feature, in hopes that it will entertain readers and potentially encourage filmmakers in the future.

Settling on an Idea
If you have any artistic inclination, your brain is likely filled with ideas all day. My ideas keep me up at night; they spin in my head continuously. My dreams are movie shoots – there are cranes and long tracking shots and lights just off camera. Even when I dream, I’m still spinning with ideas. So, the first step in making a microbudget feature film is locking in on an idea, and staying with it.

The process of gathering your thoughts into one collective idea is different for everyone. Wait started with a few key scenes that popped into my head years ago, and, for reasons unbeknownst to me, never left. 

Scene One was of a heartbroken, emotionally battered man sitting aimlessly in a sports bar. He’s ordered take-out and is waiting for the host to finish preparing it. What has he gone through? Has he just lost someone close to him? As he sits by himself, he is suddenly approached by a former lover he hasn’t seen in years. But why? Who is he and who is she, and who are they to each other? 
A still from Wait; an idea brought to life 
Scene Two was of another, more confident man, waiting impatiently on a city street. He’s waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, anxious and annoyed that she’s late. Suddenly, he hears the sounds of police cars and an ambulance in the distance. The sounds grow louder, and he wonders. Could those noises be the reason she’s late? But why? Who is he and who is she, and who are they to each other?
A still from Wait; another idea brought to life 
I thought about these scenes incessantly, for literal years. The more I thought about them, the more they evolved. I created characters out of the people in the scenes, and from that character development, more scenes began to unfold. I connected the two men in a story, and realized the woman in both scenes was the same person. From there, a collection of cohesive scenes began to take shape. And then I got stuck.

I sat on the idea for years, eventually investing my creativity elsewhere. But in September 2011, I saw Gavin O'Connor’s film, Warrior, and a door opened. O'Connor’s film ends with an extended version of the song “About Today” by the band, The National, blaring in the background. I had heard of The National, but had never heard their music. But upon hearing “About Today” for the first time, I knew I had to refocus all my creative energy on Wait. In October 2011, M83 released their double album, “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” and my creative spirit became alive in a way I had never experienced before. At this point, I hadn’t locked in the title of my movie yet. By pure coincidence, I had considered Wait as a possible option, and upon hearing M83’s song “Wait” on “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming,” I knew I had found my title.
Inspiration can come from anywhere
Musical inspiration is difficult to describe. We can listen to the same song and hear something completely different. I don’t know why “About Today” and “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” meant so much to me, and to this idea, but they absolutely did. Without those songs, Wait would not have been made. So if I may impart any advice on this “idea” stage of filmmaking, it is to let the ideas flow, and if one seemingly goes away, do not bury it forever. Open yourself up to the world and see how your experience and perception changes the way you think, including influencing any ideas you have.

Shortly after letting “About Today” and “Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming” into my life, the idea for Wait became locked. The film played out in my head over and over. Every scene was in place, every character was defined. Now all I had to do was write the damn thing.

Writing the Script
Everyone has a different writing process, and no one person can reasonably determine that there is one correct way to write. Here’s some insight into my writing process: I locked onto the idea of Wait in October 2011, and didn’t write a single word of script until January 2013. That’s my process: I think (and think, and think) about an idea for years, and when I finally muster up the courage to sit down and write it, it pours out of me. I wrote Wait in two marathon jam sessions, for 18 hours on Saturday January 12, 2013, and 18 hours on Sunday January 13, 2013. When I typed “The end,” I had a first draft I was extremely proud of. The script changed a bit in editing, but the heart of it stayed the same. Perhaps I could’ve written the script sooner, but that’s just my process. You certainly have a different one, so settle on it and write the damn thing. 

Do not let anyone tell you your idea isn’t worthy of a feature film. That’s for you to decide. Do not let negativity fuel your procrastination. Do not complain about not writing. Sit down, find a process you’re comfortable with, and commit to the page. No one got anywhere by complaining about what they aren’t doing. Sit, commit, write.
This guys got paid to procrastinate. You likely won’t. Find a process and write.
Concerning screenwriting, it is unrealistic that you will shoot the first feature-length script you write. If you do, then good on you, because you have everyone else beat. But typically, you need to write a few scripts to get any sort of good at it. I wrote many short film scripts (and eventually shot two of them), as well as short stories, music video concepts, and five feature-length scripts, all before I wrote Wait. I wrote my first feature script in 2004, and wrote Wait in 2013. It takes time to hone any craft, so, humbly, do not expect your first ever feature-length script to be production-ready. 

Don’t rush the idea; think on it and really decide if this idea is one you want to live with for years. I wrote Wait in January 2013 and released the final film for public consumption in August 2017. That is longer than any romantic relationship I’ve had. Longer than it took me to pay off any car I’ve owned. Longer than it took me to get a college degree. Write an idea that you won’t get sick of, because if you want to make this thing (and make it right), then you’re in for the long haul. 

Write for Budget
While you’re settling on an idea and writing that idea into a script, you have to be thinking about budget constantly. Remember, this is a microbudget feature film, which means you’re likely financing this yourself, or with money given to you by people who are taking a big chance on you. Point is, don’t waste time writing something you can’t reasonably afford. 

There is good news and bad news to writing a movie you know you’re going to finance yourself. The good news is that you don’t have to care what “money” people will think of the script. You aren’t sending it to The Black List for critiques. You’re writing it to make it, so you can theoretically write whatever the hell you want. But that’s the bad news: you can’t really write whatever you want, simply because you don’t have the money to film whatever you want.

The intention of a microbudget film is to capture your cinematic vision for as little money as possible. If you’re creating on such a tight budget, those financial constraints have to inform every step of your process. If you write scenes that take place at night, know that those scenes will cost more money to shoot because you have to acquire more lights, rent lenses with lower F-stops, and, depending on your crew, pay more because it’s a night shoot. Night exterior scenes are even more expensive. You need more lights, and lights mean generators, generators mean money. (Generators also mean noise, which means hiring really good sound editors to take that noise out in post-production. See how your idea can snowball into something costly?) Don’t set a scene in the rain, unless you can afford a rain machine (you can’t), or your crew has the patience to wait for the weather gods to bless you with the exact precipitation you want. 
Sadly, your microbudget cannot afford shots like this.
Writing for location is an important consideration as well. The majority of your production budget will be spent on locations. The more locations you write into your script, the more money you’re going to spend. The amount of characters you write factors into budget as well. More characters means more actors, more actors means more salaries, more mouths to feed, more people to transport. Wait has 17 speaking parts and 20 extras. I paid all of them, even the extras. Your film doesn’t have to take place all in one room and contain just two actors, but you have to find a way to balance the scope of your vision with the reality of your budget.

The only time I wrote myself into a money corner with Wait was setting a few scenes inside a hospital. When I finished the script, I celebrated briefly, then thought, “How the hell am I going to film inside an actual hospital?” I didn’t know how, but I knew I would. Write what you know you can do. Don’t constrict yourself, but don’t blow it open. Be realistic. After all, there will soon be real money on the table.

Or Find a Script and Make It Your Own
Of course, everything I’m saying about honing your ideas and writing them into a script is void if you don’t write the script yourself. I don’t have much in the way of advice here. Everything I’ve ever directed was written by me. It’s just my process. But I know plenty of writer/director duos who make it work. If you aren’t writing the script, the same budget rules apply. If you find a script that is already written, then you’ll have to pare it down to match your budget (again, be realistic with setting, location, cast, etc.). If someone you know is writing a script specifically for you to direct, then make the writer aware of your proposed budget. Because, again, in just a short while, you’re going to be spending real money. It’s your job to spend it wisely.

Main Takeaways from Part 1: Writing
—Don’t rush an idea for a film. Settle on it. Be certain that’s what you want to pursue.
—You likely won’t make your first script. Write feature-length scripts for practice. Hone your craft.
—Discover a writing process and stick with it. Write at your own speed, in your own time. But do not wait. Write.
—Write to your budget. Explore your vision, but be realistic. 

Primary Costs for Part 1: Writing
Screenwriting software: $0-$250; You can use Microsoft Word if you want, but it won’t be legible. I use Movie Magic Screenwriter (now $169 at screenplay.com), and have zero complaints about it.

Emotions to Expect for Part 1: Writing
Doubt that you can start and finish your script
—Sheer excitement when you complete your script
—Mild-to-severe panic when you realize you’re actually going to make it, and for cheap

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. The last script I wrote (which was six years ago) had me think about what to use and what I couldn't use due to budget restraint as I thought about less is more. Especially when I try not to go for something big but rather small as I cite Somewhere as an inspiration of going for something minimal and rely less on dialogue and such. I kind of have it in my head of what I want to do visually but I think it's kind of changed since I last wrote the film.

    I think part of the reason why I haven't really continued is probably because I'm thinking of something big but then wanting to scale back to something smaller. It's a challenge and I'm glad you're writing something about the ideas of doing something small.

    1. Oh man, I know exactly what you're describing. It's always been my process to write big and then be forced to make it smaller while editing the script. My initial vision for a nightclub scene in Wait was this massive long tracking shot, but I realized very quickly that it could not be done with a microbudget. Tough stuff, writing for budget.

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. This was a fascinating read and I love that you're laying it out like this.

    1. Thanks Brittani! I am so appreciative of your support.

  3. A1 read. As someone who isn't even "starting out" yet, it's always interesting to read about not just different approaches to steps in the film-making process, but also different schools of thought in approaching those approaches... if that makes sense. Whether it does or doesn't, well done on the post.

    1. Thanks so much, Matthew. Really happy you dug the post. I hope you like the others too!

  4. Creating within a realistic budget, yep, and you have the experience to back up those words and advice.

    1. Thanks Chris! I'm really indebted to the support you've been showing Wait.

  5. Fantastic read. I have your film as one of a handful to watch with the start of 2018. I'm really curious to see your vision come to life. My wish is that you continue to find success, motivation and support. Good luck and happy new year!

    1. Wow, thank you so much for such a lovely comment! I really hope you enjoy your time with the movie.