Friday, January 24, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 1: The Script

Production diary, January 24, 2020:

I recently completed the production of a short film, Unknown Number. I've made quite a few micro/no-budget, DIY short films over the past decade (this one being my 28th since 2006). I'll write more at a later point about how I started making films, some of the technology I've used and how it's changed, and other general observations on making these movies.

But for now, I thought it might be interesting to record the process here that I went through in making Unknown Number, while it's still fresh in my mind. I love reading about others' experiences in making truly personal, DIY cinema, so I hope this might be of some use to others starting out on making their own films.

The idea for this film started back in 2013, and was based on an actual Internet scam that I had learned about. I often draw on ideas like this in making short thrillers. I spoke with my friend Bill, with whom I've worked on a number of short film projects over the years (sometimes acting together, sometimes writing scripts together, and sometimes directing films based on his original scripts).

Anyway, Bill and I started discussing the idea for this film and were excited by the possibilities it afforded for making a low-budget short film. Bill and I wrote the script together over a period of a few days. I presented the initial idea and outline to Bill, and then he went to work putting his distinctive spin on the dialogue and developing key scenes. The premise of this film is that a businessman receives a phone call from an extortionist -- a threat which may or may not be genuine -- and we watch him as he struggles throughout the rest of his day in deciding whether or not to give in to the extortionist's demands.

I don't want to give away any more than that right now, but that gives you an idea of the set-up of this script.

At this point, I can't recall exactly how many days Bill and I spent working on the script, but it took shape quickly and was completed in short order. At the time we wrote it, the setting of the office was conceived of in terms of the actual office that I worked in at the time, and I envisioned the film with that location in mind.

I did not have immediate plans to produce this script, though, and after a certain period of time, it became unfeasible for me to consider making it under the circumstances that I'd originally planned for. For reasons not worth getting into here, I eventually began working remotely and no longer had access to the office I'd originally thought about using for the film. I will get into these details of the production, and how it finally came to happen, in a later post.

To return to the script for a moment, I have to mention that what I always enjoy about working with Bill is that he and I are very much on the same wavelength. As I mentioned, we've worked together quite a few times over the years on various projects, and I've always been a fan of Bill's solo projects, both as a writer and filmmaker himself. So when I pitched the basic idea of Unknown Number, I knew he'd "get" what I was going for with this project, and I was glad when he agreed to work on it.

I mention this partly because if you're making films, or involved in any creative endeavor, one of the most rewarding things you can ask for is having a like-minded friend and collaborator to discuss ideas with, bounce thoughts around and get feedback that you trust.

Personally, when I'm making a film, I tend to view the script as a skeleton for the project. This is not to de-value the script in any way. But what I've found is that, when you're on the set, often times ideas present themselves that offer a better way of doing things than you'd originally planned for. I always remember when I was making a short film back in 2008, The Interview. I had written the script for this one, but Bill was acting in it with me, and when it came time to filming the climactic scene, he had an idea for omitting a bit of dialogue that I'd written, which would have the effect of making the very last scene even more effective, because of how it built up a moment of suspense.

This was an excellent idea and I was happy to make this change on the set, because it felt right and made the film even stronger. So, it's good to be open to listening to these ideas and to be able to consider them in relation to the overall vision of what you're trying to accomplish. That's one of the advantages of low-budget, DIY filmmaking, because you can make those changes without throwing off your budget or schedule.

I made some of those kinds of changes to the script for Unknown Number, both in the weeks leading up the production, and also on the set. When I went to scout out the location, I recognized some elements that it offered which would work even better in the film than what we'd originally written. And, as you can imagine, with it being over six years since the script had been written, there were certain aspects of it that I thought about differently, so I remained open to adapting it to fit new ideas and approaches to telling the story.

I suppose that's enough about the script for now. In my next post, I'll talk a bit about how this production got re-started, and how I went about beginning the pre-production process.

One last thing: if you're embarking on a micro-budget short, be open to adapting your vision to the resources you have at your disposal. It's fine to write a script with unlimited imagination and without any concern for whether or not it's even feasible to consider producing. But on the other hand, if you put all that time into writing a script that you cannot realistically foresee being able to film, you're pretty much ensuring that you'll end up without a film to show for it. My suggestion would be to think about what resources you have access to, and work from there. Working around limitations can lead to inspiration.

That's a good lead-in for my next post... Stay tuned!

Here are links to:
Part 2: Identifying What You've Got
Part 3: But Seriously, Why Now?
Part 4: Stop-and-Go
Part 5: Directing Yourself
Part 6: Final Cut

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