Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Script to Screen Without a Bean

Script to Screen Without a Bean
How to make a film on a tiny budget and with limited resources

Frank Kelly

Emily’s Song
Bill, For Short
Slán agus Beannacht
Raise My Hands
Joe & Sarah

Script, Pre-Production and Preparation:

It's often hard to give advice, for two reasons, One: everyone's situation and journey are different. Two: I still feel like I'm starting out and haven't really achieved what I hope to. But I will tell how I make films and how it works for me. Take from what you will.

I have to be honest right off, I'm not actually IN the film industry. I'm very much on the outside as an independent filmmaker. And I’m not and Independent filmmaker in the same way Hollywood independents are, for example, Quentin Tarantino was considered independent on Reservoir Dogs, which had an $11,000,000 budget. My budgets are in the €2000 to €10,000 range. I make my own films without support or financial backing. I’m truly independent.

One of the downsides of being that independent is that you can often feel cut off. I won’t lie, it’s a tough road to travel. So fair warning. But if you’re like me film is a love, an obsession, a vocation. You live and breathe it. It is inevitable. You are going to make films, no matter what. So hopefully I can offer a few tips, some advice and tell you what I’ve learned along the way to help make your road a little less bumpy.

First, I don't make money at it, and if you go down this road chances are you wont make money at it either. I've never made any profit making films. I've sold a couple yes, but only ever broken even once. In saying that, I don't do it for the money!

OK, warning’s aside, if you’re still on board, here are the tips:


I wont get to deep into script writing, that’s a whole other area, I want to focus on get the film up and running here, so I’ll assume you have you script done and dusted. But I can’t state enough how important it is to have your script done, tight, written and re-written. Spend a long time on it, get it right. Have people you trust read it, have friends and family read, people who don’t have a clue about writing script, you’ll quickly find out where the problems are. Get it right.

It is the most important and crucial stage for all low and no budget films. It's so easy to get excited and run in all guns blazing without a finished or ready script. What will happen is your film will being to fall apart, you might get it shot, but in the edit, everything you should have spent time on in the writing will be become all to apparent. It's worth spending time on the script, besides, that’s the only free part of the process! So take advantage!

Enjoy it.

For me, writing has become my favourite part of the process. It’s the place where you can create, explore and fail as much as you want. With have nothing to fear but a re-write.

OK, the blue prints have been drawn up, now you’re moving into the construction phase. And when you go to build a house you don’t just start laying brick, you think about the design.

Design your film.

Film is a visual media. Don’t leave the design element of you film to the last minute, or as many people do, leave it out all together. Think about how the film will look. Storyboarding will save time later on. So when you arrive on set you have a clear idea of what to do.

Some people don’t storyboard, I do and I don’t, depending on time. One thing I always do is to visualize the film. I will go the locations, as many as possible, as often as possible, before the shoot and I will stand there, quietly, for a time and watch the scene play out in my head and in the environment in front of me. So when I arrive back there, this time to a full cast and crew, I’ve already seen the scene happen. My job now is to communicate that to everyone as clear as I can so they see it too.

It’s also a useful exercise as a stress reducer. As well as highly creative places, film sets are also highly stressful places. You will always be up against time. As the director you will always have someone asking you questions and looking for answers. From where do I put the lights, what lens do you want, what is my motivation, when’s lunch?! Anything you can do beforehand to reduce that you should.

What visualising will give you when everything is noisy is a quiet place in your mind to go. A place where all this has already happened and when you can close your eyes you see it clearly. It’s a tool for you toolbox.

Elevate your film.

Back to design. You need to elevate your film wherever you can. When working on a zero or low budget you need to grab production value wherever and however you can. One easy way to do it is location choice.

Instead of shooting that conversation in a back garden, in front of a wall, in a boring estate, ask yourself if you can take it somewhere else. Put a backdrop behind it - a railway bridge, mountains, a cityscape. It adds a cinematic element to the scene.

I offered advice to a filmmaker friend. He had a scene in a café between two estranged siblings. The café didn’t seem to have meaning beyond a meeting place. I suggested shooting the scene in a playground. Suggesting that it was perhaps a place of happier time for them. Picking that place the character of the brother is hoping to bring his sister back to a better place. I suggested that they have their conversation on the swings, moving back and forth, out of sync, suggesting that they’re not in step with each other anymore.

The environment can add to your story, and again, it’s free, so use it.

Dress the set.

So often I see low budget films, poorly lit, with scene’s in cream painted living rooms and a large DVD collection in the background. It just says to me – This is the filmmakers apartment. This filmmaker didn’t think about the character, and it takes me out of the film.

It can be as simple as painting the walls and moving the dvd collection. Gathering some props. It’s all part of the story. You’re telling the story of your character’s life in the set dressing.

Don’t just shoot the film in your own house. Ask yourself, “Is my house the character’s house? Does it fit him? Or am I doing it for because it’s convenient?” Don’t be convenient. It will hurt the look of your film. Push yourself.

Always ask “Is this the best I can do?” If the answer is no, then do better.


When the script is ready and you want to start putting it together. The script is your main asset here. If the script is good, people will want to help you. I would begin with a crew.


Use people you know and trust. They don't have to be professionals. But the should be good and the should know what they’re doing. People who don’t know what they’re doing will harm your film.

For example, if you have a camera man who doesn’t know how to frame a shot, is constantly panning the camera back and forth, zooming in and out the middle of dialogue scenes, basically committing every sin in the book, it doesn’t matter how good the performances are, you’re going to end up with bad footage that wont cut together without distracting from that performance. Pick a good camera man.

A good sound recordist is essential. Sound is KEY, especially at this level, you can get away with a lot visually, but if you have bad sound - your film is ruined! The rest of the crew will come as you move forward.

I would suggest keeping it to a skeleton crew, about 8 people. At this level, everyone's going to be pitching in and doing multiple jobs anyway. But I would say some important jobs (aside from camera and sound) would be Continuity, you really need to have someone paying attention, taking notes and pictures, because if you're shooting out of sequence it can very quickly get out of hand. An Assistant Director or 1st AD, someone to watch the clock, keep things moving and make sure everything and everyone are in the right place at the right time, someone who can take away the distractions and allow you to concentrate on directing and be creative.

You’ll also need a good Gaffer (a handy man who knows carpentry and electrics) a Make-up artist. A Runner is a handy person to have, someone who can run off and grab a missing prop, or get the lunches etc.


Then begin to cast. You may know some actors already? Do any suit the parts? Maybe friends or colleagues have worked with actors they like? Meet with them, tell them about your script, see if you like them and could work with them. Make sure you see their work too.

A mistake you don’t want to make is getting someone just because they've said yes. This goes for crew too. If they're bad it will damage your film and make it less believable. It will also be a nightmare to edit. You still need good people. You still need to do the best job you can, even if it is on a tiny budget and even if everyone has agreed to work for free and/or on deferral contracts (where you agree to pay them the daily minimum at least if and after the film goes into profit).


Schedule your days realistically. I would suggest starting with breaking your script up into locations, even if in a house - shoot in one place until you have all the shots are got and then move on to the next location. It's easier and less time consuming that way. (Unless of course you're going handheld and following people in and out of rooms, it doesn't apply then) 

If people are working for free, try to keep the shoot short, a week, two weeks max. If people are giving up their time their probably making financial sacrifices or passing up other opportunities, be conscious of that - but don't let it distract you, again, if they're committing to you then they've made their choice. But it's only fair that you don't ask too much of people, you might lose some good will otherwise. Ways around this if you're running over is to pull people aside and let them know what's going on, keeping people informed helps more then you think it will, or paying them, even if it's a small amount.


Speaking of budget, if you want to shoot an independent short film, or even feature, you can do a lot with goodwill (people giving their time for free) - couple of things to remember, if people are working for free talk to them, let them know what's going on, let them know they are appreciated and thank them for their time. But don't let them get away with not working. If they are going to commit to helping then they need to help and not hinder! You can do this nicely and easily with a speech at the start of pre-production and again at the start of principal photography - something to the effect of "Thanks for coming, you're appreciated, but we have a tough week ahead and I need everyone to help me make a film we can all be proud of..." kind of thing. If someone is taking the piss and just getting in the way don't be afraid to ask them to leave.

Feed people!!!

Very important. In your budget make sure you have money to feed people, it's only fair! A well fed cast and crew are a happy cast and crew. A table with plenty of snacks, cookies, bars, plenty of fruit and sandwich making stuff, lots of water and tea and coffee. And one hot meal a day. Perhaps making soup available daily too. You can tell them there will be food, snacks and a hot meal, but perhaps suggest getting breakfast before they come and having dinner at home. Save yourself some cash.


1. Community fundraiser.

Have a fundraiser where you live. Find a venue, put on a comedy, rock, music night, table quiz night. Charge people a small amount at the door €5 or €10, and then sell raffle tickets while the entertainment is going on to win sponsored prizes (you'll have to have local businesses donate prizes, this is also easier then you think... you will get people who will rudely dismiss you, which is humiliating, but you'll get more people who'll gladly help) I made €1000 for a short by doing this.

2. Auction.

Do you have artist friends? Do you know prominent artist? Have them donate work, set a reserve, which they get (if sold) and agree that you get the profit of the whatever is sold (some may even give you all the money) Go to a local gallery, art centre, something like that and ask them if you could host the night there, put on some wine and a light buffet. 

note: You will have to spend some money to do this. The old Spend money to make money. You will also have to do a lot of leg work to get people in the doors. Advertise. Posters. Try and get on local radio. People are also pretty good about sponsoring this stuff, just ask, the worst they can do is say no.

3. Online Crowdfunding

This is becoming increasingly popular. I've used it twice with great success, on two films, 140 and Derelict (my current film) Kickstarter is an American site and only available to American users, for now, but you should have a look at the pitch videos and other projects just to see how people put them together and how they pitch them. IndieGoGo is similar site you can sign up to from anywhere ( in Ireland). And I believe there are others out there now.

Again, you have to push it and put the leg work in, no one's just going to just show up out of the blue and give you cash, you have to shout about it, get on facebook, twitter - It doesn't matter if you hate those sites, you want people to get behind the project you have to let them know about it and social networking is the best way to do that. We’re in the age of digital media and social network, it’s only an advantage to the independent filmmaker, use it… again – It’s Free!!!

You will need some cash, for food, some equipment rental, travel expenses, insurance and things that will inevitable pop up during the shoot. But you can make a film for next to nothing if you're clever and tenacious enough. You can get a descent short for €2000 if you want to put a little cash in to be sure. Don’t be a afraid to ask for things, for sponsorship, for free stuff, water, food, equipment, you never know what you might get.

With regard to equipment, lights, cameras, all you may need - get in touch with a local rental house, tell them what you're doing and ask if there is a way they can help, either by giving you a discount or by lending stuff for free off season, often places will do this, if they're cool they'd rather help out a young filmmaker then see the stuff lying there. After all, you may be a very good future customer and you're going to go to the place that helped you out first!

Don't let money stop you from making a film.

If you want to make a film, you should. If you believe in it and start it, the money will come. Often, when people put money into a project it's not because the believe in the project so much, it's that they believe in you, and like to see people doing something creative and positive. So go do it, start it and it will happen.

It's a tough road, no question about that, and at some point you will ask yourself why you started it, I still do! But it is also very rewarding, and once you've made this film you're just going to want to get onto the next one.

Here’s a 10 point breakdown:

1. Get the script right.
2. Get people you know and trust involved early on.
3. Get a good cast.
4. Makes Sure people are committed.
5. Raise some funds, but don't worry too much about it.
6. Schedule you film.
7. Set a Date! Move toward it.
8. Feed people.
9. Communicate with people.
10. When directing, be assertive, be confident, be sure and put yourself in the centre of the room. You're the leader. You're the reason everyone's here. Remember that. 

Two bonus points:
a. Be nice to people.
b. Put some money aside for the wrap party!!!

Hope that helps you somewhat! As I said at the start, everyone’s journey is different so you may find your own ways of doing things. Tap every resource you have, you’ll get there.

Three books you should read to: 

1. Writing: Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger

2. Prep: Producing With Passion: Making Films That Change The World by Dorothy Fadiman and Tony Levelle (which is about making documentaries but so much of how to get a film up and running applies).

3. Production: Digital Filmmaking by Mike Figgis 

Three of the best books I’ve read on how to make a film, because they’re practical, simple, constructive and inspirational.

So go on, go make a film, send it to me when you’re done! And don’t forget to enjoy yourself! You’re living your dream after all.

Additional note: When looking for funding go to you local Council, they usually have an arts fund, ask about it. Some other organisations you may not expect may also have arts or education funds, some charities do, ask around, you might be surprised what you find. Look under every stone. And I would say, by all means go to the Arts Council and the Irish Film Board, but don’t rely on getting funded, and don’t let it delay you. And if and when you get rejected, don’t be disheartened, make your film anyway. Everyone of my films were rejected, but I made them and had success with them and they found an audience.

You still here… why aren’t you writing?

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