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18 September 2018
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The art of the possible

Michael Brindley on writing the low-budget feature and the six Cs: concept, collaboration, control, cast, containment, cost.

Writing the low-budget feature presents the scriptwriter with all the usual craft and content problems of any feature film script, with the added dimension of working within clearly defined budget parameters. Too many scriptwriters and/or first time directors have little knowledge of production realities, crew functions and what things cost. The challenge is to think imaginatively within budget constraints, rather than compromising a bigger-budget idea, and to provide the audience with a genuinely cinematic experience on the story's own terms, rather than television on a big screen.

The following article is an edited and updated version of Michael Brindley's speech 'Writing the Low-budget Feature', a dialogue which originally appeared in Low Means Low (a collection of papers from the Low-budget Feature Seminar, published by the Australian Film Commission in 1996 and edited by Philippa Bateman and Catherine Knapman).

Writing the low-budget feature? A pretty silly idea. Everyone knows that low-budget features aren't really written; they don't have or need writers. They scarcely need a script. They have directors or the heroic hyphenate - writer-directors. Fortunately for us, some directors, the real auteurs, are also very good writers, although not as many as some people seem to think, or choose to remember.

I speak here as a mere screenwriter. Someone who is hired to do the typing for creative producers and directors - Producers and Directors who have a 'vision' but are too busy, or too gregarious, or too lazy to do it themselves. As Irving Thalberg put it: 'The writer is a necessary evil.'

What I want to emphasise in this article, however, applies whether there is a writer involved or whether the script comes whole and perfect from the director.

A good low-budget feature begins as a good low-budget idea. In 1915 the Russian filmmaker Pudovkin wrote in his book Film Technique and Film Acting: 'In order to write a scenario suitable for filming, one must know the methods by which the spectator can be influenced from the screen.'

Now if you're a genius don't worry about the following - just proceed on instinct. For the rest of us, let's assume we have a story, that we are writing a proposal for a work of cinematic art which does not yet exist. This means knowing, or at least thinking about, things like:

  • What are the artistic resources at the big screen filmmaker's command?
  • And in this context, what do they cost?
  • What is necessary to give the audience a 'cinematic experience'?
  • And in this context, how are these things achieved, and can your production afford them?

I emphasise thinking cinematically and 'realistically' because we are talking here about low-budget features, not about telemovies, nor television programs, nor docu-dramas, nor filmed theatre.

So, what are the 'resources' available to the big screen storyteller?

An image as an image on a big screen simply has more emotional power and information and resonance than an image on a small screen. A movie image can stand for more than itself. Movies then can afford to state or assert more and explain less. Movies are a visual medium, even if the dialogue never stops for a breath. Silence can be immensely powerful in a movie.

Because of the power of the images, the location setting or milieu can be a character in the drama. In a movie the locale works for the narrative. It need not be exotic or bizarre - it may indeed be strikingly ordinary - but in a movie it will speak. If you want it to.

But perhaps the most powerful resource for the big screen filmmaker, dependent on the power of your images, is mise en scene - a way of roughly saying what and where in the image everything is in relation to everything else. Mise en scene isn't just directed; it is imagined and it is written. A scene plays on the screen because it has been imagined and written in a particular way.

An acknowledgment of mise en scene is an acknowledgement of the emotional power of composition and spatial relations on the big screen, and the power of image size:
  • What are the distances between the characters?
  • What are the distances between the characters and the camera?
  • The distances between characters and their objectives?
  • Who is in the foreground, who is in the background?
  • Is a character filmed leaving a space, diminishing the image size - and thus in moral force - or held constant in a tracking shot, maintaining power and making us identify?
Now all this sounds as if I am not talking about writing at all but about Direction. And screenwriters as screenwriters might find all this stuff about locations and mise en scene as boring and tedious as they claim to find camera equipment, budgets and production management. Not their business.

What I am suggesting here, however, is that with the low-budget feature - working within financial restraints, which means working under looming compromise - it is to the screenwriter's benefit to think and write cinematically (and in the real world) about the 'art of the possible'. A writer-director I assume is thinking about such things all the time.

It is silly and self-defeating to have an idea and then think about how it can be achieved on the cheap. Much better that a knowledge of Direction and of Production informs the choice of subject, enabling that subject to be fully realised rather than fudged, compromised - and not a movie.

A low-budget feature script may have the usual craft problems of any screenplay at any level of budget, but the low-budget feature also presents its own particular problems. Many successful low-budget features, probably for budget reasons, have no subplot, eg Memento and The Business of Strangers. And since they don't, how do you maintain narrative drive with just one set of characters?

And what sort of dialogue are you going to write? Especially when, with a low-budget feature, there's likely to be more dialogue than action. 'Dialogue-aphobia' is rampant among decision-making script readers. A powerful anxiety seems to overtake people because they think it's going to be too 'static' or too 'talky'.

The question about screen dialogue has to be: no matter how much of it there is, does it play?
  • Does it hold? And if it does, what does it matter if a scene is seven or 10 or 15 pages long?
  • Is it screen dialogue or theatre dialogue?
  • Does it have dynamic in the dramatic present?
  • Does it leave the audience feeling they've been told rather than shown?
  • Is the exposition motivated by the characters or just the need to tell the audience what you think they need to know?
Especially with the low-budget feature, collaboration between writer, director, DOP and designer needs to start from as informed a position as possible, as early as possible.

But if it is a director's medium, then writer and director should work together from the start, recognising each other's contribution.

Collaboration will involve questions like:
  • What locations are we going to use? The writer and the director should look at them so as to use them well and make what happens fit.
  • What are the characters wearing?
  • Are out of town locations really necessary? But with out of town locations, remember, you can shoot for six days, whereas in the city you can only shoot for five.
  • Who thought of that on a one million dollar budget? The writer, the director and the DOP might talk about night exteriors and how much time they take, and about dialogue in travelling cars.
  • Are stunts and special effects out of the question?
  • Are they essential? Is there enough money in the budget for them to be totally convincing?
  • Is there a way to create the illusion of a car crash, for instance, so that the audience - thanks to a style you established in the first few minutes - won't feel deprived because they haven't seen it? Maybe they'll even feel included in your low-budget joke - like not seeing the robbery in Reservoir Dogs.
Without collaboration, which involves awareness and understanding of budgetary restrictions, we either compromise an idea that requires a bigger budget for its proper realisation - and we end up making a movie instead of the movie we wanted - or we are paralysed and depressed, oppressed by an anxiety borne of ignorance, which makes us think so carefully, so small and so cheap that the thing isn't worth doing.

On the other hand, the lower the budget, the lower the risk, and the smaller - or, in Australia, the more specific - the committee of Nervous Nellie's and self-styled experts we have to please. As Steven Sodebergh said of sex, lies and videotape: 'If it had cost more, they would never have let us do it the way we did.'

Teams rather than hierarchies make low-budget features, which does not mean there is no team leader. Low-budget means everyone involved should be working on the same movie. How does the writer 'see' the scene? How does the director intend to realise it? The restrictions of a low budget aren't the end of the world if we see them as a challenge rather than a straight jacket. The Australian films The Finished People and Mallboy are good examples of successful collaboration within a tight budget.
The idea of collaboration leads to the idea of Control. The cheapest essential element in the making of a movie is thinking. Thinking on what the movie is about and why are you telling this story anyway? And how are you going to put that on the screen? Your low budget inevitably means a very low margin for error and a low contingency or maybe none.

If the script doesn't provide enough wet weather cover and it rains for a week, you're stuffed. If a key location is only available for one day and you don't get what you need there, you're stuffed. What are you doing, anyway, writing for a location which only gives one day's shooting? Why didn't somebody mention this to the writer? If the ambient noise on a location means that extensive dialogue needs post-syncing and you can't afford to call the cast back, you're stuffed again.

Things always go wrong when making movies. A particularly gloomy director once described the process to me as 'one long compromise'. The idea is to minimise what can go wrong - because you just ain't got the dough to fix it. Does this mean playing it safe? Well, yes. It means being very clever about what you want to say and pre-planning how you're going to say it.

Two illusions conflict with this rigid, tight-arsed idea of control:
  • The first is the illusion that 'there's always more money'. I actually heard an art director say this when he was about $25,000 over his budget. There wasn't any more, of course, which the producer pointed out. We had to rewrite the script to accommodate the fact that half the set - for the movie's climax - just could not be built.
  • The second is the romantic one of spontaneity - the filmmaking of improvisation, of 'winging it' and 'it'll be right on the night'. Sorry, kids. Kurosawa, with a 12-month shoot, three cameras and a ratio of 70:1, could fool around. You can't. Get it right or cut it.
It's never just a matter of 'whether they can act'. In a movie it's also very much a matter of how they look. Casting can and does supply 60 per cent or more of screen character. Low-budget does not mean - cannot mean - compromising on cast.

With a low-budget feature, with its likely emphasis on character rather than action sequences and a greater reliance on dialogue, chances are there will be far more burden on performance than with a bigger-budget picture. With minimal or zero special effects or stunts and probably a contemporary setting, performance becomes 'naked'. There's nothing 'between' the actors' performance and the audience. The Tracker, Thirteen and Raising Victor Vargas are good examples of low-budget features with strong performances based on excellent written dialogue.

All this might seem none of the writer's concern but I double back to collaboration. I'm talking about a team that talks to each other. If there is a writer, it'll help her or him immeasurably to know for whom they are writing. Not just for the pictures that they imagine in their heads, but to maximise and capitalise on the actor's persona.
It's often forgotten, particularly by writers, that every move on a shoot costs time, which on a low-budget feature could be better spent on achieving a cinematic feel or performance. If you can find location A so that location B is literally around the corner, but looks like somewhere completely different, good. That's clever low-budget filmmaking. The Business of Strangers, Tape and Life all use this strategy effectively.

But the low-budget feature generally has to find other means to compensate for what could be a lack of visual variety.
There is no successful low-budget feature without a striking idea at its heart, driving its narrative, shaping its interesting characters' interactions - and the characters are interesting because of the idea which drives them.

The trap is that our concept may be merely gimmicky and empty. A hook is essential but needs some substance to back it up. The hook is the promise - then you've got to keep it.

The second trap is making the sort of movie that's no fun. I'm talking about the movie you should see but don't really want to. It's the merely 'worthy', the finger wagging didactic or social worker concept - as if subject matter alone justifies your storytelling. It'll be about an injustice, an oppressed minority, a particular ethnic group, the environment, where all your purpose is to say 'isn't it awful?' Any subject matter is OK, and if you can reach people with what needs to be said, all power to you. But give it a spin, say something about it and make it fun. As, for instance, Hanif Kureishi did with the low-budget My Beautiful Laundrette and Steven Knight did recently with Dirty Pretty Things.

Another trap which relates to the merely worthy is the merely true. That's the movie that defends itself along the lines of 'but it's true!' to which the answer is 'yes, but who cares?'

Which brings me, finally, to Cost, the last of my six Cs.
With sources of finance for low-budget features pretty restricted in Australia, you may ask how all this relates to writing the low-budget feature.

It relates on the level of content. When investment from government bodies is essential, filmmakers spend a great deal of time trying to second-guess the decision makers. What do 'they' want?

It's a question that has to be asked when you sit down with your collaborators to tell them about your idea for a low-budget feature - because simply, or naively, thinking you might just have a good story to tell and writing it well is no guarantee of anything. Nor will it be a matter of your script being merely well written or well crafted or having believable characters.

There are fashions in content and fashions in filmmakers and now, here in Oz, with our eager-to-please film culture, we have fashions cemented in place by a run of marketplace successes from Strictly Ballroom to The Castle and The Wog Boy. Sadly what we seem to seek to repeat is the style of the success and not its substance.

What matters above all else with a low-budget feature is CONTENT, which brings us back to CONCEPT. Perhaps we've become a bit boxed-in, not only in our thinking about acceptable budget levels, but also in our choice of concept.

Low-budget features succeed with audiences all the time, audiences tired of big, empty, character-less formula pix. This genre can succeed because of its very inventiveness with very little. With a paucity of means, it engages the audience with the richness of its characters and its ideas. When it does, it is the result of a focused, unified vision - clarity, indeed, about life. And that begins with the script, a script conceived and written for the big screen with, and not in conflict with, an awareness of budget restrictions: the art of the possible. Cheap doesn't mean nasty and a lack of resources doesn't mean thin.

Low-budget features to hire on DVD before you start writing your script: Alexandra's Project, The Business of Strangers, Dirty Pretty Things, The Finished People, High Art, Italian for Beginners, Life, Mallboy, Memento, Mullet, My Beautiful Laundrette, Pi, Raising Victor Vargas, Reservoir Dogs, Tape, Thirteen, The Tracker, Trust, The Unbelievable Truth.

  • Michael Brindley's major writing credits include the award-winning feature film Shame, which was invited to NY's MOMA 'New Directors, New Films' season and achieved worldwide distribution. Other credits include the top-rating telemovie One Way Ticket and the mini-series Half A World Away, Police Rescue, Prisoner and A Country Practice. He has most recently been writer and series script editor on award-winning series Grass Roots and associate producer on MDA - Medical Defence Australia, which won three AFI awards, including Best Television Drama. Michael received the AWG Award for Script Editing and has devised and taught screenwriting courses for AFTRS, RMIT, La Trobe University, Melbourne University Summer School and the NZ Film Commission's New Writers' Training Scheme. He was most recently an adviser on the AFC's SPARK.