DSR - The Script - Pt 1 (how to write a microbudget feature)

If this story begins with a downer, keep with it – it gets better.  In fact, it ends with a feature film – which is about as good an ending as you can get.

Good - you kept reading.  And it's worth it - I hope, as I'll start to lay out the process we went through in order to arrive at a script that was 'microbudget ready'.

Christmas 2012 into New Year 2013.  I’m visiting my parents in Somerset, having come down from London - where I currently live in what can best be described as a legal squat.  With a dozen other people, I’m a ‘property guardian’ living in an old office block with no heating.  We’re there to stop it being squatted - because nobody wants a bunch of people living in an office block with no heating.

By this point in my work life (I can’t use the word career to describe something so unstable), I’ve been freelancing for 10 years and rate pretty strongly as an underachieving high-achiever.  I’m doing work that’s ‘in the industry’, but I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time not doing the thing I tell everyone I want to be doing: directing films.

I’ve written a half dozen shorts – and directed that many or more (though I haven’t written all the shorts I’ve directed, and I haven’t directed all the shorts I’ve written… if you follow me).  I’ve given up entering films for festivals (one success – ‘Audience Award’ at a festival run by a friend), and am confident I hold the record for most unsuccessful applications to funding bodies (The Digital Shorts scheme alone has by this point shortlisted me five times… Shortlisted, but no cigar). 

After living for a period in a house with no internet and no TV, I’ve written four feature length scripts.  I’ve intended to make every single one of them, but haven’t got round to it.  There are a thousand barriers that get in the way of the production of each one – but if I’m honest, all of those can be surmounted.  The main barrier is me not getting off my ass and going for it.

I’ve read almost every book going on screenwriting.  I’m searching for the one that will do all the work for me.  It turns out, most of them are horseshit.  William Goldman – great.  Everything else – not so great. 

So there I am, Christmas 2012, about to crack the spine on just one more screenwriting manual.  'Save The Cat'.  I was embarrassed at myself for buying it.  Now, I’m embarrassed at myself for reading it.

And worst of all, I’m embarrassed at myself for using it. 

It was written by the man who penned ‘Stop! Or my Mom will shoot!’.   The book has been wildly popular, but most of it is rubbish.  BUT – and this is a but so huge I expect Paper Magazine to be on the phone soon (ahem…) – amongst all the crap there is some stuff that’s actually useful.  So, for the first time I start structuring my script in as detailed a fashion as possible.  By the time I head back to London, I’ve got thirty or more pages of notes, and a basic structure thrashed out.

Back in the derelict refrigerator I call home, I start pinning note-cards to a pin board.  I rescued this board from another room in the building when I first moved in.  (For ‘rescued’ read ‘removed with a screwdriver’).   I move cards around, add new ones – and gradually the plot solidifies and strengthens.

And so, at the start of 2013 – with 50 or so pieces of card spelling out the story in the minutest detail – I bash out the first draft of a new feature script in about 4 or 5 days flat. 

And the difference with this one?  Anything I think I can’t get done myself (locations, action set-pieces, props) doesn’t make it onto the page.  I’ve written a script that is actually achievable.  By me.  For barely any money.  (NB - made easier when you have a camera and can shoot your own stuff).

I’ve talked in the ‘A Little Background…’ post about my rules.   I’ll repeat them now: 

Rule 1) It has to keep people entertained for roughly 90 minutes. 
Rule 2) Write it for locations that you know and can actually access.
Rule 3) Think of the budget and keep it lean – in particular, limit the number of characters.

Rule 1 came after watching far too many short films that obviously meant a great deal to the writer/director, but very little to me.  If you want to make more than one film, it's probably a good idea to set out to engage an audience.  That can't be a radical idea, surely..?

Rule 2 should be common sense.  It's a Corman staple - make use of what's already there.

Rule 3 is a difficult one to stick to, but it has to be done.  Every time you write 'Ext. Night' on the page, you're making life difficult for yourself and putting one extra barrier in the way to getting it made.  I know this, because I set far too many scenes at night, dusk, dawn... Every time of day that could possibly be a pain in the ass to film.  I got it done, but through luck as much as design.

And so, by (mostly) following these rules, DON’T. STOP. RUNNING. was born.  The title itself came later – on the escalator leaving Waterloo Station on the way to the BFI – where I like to sit in the cafe and imagine that I’m there in some official capacity.

DON'T. STOP. RUNNING is an adventure story - with two main characters, filmed almost entirely in the West Country (primarily Somerset), which is where I’m from.  At this early stage I knew that if I could get the script in shape, I could get this made for very little money.  I’ve worked a lot in the area, and can pull in lots of resources.  I have friends there that will help me crew it.   I know the landscape.  Because it's nearly all set outside, I planned to film in the summer.  I was, as much as possible, keeping to my three main rules. (Rule 1 was easy - it features a wooden leg and a man with an eyepatch.  Nothing is more entertaining than this combination).

Now, having made one, I feel confident in saying that if you're making a microbudget, you HAVE to make use of whatever you've got readily available to you.  It's not a great idea to write the script, then try to retrofit it as 'microbudget ready'.  For me, what was most readily available was countryside.  I planned every scene carefully (more on this in a later post), and almost everywhere we shot was within a 30 minute drive of my parent's house (which we used as the base).  For you, it might be a tower block, a launderette, a campervan... If you've got somewhere that you can use as a film location, use it - it'll make your life a little easier and help turn the film into a reality.  There's no point daydreaming of scenes that require incredible mountain vistas if you live in Lincoln, or futuristic urban landscapes if you live in Devon.  If you're a filmmaker you've got more than one story inside you - you can write that epic western once you've proved yourself with a microbudget.  For now, concentrate on getting something made by making use of what's around you.

So, those rules again:

1) Keep it entertaining.
2) Keep it to locations you know.
3) Keep it lean and 'microbudget ready'.

In the next post, I’ll start looking at the script itself – and the loooooong journey it went through from Draft A1, to Draft T7 (my own, completely erratic, numbering system).  I'll talk about feedback, my writing process, and the battle to keep that title.

Alex.

Read the first 16 pages of the script.