Writing screenplays for the zero budget filmmaker

If you’re a filmmaking hobbyist like my friends and I are, then maybe I can help save you about 52,000 headaches on your next project. Even with modern consumer-level equipment being so powerful and complex, not many people have the technical know-how to use CGI to create a realistic explosion of the Taj Mahal. The rule of thumb is really simple: only write what you can reasonably film.

When my friends and I began filming our ideas for skits, we hadn’t even gotten to a level of sophistication that required a screenplay. For our two-minute short called “Kung Fu Tennis,” we just came up with the idea and decided to go to the tennis courts at a local school and film. This was the first time that we ran into the perils of location shooting. It rained that day. For our intentions, playing tennis in the rain was even funnier, so it didn’t cause a problem, but we did experience the other big problem of guerilla filmmaking on location. The public.

Skaters have been making videos of themselves skating in public places for years, and they have always been hassled by property owners and cops. Long ago, the general public decided that skaters are strange cousins to outlaw bikers, and as such they needed to be kept away from the squares. Not in my backyard is the general approach to a group of teens trying to film someone kickflipping over some stairs.

Something slightly different but similar happens to people trying to film something narrative in public. Even if it’s just two guys talking on a park bench and a third person pointing a camera at them, people want to find out what’s happening. If they come sniffing around, they can either ruin your shot, ask a bunch of uncomfortable questions, hang around the whole time or decide they have a stake in this public area and tell you to get lost; “you’re not allowed to film here.” I don’t know what the magical power of a camera is, but people come running if they see one. Maybe it’s because all of us are trained from early on to smile and be happy if a camera is pointing at us. Anyway, it’s going to happen when you film in public, and the busier a place is the bigger the problem. Filming in an isolated corner of a public park might not be so bad, but if you’re trying to get a walking shot downtown, you’ve added the problem of crazy people hassling you. Crazy people will not leave you alone when filming, even after giving them a cigarette, a dollar and a candy bar.

We learned this lesson fast. By the time we had learned the screenwriting format and began writing our stories down, we knew not to try filming on busy streets or anything like that. If absolutely necessary, you can shoot something fast in a public place and film it as inconspicuously as possible. Stand across the street with your camera held waste-high and film your actor hitchhiking for two minutes. Get what you need and get out. Other than that, it’s best to write screenplays in which the setting is a place that you can get ahold of and keep control of. As we continued filming shorts, we began to write things in a way that we could shoot easily. Two people in our merry band of miscreants lived in houses back then, and those became our sound stages. Outdoor shot were filmed in the backyards. Necessity is the mother of invention in story telling as well.

I remember seeing Quentin Tarantino explain his storytelling process once and he gave an example like this: a man runs out of a bank holding a bag of cash; he runs like a rabid animal toward a waiting getaway car; suddenly sirens can be heard and the car takes off without him; he’s nervous as hell and approaches another car stopped at a red light; he waves his gun in the drivers face and pulls the driver out; the bank robber gets in the car feeling safe at last only to discover that this car is a stick shift and he doesn’t know how to drive it. In his example, Tarantino is explaining how to get characters into a sticky situation that can grab the audience’s attention. This same approach can be used when considering your limited locations.

Let’s say you want to film two businessmen arguing. It might be easy for you to film in the conference room at work, so by all means, go for it. But if you can’t film in the office after hours, you can keep the story but totally screw around with the setting. How about having the two businessmen arguing on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere while standing next to a car with the hazards on and the hood up? You can give the backstory on how they got there or not. Either way, it can be more interesting than having the scene take place where the audience is expecting it to happen. Instead of Tarantino’s use of circumstance as a tool, we’re using location. It can be fun. Just sitting here thinking about this concept is fun. I just imagined a dentist working on someone’s teeth in a suburban garage. How cool could that be?

When the time came for us to make “The Karaoke Brothers,” our first feature-length project, we knew we were in for some difficult times. A short film can be cobbled together by shooting in different rooms in the same house fairly easily. But you just can’t do it for a 90 minute long movie; or at least we weren’t smart enough to write a story that could keep a viewer’s attention for 90 minutes while being set in one or two rooms. This is, once again, where friends are the most important part of low-budg filmmaking.

One friend of ours lived in a guest house at his grandfather’s ranch in the desert. This was an isolated area with few neighbors. Okay, we thought, this is where most of the action has to occur. We found so many ways to make all of this work for us. In our story, two brothers want to become famous karaoke singers. It would have been fun to have them practicing their song and dance routing in a garage with a bunch of full-length mirrors, but why not have the two characters do their practice on a huge bolder overlooking a desert valley? Location became a character in our film in a way that, I think, makes “The Karaoke Brothers” stand out and show it’s uniqueness.

We tried to keep the locations in our screenplay as simple and as manageable as possible, but we ended up absolutely needing a fast-food chain restaurant and a dingy dive bar. Those are pretty tall orders for no money. One night we were all at a bar seeing a band that was passing through town. We all were saying “wouldn’t it be great to shoot the barroom scenes here?” One of us asked the bartender about it and she said she’d ask the owner. The owner said yes, we could shoot there, if we paid a bartender to be there while we did it, and paid something extra for running the air conditioner. So for about $100 we were able to shoot all of our scenes at the bar. But the trick was, we didn’t have the time or money to shoot the action on the stage that the characters at the bar were supposed to be watching. For all of the stage scenes, we filmed at a stage in a topless bar that a crewmember’s family owned. So in the finished film, scenes in the bar are actually shot in two different bars over the course of months. The same crewmember who had ties to the titty bar also knew the owner of a mom-and-pop chinese food restaurant. We were given permission to shoot there for one whole day. We did our best to dress the set up as a fast food joint. It wasn’t perfect, so we changed the screenplay from action happening at the cash register to action happening at a kitchen window overlooking the dining room. Piece of cake.

I could go on and on about this subject, but suffice it to say that you should stick to writing things that you can shoot. Budding filmmakers should probably stay away from a car chase around the grounds of the Taj Mahal, at the end of which an alien space craft uses a laser to blow up the entire building. But, you could race golf carts around a few holes on a course, at the end of which a teenager throws an m-80 at one of the characters in a golf cart. Maybe we can’t give any advice to anyone who’s trying to write and film their magnum opus.

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