In my first TV job I wanted to write about gang warfare. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford the gangs. Even the most cashed-up producer likes the idea of saving money, and many independent filmmakers have little or no money in the first place. Think about the hidden cost of scenes and be ingenious in finding ways to save money while never sacrificing the story value of scenes. Hard sometimes, but you will be loved...
1. Parked cars
A car driving up and stopping in front of a house can take a long while to set up and shoot, but often adds nothing to story or characterisation. In fact, because it adds nothing, it can even slow the film right down. Why not open your scene on the car already stopped in front of the house? You’ll probably lose zero in terms of plot and character, but actually add pace and, most importantly, have money in hand to spend on your important scenes. Always think very seriously about budget when you are planning scenes. Scenes must always enrich a flim, either in terms of character or plot or both.
2. Transition scenes
Screenplays with lots of transition scenes that serve no other function than showing a character travelling between one place and another –on foot, in cars, leaving their homes, riding their bikes – are often boring, pointless and, in financial terms, a luxury your producer can’t afford. They can be important, but they’re often redundant and are often cut at some point early in the action. They frequently indicate a writer planning on the run,someone who doesn’t yet know what’s going to happen next or what is and isn’t relevant, so is just including everything they visualise happening. Tight editing of your own work not only saves your producer money but speeds the script along.
3. Condensing and Combining Characters
Every actor has to be paid. Think seriously about reducing character numbers, and remember that the more lines an actor has, the better the actor you’re likely to get. So, if your storyline permits, instead of having three customers in the pet shop, each with one line,try one actor with three lines. Of course,sometimes you’ll need your three actors, but always think of condensing and reducing. Often, less is more.
4. Cut the openings of scenes
You’ll often find you’re able to cut the opening of a scene. The traditional wisdom is that you open on a scene at the last moment before it ceases to make sense. The idea is to add pace. Yes, in a perfect world you should have planned your scene so there is nothing redundant at the start. But it often doesn’t work out like that. Even if you’ve carefully planned, more often than not it will take you a while to settle into the scene. Until then, you’re workshopping the scene, so there is likely to be dialogue and action which is redundant. If so, cut it. Good self-editing can save time in script development, on set and in post-production.
5. Think about the point of the scene
When you have an expensive scene, consider cheaper options. If all you want to show is that your young lovers are in love, do we need to seen them walking through a crowded piazza on market day with a brass band playing and a circus parade passing through? If you’ve got the money, fine. If not, economise. Try to infer the effect or scene through sound or through clever shooting. For example, if you really want the piazza, we don’t have to see the brass band, we could simply hear it. You can get the sense of a busy market by having a tight shot of the couple at one stall, then moving to the stall next to it. That demands only two stalls and two actors as sound effects. Add some piazza sound effects and you’re there. If you’re really strapped for cash, find a pictureque-looking brick wall and put your two actors at a table in front of it.
6. ‘Don’t worry about budget for now, let your imagination run wild...’
I’ve heard producers say this more times than I’ve had hot dinners. They genuinely mean it at the time, but when you arrive back with the script with the blockbuster budget they panic. Return your script with the comment: ‘I’ve kept the budget as tight as I can – I can always spend more if you can get it’. This usually brings a wide smile. All of this said, some writers will disagree and go for costly effects on the basis that it’s the producer’s job to find the money. I suppose it depends on the producer.
Learning how to write to a budget is a very useful skill because you will often have to do it in script development. Also, you’ll often find yourself having to relocate a scene during shooting because of practical difficulties like bad weather or some technical hitch. To start, pinpoint for yourself the precise point of the scene. What are you trying to get out of the scene dramatically, symbolically etc? Then work out a different but hopefully equally-powerful location. Surprisingly often, you’ll find it’s actually better than the original. As a postscript, never, if at all possible, let anyone else do any of these last-minute rewrites. They can be spectacularly awful.