How to Write a Screenplay You Can Afford to Shoot

Dream - and embrace your budget.

“It’s much cheaper to make changes on paper than it is on film.”

One of the most ambitious short film projects I’ve worked on was a 30-minute courtroom dramedy, as the producer.

When I first read the script, which I thought was awesome, I asked the writer (who was also the director) if he intended to actually make it into a film. He said he didn’t, since he couldn’t imagine he’d be able to get a courtroom location, which was integral to the story. I said, “A courtroom is just a logistic, and logistics can be handled.” I made him promise me that if we could find a courtroom, he’d consider making it.

Many months of brainstorming, emailing, and strings-pulling later, we locked our courtroom location! It was a mock courtroom at a law school, and it looked and felt like exactly what we needed. We were thrilled, and our film was a go.

Of course, we ran into other obstacles, one of which was a scene set in a diner at nighttime. As written, the protagonist, a lawyer, meets with his will-be client in the middle of the night to tell him that he’ll take on his case.

Logistically, finding a diner that would let us shoot at night without paying a prohibitively-high location fee proved difficult. Suddenly, this one tiny scene was threatening our ability to pull off the entire shoot! Since we’d already found a courtroom, this seemed ridiculous to me. So I called the writer/director and asked him, “Does this scene have to take place in a diner?”

The scene was important – as was the fact that it was happening late at night, when a meeting didn’t seem logical – but was the diner itself integral to the story? The writer gave it some thought and realized that no, it didn’t need to happen in a diner. The scene needed to happen, but it didn’t need to happen there.

So, we rewrote the scene to take place in our already-secured office location. We shot it dark and devoid of extras, which exuded that empty, middle-of-the-night feeling the scene needed to have. Thematically, the scene didn’t shift much, and we were able to use the new location in some fun and unexpected ways – the sleazy lawyer offered the client someone’s leftover lunch from the fridge, since no one was around to stop him!

When you’re making a movie on a shoestring budget, there are definitely times when your aspirations won’t match your means. Thankfully, if you plan for this in the screenwriting stage and get creative with logistics during pre-production and production, you can achieve a lot. Here, we’ll discuss how to go about writing for a low budget, how you can rewrite to honor your budget, and how you can work some logistical magic to keep the budget down.

A Tale of Two Paths

When you’re in the screenwriting and pre-production phases of a film shoot, there are two ways you can go about developing a concept that’s within your means to produce.

The first path involves writing to your heart’s content and then getting creative in the rewriting process, where you figure out what needs to be changed (and how) in order to make the film affordable. Inevitably, there will be some heartbreak as you’re forced to let go of some ideas, but you’ll also find room for creative exploration and innovation.

The second path involves writing a film you can afford from the very beginning.

I. Write Your Heart Out!

To get your ideas down on paper and keep momentum up, one approach you can take is to include everything you want in your first draft, temporarily setting aside the question of budget and logistics. There are a few reasons you might choose to do this.

  • Writing and producing are different skillsets. That’s not to say that they can’t be possessed by the same person, but even when they are, they represent two distinct processes. Traditionally, a writer dreams. A producer makes that dream happen, figuring things out. When you’re following the muse and knee-deep in your writing, you’re not always thinking on your feet about how to most creatively and affordably pull something off.
  • It can be really demoralizing to constantly be asking yourself, “How am I going to do this?” It’s kind of like there’s someone standing behind you, tapping you on the shoulder every few seconds, questioning your instincts and ideas. It’s annoying, and it can really diminish creative enthusiasm and inspiration.
  • Chances are you’re going to come up with a script that has some elements that need to be rethought or creatively approached when it comes to the producing, but that overall, the vision is attainable.
  • The worst case scenario is that your brain has birthed an epic, wild film with fire-breathing dragons and sweeping battle scenes. If so, then revising just a few elements to make the film affordable won’t exactly be enough to make it producible. All is not lost, however, since you’ve written a really stellar script that shows off your imagination and talents. Hold onto it! Who knows what the future may bring in terms of the feasibility? Plus, it’s a great thing to show off when seeking representation from a manager or an agent. Even if it goes nowhere, you’ve spent time refining your abilities, which is an end unto itself. Writers should never regret or be afraid of spending time honing their craft.

After your draft is written, it’s super important to get organized with what you’ve created, since it’s essentially your to-do list. From a producing standpoint, your screenplay represents a series of challenges you’ve tasked your team with overcoming.

You need to be really honest with yourself, here. Don’t let emotional attachment to your writing get in the way of your logistical assessment. You need to be level-headed about what it’s going to take to stage the action of the script, or else your film will never get off the ground. So, sit down with your draft and dig into the details:

  • Make a list of all of the locations your script includes.
  • Make a list of all of the characters in your script, including extras.
  • Make a list of all of the props, costumes, and other special equipment you’ll need (for example, if you’ve written any blood into the script, you’ll need to make or buy fake blood).

This is a good start, but you should get even more granular. Under locations, identify every scene that’s set there, it’s page count, and whether it takes place during the day or night.

Under characters, note how many scenes each character has and how many pages they’re needed for.

Under props, costumes, and special equipment, do some producing legwork and figure out if you’d need to make or buy each item, or if you might be able to rent it from a local rental shop. Towns that have theatres tend to have costume shops you can rent from, and many bigger cities have prop rental houses.

After you’ve gotten some distance from your write-your-heart-out draft and are ready to start making revisions, assess where you can consolidate and rewrite in order to help keep costs down:

  • Are there some scenes happening in several locations that can happen in just one location?
  • Are there characters who aren’t necessary or otherwise could be combined into one? For example, I once wrote a film in which the protagonist had two siblings, but at second glance, I realized they were serving the same purpose in the story. I ended up rolling the two siblings into one, effectively cutting out an entire character.
  • Are all of the props, costumes, and other special equipment serving your story? If not, can you cut them? A lot of times we write whatever comes to our imaginations, which is great, but we later realize that these first impulses can be tightened and cleaned up.

Of course, serving the story should be your biggest priority during rewrites. When you’re considering changing something in the script for the sake of logistics – as I did with the lawyer film, by moving a scene from a diner to an office – you need to be sure that you’re not compromising the storytelling. Why did the writer feel passionate about including this element in the script? What purpose does it serve, and what simpler, cheaper, or more attainable thing or place might be able to achieve that aim?

Locations, characters, props, costumes, special equipment, and the like all contribute to your costs in different ways. For example, some locations charge fees, plus moving locations takes a lot of time and effort that could protract your shooting schedule. Even if you aren’t planning to pay your cast and crew, you need to provide snacks and meals on set, which can add up the more people you have around. Other gear and visual effects elements will add up, too.

To reiterate, it’s essential for you to be honest with yourself when assessing your script’s feasibility, and that you do any shifting, rewriting, or re-envisioning now while you’re still very much in the planning process. It’s much cheaper to make changes on paper than it is on film. Moreover, you’re more likely to avoid having to make last-minute compromises on set with potentially unforeseen consequences. By calibrating your creative vision to your means, you’re doing what you can to guarantee its integrity in the end result.

II. Write for Your Means

Sometimes it’s worth calibrating your creative vision before you even set pen to paper.

Meaning, you could write a screenplay with the logistics you have available to you. For example, maybe your friend’s family owns a cool beach house, which you know would be available to you to shoot in if you’d like. To take advantage of this opportunity, you could set a story entirely in and around that beach house. Or, maybe you’ve realized that the only way to really get a project made is to keep costs down by shooting on, say, an iPhone. If so, get to know the pros and cons of smartphone cinematography and then develop a concept that maximizes the device’s strengths.

If you’re struggling to dream up a budget-conscious idea, here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Keep your film limited to just one character.
  • Involve only a couple of characters – for example, two friends go on an adventure, or something important happens between a couple.
  • Write a film that takes place solely in one location.
  • Set your story entirely during the day, alleviating a lot of potential lighting equipment needs.
  • Write something that would benefit from a lower production value – for example, a found footage horror film.

Don’t Choose Poorly

As filmmaking technology has evolved, it’s become more affordable. For example, you can get 4K on your iPhone, and there are other more professional cameras suited to indie film budgets.

When it comes to equipment, think about how you can embrace what you have at your disposal. It’s entirely possible to make a movie using the gear you have on-hand. Choose it wisely, finding a fit between story and style!

In Conclusion

It’s important to note that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing with these two paths! You could decide to adhere to a constraint – for example, write a story for a specific location you know you can secure – and then write your heart out in terms of the story that unfolds there.

Ultimately – whether you write your heart out and revise, develop a low-cost concept from the beginning, or do a combination of the two – creating within your means can be a fun creative exercise. In fact, sometimes constraints can inspire our most groundbreaking work. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say!

Don’t look at what you have at your disposal as a handicap. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to problem solve and troubleshoot. I promise you, you’ll be a better filmmaker for it!

 Lauren McGrail, with

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