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The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Microbudget Conversation: Script vs. Story

I have come across many folks who have allowed the completion of a perfect script to derail their entire production. I have also sat through (I’m including my own films here) more films that I can remember in which the filmmakers hoped improv will create something magical. In microbudget the latter is a necessity, in large indie films, it’s risky, and in Hollywood, no one but a select few can pull it off. I recently started a conversation with an Austin filmmaker in the very thick of making her second feature film, What’s the Use (pictured below), and this battle between script and story was on her mind. Nicole Elmer sees these magical moments as not only a micro-udget necessity but a way to create a film that boxes out of it’s weight class. I couldn’t agree more with her stance. In my own experiences I found my earlier films desperately in need of structure, and now they are being strangled by it. That perfect balance is in there somewhere and it may be the secret of making amazing stories for next to nothing.
Scripts as Hindrances vs. Stories as Door Openers
I have sadly watched so many colleagues of mine spending thousands on spec trailers, or short films to attract investors for the feature they want to make. They blow their savings making their “calling cards,” or forever tweak scripts for which they keep trying to raise money. Years pass and their projects remain in limbo or credit card debt amasses. And all the while, they are not doing what they should be doing: making films. Artists only improve by continually working on their craft. If we filmmakers are always chasing dollars, are we granting ourselves the creative stretching we need, or only getting real-world lessons in economics?
Flashback to our youths: lots of us were picking up our parents’ VHS recorders and making movies at home after school, or on weekends. For example, my sister and I made horrible but entertaining horror films when we weren’t suffering through hours at school. We were just teenagers. We were our own two-person crew and cast and had no money. Yet, we made movies. I know I was not the only kid out there doing this. So why has this energetic approach and creative abandon gotten lost as adults?  This is a different topic for a different day, but it has a great deal to do with what I call the Mental Colonialism of Hollywood, brainwashing us to believe we must have epic scripts and gobs of cash to create movies worth watching.
This simply isn’t true anymore. I’d like to say cheaper technology has empowered most of us, but it hasn’t completely. We are still stuck in the first phase of what makes a great film: a good story. And here is where things can get expensive…quickly.

So, this leads me to scripts vs. stories. But first, I should define what I mean by scripts, and what I mean by stories.

With “scripts,” I mean film scripts written by one or more screenwriters based on fictional characters, locations, and plot lines. With “stories” I mean the things happening around you, to you, or to the people you know. Traditional scripts are usually written without budgets in mind, guided by the imagination of the writer(s). However, this often requires a great deal of collective fabrication of locations, sets, costumes, etc. which drives up the budget, making it hard for most independently-minded filmmakers to actually launch their projects. For example, there is a scripted scene where a man proposes to his girlfriend in a restaurant. Sounds simple, right? Okay. The script calls for a restaurant, the costumes the actors wear, the engagement ring, perhaps a bouquet of roses, some background actors in the restaurant, food…and on and on. This “simple” scene suddenly requires resources that must be pulled together for this completely fabricated event. And the budget climbs. It is this phase that has hindered the micro-budget filmmaker. However, stories as they exist around us, with the people we know, in the places we live…or films integrating these elements, become more approachable financially because they are happening already without our manipulation. We don’t have to pay for life to roll out its strange course. We just have to find a way to sneak around it and play with it a bit, and once it’s comfortable with our presence, let us be a voyeur to its intriguing mysteries.
My own experience with this began as such. Having finished my first feature quite recently, after working on it for over three years, my producing partner and I sort of experienced the period of filmmaker limbo I described above. Fearing the future of the film we had just spent so much time and money on, we wondered where the money to create the next film would come. We thought about all the scripts we had written that, while still low budget for most standards, were beyond our financial means without relying on investors, and we felt rather disempowered. Instead of resigning to “keep our chins up” to raise funds, applying for dwindling grant money and filmmaker support programs with 1% acceptance rates, we decided to not wait for money to come. We aren’t being innovators here at all, but we had to take a hard look at the resources around us. We decided to ignore the notion that one has to have an expensive camera to capture a story. We had a small HD camcorder and here in Austin, sound equipment is cheap to rent. We would use the people we knew, including actors and non-actor friends and colleagues. We would shoot in the locations we had available, or make them available through guerrilla methods. We would do it ourselves. We would become the teenage filmmakers once again.
And we would not have a script.
This last part is important. It was a creative choice as much as a budgeting choice. Because of the specificity involved, a script would have required the costly fabrication I mentioned earlier. Instead, the writer created a very basic outline that was broken down into scenes.  Locations were replaceable and everything could be moved as needed, as long as the general symbol of the moment was still expressed. A script would have also forced us to shove dialogue in the actors’ mouths. Instead, we gave the actors their goals, they developed their characters WITH the writer, and we gave them responsibility for their dialogue, a creative choice normally made by a screenwriter.
So with our outline in hand, we started production. By allowing real life to creep in, keeping scenes rather open, and giving actors a lot of collaborative power, some rather interesting things happened along the way that would not have occurred with a more structured script.  The characters began to deepen in ways we had not expected. Elements of the actors’ real lives filtered in. For example, one character who had originally served as a henchman to the antagonist and nothing more, suddenly was also trying to be a bass player in a band, inspired by Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, all while still doing his dirty work.  To express the symbol of personal transition, we decided one of the lead characters should get a shave and a haircut. We found an old barbershop here in Austin that has been around for 40 years and they allowed us to film there. While shooting, the barber spoke of his own life as an ex-marine and insurance salesman. His name was stitched in white thread on his work jacket shirt. He had a tattoo of a goldfish on his inner arm. How does one write characters like this? We’ve also had an obese bus driver show up in a scene. Cyclists have beautifully zoomed past our frame while two actors walked down a bridge. A train moved through once unexpectedly, allowing us to drop everything and film an impromptu moment with an actress almost confronting the train in a suicidal manner. We found a huge foam genie in a dumpster and integrated an abandoned plastic Santa lawn ornament into another scene.  Another actress gave us a rather interesting comedic spiel about Certs mints that had us in stitches. No one on set could have written what came out of her mouth, even if they had wanted to. The financial cost of all of this: zero.
– Nicole Elmer studied acting and film production at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and the University of Texas at Austin. Nicole has produced, directed, and written several films and music videos, but before all this was a solo electronic musician, writing under the names of Neutral and Squab Teen. She shot her first feature film, In the Shadow, in Puerto Rico from 2008-2011 and is currently in post-production for her second feature film, What’s the Use?
I think Nicole brings up a great point for all of filmmaking, not just micro-budget. I recently had the pleasure of watching Tree of Life. Say what you will about this film, but it felt natural, it felt free of cinema convention, and it felt honest. Furthermore it felt unscripted. Perhaps it was scripted down to the letter, and if it was, then Malick is an absurd genius. None of us are Malicks…yet, but understanding how much foundation to have, and how much of the structural design should be left to chance, is the first step in making something wonderful.
We’d never turn down the chance to hear from you, especially microbudget fans and filmmakers. To become part of the conversation please send us your thoughts, responses, and questions.

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