Skip to content

Writing The Low Budget Screenplay

Seems to me there’s two ways of doing this scriptwriting thing:

1) The Sample Route


2) The Making Route.

Writers following Route 1? WRITE A SCRIPT. That’s it. Of course it has to be ace and they have to have a strategy (“TV/ Radio/Film + stacks of networking” in the very least) but the story CAN be anything: high budget, low budget, whatever. The name of the game is IMPRESSING someone with your writing enough to take you on to SOMETHING. People following Route 1 will typically wait a good while before their own ideas are made.

In comparison, writers following Route 2 have some decisions to make before they even get off the blocks and put a word on the page, like HOW BEST to a) tell a story in a way that will get them noticed and b) tell it in such a way it will be viewed as a VIABLE SCRIPT TO MAKE on a low budget.

So, here are my thoughts on micro-budgetmovies and making them work:

Locations/Studio work. One of the first thing script calls for “low budget screenplays” mention. Finding and getting all the necessary permissions etc for locations is hard and expensive. Location work can be cheaper than studio work, depending how you use it. Certain cities are very expensive for example, but then so is building an actual set. That said, obvious compromises and short-cuts can be made to bring expense down: ie. shooting ALL your city scenes in one day or building a set that can be re-dressed so it looks like different places very easily. Remember: interiors are nearly always cheaper to shoot than exteriors: light hire might be expensive, but unless you’re very unlucky and there’s a massive hole in the roof, rain or snow is not going to screw up a day’s shooting if you’re INSIDE.

Typically, a microbudget movie will be ONE LOCATION ONLY. The favourite is the “one room”, usually an interior, which became a staple in particular of the so-called “torture porn” genre in the early noughties. Sometimes writers will be asked to write “for” a particular exterior location however – for example a spooky derelict house.

Horror. Horror is a firm favourite for microbudget movies – trapping people in one place is a really obvious thing to do, but not necessarily the best thing to do… Especially when the market is flooded with Horror movies still in the can. That said, when they work, they can really sing. Favourites of mine in this genre include CUBE and the first SAW.

Thriller. Thriller doesn’t jump to mind when it comes to one-room movies, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t. Stuart Hazeldine did a great job with EXAM, showing us that battles of wits can be every bit as nerve-wracking as being locked in a room with a serial killer. What if… Your characters were held hostage in a bank? Or outside was toxic, so inside was “safe”? There are LOADS of non-serial-killer, non-monster ways of doing this and making the action about the group tearing itself apart.

Comedy. Believe it or not, Comedy too can lend itself to the one room/one location scenario. Imagine this: your whole family, brought together by a single event, even though you actually all hate one another … Sounds like: ooooh, CHRISTMAS! Or a WEDDING!!! None of you want to leave and be the bad guy. So again, the group implodes. BAM!

Action. Action/Adventure is difficult to pull off in the one-room scenario, though in this age of remote communication, I bet a writer with real class could pull it off if the characters had access to all kinds of technology: after all, a good proportion of American cop show NCIS plays out in MTAC, which is satellite communication between Gibbs’ superiors and him… What if that were replaced with threats from an unknown terror group, on the other side of the world? If one location like a supposed house, spaceship or prison, or there could be room for the obligatory running and jumping and fighting the action genre requires.

Drama. Drama may not be favourable to sales agents at the moment, but a well-written, insightful one can still play well at film festivals and if your film has enough *to* it to get “star appeal”, then you may get that distribution deal. Just because it’s drama does NOT mean you are home free in terms of your characters being “unable” to leave – your audience is not watching a play, even if they don’t mind drama being that little bit more theatrical than genre. I read a Dean Koontz book, MIDNIGHT, yeeeeears ago: in it, there is a character who is disabled. When Armageddon hits, his friends are forced to leave him behind – at his behest – in order to save themselves. They hide him in the attic and give him a gun so he can decide whether he wants to kill himself or not when his house is inevitably overrun by the threat outside. Now, this was just ONE MOMENT of the entire book, yet it’s stayed with me since I was literally about 15. The very human emotions that go with it – the terrible decision, knowing you must sacrifice one to save many, the guilt for the friends, the fear for him, alone at the end of the world – something like that would make a BRILLIANT one-room drama, focusing not on the threat outside, but the people inside the room… You would effectively be turning the problem on its head: it’s not that your characters CAN’T leave, but the fact they CAN and ARE, but must leave one of their number behind.

And of course, looking at the above, with the exception of drama, any number of genre mash-ups could work here: Romantic Comedy, Horror Comedy, Action Thriller, etc or genres that splinter off from the main, such as Kids’ or Family, too.

SO: The key here is in giving us a VALID REASON as to why characters can or cannot leave the location; trapping by force is just ONE way of doing this. Think carefully about the world your characters live in and their motivations to find the best way of representing this.

Characters. The second most-asked for in script calls: NUMBER OF ROLES. Usually a director or filmmaker will be interested in approximately 5-7 characters with no peripherals, though occasionally a couple of peripherals will slip through unnoticed which can either be cut or played by the teaboy.

With small casts, understanding of character role function is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL. Every character must play its part to perfection in terms of keeping the plot moving forward, whilst still revealing its own character motivation. I like to think of characters “helping” or “hindering” the main goal of the protagonist or antagonist, though I think the best films remember each character is an INDIVIDUAL. No mean feat.

SO: Ten roles MAXIMUM is usually the most any “truly” low budget screenplay can handle, though the rule is – the fewer, the better.

NEXT POST: Part 2 – what else might you need to think about when writing your LOW BUDGET screenplay?

Share this:

5 thoughts on “Writing The Low Budget Screenplay”

  1. Great post Lucy – I'm writing a one location, minimum character piece myself and it is always good to see some of the "guidelines" set down.

    I'd also say think through the production of it…what types of locations can filmmakers get free or cheaply? What types of characters are going to attract young talent *think Hollyoaks actor looking for a film role* into a low budget, probably unpaid flick? What;s the hook? How is it going to be sold? What is the difference between thislow budget feature and the others?

    Great stuff

  2. Some of my favorite films are low budget stuff. Unfortunately the spec I’m trying to sell is medium, though it can be reduced using some of the techniques you mentioned. Especially redecorating to make it look like a different place. I’ll keep that in mind when I’m trying to sell.:)

    I adore The Man from Earth, and I really like Lynn Shelton’s work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *