Back in the day, before I had This is that, I had a production company called Good Machine. James Schamus and I founded it together, and we later partnered with David Linde. Mary Jane Skalski and Anthony Bregman were also partners, and we had the good fortune to work with a host of other talents including my later partners Anne Carey and Diana Victor, and Ross Katz, Glen Basner, Heta Paarte, Lamia Guelatti, Melinka Thompson-Gody, Jean Castelli, Kelly Miller, Dan Beers, Eric Papa, Jawal Nga, and many other later-legends to be. As good as the films we made, as great as the individuals we got to collaborate with, we also had a genuine fondness for memos and how-to's. If you come to my office these days, it looks like a FEMA site; we are going paperless, and I am sorting through the files, finding many choice nuggets. My madeleines.
One day, way back when, I went into to speak to a NYU grad class and I felt I would feel more substantive if I had something to hand out (btw I believe The Savages director, Tamara Jenkins was in that class). That was the start of the Good Machine No-Budget Commandments. James and I revised them here and there, and I am pretty sure, that Mary Jane and Anthony tossed more than a suggestion or two.
My surprise in reading them today is that no where do they say "The budget is the aesthetic." That had seemed like the mantra at times. We get pretty close with #4, but not as dogmatic.
They hold up today. I still subscribe to the full set of notions. Here they are, for your critique and comment, in their dusty glory.
1. Write to direct. A screenplay, especially a no-budget screenplay is a very loose blueprint for a film – ultimately every choice you make will compromise something else.
2. Write for what you know and for what you can obtain. This goes for actors, locations, animals, and major propping or set dressing. If your friend owns something, anything, write it into the film.
3. Remain flexible. Recognize the essential element in a scene and allow it to take place in a variety of locations or circumstances.
4. Choose an aesthetic that will capitalize on the lack of money (i.e. period anachronisms, monochromatic color schemes, etc.). Invest meaning in everyday commonplace things – make an orange a totemic object John Ford would be proud of.
5. Don’t over strive. Don’t try to show how much production value you have (you don’t have it, so you’ll either fail or unbalance your film). A film that people say is “well produced” usually means that the story didn’t have much going for it. Keep the story aligned with the budget.
6. Don’t limit yourself to too few locations – it’s a dead give away of lack of dollars. I like the number eight.
7. Use everything more than once. You’ve already paid for it, so use it, use it, use it.
8. Write for a very limited audience – your closest friends. Do not try to please anyone – crowd pleasing costs.
9. Write to cut it back later. You can trim to subtlety.
10. Contradict the above commandment and only write what you know you absolutely must shoot.
11. Keep it simple. You can learn how to do the impossible on your next film. No dogs. No babies. “Business” is expensive. Keep it controllable.
12. Keep it intimate. Dialogue and close ups are cheap.
13. Make the most of a day’s work. It’s easier to get a commitment for one day than it is for a week. Exploit people’s willingness to give a day.
14. Ignore everything listed above if it doesn’t further the story.