Writing For A Low Budget: THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED

Today's guest post is from writer/director J. Blakeson.  J's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED opens tomorrow, and is the latest in a glorious wave of incredibly strong genre films from all over the world that have graced our shores of late, including  MOON, THE SQUARE, BRONSON, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, and THE PROPHET.  This is part one of a two parter that will finish up here tomorrow. Part Two is here. No-one was going to give me money to make my film. That was a near certainty. I started with that fact in mind, then I began writing the script. People are always telling budding film-makers to” write something that can be achieved on a low budget”.  That sounds like pretty good advice, but it’s also dangerous advice. Because it assumes you’ll actually somehow manage to get yourself some kind of a budget at all– albeit a low one. It presumes someone will actually put their money into your movie. And that tempts you into trying to squeeze a bigger budget movie into a smaller can. This is a mistake. Because the end result will most likely be a scrappily made, cheap-looking movie that needed more money behind it. What these advice-givers should tell you instead is this: write for no budget at all. Write as if you were going to make it yourself with your own money. Write as if every frame of film was coming out of your own pocket.  Only then will you realise just how expensive even little things are. Like feeding an extra actor for 4 weeks. Or blowing shit up. Explosions sounds like they should be cheap and easy, but actually they’re expensive and complicated. So don’t blow shit up. Concentrate on what you already have and what comes for free. Story and character are free. Dialogue is free (except recording and filming it isn’t... so avoid being too self-indulgent on the speechifying, because you’re only wasting your own money). But always remember that writing within your own limitations doesn’t mean you have to be less ambitious with your movie. It actually means you have to be more ambitious, just smart about it. Look at films like “Primer” or “Brick”. They’re both ambitious as hell, look and feel cinematic, but cost next to nothing to make.

When I wrote the script for “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”, I assumed that if I wanted to direct it myself, I would probably have to pay for it myself. So I knew I had to keep it small and contained. Even before I had a story, I had a set of rules...

  1. Use 1 location for 90% of the film.
  2. Only have 3 characters
  3. Don’t write anything that I couldn’t achieve myself on my own money.
  4. If you use a prop, keep using it over and over (because why source and pay for something that will be only screen for just under 2 seconds?)
  5. Keep it simple. But make that “simple” as complex and difficult as possible.

But why these rules? Purely practical reasons: There are only three actors (and not, say, 4 actors) in my film because I happened to know 3 actors who might agree to be in the film. The reason I wrote most of the film’s action in an apartment is because I live in an apartment. So I had a free location. No expense. You get the idea...

And with these rules in mind, I started thinking about a story that would be as dramatic and cinematic as possible. With limited locations and actors, there is a risk it will feel like a stage play rather than a film. So I wanted a story that would lend itself to cinematic sequences and set-pieces rather than extended talky scenes. Very quickly I thought about a kidnap story. Not only was it immediately understandable (no  “Inception” style exposition scenes needed to describe the hard-to-understand jobs of the protagonists... everyone knows what a kidnapper does. Everyone understands the stakes from page 1), a kidnap story also has drama and tension inherent in it from the get-go.

So I started writing.  And as I was writing the script, I enjoyed having the limitations I set myself. It was like a game. It gave me boundaries to push against. Gave me a strict focused framework within which I was free to do anything I wanted.

But all the time, in the back of my mind, was the fact that I had to make it for no money. So I set all the exterior action in manageable locations – places that required no extras and where I could probably shoot with a skeleton crew without permits (if need be). So instead of setting it in crowded streets or train stations, I set it in wasteland, empty car-parks and abandoned warehouses. Of course all these locations make narrative sense in the movie, but this is only because I chose a story that works for these kinds of locations. This is one reason why early on in the script process, I decided to not show all the usual moments you see in a kidnap film – police, phone-taps, a money-drop in a crowded place – because I simply knew I couldn’t afford to shoot them with my own money. But then I embraced this idea and made it the defining characteristic of the film. Instead of trying to hide the confined nature of the film, I played to it. I’d always loved the fact that “Reservoir Dogs” was a heist movie in which you never saw the heist. So I decided my film would be a kidnap movie where you don’t see any of the kidnap (or rather, you don’t see the stuff you expect from a kidnap movie). And when I decided to go that way, the idea came alive for me.

End of Part One.  Part Two concludes tomorrow with "Tricks To Make It Even Cheaper!".

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed” is out in selected theatres Friday August 6th.

www.thedisappearanceofalicecreed.com

Twitter: twitter.com/jblakeson twitter.com/FindAliceCreed

Understanding Other Audiences: An Australian In America

Today's guest post is from Louise Smith, the producer of Nash Edgerton's THE SQUARE (out now in theaters in the US and highly recommended). I’ve just returned from a trip to New York & LA for the release of my film THE SQUARE.

In the lead up to the opening weekend, I was part of some Q & A sessions with Nash Edgerton (the director), and we were asked a couple of questions that I thought I’d share with you:

Had we ever thought to subtitle our movie (the lady who asked the question said she couldn’t understand our accents) Does everyone in Australia have a mullet Hmmm… no and… um, no.

The Square -Anthony Hayes (Smithy)-(p)MatthewNettheim_2

The cultural gap between Australia & America is always bigger than we Aussies anticipate – especially from the eyes of an American looking toward Australia. We however, consume American movies and TV all the time, so there’s no language or cultural things for us to learn about your characters when we watch them… we know them already because we’ve grown up on them.

This is my first feature as producer and my first experience of releasing a film in this market. It’s a tough gig to get an Aussie film on American theatrical screens – and I’ve been learning a lot, especially from Apparition, our distributors.

It’s corny to say it, but I feel very lucky to have this opportunity. It’s so different to releasing a film back in Australia. So many different things to consider – the population alone is staggering – and the number of key city centres across the country – just fantastic for a genre pic like this to hopefully find it’s niche.

It’s been a real treat for me (and relief considering the questions above) to have such a positive recognition and understanding of our film by so many American reviewers and industry professionals. I had an Australian film journalist ask me today why I thought this was? (ie that American reviewers understood the film in ways that reviewers in Australia hadn’t) and I don’t have an answer, other than to say that genre is a huge part of the cinematic experience for Americans in a way that it just isn’t for Australian audiences. I love how passionate American audiences are for genre.

I loved sitting in the cinema watching THE SQUARE and seeing the way people jumped and screamed and audibly yelled at the screen! (We are much more shy in Australia) and I loved the way in which people understood the dark humour that Nash brings to the screen. That part of our story telling needs no translation – and this excites me.

I love that we have been able to release Nash’s short film SPIDER along with the feature and that this is a real crowd enticer!

Actually, when we were trying to get a distributor on board for the US, Nash & I (along with Pathe our sales agent) set up 2 screenings, one in NYC and one in LA for various potential local distributors. We knew we wanted them to see it with an audience because we knew that it played at its best when there’s a full room reacting to the various plot turns. So we filled the cinemas with friends around the distributors.

We had also planned to show SPIDER prior THE SQUARE mainly to get people in the mood… let them know it’s OK to laugh at this film. However, right before our first screening, we hesitated. Someone had mentioned to us that we maybe shouldn’t show it to an American audience in this way and so we began to doubt our instinct.

Then in walked Chris Rock.

He had seen THE SQUARE in Australia when he was on tour and had gone out of his way to contact Nash to congratulate him on it. Anyway, the first thing he said to Nash was that he’d watched SPIDER on YouTube the night before and he thought it was great. (actually I think he said something about Nash’s talent for shocking people but I can’t really remember and I wouldn’t dare paraphrase Chris Rock!) I just know that suddenly the answer was clear… We ran up to the projection box and asked them to play SPIDER first.

And lucky we did – because it was the combination of these two films that made Bob Berney from Apparition sit up and take note. And here we are… our first weekend in the US and we had the 3rd highest screen average overall.

Anyway… it’s still a long way to go and my Australian sensibility says to delete that last paragraph… it’s too early to get excited… But maybe that’s one cultural thing I can take up from my American film friends… there’s no need to be shy.

Louise Smith has been producing  television commercials and feature films for over than ten years. Her debut feature film production THE SQUARE, just released in the USA, and was nominated for 7 Australian Film Institute  Awards as well as being only one of 12 films selected for Official Competition in the inaugural Sydney Film Festival‘s international Sydney Film Prize.

In 2002 she co-produced the feature film THE RAGE IN PLACID LAKE starring Ben Lee, Rose Byrne, Garry McDonald and Miranda Richardson. Smith currently has projects in development with directors Ben Chessell and Rachel Griffiths, with whom she has already made two short films.

Good Stories Well Told: "The Square"

I find it very rare that I end up telling stories of movies, particularly short films. That is what happened when I first saw Nash Edgerton's SPIDER, perhaps my favorite short of recent history. I found myself doing it again when he started making videos for Bob Dylan. This is his most recent video and it, like Dylan's Christmas tunes, has a good sense of goofy fun -- although I miss Nash's signature mayhem.

I am relieved that Mr. Edgerton's finally made a feature, because there's too much story inside it for me to ever tell well. You just have to see it. With no stars, no fancy VFX, just talent in craft, he spins an excellent yarn. Discipline, the avoidance of the unnecessary, the commitment to the declared agenda, has long been one of my favorite attributes in cinema, and this man's got it. The NY Times agrees ("Mr. Edgerton, with crack timing in the editing room and a sure hand on the Steadicam, is a coldblooded professional. His craft is frightening.") so hopefully this film will prove that people do care for good movies, even without the hype and star trappings.

As some of you might know from my tweets when I first saw it, I dug this movie. Someone once complimented me for making many films that captured the awkwardness in sex on film as it is real life. Film history is filled with the fluff in both sex and violence. Nash stages fights as the mess they are and it does wonders for bringing us in to the movie and keeping us there. It's just one in a number of approaches that makes this film work. He makes it look easy -- and is not. Still, it makes me wonder why we can't get noir right. This is good pulpy fun played for real without winks and nods.

Check out the trailer below, and please see it soon, as we have to vote for the work we want with our dollars.