Right vs. Wrong (Re: Writing & Screenwriting)

"Remember: when people tell you something's wrong or doesn't work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."

- Neil Gaiman (via Brainpickings).

Read Neil Gaiman's Full 8 Tips on Writing here.

Writing For A Low Budget (Pt 2 of 2): THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED

Today's guest post is from writer/director J. Blakeson.  J's THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED opens TODAY!!!  If you haven't read yesterday's part one, please read that first. As I was writing I was always looking for tricks to make the film even cheaper to shoot. But I had a strict rule that they also had to make absolute sense to the story. I smuggled quite a lot of tricks in. Here are a few of them...

  1. After the opening sequence, each character only has one costume. And they are very easily manageable costumes (ie. track suit and boiler suits), so if we had to shoot this thing at evenings and weekends over a few months, then the costumes would be easy to manage and very replaceable from high street stores.
  2. I used props over and over again (the gun, the keys, the bullet) to maximise their cost-effectiveness and reduce the need for more props.
  3. I made the location an abandoned apartment so we didn’t have to fill it with furniture.
  4. I had the characters cover the windows of the apartment with wood  to hide what they are doing from the outside world – but also because it meant I could shoot daytime scenes at night and vice versa (a nifty trick lifted from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”).
  5. I put ski-masks on Vic and Danny and a hood over Alice for a lot of the action. Of course this works because Vic and Danny want to hide their identity and keep Alice passive, but it also meant that if we got any “name” actors for 2-3 days, we could shoot all their scenes on their faces in that time and shoot the rest (wides, over-shoulder, out of focus in the background etc) using stand-ins wearing hoods and balaclavas...

However, I never actually needed to use these tricks whilst filming – thank god. There are no stand-ins for actors and we shot on a sound-stage rather than in my apartment. And this happened because I got lucky. Cinema NX read my script and loved it. They decided to take a gamble on me and agreed to let me – a first-time director – helm the film (I was once told by a producer that a first-time director “is like cancer to financiers”). I’ll always be grateful to Cinema NX for giving me my break (especially as 40 other companies read the script and passed). So Cinema NX put up all the money to make the film. And I got myself an actual budget. Sure, it was low, but it was way more than I could have ever afforded on my own. So luckily I didn’t have to make the film the way I’d originally intended. I didn’t have to put my hand in my own pocket.  And I got to build a set. I got an amazing crew. I got fantastic actors. I got to shoot my film exactly the way I wanted without compromising for budget.

So was all my penny-pinching on the page a waste of time?


Because the reason it all happened the way it did is precisely because it was written for no budget.  Not only because Cinema NX saw it was achievable, and a worthwhile gamble, but because writing it for no budget meant that we could make a really good version with a low budget. As the limitations had been set on the page, we didn’t have to compromise while we were shooting it. We just had to concentrate on making it the best it could be.

In short, by embracing my budget limitations in the writing stage, I protected myself during the shoot. Plus I had to use my imagination more as I wrote it. And that can only be a good thing.

-- J. Blakeson

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

Twitter: twitter.com/jblakeson twitter.com/FindAliceCreed The Disappearance Of Alice Creed trailer

Part One: Writing For A Low Budget


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.


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

The Good Machine No-Budget Commandments

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.