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Write What You Know...You Can Afford


I've been talking a lot about horror & filmmaking on a theoretical and conceptual level. But this week, nuts and bolts: let's talk about production.

I've now produced, written and directed 40 horror shorts on a guerilla/indie level. I've also directed a web series, two features, 20 music videos and a handful of commercials. But for now I'm only going to count the horror shorts because those are the ones I did with very low or no budgets, and if you're like most filmmakers, then that's the budget you'll be getting. So here's a few tips to get you started making your own films.

Write for Your Budget
Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong. As an 11 year veteran of the WGA and the studio system, I've encountered more professional writers that have trouble with this than you can imagine. That is to say, even the pros have trouble with this one. And it's a simple case of their eyes being bigger than their stomachs, so to speak. If your budget is $200 for your short film, don't write a scene with a stadium of screaming fans. Don't write a scene with an underwater knife fight. Don't write a scene with a hundred vampires clashing with a hundred werewolves lit only by the light of the full moon. You get the idea.

One of my big inspirations is Rod Serling. I mean, if you look at The Twilight Zone original series, you'll see that most of the time Rod was writing for EXACTLY what he had. Four grey walls, the CBS back lot and a stretch of desert highway. That is, to say, he wrote for a budget. He knew that to excel he was going to have to focus on STORY and on CHARACTER. And luckily for him he was able to work in an era before our current youth-obsessed one. He could grab veteran character actors and throw them in the lead - Burgess Meredith, Jack Klugman, etc. But at the heart of every one of his episodes was a good story, strong characters, and a script that reflected his budgets.

Use What You Got
When you sit down to write your script, think long and hard about what you have and what you don't have. Don't write a scene in a space ship. Don't write a scene in a castle. Don't write about the discovery of an underwater city. That is unless you HAVE a spaceship, castle or an underwater city. When dealing with making your own films, you have to use what you got. The problem with most filmmakers at this stage in the game is they don't follow this one suggestion. If your friend has a creepy old cabin in the woods, use it. If your grandpa has a barn full of antiques, use ‘em. If you have access to an office building, use it. That is to say, ALWAYS start with character and story, but keep in mind what you have access to when you're conceptualizing. By doing this you can maximize your production value, and at the same time, keep your story rooted in what's important. Character and Story.

The New Indie...
One cool thing about making indie and controlled-budget films nowadays is the shrinking equipment. I just shot a film this week on the new Canon 7D (Google it. It kicks ass). And because it looks like a regular old DSLR still camera, everyone thinks you're just shooting stills. It's also small and attracts no attention in public. What does this mean to you as a guerilla filmmaker? It means you can now write scenes that take place on busy street corners, buses, subways, elevators, escalators, cabs and any other public place that has heretofore been off limits to you. Why? Because the gear you're packing is smaller, more inconspicuous, and to be honest most cops, security guards and other gate keepers don't know quite what you're up to yet because the technology is so new.

For instance, I've had this horror short script that I wrote recently called Doppelganger and it takes place, in part, on the subway. Now, before the Canon 7D, I couldn't realistically write scenes in the subway. My gear was too cumbersome and attracted too much attention from security (I know because I'd tried a few times on other indie productions in years past and was promptly booted off the trains). But just this week, myself and my co-conspiritors Jeff Farley (creature FX), Reagan Dale Neis & Brad Light (my actors) and Mary Trahey (Make up) made our way into the Los Angeles Subway and filmed all day with nary a security guard to be found. And I KNOW that they knew we were there because the L.A. subways is coated in cameras. Granted, our scenes were just dialogue scenes, but because of the equipment I was using, we were nearly invisible to the authorities. We were respectful of travelers and tried to work in out of the way areas, and at the end of the day, we had a solid three minutes of film in the can.

What's it all add up to? This: write for your budget. Keep things simple. Use what you have at your disposal, and use your small crew and limited gear to your advantage. I know a lot of you guys are discovering the same things out there on your filmic adventures and I'd love to hear your experiences too. It's a bold new world for indie filmmakers out there, and with the advance of HD technologies, we're quickly becoming able to produce studio quality stuff for a ridiculous fraction of what they're spending. 

So get writing. You've got worlds to create...

Gaudium per Atrox.