How to Write Low Budget Movie Scripts

If you learn how to write low/no budget movie scripts you will become a better screenwriter, period. This is because the success of a low/no budget film is more dependent on the creativity and skills of the screenwriter than any other kind of production. So, whilst a big budget movie can hide a poor script in CGI, action and frenetic editing, a low budget movie has to lean on the quality of the script. In this article, I want to share some ideas about how to write scripts for low budget movies.

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1. Subvert Your Chosen Genre

The worst mistake a low/no budget screenwriter can make is to take Hollywood head on. Reproducing big budget ideas on the cheap, ends up with movies that look cheap. Cheap isn’t a good look for a movie. If I only had one piece of advice to give writers and filmmakers, it would be don’t let your movie look cheap.

Whilst I would advise writers against creating cheap knock-offs of Hollywood tropes, I don’t believe any genre should be out of bounds for the low/no budget screenwriter. Even if you can’t take the big budget productions directly, you can subvert the genre. Let’s use science-fiction as an example. Space Operas generally require huge budgets to create the level of cinematic spectacle needed to make the stories feel vast and thrilling. However, at its core, science-fiction is a genre built on ideas, or high-quality what ifs.  Science Fiction is one of those genres where lack of budget can be overcome by the right idea. My favourite example of this is the movie Primer, which is about some guys who building a time machine in the garage. 

The Lo/No Budget Movie Primer made for $7,000

I don’t care whether you want to make an action movie, a thriller, a horror movie or science-fiction, all successful low-budget movies start with great, subversive ideas. 

2. Understand How Films Are Made

One of the joys of writing spec scripts for the industry is the writer can delegate production problems to the producer. If the writer creates a scene where thousands of extras will be needed for epic, costumed battle scenes, it is the producer’s problem to finance it, and the director’s problem to make it work. This kind of writing doesn’t require any real understanding of how films are made. It is solely about the writer’s imagination and the producer’s ability to realise those ideas.

Low/no budget movie scripts are best written by writers who understand how movies are made, and where the money goes. And, in my opinion, the best way to learn how films are made, is by making films.

One of the basic things to understand about making films is that you need resources to make a film. The resources can be split into production professionals (people), production equipment, actors (people), locations, post-production professionals (people), and post-production equipment.

The next thing to understand about a movie is the more time you spend shooting your film, the more resources you will need.

Understanding the relationship between story, the resources needed to tell the story, and the time it will take to film is the heart of writing for low-budget movies. Conventional thinking about writing for low-budgets is to restrict the number of locations and the size of the cast. It’s a solution, but it’s not the only one. Just like any other part of screenwriting, finding creative solutions is the name of the game. I personally, have devoted fifteen years of my life to thinking about these very issues, and have developed some fairly radical ideas about this. Ideas I have no intention of sharing, at the moment.

Ultimately, low-budget writers only need to understand one thing about film-making. Is this scene worth the resources it will require to make? Or, is there a better way to tell this part of the story?

Understanding how films are made ought to be part of every writer’s skill set. Especially if a writer can develop the ability to judge a scene’s worth to the story against costs. Again, one of the best ways to develop that ability is by writing, and making, low budget films.

3. Write for Actors

The best resource any movie has, regardless of its budget, is its actors. Every actor I have ever met, regardless of how famous, is hungry the kind of script that will show off their talents. A script that inspires actors is always going to be a valuable script. The question is, what kind of script inspires actors?

In my experience, actors like scripts where the story is driven by the needs, desires and personality of the characters. Some people call these scripts, character-driven. But, let’s be clear about this, a character-driven script isn’t one without action. It isn’t a script where people sit around talking about their feelings for ninety minutes. A real character-driven script is one where the story can only unfold the way it does precisely because these specific characters are dealing with the circumstances of the story. If you put different characters into the same situation, the story would unfold differently.

To write a character-driven script, the writer needs to completely understand their characters. They also have to reveal their understanding through the characters’ actions. Character driven writing has a profound effect on the movie. It is the difference between the audience seeing a woman fire a gun at a man, and them witnessing a heartbroken wife trying to avenge herself on the husband she once loved by firing a gun at him. It takes a great deal of skill and technique to write these kinds of scripts. A process I was invited to teach by the Writer’s Store education division.

There are ways, without doubt, to make movies where the audience is just witnessing the cinematic spectacle. They can be forced to enjoy watching a woman fire a gun at a man without any kind of emotional context. However, it takes huge amounts of money to create that kind of spectacle.

Scripts with emotional context, where the characters go on an emotional journey, appeal to actors. They also appeal to audiences.

All scripts, regardless of the budget, are better if they revolve around the kind of characters actors are inspired to play. It is a skill that every writer should have. And, it is a skill that is best learned by writing low/no budget scripts.

Low Budget Film Scripts Are Where Writers Hone Their Skills

To write a great low/no budget screenplay the writer needs to have a great, genre-subverting concept, an understanding of how films are made and the ability to write the kind of character-driven scripts which inspire actors. These are also the kinds of skills needed to write great, mainstream television and movies.

The main difference between a big budget, mainstream script and a low/no budget project is as a writer you can take your destiny into your own hands. You can write scripts and make them into films. This is something I urge every screenwriter to do. But, don’t make low-budget films to make money or even to make a name for your, do it because you will learn more from seeing your pages turned into drama than you ever will from writing yet another unproduced spec script.

For More Screenwriting Techniques

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For more techniques to improve your screenwriting Clive has written a ground-breaking book called The Process of Screenwriting.

There is a free sample and other useful handouts here.