Reinforcing the shoestring

For those unaware, I had the good fortune last year to connect with a producer-director seeking a writer for their microbudget feature project.

After hearing their ideas and what they were looking for, I started developing the story, keeping them updated as things progressed at a decent clip.

One of the comments occasionally made during all this back-and-forth was, and I’m paraphrasing here – “Is there a way to cut the costs on that?” Since this is a micro-budget project, it’s imperative we get as much out of every dollar as possible.

Thus the changes and alterations began. A scene originally intended for a hospital room now takes place in somebody’s bedroom. A scene in a restaurant now has the two characters drinking to-go coffee and talking on a park bench.

You get the idea.

As the writer, it can be a bit of a challenge to revise a scene or sequence to accommodate the budget, but it also forces you to dig deeper into that creativity and come up with a solution that works just as effectively, if not more so.

If this were a regular spec, working within a budget wouldn’t be an issue. I’d just write whatever worked for the story. But if that script got picked up and the producer needed changes made, then they would be made.

Looking over some of the revisions, I also realized that some scenes could pack even more of a punch by utilizing sound and lighting (or lack thereof) for emphasis, rather than on just what we see. Leaving things to the imagination – what you hear and don’t see – has the potential to be much more effective.

(For a strong example of this, check out the 1942 classic horror-thriller CAT PEOPLE.)

Taking this “less is more” approach also helped with resolving a story problem in a significant way. A sequence that would already have been challenging to make is now drastically different but would be very simple to pull off, and we’re both very enthusiastic about how the end result would look.

While some aspects of the story and how it’s presented may have changed, the tone remains the same. There’s still a ways to go with the script, but writing it with this kind of mindset helps me figure things out so the story is just as compelling while also getting the most bang for the buck.

Me vs. the clock

keaton clock

After a rough couple of days, I’ve opted to put the revision of the sci-fi adventure outline  on hold and redirect my focus to a new draft of the horror-comedy.

Lots of changes in store for this one, most of all making it as cheap to produce as possible. Several characters cut, locations drastically slashed, overall production costs severely reduced.

What was once a low-budget story taking place throughout a small town has now been shrunken down to an ultra-low- (possibly even micro-) budget story with a majority of the action on a forest road, and in and around an isolated house.

In some ways a challenge, but also somewhat liberating. Also a major plus – so much usable material from the previous draft – including a line or two of description that’s been expanded into a plot-propelling sequence.

I’m slowly working my way through the outline, with the intention of getting to pages within the next week or so. One option is to type up pages for what I’ve already got in the outline, edit those, then work more on the outline, then pages, and so on and so on. I’ve done it before, with tiring but pleasing results.

No matter how I approach this, the ultimate goal is to have a completed draft (or as darn close to it I can get) by 31 March.

The ticking of the clock rings like thunder in my ears.

Wish me luck.

Just getting here is a story by itself

Toolbooth on Merit Parkway
Even better, the journey won’t cost you a cent

First, the good news: I wrapped up the rewrite/overhaul of the comedy spec (which seems more like a dramedy now.) Despite my dread and anxiety over whether or not it’s actually funny, it’s been sent out for notes. As I mentioned to one of my readers, as long as nobody says “What made you think you could write something funny?”, I’m good.

So, industrious scribe that I am, I find the best way to occupy my time while I wait to hear about a project is to redirect my focus and work on another one.

It was originally going to be a new take on the pulp sci-fi, but some story issues still need work, so that remains on hold.

But a few weeks ago, I was cleaning up around my office and found a hard copy of one of my earliest scripts: a horror-western. I don’t think I’d seen it or read it in about 15 years.

Wow, was it bad. Like “This first draft is going to sell for a million in no time!” bad.

But the idea behind it still worked, and was something I could definitely tweak and finesse into something a lot more coherent. I did mention how that old script was really bad, right?

So I started putting together ideas for the new draft. Let’s call this SCRIPT #1, or S1 to keep things simple.

Then another twist presented itself: a script with a low budget (the lower the better), a minimal number of characters and locations, and practically no visual effects has a much better shot of being produced than some mega-budget tentpole effects extravaganza.

With that in mind, there were aspects to this story I could use to create an entirely new and different one that met a lot of those criteria, so I jotted down some potential plot points in the same file. This is SCRIPT #2 (S2).

One file, two scripts. With me so far? It gets better.

After finishing the comedy, I decided I’d take on S1. I only had a vague recollection of all the story details, which I saw as a good thing. Although I’d still have the old draft available as a potential (albeit limited) resource, I don’t think I’ll use it all that much. This in turn, frees me up to go in whatever new direction I feel like.

As I thought up ideas for S1, some of the story elements from S2 started creeping in. Since I didn’t want the two to be too similar, more focus was put on developing S1. It’s still a work in progress, but coming along quite nicely. And so much better than that old draft.

Ah, but what of S2? Like I mentioned, there were story elements I really liked, and putting some of them into S1 forced me to come up with new ideas for it. There was one in particular that really stood out for me, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it would be able to be the basis for a solid story.

I combined that idea with the aforementioned low-budget approach and came up with what I really think is a great high-concept idea. Such to the point that I whipped up a logline for it, along with a title that feels very “that’s perfect!”

My belief and enthusiasm for both S1 and S2 is to the point that I’m now alternating between both; working on one, then the other. My objective now is to have at least a first draft done for both by the end of the calendar year. It’s already proven to be, and will no doubt continue to be, a most interesting process.

I’ll keep you posted.

Random thoughts, general musings, that sort of thing

Nothing to do with today's post. I just love their chemistry.
Nothing to do with today’s post. I just love their chemistry.

-My western failed to make it through the first round of Scriptapalooza, which makes me 0 for 4 so far this year. I’m not counting the top 20 percent ranking for the Nicholl; that’s like getting Honorable Mention. At this point, I’ve pretty much written off its chances for Austin.

My problem was overconfidence in the script. I thought it was solid enough, but apparently not. It’s not the first time this has happened to me, but I’ll be more careful about it in the future.

I still believe in this script, which is why I’ve been so gung-ho about rewriting it. The past two weeks have been all about making it better. After completing the latest round of edits, it’s now 8 pages shorter, and still some further fine-tuning to do, which hopefully won’t add more than 2-3.

-Never realized how much my characters repeat things in dialogue. “I need you go to the store.” “The store? Why?” Must be the influence of listening to so much old-time radio. Cutting all of those probably amounted to at least half a page.

-I cut at least 5(!) separate situations where the Wilhelm Scream could be used.

-Had a great lunch-chat with one of my working writer pals yesterday. While he was very supportive and encouraging, he also reminded me of the almost insurmountable task of a new, unproven writer breaking in with a high-budget script.

“Your chances improve when you offer something that won’t cost a lot to make. A lot more people can get something made for under $5 million, rather than $50 million, let alone $100-200 million.”

As it should have, it got me thinking. Do I have any stories like that? It took the bike ride home and digging through some old flash drives to discover I did. Maybe about 5 or 6, all of them just a logline and not much else.

It’s a start.

-Movie of the Moment: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014). Loved it. Great story, great characters (and their development). Maybe my only complaint was the bombardment of exposition in the first 20 minutes. Other than that, a lot of fun.

Biggest pleasant surprise: Dave Bautista as Drax.

Biggest almost-catastrophe: Adam Sandler as a potential voice for Rocket. Somebody thought this was a good idea?

It’s really impressive how much of an effort Marvel puts into their stories and characters. I sincerely hope DC and Warner Brothers can take a lesson from this.