Just go out and do it. That is the common sentiment expressed by industry types when filmmakers with no experience ask these vaunted questions: “How do I make a film? Where do I shoot? How can I do it if I have no money? I don’t know anyone, how can I do this?” It may come across as cheesy, but there has never been greater truth spoken with regards to zero- budget filmmaking. I alluded to this in my previous article about locations, but try to use what is available to you. It’s a really cool thing you’re trying to do and despite what you may think, people want you to succeed. So how do you get started? Let’s start with the basics. I’m going to give you a brief insight into how I made my film, What I Want, as well as provide you with some tips, software and gear advice, and other resources. This short series of articles will take you through the creation of a zero-budget film from concept to completion.
Part One-Screenwriting and Story Development
SCRIPT IS KING.
I know this may sound basic and simple, but when you are working within a storytelling medium, the script should be the most important element. There is plenty of quality gear (detailed in a later article) that is available for very cheap. Yes, you will need to know about shot composition, lighting, and sound. These things are very important. But if your story doesn’t make sense, has plot holes, unbelievable dialogue, and/or poor pacing, the audience isn’t going to care how beautiful your film looks and sounds. The beautiful thing about the filmmaking art form is how collaborative it truly is.
There are many ways to tell a story. You tell a story through the script, the same story in a different fashion through cinematography, and refine it through editing. These are all incredibly vital to the creation of a film, but everything starts with the script.
You may be asking yourself, “Where do I start? How do I come up with a story?” Inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. When coming up with ideas for stories and characters, look to your own experiences. The characters that appear to be the most “real” a lot of times have pieces of themselves taken from the author or people from the author’s life. If you want to make a genre film (horror, sci-fi, thriller, etc.), start with the characters and build outward. Incredible characters in fantastical locations make for a home run screenplay. Give your characters a goal. We want to root for them. Or in the case of an anti-hero, we want to see them foiled. Throw obstacles in their way. Don’t make it easy. There would be no story if it was easy for the hero to accomplish their goal. Even in a comedy, give the characters goals and the laughs will come out of their various attempts to achieve them. Don’t worry about having a film that is similar to others’ in terms of premise. Your vision, characters, dialogue, and overall take on that subject will set yours apart. Just look at how many “space” movies there are.
The inspiration for What I Want came from somewhere very unique. My friend, a Chicago-area hip hop artist named Jon Writer (www.jonwritermusic.com) tracked a song called “What I Want” and gave it to me to listen. The original plan for this song was to create a high octane music video for it. After I heard it, I pitched the idea of making it into a high-concept video about a man taking down an oppressive government. From there, the story evolved into an action thriller short film that called for the viewer to take action in their own lives and follow their dreams. We wanted to share this message in a very dramatic fashion. The final film reflected that. Each of the characters had a specific motivation and represented a different type of critic in our society. The Interrogator, for example, represents the people in your life that are stone-cold jealous of your accomplishments and do whatever they can to bring you down. They can’t stand it when someone else is successful so they try to rip them apart. Giving depth to our characters made us believe in this story even more. There had to be a theme, a backbone that made this story worth telling. Grab your inspiration and run with it. If you don’t believe in your story, no one else will. Don’t be afraid to get feedback on your scripts. Show your script to people you trust who understand screenwriting and story. They will give you the most honest and constructive feedback as to what is working and what isn’t. Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite some more.
SCRIPT IS NEVER COMPLETE.
Even when you are standing with your actors on set, you may find something within a performance that causes you to change your script slightly. This is okay. If you keep your mind open, you may discover things about your characters that you couldn’t have possibly dreamt up in your own mind. There are plenty of articles online about proper screenwriting structure and there is also wonderful software available that will structure your film for you. The industry standard is Final Draft but if you are on a budget (which is what Milkstop is designed for) check out a program called Celtx, which is free online. It will get you started on the correct path to writing your first screenplay.
Luke Zintak is a MilkStop Staff Writer