The economical screenwriter
by Christina Hamlett
Back when I used to run a touring theater company, there was only one rule regarding the amount of furniture and props for any given performance: If It Doesn’t Fit in the Car, It’s Not Going. (Fortunately, I was also penning all the plays the troupe performed so I had some control over the situation.)
This sense of economy carries over into my lectures and classes for aspiring screenwriters, reinforcing the philosophy that if no one is going to mention why there is a moosehead above the mantle, maybe that moosehead really doesn’t need to be there. Little did I know at the time that I was laying the groundwork for my eventual segue into writing for film…and the necessity to craft a good story that can succeed on the strength of its plot, not the weightiness of its budget.
A case in point was the adaptation of my Scottish time travel, The Spellbox, to a feature length script for an independent producer. Aside from the challenge of compressing 400+ pages to 120, there were scenes which I purposely omitted in deference to what it would ultimately cost to execute them (i.e., a banquet in which the Great Hall is set on fire). Anything which involves destruction of sets, utilization of stunt people, or more insurance is going to drive up the price tag of a movie.
For writers who have yet to get their scripts over the transom and their foot in the door, such items can be a red flag to producers whose coffers are not quite Cameron-esque. While everyone hungers to write a cast-of-thousands epic with a wealth of elaborate sets and technical glitz, the reality is that the lower the author can keep the script’s production costs, the higher the chances of a sale.
The bottom line is that it’s easier to add in the glitz later than to have the crux of your plot contingent on its being present in the first draft.
Can your own script pass the following ten-point economy test?
1.Contemporary storylines are generally less costly than period pieces.
2.Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, explosions—while many disasters can now be computer-generated, those that can’t are going to cost money.
3.Do you really need those swarming crowds? Even though they’re paid scale for just taking up space, they’re still an expense.
4.Anything with animals—especially trained ones—could be a big-ticket item.
5.Exterior scenes leave the crew at the mercy of time, season and weather, as opposed to interior shots which will look exactly the same whether it’s 3 a.m. in the dead of winter or 7:30 on a summer night.
6.Night scenes are more expensive to film than scenes in daylight.
7.Are your car chases/crashes necessary or just gratuitous? Vehicular mayhem can put a sizable dent in the budget.
8.Going on location is pricier than staying on a soundstage, especially the travel factor.
9.Specifying that “Mel Gibson has to be in this movie or it simply won’t work” probably isn’t a compelling pitch.
10.Every time the equipment gets moved, the cash register dings. Try to minimize your locations so multiple scenes can be shot at one time.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is a professional script consultant whose credits to date include 25 books, 122 plays and musicals, and 5 optioned feature films. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan. Her latest MWP title, Screenwriting for Teens is targeted to high school students who want to learn how to write film shorts.