Writing for the budget

When you first start writing scripts, one of the great liberating experiences is the ability to start a scene with something like this:

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EXT. PARIS STREET – AFTERNOON

Smith steps to the curb and hails a cab…

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And then, you can follow up with the next scene, with a quantum leap:

[scrippet]

EXT. SEASIDE CAFE, HAVANA – MORNING

Pilar sits across from Valencia…

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It gives you a sense of freedom as a writer to be able to jump from one location to another. After all, you just need to type the name of the place in your scene heading and you’re there. A leap from Anchorage to Albequerque is only a matter of characters on the keyboard. This is profound, because most of us spend a huge portion of our lives hunched over a keyboard in some dingy office or in the corner of a coffee shop. Maybe we hang out on the fifth floor of the library next to a stack of books nobody reads. To be able to leap around the globe via our narratives is one of the attractions of this pursuit.

But what I’m learning now is that such freedom can be a dangerous thing. Producers read scripts differently than we do as writers. When they see a location change, numbers start to click in their heads. A change in the setting, and the addition of numerous locations, can inflate the budget in less time than it takes you to complete a scene heading.

I’m rewriting a script now with budget and locations in mind. I’m eliminating action sequences and removing an entire series of scenes that take place two thousand miles away form the main center of action. I’m also collapsing characters, combining several similar roles into a single character to reduce the casting costs. A producer said that I could take the script in two directions: a big budget action film, or a character-driven drama. Their company specializes in the latter. I was presented with a challenge: rewrite the script to reduce the cost of making this film, and they’ll consider an option.

The pragmatic requirements of filmmaking are quite different from, say, novels where you’re only limited by your own imagination. When you set a scene in Cairo, that won’t require you to send the second unit to Africa to get b-roll of the pyramids. Or you don’t have to worry about the fact that a scene set in Havana becomes problematic if much of the cast and crew is made up Americans, who are forbidden to travel there by the knuckleheaded blowholes in Washington.

I’m also finding that it’s not always a matter of collapsing and contracting your script. Sometimes you’ll be called upon to increase a role, attracting a different caliber (and more expensive) level of talent. On this same project, I’m removing minor characters and increasing the visibility and prominence the four lead roles so that they can try to attract four major actors for these key parts instead of just one or two.

Writing for a budget is nothing I’ve ever had to consider doing before, writing as I have mostly fiction. My first two scripts featured international locations. My third script was set entirely within forty miles of where I live, my thinking being that this script might make a nice independent project someday, or at least attract interest from different types of production companies looking for smaller budget films.

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