Years ago, when I lived in LA, I wrote my first short film. A good friend was working with a small crew with a goal to shoot something short every weekend. He asked me if I wanted to write and act in a project for him. I jumped at the chance. What resulted was a short film about five minutes long that shot in three nearby locations. Two other friends acted for free. It was a long day of fun and hard work and a no-budget project.
Fast forward about ten years, and I had moved to Portland. I'd become deeply immersed in stay-at-home motherhood. My writing had taken a backseat to full time nurturing. Then one day, In a mom's group I met Natasha. She'd also had some acting experience but wanted to get some more experience directing, editing and doing her cinematography.
Years later, Natasha was kind enough to shoot a book trailer for my novel, Dating Maggie. We also wrote and shot a sixty-second commercial for a contest. While we didn't win, we learned a lot and decided we'd make something better the next time we did a project together.
There were a few bumps in the road, but it all came together, and I'm proud of what we made. So I wanted to share what I learned with you.
Following are six questions to ask yourself before you begin writing your short film.
What’s your budget?
I recommend spending a few bucks on your project to make it worth the time and effort. We decided to pay actors $50 for a one day shoot along with meals and an IMDB credit.
Two production assistants (Natasha's brother and sister-in-law) helped out for free. I worked as a script supervisor, and that was our whole crew.
After we paid actors and bought meals for the cast and crew, we'd spent around $200 to make our eight minutes short. Natasha agreed to edit it, so that made it an inexpensive project.
That said, it would have been nice to have a few more crew members. In the future, lining up a lighting, hair and makeup person and set dressers would make the process easier for us.
What locations and actors do you already
have access to?
Before writing anything, brainstorm areas where you can shoot for free. Permits and fees can put a wrench in things or require more time and a bigger budget. Some filmmakers choose to shoot “on the fly” without permits but there is a risk of being sent away and fined, so you’d have to weigh the risk and factor in how it might affect your cast and crew.
In our case, we had access to two different houses. But there was a thirty-minute drive, and another take down and set up that day. So keep those practical issues in mind when you imagine your story.
Do you have a one sentence pitch written?
Before fleshing out an entire script, get your idea down to one sentence. This is called a log-line. If you’ve ever participated in Twitter contests for pitching your novel, a similar concept is in play. If you can get the character and the stakes into that sentence, that’s ideal.
In Save the Cat, Snyder recommends sharing the pitch with everyone you encounter, strangers included. This gives you a chance to see if there is genuine interest in the concept before diving deeper into the story. I haven't been brave enough for that, but I have shared pitches with friends, family, and other writers before pursuing a story.
When working with Natasha, I sent her five pitches and asked her which one sounded interesting. She chose one, and I wrote a script based on that premise.
The log-line for our film Wrong Number is: You never know what surprises may lurk on the other end of a wrong number.
Have you read a good book on screenwriting?
In Screenplay, Syd Field said, "Many times you may feel the urge to sit down and start writing a screenplay, but you don't know what to write about. So you go looking for a subject. Just know that when you're looking for your subject, your subject is really looking for you. You'll find it someplace, at some time, probably when you're least expecting it. It will be yours to follow through on or not, as you choose."
Field's book is filled with terrific information, and he's famous for advising that screenplays should follow a three act structure.
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What will you do about casting?
Casting can make or break a film. Don't just use friends, unless they are trained actors. I found some Facebook groups with local actors and also posted casting notices on Craigslist. Because Natasha and I live in different cities, we sent actors sides from the script and asked them to send in recorded auditions. After we had chosen our actors, we invited them to a table read. It was a great chance to see if the actors would show up and gave us all to review the nuts and bolts of production.
For the writer, the table read is an opportunity to make notes on things that need changing, namely, clunky, unnatural dialogue. Our lead actors, Kelsey Tucker and Richard Cohn-Lee were super professional and helpful during this process, offering their suggestions.
How will your short film be seen (distributed)?
While we decided to try the old school film festival circuit on this one, it's not necessary for filmmakers to get attention. Other possibilities distributions channels, such as Vimeo or Youtube might be a better choice for you.
As a writer, you may also decide that you want to write scripts for contests or on “spec” instead of producing yourself or with a partner. Some film festivals, like The Austin Film Festival, have contests for movie scripts that are separate from the produced film submissions. Most contests require an entry fee, but winners sometimes win money, prizes or industry critiques.
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While all of this planning may seem like it could stifle creativity, most writers seem to agree that ideas bubble up way before the pen touches paper or fingers touch the keys. I've found limitations (like the budget) can sometimes enhance the writing process. Sometimes I think it's harder when I know I could write about absolutely anything. The restraints narrow things down.
Making a film yourself or with a friend is exhilarating when the pay-off for writing something can be easily and cheaply produced in the process. The control you have over what you make and the immediate gratification is its own reward.
Well, that’s a wrap for now. We’d love to hear about your experience with screenwriting and filmmaking in the comments.
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Melissa Uhles is a Freelance Writer, Co-Founder of Pen and Parent, and mom who has authored three books under her pen-name MJ Greenway. She writes under the clouds of the Pacific Northwest where sometimes her son and husband pop in to check on her.
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