Tips for Low-Budget Filmmaking
Let’s face it - filmmaking can be an expensive venture. This is a common point of doubt for many young and novice filmmakers looking to get their start in the industry. No one wants to start their portfolio with a cheap, shoddy-looking B-movie, and I’m sure that budgetary constraints have scared many people off from pursuing their filmmaking dreams. But here’s a little secret I’ve learned: you don’t have to break the bank to make a great film. The qualities of a good movie are very rarely tied to its scale or production value; the prevalence of bland, forgettable big-budget blockbusters should prove to you that a huge budget has very little to do with making a great film. Here’s a bit of advice for those looking to make a Hollywood-quality film on the cheap:
Use what you have.
Take stock of everything that’s openly and immediately available to you: locations, props, costumes, actors, equipment. Explore your town to find unique filming locations (be they natural or manmade). When Christopher Nolan realized that he didn’t have enough money to make the guns in his film Following look authentic, he changed the script to have the characters use hammers instead. This choice not only saved the production tons of money, but the shocking brutality of the hammers became one of the film’s most iconic elements. Great ideas can come from your limitations (or your attempts to find creative ways around them).
Keep it simple.
Write with a budget in mind. Think in terms of achievability. Ask yourself: what would it take to make this idea look good? How can I pull this off cheaply and professionally? If it doesn’t seem possible, look for smaller-scale alternatives that could carry the same weight or feeling. Christopher Nolan wanted the audience to fear the force and brutality of the antagonist’s weapons; unexpected weapons such as a hammer can instill this feeling even more effectively than a gun (and at a fraction of the production cost).
Keep it contained.
When Leigh Whannell and James Wan wrote Saw, they knew they didn’t have enough money to shoot in a variety of locations and make them all look real; so, they built one set, put a ton of work into making it look gritty and authentic, and then found a reason to literally chain their characters to it. This sort of “forced containment” can be found in Calibre, a film I produced in 2018, in which two friends are forced to stay at a small inn in order to avoid rousing the locals’ suspicion that they committed a terrible crime. To find a premise that works for your budget, you can draw inspiration from other great “contained” scripts:
The Breakfast Club
12 Angry Men
Assault on Precinct 13
Each of these films has a high-concept premise that binds the characters to a single location. What they lack in scope they more than make up for in compelling drama and suspense. These scripts find the drama in characters’ differing reactions to their situation, the reasons these characters choose (or are forced) to stay, the consequences of leaving, etc.
Drama doesn’t need explosions.
Suspense can come from more than murder mysteries, bank robberies, and gunplay. Suspense can be subtle; consequences don’t always involve death. Our lives can be upended, twisted, irrevocably changed; we see things we can never unsee, we have our beliefs tested and broken. We find ourselves in tense, high-stakes situations all the time, be they at school, at work, at a family dinner, at the bank, at the doctor’s office. Find the drama in these everyday situations. You can write about:
a character with a secret
a character trying desperately to impress someone
a character caught in a lie
a character who must get along with someone they can’t stand
a character trying to rid themselves of a bad habit
None of these ideas necessitate a large budget: all of them could be accomplished with two characters, one location, and hardly any props or costumes (that’s where you, like Chris Nolan, get to be creative; use what you have to make your film look unique and distinctive). This, truly, is all you need to make a great film. You don’t need a huge budget; you just need a good idea, a good script, and the dedication to execute it with the care it deserves.