As an independent filmmaker who has written, directed, and produced all three multi-award winning low budget feature length comedies (trailers can be seen here), I can tell you first hand that there is a major difference between writing a screenplay and writing a screenplay that you can film on an extremely limited budget.
Writing a low budget screenplay can be extremely difficult. On one hand you want to be free to write the story you want to tell. On the other hand, you know the money to make the screenplay has to come from somewhere (most likely you!) so you definitely want to tell the best story you possibly can all while keeping production costs to a minimum.
So what can you do to keep your budget down while telling a story that is visually and emotionally interesting to the viewer?
It all comes down to characters and locations.
Characters are the most important part of your screenplay. This is what will keep people invested in your film. Try to have no more than a handful of main characters. I recommend having three or four. Then have about six to eight secondary characters to help move the plot along. I can’t tell you how many boring indie films I’ve seen where there have been two main characters sitting in one location talking for an hour and a half. There’s no excuse for that.
Also, try to avoid large scenes with many extras. I know you think that all your friends will show up and be extras in your film, but trust me, most of them will flake out on you. You’ll be lucky if 10% of your friends keep their word and show up on set. So keep that in mind while you are writing. I have a saying that I think fits here: “If you ever need 6 people to do something for you just ask your 1200 Facebook friends.”
Location, location, location…
When writing your low/no budget screenplay locations are supremely important when it comes to keeping the budget low. You want your locations to be interesting yet attainable. And if they are free, that’s even better! Nothing is more boring than watching people sitting in the same location talking to each other for the entire movie. So you’ll need to spice up your film with multiple locations. You should pretty much stay away from locations that you know for a fact you cannot get. This means stay away from scenes involving sporting events, large shopping centers, concerts, the White House, etc..
Go through all of your contacts (family and friends) and put together a list of locations that they may be able to get for you. If your uncle is a police officer, he probably can get you a police station. If your mom is a florist, she can probably get you a flower shop. If your dad works in an office setting, he can probably get you the office. If your best friend’s dad owns a warehouse, he can probably get you a warehouse. Bars are really easy to get. Most bar owners will think it’s really cool to have a movie filmed in their bar.
I have two aunts that work at a local hospital. One works in the physical therapy department and one works in housekeeping. So guess what I get to use in my next film? Yep, a hospital! Which is great because it’s about a guy that gets in an accident and develops amnesia. So there are several scenes that take place in a hospital. The first thing that popped into my head when I came up with the idea is that I had a realistic chance to get a hospital location.
Once you have an idea of what type of locations you have available to work with you can sit down and start filling in the holes in your story. Now your main character can have a job based on a location you now have access to. If you got a bank, he can be a banker. If you got a prison, make him a prison guard. If you got a grocery store, make him a bag boy or night manager. These aren’t totally essential to the story, but will visually help your movie.
Like I said above, no one wants to see a movie where people just talk in the same room for 90 minutes. There’s really no excuse for that. Using the right mix of characters and attainable locations can really make your low/no budget film look and feel like it cost a lot more to make than it actually did.