How to write films you can actually shoot

Screen shot from my short comedy film. Pictured here is Charlie Neufeld. The lady on the left side of the screen is my mom!
Screen shot from my short comedy film. Pictured here is Charlie Neufeld. The lady on the left side of the screen is my mom!

Having a healthy imagination is part of what makes filmmaking so much fun. Your imagination frees you to invent people, places, and things that delight us on screen. Your imagination has  such unlimited potential.

That’s fantastic!

Unless, of course, you actually want to make the film right now, using the resources you have on hand. When you have very few resources as an independent filmmaker (like me), that can be tough. It’s painful to reel that imagination in a little bit but it’s incredibly helpful — at least, for right now, while you’re getting started.

Keep in mind, those restrictions can also be freeing. It narrows the possibilities, making you work within certain confines. Those restrictions can become strangely inspiring.

Also, once you realize you don’t have unlimited resources (time, locations, actors, and money), you can do pretty cool stuff. You can explore your own neighborhood, work with an aspiring actor, and help promote a local business in the process. The exploration can be a ton of fun.

That’s what happened with Trophy when we shot it in 2013.

"Trophy" is a short film I shot with friends in early 2013.
“Trophy” is a short film I shot with friends in early 2013.

Trophy is a short comedy I wrote in 2012, when I needed something of a “palette cleanser” after working so hard and so long on Abandoned Allies. (For those of you who don’t know, Allies is an important social justice feature-length documentary that took me five years to complete. It was a doozy!) That’s why I wanted to experiment with something a little different afterwards.

I kept Trophy super short, with very little dialogue, and set it in one location. Those restrictions meant I might actually get to shoot the way I envisioned it. Turns out, I was right.

We shot Trophy in one day, using one location. We had a lot of great help, and I learned a lot in the process.

Screen shot from the short film.
Screen shot from the short film “Trophy.” Pictured here is Davion Dante, John Wilkins, and Mike Williams.

In fact, one thing I learned is that I should have scaled it back even more. When planning, I thought having a lot of extras would be easy. But because we had access to the location during the work week, it was tough to get a lot more people to volunteer. They had other commitments like, you know, working. All things considered, we still had a lot of people there and it filled the scene perfectly. I’m incredibly grateful for that.

So when you’re thinking of your next film (whether you’r a screenwriter, producer, director, etc.), try restricting yourself to using what you already have on hand. Limit the number of people, places, or things you include to stuff you actually have access to shoot.

Try to follow the K.I.S.S. rule: keep it simple, stupid.

Don’t make it any harder on yourself than it has to be while you’re first starting. Set the bar really low so you can exceed your goals. Believe me, you’ll have plenty of challenges along the way anyway. It’ll be quite the adventure, no matter what.

So if you’re working on something new, consider limiting yourself to the following:

  1. One or two main characters
  2. One location
  3. Few extras (if any)
  4. Few props (if any)
  5. Little dialogue

These restrictions will also help you stay focused on your story, characters, and storytelling ability. No need to get distracted with too many sets, locations, costumes, special effects, etc. This is a very good thing because the story is, arguably, the one thing that matters most.

Do yourself a favor and scale the production back right now. Remember to keep it simple. You’ll have plenty of resources later on.

If you can do a lot with a little, then just imagine how much you can do with a lot!

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