Top tips for writing an independent film script

Tue 1 Dec 2020

You’ve dusted off the workday and you're note-booking ideas for your independent film project, but what are some of the priorities to consider before launching into plot, locations, character and narrative journey choices?

It’s not very artistic, perhaps, but if you’re serious about giving a script a life, and having an end product, there are some commercial and logistical issues we need to talk about.

We need to talk about: Scale

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Gladiator. The scope of your idea will determine if the project will succeed: Indy films typically deal in micro-scale, an intimate journey of few characters perhaps, not a bulging epic involving thousands of actors and scene after scene of crash, bang, wallop.

We need to talk about: Location

You might want to write a heart-wrenching story between two estranged refugee sisters on an Australian detention island. But, whilst the story's emotional merit might be obvious, how are you going represent the backdrop realistically?

Not every Indy film story needs to be made in a kitchen nook, with two and a half characters, one and a half packs of cigarettes and three inches worth of bourbon…But you can see the point.

If an Indy film budget might start at £15,000 and take say three weeks filming then budgetary exigencies have to be considered before you elaborate on multiple venues, places, people.

Will your rapper character for example be compelled to wear real gold chains for the sake of authenticity? Can she channel the rapper's authentic voice with simulated gold? Or is there another way to hint at her ostentatious nature or bravado?

We need to talk about: Originality

New is good. It has to be assumed that you don’t want your first script to be your last, so you want it to be memorable.

However, the desire for originality in character, setting or dialogue has to be weighed against an audience’s ability to recognise familiar tropes, seize on them as interesting, and stay the course.

Werner Herzog has made a career from absurdity and abstractions, and whilst you may not want to re-make something as recognisable as Rocky, then the essential characteristics of the films structure are eminently recognisable.

If a film has survived throughout the years and is still popular with new or emerging audiences that’s because its thematics endure, are relevant to say, the human condition, are timeless, or inter-generational.

Its ‘known’ for whatever reason and there’s comfort in that.

You want to be edgy as an Independent scriptwriter, that’s true, but avoid writing for an audience of one…

You won’t cement your name as a go-too script-writer with a one minute wonder that’s easy to dismiss as niche, avoid because the characters are too esoteric or leave a screening because the plots so thick its impenetrable.

You need to strike a balance. Take from commercial projects elements that insulate your idea from being too obscure, but take the audience on a journey that teases out an intimate portrait of one or a few characters in interesting situations where a commercial film project couldn’t go.

Know your ideal audience, who you want to sell your ideas to, but understand audiences over time too. Why do the Rocky films work? Rocky didn’t start as a blockbuster, it was the exact opposite but it evolved in scope and scale.

The essential component elements of all film projects

You can think about the zeitgeist, sure, but there are patterns in films that stay the course. Be original on your third film when you’re recognizable and you have the ear of producers who recognize your ‘thing’.

Temper largesse with plausible characters in locations that aren’t glossy, are prop-lite (does the car really need to be a Bentley) and don’t cost a bundle to lease. Begin with identifiable themes and story arcs, cool characters and plot lines that make the audience curious and want to see more.

Think insurance costs for example: will you be able to cover that three-car pile-up in the opening scene: does the lead character really need skydiving as her main hobby and does the dog need to be wearing Gucci?

These are just a few elemental decisions that have to be asked before you immerse yourself on the journey of putting pen to paper to write your indie masterpiece.

If in doubt, simplify. Don’t forget the producer who will likely fund your project has a pile of original scripts stacked to his waste and is looking for reasons to dislike your submission before he even opens it.

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