Screenwriting: Writing Your No-Budget Feature

I wrote this article back in 1999, but when I recently re-read it I realized there is a lot of valuable information for no-budget screenwriters to consider. So without further adieu…


Fade In:  The bus flies over the cliff. The airplane misses the runway. The stadium is packed with screaming fans. These are scenes you do not want to find anywhere near the script for your no-budget feature. Why? Because you have no budget and these scenes require money… and often quite a bit of money.

The first screenplay I ever completed was a thrilling adventure of a young U.S. serviceman who had to escape from Russia with top secret documents and, of course, he fell in love along the way. Russian Skies included location shooting in Russia, Norway, and the United States. It also required a high-altitude hydrogen balloon, a submarine, and to top it off, it was a period piece set in 1956.

This screenplay was obviously written for a Hollywood-type and has collected far more dust than I ever thought it would. Over the next few years I continued writing for big, juicy budgets and along the way I discovered something… my screenplays were not getting produced! Yikes! So I decided to do something about it and I set out to produce my own no-budget feature.

When I started writing When Love Walks In (my no-budget project) I was forced to look at things very differently. I knew from the beginning that filming in my living room would cost far less than filming in some foreign country. So I decided on a modern day love story, cast myself as the lead, and begged my wife to let a film crew take over our house.

Filming a scene in the dining room into the living room of my duplex where we shot When Love Walks In. Notice our flatbed garden dolly which we bought for $99. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the job for this low-budget feature.

Writing no-budget films is very different than writing your average Hollywood feature. For starters, with a no-budget project you most likely will be using no-name talent. This means many things, but most importantly it means that you had better have a very good story to tell. It is your story and your story alone which will keep the audience watching. Make it the best it can be.

Your story also must be shootable. What does this mean? It means don’t include a bus careening over a cliff unless you have someone willing to donate a bus, a cliff, and a stunt man to your cause.

Carefully consider the locations you will need. As I got further into my script, I started exploring what locations I might have or realistically be able to get access to. I knew I could use my living room… and my bedroom, guest room, and bathroom… not to mention kitchen, dining room, basement, deck and yard. These locations would not add much production value, but they would be very functional for a good chunk of the film.

My house was the only location I could guarantee use of, and to tell the story of When Love Walks In, I would need two more houses, a park, an outdoor mall, a couple fields, a daycare center, a vineyard, an art gallery, and a train station. For these I would have to rely on the generous people of my community (and a few insane friends). In remarkable fashion, they all came through for me.

Prepping to film the climatic scene at the train station where John Redgrave catches up to Annelise and begs her not to leave. At the time the old train depot was a library so we coordinated with our local librarian to secure the location for this scene.

Here are several other areas to consider when writing your no-budget feature:

  • Characters – Will you find actors who can play your roles? For free? For points?
  • Number of Locations – The more locations required, the more complicated and costly production will be.
  • Props – Can you get everything you need? Can you afford to buy them? What do you have sitting around the house? Who can you borrow from? (I needed an urn to hold the dead wife’s ashes, so I asked the minister of my church. He pointed me to a man in our congregation who owns a funeral home. This man was thrilled to help.)
  • Vehicles – Can cast members drive their own cars in the movie? For example, if the person playing the part of John owns a 1985 Mazda with three hubcaps and no paint, then in the movie John drives the Mazda… unless he can talk the soundman into lending his car.
  • Wardrobe – Be prepared to raid your actor’s closets and visit Goodwill.
  • Stunts – Keep them to a minimum if you need them at all.
  • Extras – Watch out for scenes requiring a lot of extras.

Be practical as you write your no-budget feature. Write it shootable… but most importantly just write it. If you don’t get the script finished you’ll never make the film. And if you never make the film, you will never experience the thrill of no-budget filmmaking.

Some of the cast & crew from When Love Walks In. Left to right: David Oulashian, Brad Embree, Karen Williamson, Savannah Williamson, Ahmad Russell, Terri Moore, Nick Bovee, Chase Williamson, Kent C. Williamson, Ardath Williamson, Ed Williamson, Brad Williamson, and Morris Priddy

2017 UPDATE: A couple of items of interest… Russian Skies the high-budget screenplay mentioned in this article still has not been produced (which means it’s still available or still collecting dust depending on your take). When Love Walks In wasn’t released until 2005. It won a number of awards at festivals and is still finding audiences today.

Thoughts About Down Syndrome… or Encountering God Through Zoe

My wife Karen and I were recently asked to share some thoughts with our church about how we have encountered God recently. We decided to approach it through the life-changing experience of raising a girl with Down syndrome. I’ve included video from of our talk, plus the written version which contains a few more details. We give this in hopes to encourage other families who may be just beginning down this path. We’re eight years in at this point and it’s been a pretty good ride overall, but it certainly hasn’t been without its trials, doubts, and fears…

Oh, and the photo above is of Zoe, me, and a little too much of my leg… sorry about that!


 

KENT: Good morning! I’m Kent Williamson and this is my wife Karen and we are going to share our Encounter with God through the life of our daughter Zoe.

KAREN: We love to talk about Zoe! But Zoe is not a short term experience or even a season of life. Just in her being, she represents a change from one path to another, from one destination to a very different one than we had planned. But we can certainly testify to God’s goodness and grace through what was a major life adjustment and transition.

Zoe is our sixth child and she was born with Down syndrome. We weren’t actually expecting to have a sixth child. If you’ve seen our family together, you might have noticed a rather large gap between Zoe and the other five. So that part was a surprise—the week of my 40th birthday, I might add. And we didn’t learn about her Down syndrome until she was born, so that was yet another surprise.

KENT: I will never forget, looking into her eyes for the very first time, thinking I’ve “seen those eyes  before” and then I realize, “Oh my gosh, my little girl has Down syndrome”…. That moment felt like someone had swung a baseball bat as hard as they could square across my chest.  I’ve never felt so very alone as in those first few minutes of Zoe’s life when I knew about the Down syndrome, but Karen didn’t know yet.

KAREN: And nothing prepares you for that moment. Nothing prepares you for the time when you were expecting one thing in life, and are then handed something completely different. I’m not sure I can describe in words how it feels when that “thing” is handed to you by a stranger, wrapped up in a receiving blanket. It could have been the scene at an ordinary restaurant when I might have said, Oh no, I’m sorry, this is not what I ordered. Please take this back, and bring me what I ordered. But we all know, life doesn’t work that way, does it?

KENT: We had five other kids who were anxious to meet their new little sister. So what do you do? For the kids sake, do you just ignore the Down syndrome diagnosis and pretend it doesn’t exist? We’ve never been that kind of family, so instead we sat them all down on the end of the bed in that hospital room at the old Martha Jefferson and I told them, as best I could, about Zoe’s 21st chromosome.  What I thought I was doing was explaining that Zoe has Down syndrome. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was really explaining that our family has Down syndrome.

KAREN: I regret to say now that those first days and weeks were for me full of sadness and anguish. And I wish I could say that it was only a short time before things turned brighter in my heart. In reality, it was a couple years before these unexpected circumstances felt kindof normal. And in that time, I did an awful lot of soul-searching, trying to understand my grief, and understand God in the midst of it. I had to ask the hard questions of myself like, Why is this so hard for me? What are my beliefs about what my family should look like, and what are those actually based on? And down deep below the surface, I was discovering a lot of pride and misplaced values. I was seeing in myself a flawed view of myself and the world around me. I was taking pride in things that I had no part in making a reality, and I had been placing merit and value on things that were superficial and temporal.

I read a quote recently by Charles Spurgeon that hits right on my guilt. “Be not proud of race, face, place, or grace.” In some rather subtle ways, I had been valuing things like status, intellect, appearance, correct behavior. But now alongside my grief, I had this child who I was falling in love with. I was beginning to embrace a child who wouldn’t be able to meet these expectations. So something in me would need to change in order to make a place for Zoe in my heart.

I am here to tell you, God did do a work in my heart. It was incredibly painful in the beginning, and humbling. But somewhere along the way, when your values and standards shift, you find beauty in things that once were not beautiful. And joy in things that once were not joyful. Even in the earliest days after Zoe’s birth, I was filled with an enormous measure of grace for almost everyone I encountered. I was nearly overcome with the realization that we are all given a place in this life, a color, status, genetic makeup, even a faith, that has nothing to do with our own will or determination. All we can do is build on what we’ve been given. That realization invoked in me a care about people I would previously have overlooked.

KENT: It didn’t take long for me to bond with Zoe. She makes me smile, laugh. and cry… just like my kids without Down syndrome. Kids with Down syndrome will skin their knees. pinch their fingers, bump their heads. They will also learn to climb stairs one big step at a time, ride their bike with training wheels, and love to jump on trampolines. And Zoe loves to read. As a matter of fact she just finished first grade as one of the top readers in her class. And they will steal your heart and never give it back.

KAREN: So I was given this child. She was a gift I didn’t know I needed. She was a gift I didn’t easily receive. But the gift has never been the problem—my own fears, uncertainties, and misplaced values were the problem. It turns out that Zoe has been a blessing beyond our wildest imaginings. There are still hard places, and challenges, and sometimes we grieve about various things. But I think I can honestly say we never grieve over what Zoe is not, or what she is lacking.

KENT: My little girl doesn’t care that she has Down syndrome. She just wants to be loved like the rest of us. Our family has Down syndrome and that diagnosis is okay with me. I’ve realized over the last 8 years that I am a better person with Down syndrome than I was without. It has made me more compassionate; more accepting of others; more in love with people and all their complex issues. I am a better man with Zoe in my life. God has given me such a wonderful gift—a gift that in my ignorance I would have rejected if I could have.

KAREN: So what have I learned, what do I value now? I value laughter, because Zoe is hilarious and constantly makes us laugh. I value music, because every since she first found her voice, the first sound I hear from her room in the morning is her singing. I value innocence and purity, because though I know she has a sinful nature, she really is not naughty or mischievous, she is kind and generous. I value authenticity, because Zoe is completely who she is without pretense or concern for image. I value connectedness in relationship, because these kids, our other five kids, have the most beautiful relationships with Zoe I have ever seen among siblings.

To quote another mom who’s further along the journey with Down syndrome, “Can she live a full life without ever solving a quadratic equation? Without reading Dostoyevsky? I’m pretty sure she can. Can I live a full life without learning to cherish and welcome those in this world who are different from me? I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

KENT: “Zoe” means “life” in Greek—both physical and spiritual. It was the name Karen and I decided on before she was born. And as we see her as the gift of God she is, her name couldn’t be more fitting.