I recently interviewed Carl MacKenzie, founder and director of the Chelmsford Film Festival in the UK. He had contacted me and wanted to share his experience starting a festival geared towards fiercely independent filmmakers, including microbudgets.
The CFF have recently opened up submissions for the film festival and you can find them on filmfreeway: CHELMSFORD FILM FESTIVAL.
We talked about why they formed the CFF as filmmakers and their goals as well. Especially if you have a microbudget short film, it is a filmmaker friendly festival where you would be welcomed. Check out the interview here:
I also wanted to take this opportunity to respond to a question about screenwriting and characters that I received after my last post from Doug. He wrote:
“For a newbie like myself, a follow up post might address HOW to create different voices for different characters. Does that mean different agendas for each character to create tension in each scene? Does that mean... well, what does that mean? Any tips on how to create different voices would be greatly appreciated!”
This is a super-important question and I often see scripts in which everyone “sounds” the same (probably like the writer talks, or wishes they spoke). This isn’t surprising, most of us think of ourselves as the “good guy” in our life stories. We unconsciously (or consciously) write our characters – if we don’t plan ahead – in a way sounds like our favourite model of good guy.
Ironically, this is why the antagonists/”bad guys” in screenplays are often the most interesting, well-developed characters. We think of the “bad guys” as somebody other than us, which forces us to differentiate them in terms of how they speak, move, behave in the world.
To get over this you really do need to plan out each of your characters. But what does that mean?
My suggestion is that you write down each of your key characters on a page and then write two things about them:
1) Some backstory. Don’t go overboard here and write too much, just stuff related to their journey in the story that you’re creating. I suggest this because if you have too much about a character you will be really tempted to put it all in your screenplay, usually in the form of expository dialogue. The screenwriter Alex Epstein calls these moments – we all know them – the “rubber ducky”. This is where a character takes time out from the main action to tell us how some terrible event in their early life made them do some certain thing or feel some certain way. Backstory, whether highly developed or more like a sketch, should only appear as action whenever possible. The less exposition the better. What you’re trying to do is understand how your character behaves in the world, why that is and how that will affect their journey.
2) Write out some key behavioural traits in how they speak. DO NOT USE ANY LANGUAGE THAT DESCRIBES THEIR EMOTIONAL STATE. In other words write out things like – do they speak in long, convoluted sentences or short, staccato ones? Do they use big words or talk more “street”? When they talk to someone do they look them in the eye, stare at their feet, look at their cellphone screen or up at the clouds, or a meter to the side of their person they’re talking to? Do they use their hands when they speak? Clear their throat when they’re nervous? These shouldn’t be just randomly chosen characteristics but should fit with the type of character you’re creating, the arc that they need to travel and the thematic argument that they’re proving/disproving as a result of that arc. For instance:
Imagine a story in which you are exploring how love and friendship is more important than money. That’s your thematic argument. You have a character, let’s call her Joan, who starts off as a spoiled, trust fund kid but when her parents die she will be robbed by her friends out of her inheritance and end up poor. Ironically, while she tries to recover her inheritance, she will discover that the people with whom she now rubs shoulders “in the mud” so to speak (at the bottom of society) are actually better, more loyal people and have a network of mutual support amongst each other.
That suggests that Joan will start off behaving in ways that emphasize the importance of her elite, wealthy status. When someone beneath her challenges her in some way – say by not letting her bud in front of them at the Starbucks line-up, she will do things to demonstrate her status. She may push up her sleeves to show them her Rolex watch. She will use big, obscure words to demonstrate her superiority over others. She might use dismissive hand gestures or not even show the respect of facing someone directly when speaking to them, turning her body away from them.
All of these characteristics are visible and action-oriented (remember, actors are called actors because they ACT. It’s up to your actors to find the emotional motivation, with the directors help perhaps, to justify the action that they have been given). How does this look on the page?
INT. BUSY STARBUCKS – DAY
Typical Starbucks, packed to the gills as the local office workers line-up to get their fix.
Joan pushes through the door, phone to her ear.
This is not that hard: move the money into my C account. Use that money to short bitcoin,
which has at least another 48 hours of correction...
She walks right up to the counter, oblivious to the hard looks from caffeine starved clientele who have been waiting patiently.
Double Macchiato Grande, stat.
The 18-year old BARRISTA looks from the crowd who might riot, to Joan, who has already turned her back to her.
Ma’am, I’m afraid that there’s a line-up that begins by the door.
Joan sighs and rolls her eyes.
I’ll call you right back.
Joan now turns to the Barrista, pushes up her sleeve and shows her the face of her Rolex watch.
You see this?
It’s an expensive watch....
VERY expensive. It also indicates the time. If I don’t get to my meeting
in ten minutes, it will cost ten million dollars. That’s a titch more
pressing than any engagement these other people might have.
The Barrista stares gobsmacked.
Joan snaps her fingers several times in the face of the Barrista.
Show some urgency. You’re keeping everyone waiting.
You get the idea. There are other elements in this little scenelet worth exploring about scene construction to create tension and conflict but I’ll leave that for another post. What is worth noting here is that you need to plan your characters to ensure differentiation and specificity in line with the character arc and the theme. And, secondly, that you must ensure that your characteristics need to be visual, external and built on action and conflict.
If you have any questions you want answered about microbudget filmmaking or writing a microbudget screenplay, don't hesitate to drop me a line.
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