This is the first hurdle. Writing. Sean Connery, in one of my favorite pro-fatherhood, pro-mentoring movies of all time (Finding Forrester), says to his young pupil "the key to writing... is to write." He prefaces this with, "No thinking - that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head."
First of all, head on over to Celtx and sign up for their free screenplay (online) software. It's easy to use - ‘tis a very simplified interface for new users. Using your regular tab/return keys, you can do most formatting in a jiff, be it dialog, screen direction, scene changes, etc.
Second, follow the ol' man's advice: write. If you haven't an earthly idea on how to write a screenplay, there are a myriad of books out there to give you some pointers. A personal favorite of mine is Save The Cat! by the late Blake Snyder. While his skeleton approach to screenwriting is by no means the "right" way to write a screenplay, it does provide a set of training wheels to get you going. If you haven't figured it out already, there is no "right" when it comes to creating art - be it movies, poetry, so on, so forth. Write/shoot something you're passionate about, and the rest falls into place. Passion is contagious. Let it bleed through into your work.
Our story 12 Til Dusk is a rewrite - a modern version of my first full-length screenplay A Western. We could not afford to shoot a period piece, so we had to simplify our story by bringing it into the present age. You should too. Ask yourself - realistically - what can you do on a shoestring budget? Then keep that on the backburner as you flesh out your story. I took the Rodriguez approach with the 12 Til Dusk story and every short film or video I’ve ever worked on: I write around what’s available to me. For 12 Til Dusk, I knew I could use my motorcycle, assorted firearms, the desert, a couple of different houses, and a screenprinting shop. I worked around those constraints and adapted my characters to live and breathe in those spaces with those items. It worked out just fine. The benefit of having no budget is you’re forced to be creative. The big guys can throw large amounts of money at a problem; you don’t have that luxury. Having no budget forces you to tap into a different reservoir of creativity, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t nab b-roll with Jimmy Carter. Plan your locations and props around what’s available. Your story should be able to function on the strength of your characters anyways.
I recommend setting a timer on your phone. Unlike an alarm, you should just be able to ask the phone to set a timer for 15 minutes and then no further work is required. On my iPhone, if I set an alarm for 15 minutes, I have to delete the alarm later. When the timer expires, I have an obnoxious old car horn sound effect let me know it’s time to stop and move onto something else. So try it. Work in a 15-minute block. If it’s a short story, you won’t have to do this very long. If it’s a feature, you’ll want to plan out how many 15-minute blocks you need to write your story. This book The No Budget Guide To Filmmaking (that you're reading) will end up being around 30,000 to 50,000 words, and the thought of writing it seemed daunting until I realized I could break it up into chunks. All of us can manage a 15-minute block. It’s not too long that we wear ourselves out, and it’s not too short that we can’t get anything done. You can easily get in 700 or more words in one 15-minute session in a book. If it’s a proper script, and if you’re following the usual formatting for scripts, then you’ll likely get in a good page, a page and a half in a 15-minute block. It’s easier on the mind, and I promise you can finish the race. It’s a race of endurance, make no mistake. Whether you’re Sylvester Stallone and you’re pounding out your story in 3 days or you take 3 months, writing in 15-minute chunks will get you there without destroying your sanity. If you’re writing for a short video, you likely won’t need a formal script; draft that bad boy up on Google Docs. If it’s a one-man project or a corporate video, you can still write in 15-minute chunks.
The benefit of having no budget is you’re forced to be creative.
When I started writing this book, I carried this practice of 15-minute blocks over to my short stories/scripts. Regardless of whether they are ever produced or not, I write something new 4-6 days a week because I am committed to improving my writing over the course of my life. So much of this trade requires long-term commitment, and I don’t mean that to alarm you because you can pick up this book no matter what kind of no/low-budget video or film you’re going to make. Understand that to truly master this craft, it’s going to be a long journey. I started on After Effects back in 2009 and mini-DV movies with zero editing skills years before that. But if you’re just trying to get a one-and-done project in the queue, you can do it. You might just be a savant, or you might be like the majority of us and need some practice. You’ll get out of your video/film what you put into it.
When your story is done, get folks to review your story, and do it in a real, breathing group, then host another such group review. Maybe 20 more. And not just any group of folks. Friends and family are great, but they're probably not used to reading screenplays (the formatting takes some getting used to), let alone do they know how to offer sound advice without being biased towards you. Find people that deconstruct scripts, offer painful pointers, and yet at the same time, build you up. From start to finish, you need supporters in this monumental undertaking of yours (short or feature film or video - you need supporters). Find the people who will give you the raw truth and the constructive criticism you need to fine-tune your craft AND boost your courage. You need both. And put some food out. Your team will appreciate it.
When the revisions are done, and YOU'RE happy with the final product, register your story with the U.S. Copyright Office and the WGA. Mind you, if you’re doing a short video, this last step isn’t needed, unless you’re planning on going far with this video. If it’s an in-house corporate video, I’m fairly confident you’ll be okay just pounding out a script. But if it’s a feature, register it with the U.S. Copyright Office and/or the WGA. One is sufficient, but you may register with both. Fact: your story is copyrighted the moment you write it. Great! Why register? These guys aid in the enforcement of your copyright, should you ever need to fight for your claim to YOUR story. Words of wisdom we followed: register your story. It's worth the $65 odd bucks to register with both of 'em. It takes a handful of weeks to get your confirmation in the mail, so plan ahead.