I’m never one to quote Hollywood actor wisdom. I usually find it to be something you see on a bumper-sticker or a t-shirt, but I saw an interview with Will Smith and as much as I wanted to be cynical and walk away from it with a jaded eye, it stuck with me. He said “Why be realistic? Being realistic is the most common road to mediocrity”. So why do we write that way? Why do we start with money on the mind?
I get why it’s an easy trap. Most filmmakers have no money and want to shoot something. But why start there?
Writing your series through the lens of budget first accomplishes only one thing. It ensures that our projects will be small and look cheap.
We see it all the time. We write down, “EXT. RAINY MOUNTAIN TOP - NIGHT” and a second later, we’re furiously pressing the delete button until it ends up being “INT. MY BUDDY’S APARTMENT - DAY”. It becomes small and familiar instead of epic and expansive. We edited ourselves before the idea could evolve.
Below are some things you can do that will ensure you create something exceptional. Something that looks more expensive than it actually is… and trust me, if you have the chance to pitch to buyers, they always look for things with the potential for high onscreen value. Things that look more expensive than they really are.
Budget should only be considered after you have a workable draft. Write the thing you want to make no matter how ridiculously out of range you think it is. This all but guarantees your vision stays large. It can always be adjusted/augmented when you get to the budgeting phase of the project.
If a studio is paying you to make your project, let them pull you back, because they always will if your project is worth making. If they ask you to build it up, you’re in trouble. They’re telling you it feels small/cheap.
If you’re self-producing/distributing, you’re competing with stuff that looks like TV, so you can’t afford for it to look cheap. It doesn’t mean you need to spend a ton of money, it just means you need to get super clever. For example, I shot a scene for a short in ultra-lux Ritz Carlton Hotel lobby. We shot on a weekend in Spring. Beautiful, well-dressed people being followed by a guy with a nice DSLR just looked like people associated with one of the nine wedding receptions that were being held that day. A friend of mine waited for ticket prices to fall and shot the most amazing in-flight scenes of his lead actress on a plane to Paris. When they landed, they went into town, shot a scene in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, ate some dinner and flew back. Long day, but tough, that’s what it takes.
Go somewhere that’s hard to get to. Shoot under that abandon bridge, climb that hill on the edge of town. Go into the backcountry of the state/national park that’s three hours away. Just get out of your familiar world. Stay away from the easy.
In the end, I live by a simple statement: Tough decisions, great series. Easy decisions, unseen series. So “bend” the rules, make bold decisions and the reward will be an epic final product.