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Screenwriting: Jeff Eline Interview

Writing Ultra-low Budget Screenplays

by: Jeff Eline

Email Jeff Eline

Everyone in the film community has heard the familiar refrain, "Orson Wells made Citizen Cane when he was only 25." Well, Im 29 and lucky if I can make my lunch. Despite that, a little over a year ago, I decided to produce, direct & edit one of my scripts The Lottery Incident.

Its the story of Willard Whona, a hapless cemetery salesman that wins $140 million lottery and loses the ticket. The dream of one day owning his own funeral home is in jeopardy till he finds the ticket. Unfortunately for three conniving co-workers, he suspects them of stealing the ticket and takes them hostage. Frazzled, Willard threatens, pleads, yells and begs for his winning lottery ticket.

I know the concept isnt quite Hollywood material, which is exactly why I chose to produce it. The script has several things going for it. The theme and tone are such that IF it got distributed it would appeal to the alternative film crowd.

  • It takes place in basically one location.
  • Only four main characters
  • No special effects required.

With the script, a few books and a "Learn Everything about Film in an Hour" tape, I was ready for my first feature. I sketched out a quick budget; only bare bones stuff: film, camera rental, developing, lights, insurance and most importantly food. Everyone agreed to waste their summer vacation working a film without pay. How fortunate I am to have friends as loony as I am.

But where am I going to get the money for the budget? I had a four part plan:

  • Inheritance: I was lucky enough to receive $5000 for the estate of my grandmother. Not much of a patron of the arts, Im sure shes not too happy about her postmortem investment.

  • Credit Cards: The low-budget filmmakers financier - Visa & MasterCard. Its amazing how many of those things they will send you.

  • T-Shirt sales: Despite the fact that no one had heard of "The Lottery Incident", several Baltimorians were kind enough to shell out $20 for T-shirt. I camped out at a local cinema club that meets monthly and was able to raise a few hundred dollars.

  • Donations: Doing a film outside of Hollywood or New York, you have the novelty advantage. I filmed in a small town north of Baltimore and the people couldnt have been more accommodating. The local fire department gave me an ambulance for a few hours. A grocery store gave me $250 of free groceries. A strip mall owner let me use a vacant store for the primary set. A pizza parlor around the corner gave us a few pizzas. I couldnt have done it without the kindness of the locals.

So, before shooting, I took stock of everything I have: $10,000 in cash/credit, an ambulance, a funeral home, a vacant store front, borrowed office furniture, ten days to shoot, and an eager cast and crew. Sounds like the perfect marketing hook to be retold in the pages of People, Premier and TVGuide.

However things havent turned out so perfectly. I certainly have my share of requisite low budget filmmaker horror stories. We were run off of city property while trying to get a shot of the National Aquarium in the background. Halfway through a days worth of shooting, the sound man comes to me worried that none of the days recordings are on tape. An actor comes to the set with all his lines completely re-written but not memorized!

While trying to shoot on July 4th with 100 degree heat in a small room with no air conditioning, the next door neighbors start their fire works display... accompanied by a full drum set. Its theorized that the DPs glow in the dark watch infected a few rolls of film while loading them in the dark changing bag.

Besides the interesting asides, production went smoothly. One piece of advise I received before shooting was "Feed the cast and crew. You can not pay them, you can abuse them, you can even put them in peril, and they will still come back. But do not let them go hungry."

For this important task I recruited my mother. It could be said the I may not have run the most professional of sets. But all was forgiven when dinner arrived. Full turkey dinner one night. BBQ cookout another. Sure enough, people will work quite hard when they know they will be fed.

We wrapped in 10 days, had some steamed crabs, and said our goodbyes. Post production has been painfully slow. I have since editing the damn feature about 10 times completely. I see scenes from the film in my sleep, over and over again.

My biggest break was in the scoring of the picture. The music composer is an established jazz guitarist with many contacts. The funk/jazz soundtrack has such names as Will Calhoun (Living Colour), Gary Grainger (John Scofield), and Victor Williams (Dennis Chambers). So if you watch the film with your eyes closed, its a pretty cool flick.

> Exhibition of the film has been limited up to this point. While it isnt advisable to start production without enough budget to actually get a print, I went ahead anyway knowing that I might only be able to see it on the small screen I was fortunate enough to have a small film house in Baltimore show the film on video. The attending crowd was very supportive and gave good feedback that was used in subsequent edits. The film will be submitting to several festivals in the next few months.

When I reflect on "The Lottery Incident" experience, I certainly have learned a great deal. The most important is the film industry truism - film is a collaborative art. And while the efforts and investments of many have certainly helped to make this film something special, I would have done better to ask for more help.

I was writer/producer/director/editor/production designer/ et al... And as a result, I know I missed out on the input and creativity of many individuals. In my attempt to prove the autuer theory, I probably handicapped the film in some ways. I have met numerous people that have said they would have loved to have helped out had they known.

Producing a film is not that complex. Its hard, maddening work, but its not brain surgery. For the low budgeter, you must keep in mind that of all the resources needed to get a film done (MONEY, people, time & material), you have a ton of time. Use it. Plan everything in preproduction and production will be much easier and cheaper.

Dont fall into the trap of believing that you must get the film done for this years Sundance festival. There will be another festival. And if you slow down and do it right, your film will thank you. Orson Wells may have made Citizen Cane when he was 25, but many claimed he peaked too early. Im just pacing myself. At least thats what I tell my wife.

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