Writing Science Fiction and Realistic Expectations
I’m in the process of putting together ideas for multiple projects. I love science fiction. It’s my favourite genre to work in and I love the open boundaries to ask “what if?” It’s got scope and majesty and the ability to let my mind run free is one of the most appealing things about it. That’s why I have to rein myself in and keep my imagination in check. For now.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
I have ideas for sci-fi set on spaceships involving big action sequences with tons of effects and generally awesome stuff. I love all that and I want to do it. I want to write huge things on the page and wow audiences with incredible sequences and things they’ve never seen before. But I’m putting those ideas in the bottom drawer for now, and I’m doing so because those ideas are expensive. What I’m working on right now is, well, it’s realistic.
By realistic, I mean I think someone at my stage of career as a writer can reasonably pitch it - it’s contained, budget-conscious and more about the ideas and characters than about massive set-pieces or mind-blowing sequences. I’d love to write for huge-scale space battles and massive, planet-scale emergencies, and I will, but I’m prioritising the ideas I think I can actually reasonably pitch. But why? Why not go wild with my biggest, boldest, most amazing ideas? Why not show the world what I have with all guns blazing?
Filmmaking costs a lot of money. Even the lowest budgeted feature films are made on a scale of hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that’s considered a micro budget). To hire cinema quality equipment, get crew together who are good at their very specialised jobs and pay them all for the multiple weeks it takes to shoot that much footage, it’s costly.
Can it be cheaper? Well, yes. But not a lot cheaper, and if it is, it will show. Or it will cause problems. So for the moment, I’m going to be writing movies I think can made for a few million dollars at most. In terms of movie making, that’s not as much as it sounds.
The point here is that investors in a film are putting in huge amounts of money, even at the low end. Understandably, they want their investments to be as safe as possible, and that means they’re probably going to want to look for experienced writers. You don’t hire a pilot who’s never flown a plane before but reckons it doesn’t look that hard and is willing to give it a go, so why would you put many millions of dollars behind a writer who doesn’t have demonstrable experience? You wouldn’t. And neither will they.
While this can be discouraging for early career writers (like me!) who don’t have a lot of credits or are struggling to find their feet, that just means we have to prove ourselves, and that means being realistic about the kinds of projects we can get made. If I pitch the next Star Wars to a producer and they do a bit of mental maths and figure it’s going to cost a couple of hundred million, they’re going to pass on it. I’m not a good enough bet for that kind of money.
If I can pitch a smart idea with a unique twist that is relevant, current and can be done for less than million dollars? That mental maths checks out a lot better - in filmmaking terms it’s not that big a risk, and the potential for a decent return is a lot higher. And that means it’s more likely to happen.
I’m going to briefly use Christopher Nolan as an example. He makes massive films. Inception. The Dark Knight. Dunkirk. Interstellar!!! I’d love to make those kinds of movies. But his early films? Memento. If you haven’t seen Memento, you should. It’s incredible filmmaking and was shot for a budget of nine million dollars. It also wasn’t his first film. His first feature (and he did shorts before that) was Following, and was shot on (from what Google tells me) a budget of six thousand dollars. Six thousand. He wrote it, directed it and co-produced it. He wrote and planned it deliberately to be as budget-conscious as possible. Six thousand is an insanely small budget for a feature film but I’m sure you see the point.
I think of this as building trust. Building your career as a writer is building trust in the industry. If we’re hoping for Producers and Executives to trust us with potentially huge amounts of money, we have to prove we’re trustworthy. We do that one step at a time, one movie at a time, one pitch at a time. We do that by keeping our steps small and our ideas feasible. It’s not up to a Producer to take our wildly over-ambitious idea and find a way to secure a hundred million dollars to shoot it; it’s up to us to prove we can work with whatever budget might be available to us right now.
Once we’ve done that and done it well, we earn some trust.
So what does that mean in the real world, for me and the projects I’m working on right now? It means I’m staying away from alien planets and giant space battles. It means I’m restricting myself to the near future or at least a contained space that could be built as a set within a realistic budget. It means I’m telling stories about characters, not events. It means the story lives or dies on the quality of the ideas and the writing, not the quality of the special effects team or how many polygons there are in the alien Queen’s butt. Not only is that good for budgets, it’s good storytelling. It means the focus is on the characters and their journeys rather than the events that serve as a backdrop.
In showing that I can tell a good, engaging story without relying on special effects, monsters, aliens and stuff blowing up all over the place, I also demonstrate that I can tell a good, engaging story that ALSO has those things. That’s what I mean by building trust. Those great ideas for set pieces, they have their place, but for me, for now, that place is in a drawer on pieces of paper or tucked away in a file folder on a hard drive where I can come back and develop them later.
For right now, I’m staying small. I’m staying contained. I’m staying low budget, because that’s where I need to focus at the moment. That’s how I get an industry to trust me, and that's how I get to write all my most awesome ideas.
Image Source: War Of The Worlds, from Wikipedia