“Making Dramas: High Concept versus the Low Concept” by Scott Spears

Written by Scott Spears

My advice to startup filmmakers with limited resources is to take a look at the films of M. Night Shyamalan. These films could be made for almost no money if you take out the name stars and do a little trimming in the scope of some scenes. Night’s filmmaking is very basic with little or no “showy” shots. Heck, in “Unbreakable,” most scenes play in one shot.

Let’s look at the logistics for each film:

“The Sixth Sense.” A guy spends most of the movie taking to a little kid. Locations are houses, schools, an office, a store, etc., to name a few. Small cast: doctor, kid, mom, doc’s wife and a few supporting cast. Special effects: a few nasty wounds and puking green pee soup.

“Unbreakable”. This film’s second scene is a massive train wreck that we don’t get to see! What a great cheat. Locations are just a little tougher here, with the train station, football stadium and wrecked train, but with some clever work you could have been imply the scope. Small cast, hero, villain, son, wife and some minor supporting characters. Special effects: stunt fall down stairs, wrecked car, and wrecked train on TV that was low res CGI work.

“Signs.” Here again we have an alien invasion that happens off screen. What savings there. Locations: small town, farm house, a store. Cast: ex-minister, brother, son, daughter and supporting folks. Special Effects: this is the trickiest of the three with the full body alien suit, but hey, you only need one.

I’d say the hardest thing to do with all three of these movies is finding kids who can act.

“The Village.” The setup would be a little costly because of the period costumes and setting, but I know near me in Ohio there’s several historical villages which could be used. Special Effects: Somebody in a cheesy monster costume.

What I love about Night’s movies is that he is basically making dramas and then dropping a high concept on them. Here’s a breakdown of the high concept vs. the low concept:

“The Sixth Sense.” A kid sees dead people. No, that’s not the real story. It’s about grief and accepting death.

“Unbreakable.” A guy finds out he’s a superhero. Nope. It’s about realizing that suppressing your abilities to please somebody else will ultimately destroy that relationship and upon re-finding your strength, you become whole again and saves your marriage.

“Signs.” A family reacts to an alien invasion. Not really. It’s about a minister re-finding his faith.

“The Village.” A turn of the century village is threatened by a beast from the woods that surround it. Nah. It’s about the price you pay for creating a society based on deception.

I know some people who have felt cheated by “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Village,” but I think they’re missing the real plots. There are internal struggles going on that are, in my opinion, more interesting than the high concept in the foreground.

Be creative. Make your characters living, breathing people. Think of the drama first, not the special effects which you really can’t do well on a low budget anyway.

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with over 18 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can learn more about him at www.scottspears.net.

 

 

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