One of my frustrations with independent film — and in particular, micro-indies of the past few years — is a lack of narrative ambition.

Flip through the catalogs of any festival and you’ll see movies with fascinating characters and rich settings in which nothing really happens, as if the filmmakers took a Dogma vow to avoid plot.

My hunch is that it’s actually a consequence of thinking small. If you’re making a movie on a limited budget, it may put real constraints on your locations, schedule and cast size.

But that frugality doesn’t need to limit your story. Story is free.

Waiting around for things

I spent last week at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, working with writer-directors on their next projects. I don’t want to single out any one script — I’m eager to see all of these movies made. These filmmakers are very talented.

But I often found myself pausing at page 45 asking “What’s happened so far?” and “What am I curious about?” And too often, the answer was not much.

Some of my red flags:

  • Are characters waiting around for something?
  • Do they take half-steps, then retreat?
  • Do major events (death, abortion, incest) happen off-screen, or before the movie begins?
  • Do people talk about food?
  • Could you swap a scene from page 10 and page 34 without changing much?

A few of these projects would fall within the loose borders of the mumblecore movement, stories that focus on the sputtering interactions of a few well-educated characters. This is no ding on the genre; I like my Humpday just fine.

But I wonder if filmmakers are looking to mumblecore movies as an excuse for underwriting and avoiding character conflict.

A lot of story can happen even when you’re constrained to a few locations. Hamlet takes place in a few rooms. So does The Usual Suspects. Both Go and The Nines pack a lot into each of their three-part sections. And while Sex, Lies and Videotape might seem low-plot, the story keeps forcing characters to make choices and face the consequences.

In meeting with the screenwriters at Sundance, I challenged them to look for scenes in which characters were talking about things and show them doing those things. Often, the omitted scenes weren’t more expensive than what they would replace — but they were more difficult to write. The beginning of an affair is trickier than showing it mid-course. A trapped child is uncomfortable to write, but compelling to watch.

The writing is always going to be the least expensive but most challenging part of the process. Making a low-budget movie is a study in compromises. Story shouldn’t be one of them.