To ring in the first installment of our new MovieMaker Melee debate series, we invited two indie moviemakers with films releasing this fall—Tyrel writer-director Sebastián Silva and 1985 writer-director Yen Tan—to mix it up in a cinema-centric sparring match.

Check out each section with Sebastian and Yen as they trade friendly fire on their preferred ways of tackling Screenwriting, Development, Production, Post-Production, and Distribution. —MM Editors

Round One: Screenwriting

Should You Write for the Budget You Know You Have? Or Write Without a Budget in Mind?

Yen Tan (YT): I’ve only written for the budget I know. That’s the arena I’ve worked in and am most comfortable with, and it makes the most sense. Writing with a fixed budget in mind is practical, less complicated, and makes for an easier process for everyone involved. Why would you write something for which you know there’s not enough money to pull it off?

Sebastián Silva (SS): I’ve never thought of the budget when I write. I’ll write a smaller story or bigger story, but I’m never thinking, “How much money is there going to be?” That’s something you find out later. My 2013 film Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus was just an idea, and within a month of writing, things were changing. You know a film like that is going to be cheap, and you adapt to it. But I never knew immediately what my budget was. It was, “Let’s make a small movie,” and that was it. There’s some stuff that I write, like, say, a science-fiction project with thousands of extras, that’s very expensive—possibly millions of dollars worth of production value. But I don’t censor myself based on budget. Movies are always hard to make, no matter how small or big they are. Whatever you’re writing is either going to get made or it’s not. So, better to accumulate stories, and let out everything.

L: Jamie Chung (L) and Cory Michael Smith (R) star in writer-director Yen Tan’s 1985. Image courtesy of Wolfe Releasing. R: Friends Alan (Michael Cera), Dylan (Roddy Bottum), Eli (Michael Zegen), Pete (Caleb Landry Jones), Charles (Philip Ettinger), Johnny (Christopher Abbott), and Tyler (Jason Mitchell) take a selfie in a scene from writer-director Sebastián Silva’s Tyrel. Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

YT: I do wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: If you write with the budget you think you have—which, in my case, isn’t a lot to work with—then the scope of your story becomes smaller as a result. Maybe there are consequences to self-imposed limitations… I don’t know. But for me, it’s still a matter of knowing I can pull something off. If I write a scene that doesn’t have many people in it and it’s set in a particular location, I know I can do that. I haven’t thought about challenging myself to write your way, but here’s why: The pressure for me to write something outside of my scope is coming from external places. It’s coming from the competition amongst fellow industry people, which I can feel when I speak with them about what they’re looking for, what’s attracting them. And what they’re looking for always sounds like something bigger than what I have in mind. So there’s the pressure of, “If I keep doing something that’s what I’m used to doing, maybe I won’t get to make more films. Maybe I won’t get an opportunity to make something bigger because people can only see me making smaller films.” I’m in the middle of putting together a treatment for a project now that’s way bigger than anything I’ve done before, and I do find that when I’m in a room pitching these projects to people, they’re often more excited by them. If you say you’re making science-fiction, or that your story has “elements of sci-fi” in it, people perk up when they hear certain words like that. I wonder, when I’m far enough into that project, will people just assume that I can handle something I haven’t done before? It’s a learning experience as I’m seeing where that takes me.

SS: It’s true, a large-scale story is a different kind of labor. And there are a lot of moviemakers writing those stories who are just craftsmen. That would kill me—making movie after movie, never taking time off to wait to make the big one you actually want to make. It’s when you feel the need to share a story that calls for a grandiose budget with special effects and stars—that’s when you should fight for it.

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