A friend of mine recently asked me to advise her on a short film. She’s a film school graduate from a very credible university, but the script she showed me didn’t yet have the elements I consider likely to lead to a successful short.
That’s not surprising, considering that most of what’s taught in film and screenwriting classes is meant to prepare filmmakers for the jump into feature films or television. I would argue, however, that the short film is its own art form. With its own rules for success or failure. Not knowing these rules is a recipe for a lot of wasted effort and heartbreak. Don’t let this happen to you! (keep reading…)
It’s the dream of every new filmmaker, isn’t it? To direct that short film that is so good everyone will see their talents and offer them work? A time-tested road to our industry’s top job. Some would say it’s the only road, because until you’ve already proven you can direct – who in their right mind is going to give you money to try it?
DIRECTING REALLY IS HARDER
If screenwriting is difficult, directing a film set is exponentially more so. It adds multiple levels of decision making, almost all of it coming under pressure. Design and costume decisions; cinematography and lighting decisions; scheduling, casting, and the ever mysterious alchemy of actors and what they need to be at their best. Tough stuff. if you survive all that, you still have months more to mess things up in the editing room, or with sound design (or lack thereof), or with music or scoring. In the DIY world of short filmmaking – most of this is probably your job too!
My point in enumerating all of these job components?
It better be worth it.
You had better have something to say, and a way of saying it that’s surprising and original and visionary. It better go beyond the obvious. Beyond what’s been done before. Because if your short doesn’t establish you as a bold new voice in cinema – or at least a very fun one – it’s not going to do much else for you at all.
But b efore we go any further, let me state the obvious:
SHORT MEANS SHORT
If you are planning a 15 or 20 minute short film, stop right now. In fact, if you are going over 7 minutes, you are in serious danger of never finding a film festival who can put you on its schedule. Festival programmers have a beast of a job trying to assemble their shorts programs. Shorter is ALWAYS better for them. Online watchers are an even tougher crowd. Before they even start watching, they look at the running time. Anything over 5 minutes tends to get put off until later. Which means never.
Use the challenge of brevity to force yourself to tell a tight, economic, powerful story with the least amount of fat possible. You will find it can be done. I have been brought to tears within moments of a film’s opening. And I have seen 30 second tv spots that carried more impact than an entire feature film. Filmmaking is the most succinct and powerful language on the planet. If you can’t get tell a great story in 5 minutes, start over and try again.
REALITY CHECK: Sundance received 8,161 short film submissions last year. Still think you can afford to create yours without knowing the rules? Be my guest. Others, read on.
RULE #1 – ORIGINALITY MATTERS
The world you choose to put on screen is one of your biggest opportunities to stand out. Make it count. Even if you have chosen a tired genre – cops and drug dealers for example – find some part of that world that hasn’t been on screen before. Focus on that. Bring THAT to life.
The world of New York mobsters had become a total cliché until David Chase put a schlumpy Jersey mob boss into a psychiatrist’s office to talk about the panic attacks his mother was causing. Whole new ball game. THE SOPRANOS.
CITY OF GOD, the breakout film from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, airdrops us into a Brazilian slum for the manic chase of chicken fleeing the stew pot, while armed teens blast away at it with pistols. Dangerous. Kinetic. A world we had never seen before. If you can show your audience a rich world that’s as fresh as these two – you are already miles ahead of the other short films out there.
RULE #2 – MAKE ME CARE. QUICKLY.
In short films, you have an even shorter window to get audiences to care about your characters. Hands down, this is the most common failure by new directors: failure to lay out important emotional stakes for their characters. Every writing teacher will tell you that your story needs a clear conflict. What they don’t always tell you is that the way this conflict is FELT is through the emotional stakes its characters face, if they fail.
Ask yourself whose story carries the bigger stakes?
- A slick & charming bank robber sticking up a bank in Los Angeles? (say, George Clooney in OUT OF SIGHT.) Or…
- An inexperienced bank robber who needs $10,000 for the men outside who have his girlfriend. But his “gun” is really just a water pistol which he is trying to keep the bankers from seeing clearly, so he can get away with the money?
If you’re like me, the second choice is a lot more interesting. Never make the mistake of thinking that because you put an actor on screen, we will automatically like him. Or care about him. We won’t. It’s your job to win that sympathy.
RULE #3 – DIRECT TO YOUR STRENGTHS
By the time you’re ready to direct even a short film, chances are you have established your strengths and weaknesses. Play to those strengths. Like these visual artists did in “EYE OF THE STORM.”
Maybe you’re a D.P. and really good at moving your camera around. You’re comfortable with all kinds of rigs and mounts that can give your footage a lot of dynamism. Doesn’t it make sense to choose a story with plenty of action, where that dynamism pays off?
Maybe you’re an actor, and your strengths lie on being able to coax a finely nuanced performance out of other actors. An action film make less sense for you. But an intimate drama or a romantic comedy might really let you stand out.
Suppose you’re an editor, and you’re very comfortable cutting multiple timelines. How about a nonlinear short, in the vein of MEMENTO or 21 GRAMS?
Look at just about any director who really “broke out” from a short film or first feature. You can see their strengths, right from the beginning. Quentin Tarantino’s hallmark loopy dialogue showed up in RESERVOIR DOGS.
Robert Rodriguez flair for action was what made EL MARIACHI. Jason Reitman’s irreverent voice started long before JUNO became a hit. The Coen Brothers carved out their own style of black humor and gritty suspense right away, beginning with BLOOD SIMPLE and it took them all the way to the Oscars. Having an honest understanding of your strengths as a filmmaker – rather than believing you can do anything – will allow you to really stand out. Tailor your short film to these strengths and you’re a long ways ahead of the others.
RULE #4 – DON’T START AT THE BEGINNING
Because of the brevity of short films, you’re often better off dropping straight into the meat of the story, rather than working your way up to it. You’ll be surprised how quickly the audience will figure things out if you have done your job giving them reasons to care. (See point #2 above).
Take a look at AMORES PERROS, Alejandro Iñárritu’s first feature, which is really several short films strung together. From its first moments, we are thrown into the middle of an unfolding drama. Octavio (Gael Garcia Bernal, above) and his best friend are speeding away from a pickup truck that is menacing them from behind. They are frightened. Octavio’s dog is shot and bleeding in the rear seat. He is desperate to get help for the dog. Look how much is achieved at the open: Conflict (the men chasing them), character (they are two close friends, in trouble together), sympathy (his desperation to save the dog), stakes (they will clearly die if they cannot outrun the truck). Total elapsed screen time? 35 seconds. Truly impressive. Later, after the car chase, Iñárritu goes back to show us how this predicament got started.
You do not need to make an action film to use this technique. I once wrote a romantic comedy that opened at the moment the girl discovers that their condom broke during sex. With the worst guy she could be sleeping with. Structurally, that’s the middle of act two. And once we establish how wrong this guy is for her, we go back and start the story from the day they meet.
EVENTS VS. STORYTELLING
In any kind of screenwriting, it’s important to distinguish between the sequence of events in real life vs. the way you reveal those events for your audience. In some films you will tell those events in order (think: tv cop dramas); but in many films, you tell those events out of sequence. Choosing what to reveal, when, for maximum emotional impact. Very often, especially in short films, it pays to start in the middle, and take advantage of the audience’s natural desire to make sense of what’s in front of them.
RULE #5 – EXPLOIT THE MYSTERY
This final rule follows directly from rule #4, above. Because for me, a really great short film is a mystery – regardless of genre. By this I mean that airdropping your audience into the MIDDLE of your story creates its own tension. Can I figure out what’s going on? It’s a kind of mystery for them. As if they have walked into a room in the heat of somebody’s argument. A lot is going on. Emotions are high. It’s exciting, but they don’t have the necessary backstory to understand everything. But they will.
We take away the bulky, slow moving exposition, but with the promise that we will make things clear eventually. Eventually, they WILL understand. Everything they need to know will come out – even if it’s only at the last moment.
THE DANCE METAPHOR
Often times, I like to think of filmmaking in terms of music. So imagine your short film as a dance you’re going to lead. The audience is the partner you are leading on this dance. You know the steps, but they do not. You have one song (say 5 minutes) to get them across the dance floor to the opposite corner. When you reach it, your dance (the film) will be over. Now ask yourself, should I walk them straight across? In a perfect line, corner-to-corner? What fun would that be? You would hit your target, but you wouldn’t likely get another partner to dance with.
No, the magic happens along the path you choose to lead them. First closer, now further away. Then spinning them. Then dipping into shadow. Faster. Slower.
You want to think of every one of your filmmaker’s tricks as a move you can use with your partner during those few minutes. A piece of exposition – moves them into the light. Some new mystery – back into shadow. Some action quickens the tempo. Some big character reveal might slow things until we’re barely even moving. A new plot twist – the tempo changes. Or the mood. Some bold camera moves will throw them off balance. But you always catch them. Firmly guiding them on.
In a great short film (like “Nathaline Kerosene” above) your audience is so caught up in the joy of story movement that they don’t even notice you’ve danced them right into the corner, until the very last beat. Then the song is over. And you leave them wanting more.
This quick overview is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the tools you can bring to bear on your short film. It’s meant to keep you out of trouble and hopefully to give you a fresh perspective on the short you are considering.
Obviously, a lot more can be written on this topic and will be in future, because the genre tends to be overlooked, even though thousands of would-be directors really struggle with this rite of passage.
For most young directors, the challenge of overseeing all the people who crowd onto a film set – especially their first film set – can be overwhelming. That’s why writing, preproduction, casting and rehearsals are so important to your success. All of these will be covered in future too. But for today, begin by focusing on the high level decisions that can set you up for success.
- Choose a fresh and captivating world.
- Make me care. Quickly.
- Identify your strengths and play to them.
- Start in the middle.
- Exploit the mystery (your audience’s desire to understand).
In the meantime, spend as much time as you can analyzing what has worked for others BEFORE you start one of your own.