BIZ TIP TUESDAY:

WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MY SHORTS?


DVD

Yes, I actually used to use that as a pick up line. Because in my youth I wrote and directed a bunch of short films. That's actually how I started out - my parents had an 8mm home movie camera and I would save up my paper route money and buy a roll of film and make little film starring my little brother about alligators in our back yard. The grass was supposed to be water and the alligator was paper mache. Eventually I grew older, more sophisticated, and continued to make 8mm films in high school as a way to meet girls. The movies worked, my love life didn't. In my Community College film appreciation class we had to make a 3 minute movie every semester. I had a Super 8mm camera by then, and made an epic 30 minute movie that parodied all of the films we were forced to watch in the class called THE SHORTS OF BILL MARTELL which opened with titles over my underwear. Later I did a sequel, MONDO SHORTS: UNDERWEAR OF THE WORLD that had parodies of everything from the movie CARRIE to my classic NIGHT OF THE LIVING LIFE INSURANCE SALESMEN ("You're in evil hands"). These were all fun to make - and I actually met a girl and fell in love and we ended up in a suburban house with three dogs and so many domestic expenses that I had to stop making 16mm films and focus on writing because it was cheaper.

You may be interested in writing and directing some short films - these are great "calling cards" and executives who are too busy to read your 110 page script may be able to find the time to watch your 10 minute short film... especially if it won awards somewhere. Though it's more likely they'll find a directing job for you off a short than a writing job. But how do you write a short film? Do they have 3 acts? And if they do have 3 acts, what do you do about that Syd Field thing about Act 1 ending halfway down page 27 if you only have a 10 page script?

I have written and directed a bunch of shorts, and even won some awards for them. I've also been on film fest juries where I had to watch and judge hundreds of short films. If you haven't read my Raindance Diary from 2004 where I reviewed almost *every* short I saw at the festival, and some of the things I said there may be helpful. (oops! The link to that is broken!)

There's also a book by Frederick Levy on breaking in with short films. I saw one of his presentations (I think at Santa Fe) and many of the things in his book are helpful. Here are some of his ides about short films mixed in with some of mine.

SHORTER IS BETTER

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Frederick says keep it at 10 minutes or less, and I agree. My friend John enters these 24 hour film challenge things, where the movie has to be 3.5 minutes or less... and all of his films are *too long* at 3.5 minutes. Get in, get it done, get out! Don't over-stay your welcome! Just because the *limit* is 3.5 minutes doesn't mean your film has to be that long - it can be one minute. The short needs to last as long as the story lasts - and not a second longer! One of the Raindance shorts went on *forever* - and it was only 3 minutes long! You want to make sure every *second* counts in a short. This means a 3 minute short is constantly giving us new information - no "coasting". A feature script might be able to "coast" forward on previous information for a page because there are 110 page. A short has no time to waste, no time to coast. The story needs to be constantly evolving! Things need to be happening all the time.

But wait! Can you tell a story in 10 minutes? Is that even enough time? Part of the Raindance Film Festival every year is the Nokia 15 Second Film Festival... you read that right! 15 seconds! That's the amount of video time on a cell phone. Back in 2004 the winner of the competition was written by a guy who took my big two day class, Steve Robinson with his short HAVE I PASSED?

Nokia 15 Second Shorts
(Click on "The Finalists" then click on "2004 Finalists" to see Steve's film)

Check out the other 15 second short films on the site - and see just how much story you can fit into that little time. I really liked the speed dating film and am still haunted by the twist at the end of the HAN_MAN movie.

PROGRAMMING

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Another reason why shorter is better: programming films is easier if the film is 10 minutes or less. A film festival is made up of features and blocks of short films. Usually the festival is in 2 hour blocks, with features filling the 2 hours and a block of short films running just under 2 hours. The more short films you can fit in the 2 hour block, the more variety at the festival and (as Elliot from Raindance once said) the larger the audience if the filmmakers and their friends show up. Which would you rather do - show three 30 minute short films or eleven 10 minute short films? You need time between showings for the festival goers to get top the next screening and to clean out the cinema - so you can't show four 30 minute films.

Another great thing about a film that runs in that 10 minute range is that if can be used to fill in time when a feature is short. A 90 minute feature might have a short or two before the film - which allows the festival to show even more short films. The ten minute thing is a ball park running time - your short may be 7 minutes or 12 minutes and it will still be easy to program. It's those 20-30 minute films that are difficult. They eat up a huge part of that 2 hour time block and can't be partnered with a feature.

So a shorter running time, in that 10 minute range, means your film will be easier to program and end up in more festivals.

Also, less time to get boring. Ten minutes is a really long time.

PUNCH LINES

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Most short films are structured with a set up and a punchline. Some may be 2 act structure: just the set up of the conflict and a punchline resolution or twist at the end, others are a strange form of 3 acts with a set up, a "get used to the situation" act 2, and the twist or punchline at the end.

In fact, I think punchlines are the most important element in a short film. All of my shorts were set ups & punch lines... and not all were funny. I did a short called UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY about a pair of detectives on stake out who chase a guy with a bunch of bags who runs out of a department store during a payroll robbery. Much of the film is a foot chase (the "get used to the situation" - the longer the foot chase the more we are sure the detectives are chasing the payroll robber). Ends with one detective savagely blowing away suspect *after* he gives up. They look in bags... stolen merchandise! The payroll thieves got away, and they just killed a small time shoplifter. That's a punchline.

You want some sort of ironic twist at the end if you're writing a serious story, or a big laugh if it's a comedy. You don't want that SNL peter out end. The structure of many shorts is set up and punch line - kind of like a 10 minute (or less) TWILIGHT ZONE episode.

The Socal Film Group is a group of screenwriters who share equipment and work on each other's short films - a great bunch of folks (friends of mine). Just over a year ago their new film TOSSERS (about Gay Frisbee dancing) played at MockFest in Hollywood. A few years ago the Silverlake Film Festival held at the Arclight Cinemas (Cinerama Dome in Hollywood) had an entire evening devoted to their films. Their films range from commercial parodies like FLONOSE (where your sinuses flow so well your brain might slip out) to silly comedies like WHO'S ON FIRST: THE MOTION PICTURE (where film titles create confusion at a video store) to the AMC horror short winner THE STALL (about a man in a public toilet stall with a killer doing horrible things just beyond the door). At Silverlake I saw one of their films for the second or third time... and it made a major emotional impact even though I already knew the twist end. FINDING SPACE (written and directed by Danny Grossman) is about a husband and wife looking for a parking space in a huge mall parking lot... and having a conversation about their relationship. But something is odd about the conversation. You can't quite put your finger on it. Then we come to the twist ending - which is similar to the twist in THE SIXTH SENSE... and it hits you right in the heart. This is an *emotional* punchline. So don't think of punchlines as something funny - it may be an emotional punch!




Finding Space from Danny Grossman on Vimeo.


PARODY

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Which brings up subject matter. Frederick Levy says do a parody of a film as your short - those get passed around town like crazy. I've seen a half dozen BROKEBACK take offs in the past few months, so I guess that's true.

You want to find the clever parody, not the obvious one. GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE is both a parody of SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and the STAR WARS movies. In fact, the STAR WARS movies have spawned an entire parody industry - from the COPS take off TROOPERS to my friend Anthony's SURREAL WORLD: TATOONIE. Bug eyed actor Steve Busceme says that no two movies should ever meet each other, so combining two movie into one parody is probably the best approach to create humor. SWING BLADE took the movie SWINGERS and introduced it to SWING BLADE with really silly results. These films are fun to make. Most of my early films were parodies, from my take off on every western ever made A FISTFUL OF MOZZARELLA FOR A FEW PIZZAS MORE (which started with William S. Hart and ended with Clint) to FOR SORE EYES ONLY (a Jams Bond movie about the evil Dr. Lawnraker's plan to fire a 100 foot tall can of Right Guard aerosol deodorant into outer space to destroy the ozone layer). The key to a parody movie is to remember that the situation is not the joke, the jokes are other funny things you come up with in *addition* to the situation.

MYSTERY

Use mystery to create an intriguing short! I saw this great short at the Temecula Film Festival called COUSIN OF SLEEP about this high school kid who has to get his stuff back from his girlfriend's place - and all of their friends talk about why she did it... and you think it's about breaking up, but what they're saying is a little confusing... you know there's something you're missing and keep trying to figure out what *really* happened. There's a scene where they select clothing from the girl's closet - what is that all about? The mystery is what drives the film. You know that it isn't just a break up, because *everyone* is sad about the event. Ends up (punchline) she killed herself! But the mystery of what happened kicks off the film and keeps us involved in the story. Again, this is a great tool to use to build that story before you spring that punchline twist.

THE EXTREMES

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Great things come in small packages. So don't wimp out. You have less time to tell your story, but that doesn't mean the story can be less exciting or less emotional. Give us a 2 hour experience in 10 minutes. Just like when you are writing feature, the story isn't about the second most interesting thing that ever happened to the character or the third most interesting thing, your story is about *the* most interesting thing that ever happened to them. The event that changed their life. That big moment. You may only have 10 minutes, but you want to make a maximum impact on the audience. You want to leave your mark on the viewer and have them remember your short film for years to come. As a writer, you want that story to be so interesting that the viewer may want to read some of your feature screenplays.

But you want emotional extremes, you don't want any negative extremes: extremely violent, extremely disgusting, extremely crude, etc. I read a friend's short script where he has a coke whore shoving a poodle in a microwave and blowing it up in graphic slow motion. You know, I don't want to see that film. His theory was to make a film that really pushed the limits - and people would remember it. Nice theory, but you want them to remember your short for the right reasons not the wrong reasons. Don't make a film that's just plain sick. You want something concentrated and emotional, not sickening.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

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You probably aren't paying people, so keep cast and locations at a minimum. You have to think like both a writer *and* a producer. The more complicated your short is to make, the more chances for things to go wrong. I have a friend who has been working on the same short film for *years* now, because he took a simple story and made it more complicated - added locations and characters and effects and props and... now he has an epic short film (if that's even possible). You can make something so difficult to film that you will never be able to complete it - and that makes it a money-pit. The purpose of making a short film is to show it to people. That means you have to finish it! Keeping the story simple will make it easier to film and easier to finish.

I did a film called LAUNDRA-MATT about a guy named Matt doing his laundry. It was every gag I could come up with that took place at a coin laundry (there was one right down the street from my apartment). My story was about bachelor doing his laundry... and everything that could go wrong. That red sock that ended up with your white shirts. Things that shrink. Overloading washers. Too much detergent. What setting do you use to wash leather shoes? (I said it was a bachelor.) Anything funny I could come up with. I cast my friend, and paid for his actual laundry. Shot in a day at the laundramat. Filming took a couple of hours. I also did a film called PSICKO! about a husband and wife who keep trying to kill each other during a meal - two cast members, one dining room... and an electric carving knife! Small casts are best. One location is best. Too many people and places make it complicated - and things are bound to go wrong.

My FIST FULL OF MOZERELLA western had a big cast and a lot of locations, and was one problem after another. People didn't show up, locations didn't work out, props were forgotten, rolls of film were lost. The day I had the most supporting actors show up was the day my lead flaked. I had to shoot his costume draped over a paper bag I'd brought the props in. Over the shoulder shots of every one else... then, later, I shot his close ups and cut it together. Lesson learned - figure out a way to shoot the whole thing in one day with only a few characters. That mean the *story* has to be simple: one or two locations and only a few characters and nothing expensive or complicated as far as props or stunts or FX. One thing to think about is the "Robert Rodriguez School Bus" thing - if you know where you can get a school bus for free, write a story around it. Start with what you have access to and wrap your story around that. I could easily get a couple and an electric carving knife...

The real key to writing a short film is to keep it simple: a short and simple story, a limited cast and limited locations, an interesting idea and a great punchline.


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Available Scripts

CLASSES ON CD

Class CDs CLASSES ON CD! Take a class on CD! GUERRILLA MARKETING - NO AGENT? NO PROBLEM! and WRITING THRILLERS (2 CDs). Full length classes on CD. Now Available: IDEAS & CREATIVITY, WRITING HORROR, WRITING INDIE FILMS, more!
Take classes on CD!