Over the past five years I calculate that I have workshopped, tutored or just plain stuck my nose into a minimum of 300 short film projects. The figure is probably nearer 500 but who’s counting. The point is that again and again I have sat with creative clients of some sort, in a creative environment of some sort, in order to change a wonderful idea that a writer is passionate about in their head, into a short film which they hope will make the world just as passionate about it too. I call this the “alchemy of film ideas.” That magical fantastical part of the creative process which has to do with transforming the original nugget of creativity into a new , expanded and shareable film experience for the viewer. Put simply, if you had an idea that made you cry with emotion, that’s what you want the film to do to the audience. The same goes for laughing, smirking, or most importantly thinking! That’s why we want to make films in the first place, in order to share our emotions and thoughts with the world.
The trouble with this alchemic process is that between that nugget of creativity you originally had and the tear jerking movie you want to make, lies a whole prosaic , practical, TECHCNICAL process of change, in which there are a thousand chances to make decisions which will distort, or even destroy the final product. That’s why making good films or TV is so difficult. That’s why as William Goldman says “nobody knows anything” about what makes films successful.1.
Goldman was talking about commerciality, of course, but I think it’s true on an aesthetic and creative level also. Experience has shown me that it’s virtually impossible to predict what the correct decisions should be at any stage in the process. Given this, it seems to me that the best thing you can do is to take a series of steps which will help to minimise the distortion, and maximise the chances of your original idea surviving the brutal process of taking it to the screen. Original ideas are not robust, and need nurturing , so if you want to become a successful film or TV writer, hold on to that idea you have , because its going to be a bumpy ride taking it all the way to Production. So what I plan to do is create a series of short blogs with a modest aim. How to limit the possibilities of failure by making as few mistakes as possible in bringing in your five minute film to life. Lesson 1. has to do with the simple idea that “Size Matters.”
Regular readers will know that I spent the weekend at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye speaking to 30 new Screenwriters who are developing ideas through the FilmG Short films competition. As we trolled through the writers ideas one by one, I realised that just like my previous 270 odd workshop clients, by far the greatest challenge which these tyro film makers had in bringing their ideas to the screen was that the scale and size of their original idea was way out of line with the needs and demands of a five minute film.
People rarely have too few ideas for a short film. Time and time again, they have too MANY ideas for a short film. Of the 29 short film ideas I was handed at the weekend, I wrote the letter “F” beside about half of them. “F” stands not for failure, but for Feature. Again and again, new writers have an idea that they think is about a short film, when in fact it is an idea for a feature. So my advice (caveat scriptor…what the heck do I know, you might be a genius ) is forget about large casts of characters, complex backstories, groups of friends, convoluted plots and love stories combined with gothic horrors.In my experience, a short film can just about take on board the problems, experiences inner thoughts and development of one character. It can further just about cope with one mentor/friend/enemy/ character who can help the main protagonist to understand the need to change. And that is it. You want to show a guy who meets a girl, falls in love, loses her and then finally wins her back against the exciting backdrop of the world tree felling championships? Great.Go get 3 million dollars and make the low budget feature. You might even be able to cast Michael Cera and Ellen Page, and raise 30 million on it, but it it certainly isn’t a short!
So, based on all those past workshops, and all those brilliant ideas, the first piece of advise I have in scriptwriting a short film is, SIZE MATTERS. Small is beautiful.Keep the idea simple, keep the protagonist’s journey short, keep the cast list down to two, and if you can’t express the totality of the film in three sentences, then it’s not a short film.
Next time I’ll talk about structure in screenplays. Do we need it, does it matter, and what the heck does Aristotle know about movies anyway?
Here’s a fine example of a short film which knows it’s limitations, and explores it’s subject matter with emotion, and economy. Its called Historia De Un Letre . Is it any good? I don’t know, but it made me cry, and in five minutes, that’s not a bad outcome. Enjoy.
1.Goldman, William (1996). Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood (2nd rev. ed.). Abacus. ISBN 034910705X.