Why a Short? - Complications Ensue
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Sunday, December 17, 2006

So, why did I decide to shoot a short film?

A bunch of reasons, really. Earlier in the year I wrote a fun little romantic comedy, and fell in love with the characters and the story so much that I'd like to direct it. And, it being a fun little romantic comedy, it can be made for the sort of budget that people are willing to risk on a first time feature director.

I directed a couple of student films back in film school, but it's been 16 years since then. In order to be taken seriously as a director, I really need to show people I can direct. So a short film is in order.

UCLA film school was all about being a writer director. When I got my MFA, though, I didn't feel it made sense to try being an indie writer-director. For one thing, the kind of scripts I was interested in writing were not frist-time writer-director films. Most of the spec features I've written have been big. The script that got me into film school was a vampire movie. My two favorite specs of mine until recently were an adaptation of Homer's Odyssey that started with the destruction of Troy, and an adaptation of Moby Dick set in space.

So I devoted myself to writing, figuring I'd keep writing scripts until I got good enough to write a script I could reasonably demand to direct. That took longer than I thought. As it turned out, it took 16 years. In fact I pretty well had myself convinced I didn't want to direct. (Especially since I moved largely into television, where the fun is all in being a writer-showrunner.)

Along comes this romantic comedy. And people seem pretty happy with the script. And it's all people talking in rooms, or in offices, or on the street. No car chases, no explosions, no special effects, no makeup effects, no stunts. 97 pages. And it's funny.

So a short film was in order.

I've learned a couple of things since doing my 27 minute 16 mm Oedipal drama at UCLA. One, don't do a 27-minute short film. No one really wants to see a 27 minute film. They want to see a short film. BravoFACT's limit is 6 minutes. That's a great length. If I'd had an idea for something 4 minutes long, I would have gone with that.

It may not, in fact, be much less trouble to make a six minute film than a 27 minute film, because the short I'm doing has nine locations -- about the same as my thesis film -- and a cast of 8 -- again, about the same. But it will have much more bang per minute.

I'm shooting on digital video tape, of course, not 16mm. Film is a pain. It's expensive too shoot, expensive to print, expensive to do special effects in, and expensive to make copies of. Multiple takes cost you more money. It's less friendly in low light conditions. You have to wait to get your dailies back -- that's why they call them dailies. When I did my student film, of course, tape was nowhere near as good as it is now.

FOR THE SHORT FILM?? We had some debate about whether to go HD -- a high def camera costs $1500 a day -- or HDV -- which I can rent from a friend for $100 a day. I chose HDV. I'd rather spend the money on paying the crew. On a medium-to-small screen, it's hard enough to tell HD from HDV unless you're a cinematographer. And 90% of the industry people who see it are going to watch it on DVD or the Internet. They'll judge the film by how well it tells a story -- how convincing the actors are, and how well I choose where to put and how to move the camera. Sound design and music will be critical, though if they're good no one will mention them. Bad sound design makes a good film look cheap, and bad music wrecks the mood.

My student film was trying to be poignant. This short is looking to be funny. Everyone wants to see something funny. Especially if it's short.

My student film had one visual style. A boring one. This film is going to be a series of comic vignettes -- which gives me a chance to show off a series of visual styles. If you think about how commercials can tell a story in 30 seconds, six minutes is a lifetime. We're going to have a flat, propaganda-picture style followed by handheld doc-style camerawork followed by highly composed and lit four shots followed by a steadicam tracking shot followed by an elaborate "fluid master." One of the reasons I picked the material I did was it gave me an excuse to show off different styles.

I also picked material -- I'm adapting a chapter from a bestselling Canadian humor book -- I thought might appeal to the funding agencies. With a student film, you're getting your equipment free. Your crew is working for free. On my student film the actors were free. My main expenses were film stock and food. On a short film, you're renting your equipment. You can ask the crew to work for cheap, but not free. I'm paying my actors ACTRA independent-film scale. We've got a budget of $40,000 and change. I'm not looking to pay for that myself. So, we're applying for grants from the BravoFACT program and the Quebec cultural agency, SODEC, with post production support from the National Film Board. You want to be going to them with something they can be proud to fund, that fulfills their mandate. Our subject matter is a unique aspect of Canadian culture. By making fun of it, we're appealing to a wide audience while at the same time giving the cultural moguls a reason to support us.

Of course, we'll see if they see it that way

Being a free lance creative is all about pursuing options. If you're not busy working, you want to be opening doors. If you've tugged at all the writing doors, look at what else you could do to add value. Produce? Direct? I have TV projects out there and feature projects. With a bunch of TV projects looking good, but not actually going yet, and the same with a bunch of feature projects, it seemed time to try something else. Like a short. While I'm waiting for funding to come in on the short, I'll come up with some more tv projects, and possibly arrange a staged reading of my romantic comedy. It's all about irons in the fire.

Irons in the fire also mean that you always have a positive story to tell. It means you're not calling producers to see if they've read your script yet. Instead, when they call you and ask "what have you been up to?" you can tell them a fun story that has nothing to do with the project you have with them.They'll be much more anxious to work with you if they feel you've got a lot of stuff going on. And they will be less likely to ask you to write for free, or accept a bad deal, when they know you've got a lot of things going on.

The beautiful thing about being a writer is you don't need anyone's permission or commission to write. You can always write the next thing. Directors need material and money. Actors need material and a director. Writers need a computer. Writers who want to direct need a computer and a DV camera.

Aside from writing that spec script, what other projects do you have going? What could you get going with the resources you have? Let us know where you're at in the comments below.

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2 Comments:

Okay, it's 4am and I'll bite:

1. Two more scripts in two more quarters at UCLA

2. Starting to prepare and plan to produce my first television program. A documentary that we begin filming this summer for TV One a black cable network in the US.

3. Working with a USC Stark student on a television pilot script. First draft done, but will go over notes and write a couple of more drafts in the next month of so.

4. I have two books coming out in 2007, one fiction and one non-fiction, and both on blacks in porn. The non-fiction is due on January 9th, which is why I'm up now.

By Blogger Lawrence, at 7:06 AM  

Just finished doing the first cut of my HDV short film called "Bomber Briefs". It is a 40 minute short...tugging on the length of a feature! Intention being to show it to potential producers and funding agencies to give a go-ahead for my first independent feature...

You can know more about me at www.myspace.com/sandeepmohan.

All the best for your future endeavors...

By Blogger Sandeep, at 5:31 AM  

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