A long time ago, in a film school far, far away (from NYU), a young man with big dreams and a small bank account made a short film with a long title. His name was George. And in 1970, between graduating USC’s School of Cinema and pursuing a master’s, George made the student award-winning Electronic Labyrinth: THX-1138 4EB, which he eventually expanded into a feature. The first film released by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios, THX 1138 was a visionary, sci-fi, sharp-sounding, ground-breaking, dystopian, unmarketable box office dud.
But like many directors who believe like proud parents that their special little short films can aspire to one day grow up to be full length feature films, captivating wide audiences for hours longer than 20 minutes at a time, George’s story ends in success. Not, as you might imagine, because his last name was Lucas and he went on to change filmmaking forever, but simply because he earned the opportunity to make a feature at all.
For many fledgling filmmakers in the United States—where about 4,000 shorts are produced every year, and only around 400 feature films are released theatrically—the path presents unique obstacles. Of course, not every short-filmmaker intends to do anything more than tell a short-form story, such as the case with experimental, abstract, slice-of-life, and one-joke films. And not every film that does make the attempt busts through from its short origins to feature success with the impact of Sling Blade (1996), Bottle Rocket (1996), Raising Victor Vargas (2002), or Napoleon Dynamite (2004). But it’s that crucial first step that means everything.
Eight years ago, John Krokidas was earning the distinction as the worst intern ever at Sandy Stern and Michael Stipe’s production company, Single Cell Pictures. “If you called me, rest assured I didn’t get the message,” Stern says with a wry chuckle. Today, Single Cell has optioned Krokidas’s feature-length script that he is set to direct. The feature expands on his award-winning 24-minute short Slo-Mo, a stylized, quirky social-commenting comedy in the broken mold of Charlie Kaufman in which the lead character, struggling with writer’s block and abandoned by his girlfriend, finds everyone and everything in the city of New York zipping by in fast motion except him.
Thirty-year-old Krokidas, with a tuft of chin hair, brown wool-knit cap, and eager-to-please eyes, sips on black coffee while explaining that he made Slo-Mo at NYU Film School after being dumped five years ago, and that he had never intended it to be a feature film. “I was done with it emotionally and artistically,” he says.
But, he realized two inviolate truths of filmmaking: While people might love your short, the most common question you will be asked is, “What are you working on next?” So it is crucial that you always have a spec-script to pitch. “A great short can get you attention,” Krokidas says, “but it can’t get you work.” And the second reality is that it helps to be lucky.
His break came at the first screening of his film in 2001 at the Cantor Center at NYU. Somewhere in the crowd of 200 people, attending as a guest of another director, sat Winona Ryder. In an East Village bar afterwards, Ryder approached Krokidas and offered to help him get an agent if he promised to work with her someday.
“It was my first celebrity encounter as an actual filmmaker,” he says. “And the whole experience was incredibly reaffirming—the feeling you get when you realize a whole new world is opening up in front of you. Immediately afterwards, I ran to my family who was there and said OHMYGODWINONARYDERLOVEDMYFILMANDWANTSTOWORKWITHME!”
The first challenge for Krokidas, and any other filmmaker considering to adapt their short, was determining if he was prepared to remain with the same material. He had already lived with Slo-Mo for three years, including a year he spent marketing it to festivals and television outlets around the world which eventually paid off with a sale to HBO, recouping his costs and allowing him to repay investors, including $1,000 returned to his dentist.
After girding himself for the long haul, Krokidas needed to face the new realities of writing and preparing to direct a much longer story on a much larger budget. Characters needed stronger motivations and back stories, new characters and subplots needed to be created, and the somewhat antisocial ending needed to be tweaked so that the paying audience could take something away from it and apply it to their own lives. “What people take at face value in a short, they’re going to have to challenge in a feature,” Krokidas says.
A budget 20 times as high as his short film means all new actors with familiar faces who can sell the film. It means shooting with proper location fees and licensing instead of stealing shots from subway platforms on the sly. “You can’t just shoot into a crowd and call them extras,” Krokidas says. And the higher the budget, the more worried the studio becomes about their investment, and the more pressure they put on the director. This all assumes that the film will make it through studio gates.
But Stern, whose company produced Being John Malkovich (1999) and first-time director Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, boasts boundless confidence in his one-time crappy intern (who now has a three-picture writing deal at Miramax and finished writing a script set to star Goldie Hawn, who is also attached as a producer). And Stern considers the short film to be his most useful sales tool when they begin pitching it to studios and talent. “It’s very hard to get a first-time director’s film made,” Stern says. “But the short film will open doors. You can see the vision of the feature in that short and know that this director will deliver what he has on the page.” For Stern, it was the feature script that caught his attention first, but after seeing the short, he said: “Oh, this guy is a filmmaker. He knows what he’s doing.”
Kelly DeVine, manager of film acquisitions at IFC, agrees that a short can provide an accurate measurement of a writer-director’s ability. “It shows the industry that you can take an idea on paper and realize it,” DeVine says. “Everybody has an idea in their head, but it’s a huge leap to making it a finished film. Especially films that are more conceptual in nature.”
Sometimes that leap can be both strategic and conceptual. When Debra Granik’s first short film at NYU film school, Snake Feed (1997), won Best Short at Sundance, everyone told her that this needed to be her next feature. Her film, a gritty portrait of an upstate New York woman and her boyfriend struggling with drug addiction as played by a real-life couple struggling with drug addiction—often recreating scenes from their own lives—was based on a hefty period of observation, questioning, videotaping, and improvisation. The subjects/actors were both in a precarious place, testing their sobriety with what Granik calls “guts and soul.”
So when friends and admirers pointed out to Granik that she likely has thousands of scenes that couldn’t make it into the short, why not just expand it? “The ‘just’ is the bitch,” Granik says. “There’s no way to ‘just.’”
So Granik threw herself back into the lives of what she calls her “life models,” understanding that she would need to know them more intimately, expand their stories, and prepare professional actors to play them. Their lives were changing rapidly as she wrote the script, diverting her interest to what was happening at the moment from the scenes she was carefully constructing. The script grew to the size of a phone book before Granik put on the breaks and refined what she had.
“There was never a day when I thought I was expanding my short,” Granik says. “I had to feel I was embarking on a new adventure.”
The destination was Sundance again, where her (now) feature film, Down to the Bone, won both the 2004 Special Jury Prize and Dramatic Directing Award. For Granik, the experience of making the short was such an integral part of he process that she considers making one to prime herself for her next feature. “A short puts you in the hot seat,” she says. “You’ve decided you will make some filmic piece, and after some energy, you will have strived to make something watchable and understandable. And even if the short reveals some big gnarly problem with the film, I’ll be able to fix it.”
Director Phil Roc shot his 10-minute short Avenue X, over two days for about $4,000 after post-production, just to prove that he could. He is now working with his writing partner, Aaron Schnore, to give the festival crowd what they’ve been clamoring for. “People want more, so we’re going to give them more,” Roc says. “Might as well capitalize on the momentum rather than just walk away.”
His film, following two teen boys who scam money from a bodega owner to finance a day at Coney Island, strikes a nerve with audiences, because the two lead characters are deaf—something uncommon in the film marketplace. Roc is confident he will find financing for the feature and recognizes the role of his short in accomplishing that. “The short shows people in the industry that I can do this and hopefully take those ten minutes and turn it into 110 minutes,” he says.
Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden were thinking along the same lines when they wrote a feature script and then made their short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, partly as a means of getting the feature financed and partly for practice. “We got to workshop characters, workshop story,” Boden says. “We wound up revisiting the feature and making changes. With other shorts, we didn’t know what we were doing and were just messing around with video.”
Gowanus, Brooklyn tells the story of a somewhat rebellious, somewhat distant 12-year-old girl who discovers that her no-nonsense, existentially philosophizing teacher is hiding a crack habit. To create the short from the feature script, Boden and Fleck took the inciting incident and built an entirely new script around it. While the short unfolds from the child’s point of view, the feature will focus on the teacher. While the short ends on an unspoken understanding between two characters, it’s the type of everyday moment that could hardly sustain a feature ending.
The process of working from a feature to a short and back, Fleck explains, has had some unintended consequences. “We know all the secrets, but there is more mystery in the short,” Fleck says about the untold stories and relationships between the characters. “Now that people have read the feature script, they have all the mystery solved.”
Well, you can’t please everyone.
The trick, as almost any filmmaker will tell you, is to please yourself and hope for the best. And whether that first step eventually takes you to a distant galaxy of film success—where you’ll be tempted to one day taint your legacy with a series of maddeningly insipid prequels—or maybe just takes you to a quick screening at a theater near you, it might be heartening to believe: one small step for a short film can be one giant step for a short-filmmaker.