Aspiring screenwriters often ask whether making a short film will help their careers. I believe it can. In terms of exposure, it’s easier to get someone to watch something than to read something. More importantly, the process of making a short film helps screenwriters understand how words on paper translate to the screen.
That said, making a quality short film is a huge investment of time and money and stamina, all of which might be better spent writing. Nick Rheinwald-Jones agreed to write up his recent experience making a short, providing useful illustrations of what happens when screenwriters get behind the camera.
1997 was such a hopeful year. The dot-com bubble had only begun to inflate, the TSA didn’t even exist yet, and as far as anyone knew, the Star Wars prequels were going to be amazing. Even the famously Eeyore-ish world of screenwriting was much more upbeat back then, buoyed by continued reports of million-dollar spec sales. And I, a happy-go-lucky college sophomore, had just decided that I was going to hop aboard that train as soon as I graduated. I’d move to L.A., work my way up the entertainment industry ladder, and let the magic unfold.
(If you’ve ever watched VH1′s Behind The Music, you should have a pretty good idea of what’s coming in this next paragraph. Heartbreak. Disappointment. Abject misery. And that’s just The Phantom Menace; I haven’t even gotten to Attack of the Clones yet.)
Dissolve to 2013. I’d been calling myself a screenwriter for over fifteen years — accurately, I should say; I’d certainly been writing all that time — but that all-important sale or commission that would allow me to call myself a professional screenwriter? It still hadn’t happened. There had been a few inklings of encouragement (for example, a pilot script of mine was a quarterfinalist at Slamdance), but no money, no representation, not even one actual meeting.
In other words, it seemed like a good time to re-evaluate things. At some point optimism becomes delusion, and pessimism becomes rational thinking. I didn’t want screenwriting to be a hobby, because heaven knows there are better hobbies than staring at Final Draft all day. But if I wasn’t getting paid to do it, if nobody was even reading my scripts, then that’s what it was going to be.
As I saw it, then, there were two options: Either come up with a new approach to my career, or change course altogether. The latter was certainly tempting; I knew I was smart and hard-working, and why not put those attributes to use in a field where I’d actually be appreciated? But even after all that time, I wasn’t quite discouraged enough to give up my Hollywood dreams: I’m nothing if not stubborn.
So I opted to go with Plan A and take a different tack.
I decided to make a short film — a resumé piece, essentially; something I could easily pass around. Most people will come up with any excuse not to read a 120-page script, but a 10-minute video would be less likely to be automatically ignored. (Or so I hoped.) Although I wasn’t really looking to get into directing, I figured I needed to direct my short so nobody else could take credit for it. I’d also need to fund it myself, and on this point, thankfully, my wife was very supportive. (Actually, she was more than supportive; she pretty much insisted that I do it.)
And so I began.
Step one: write the script
Somehow, I thought this would be the easiest part. I mean, I’ve been writing screenplays longer than some pop stars have been alive. Problem is, I’d never thought much about doing an entire filmed story in ten to fifteen minutes. In a feature screenplay, that’s just when things are starting to get going.
Beyond that, all my previous material was written with a studio budget in mind. Things would have to change a great deal if I was going to be the one writing the checks.
Fortunately, the budgetary constraints actually helped me with finding the story. I decided to write something that could mostly be filmed inside our house, so I’d have more money to use on other aspects of the production.
Genre-wise, I didn’t want to do a straight-up comedy, since that’s not what I typically write, and I wanted the short to serve as a good representation for the kinds of scripts in my portfolio. I opted for an action-comedy instead. A spy-action-comedy, to be specific. That was going to be a challenge, but it also focused my thinking. (For example, I didn’t have to spend a lot of time deciding what country I’d set it in, or whether the climax should take place on an aircraft carrier or a bullet train.)
Reading John’s short script for God was also helpful, in that it reminded me the needs of a short film are very different from those of a feature. You don’t need a lot of characters, you don’t need subplots, and you don’t have to turn the world upside down by the end of the movie. You do, however, need to be efficient and get to the point quickly. Luckily, I’ve always been pretty strong in those areas.
Step two: hire a producer
Here is yet another situation where luck played a huge part. I asked one friend (a writer/director) if he could recommend a producer; he had one producer to recommend, and she was available. I sent her the script and we met up to discuss it.
I figured there was no reason not to be completely frank with her, so I told her I’d never done anything remotely like this before (shooting some videos on a Hi-8 camcorder in college was about the closest I’d come) and that I needed all the help I could get. Although I knew a fair amount about most areas of filmmaking, I was fairly clueless about the actual process of, you know, putting a movie together. Scheduling? Budgeting? Renting equipment? Hiring a crew? Permits? SAG? Big bowl of nothing, as Jeff Garlin would say.
But by the end of our conversation I felt like I was in good hands. She had plenty of experience on movies of various sizes, not only as a producer but also as an AD and even a director, so I wouldn’t be throwing her any challenges she hadn’t faced before.
￼Step three: pre-production; or, is it too late to change my mind?
Our shooting schedule allowed for about two months of prep. I’ll be honest: I spent much of that time freaking the hell out. What was I worried about? Hold on a second and I’ll get out the list.
I was worried that my LLC paperwork wouldn’t be filed in time. (You have to form a corporation if you’re funding a movie, for a whole variety of reasons, and this entails working with California’s legendarily crummy bureaucracy.)
I was worried that we wouldn’t find a decent location for the opening scene. (The movie only needed one location other than my house, but it had to serve a pretty specific purpose, and it also had to be fairly cheap.)
I was worried that I wouldn’t get a decent cast. (Low-budget equals open calls, and also I couldn’t afford to use a real casting agency.)
Oh, and then there was that small matter of actually directing the movie — working with real actors, keeping to a (very brief) schedule, and surviving it all without an Apocalypse Now-level meltdown. In all my years of work experience I’d never managed a single person, and now I was going to be managing an entire cast and crew, all of whom were a good deal more experienced than I was.
But it wasn’t all nail biting and night sweats. A lot of it was pretty great: Meeting a real stunt coordinator; working out the shot list with my DP; even casting, one of my biggest fears, turned out to be a ton of fun (and quite successful).
(I should also note here how helpful it was to have a good producer at my side for this part of the process. Yes, I was freaking out on a regular basis, but I never actually had to worry about which forms I needed to sign, which checks I needed to write, or how I was going to find a cast and crew. She was taking care of all of that, and I am eternally grateful, because otherwise I probably would have gone insane.)
Step four: let’s shoot this thing
This is where I learned that adrenaline is a wonderful thing. Didn’t sleep for days before the shoot, definitely didn’t sleep during the shoot. And yet, while I was on set I was more upbeat and alert and on the ball than I’ve ever been in my life.
It probably helped that shooting a movie was easily the most fun I’ve ever had. It also helped that my cast and crew were superb — fast, efficient, professional, and generally just great people to be around. The cliché about a movie crew being like a family really holds true; even after a three-day shoot there were hugs and heartfelt goodbyes.
Of course there were frustrations, difficulties, unexpected obstacles, and more than a few I’m-in-over-my-head moments. But there was nothing to do with those moments but overcome them, push past them, keep things moving. Because if there’s another cliché that’s 100% true, it’s that the show must go on. There’s no time to complain, dwell, or retreat into your self-doubting cocoon when everyone around you is ready and waiting. And that’s a little bit terrifying, but it’s mostly exhilarating.
Also, this happened in my living room and it was pretty cool:
Step five: how does it end? I’ll keep you (ugh) posted
Long story short: “Movies are made in the editing room” is a cliché because it’s 100% true. Certainly the process of going from a rough cut to a final cut is every bit as challenging and labor-intensive as actually shooting the film — except the timetable is far less constrained. And you’d think that would make things easier, but… remember how I just got through saying how great it is that when you’re on set, there’s no time to second-guess yourself? In post, there’s plenty of time to second-guess yourself. Plenty of time to tweak the stuff that doesn’t work, and to refine the stuff that does. The goal is no longer to get everything shot so you can pack up and send the crew home; the goal is to produce a good movie.
Luckily, my editor was a jack-of-all-trades-and-then-some, handling sound, visual effects, and coloring in addition to the already-punishing workload of cutting the picture. And one of my best friends, who has worked for many years in the music business, hooked me up with a great composer who delivered a great original score in record time. Now it’s in the hands of the festivals, so my job is pretty much crossing my fingers.
What I learned
Making a film — even a ten-minute one — completely changed my perspective on my career and my identity as a creative person. Although I absolutely intend to keep writing, I no longer think of myself as just a writer: I know now that I can do more than that. I’m excited to look for more opportunities to direct, and maybe I can even make some money at it someday (since self-financed shorts are not quite the golden goose that I wish they were).
I’m not holding myself up as some special case, either; I’d wager that a great many people who see themselves solely as writers could do an excellent job of directing. It sounds scary, and sometimes it is, but being a screenwriter is fantastic preparation for it. As John often says, when you’ve written a script, you’ve already seen the movie in your head, and that’s at least half the battle. The other half is being able to explain it to your collaborators, but if you pick talented people — and Los Angeles is positively teeming with them — it’s not really that hard.
I think people write spec scripts for two reasons: (1) They want to see their scripts made into movies; and (2) They want to get paid. And I think that for most people, the priorities go in that order. Getting a paycheck is great, but the dream is seeing your words and scenarios brought to life. You don’t need to sell your script to a big studio to achieve that. The only difference between the biggest studio movie and the smallest self-funded independent movie is money. (A lot of which is often wasted, as demonstrated in this piece by Gavin Polone.) Money is the only thing hiding behind those studio gates — not ideas, and certainly not talent. Great actors, great crew, and great equipment are available to everyone (and you’ll pay far less for all three if you’re not part of a giant expensive production).
You can spend your entire career waiting for permission to see your work brought to the screen, and you can give up if it never happens (and, like I said, I was very close to giving up). Or you can jump the line and do it yourself. Instead of being the person desperately trying to get hired, you can be the person doing the hiring. That’s a pretty nice ego boost.
So things are going pretty well these days. I’m still writing specs, but I’m working with a manager now, so my scripts are getting some exposure instead of languishing in the void. (Funnily enough, I got the meeting with him not because of anything to do with making my movie, but because I had a script hosted on The Black List that he liked. Thanks, Franklin Leonard!) I’m also having a great time writing for Previously.TV, a new online venture from the creators of Television Without Pity. The inside of my head is starting to look more like those upbeat days of 1997. Optimism is back in town.
And the Star Wars prequels might have sucked, but those sequels are going to be great!
You can find Nick Rheinwald-Jones on Twitter at @rheinwaldjones.
(Photo credits: David T. Cole)