BACK TO THE CHALKBOARD: Get Shorty – The Long View on Short Scripts

Brad Riddell has written feature films on assignment for Paramount, MTV, Universal and independent producers. Brad’s first film, American Pie: Band Camp, sold over a million copies in its first week of release on DVD. Brad serves as an Assistant Professor at DePaul University’s School of Cinematic Arts in Chicago. Follow Brad on Twitter @bradriddell.

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We’re not all equipped with the experience or funding necessary to produce the feature films we write. In fact, many of us probably have no interest in production aside from meeting actors and plundering craft services every five minutes. Mostly, being on set is incredibly boring, and in general, nobody wants anything to do with writers there, anyway. Still, I have found no greater learning environment for a screenwriter than watching his/her film created from its first call of “action” to its final color correction. And this is why I say you should make a short film.

Most film school screenwriting programs require students to write one or two shorts during the first year. Until these past few months, in fifteen years as a screenwriter, I had written twenty feature screenplays but only three shorts – all of them back in film school. Why? Because shorts don’t pay. In fact, they are rarely seen. Plus, agents and managers want you cranking out scripts, not shot lists.

But, as I’ve said before in this space, you should ignore them. Here’s why:

Shorts Improve Your Craft

Screenwriting is all about opening and closing the shutter on specific moments in time that serve the development of the story in the most effective and efficient way possible. Screenwriters labor over compression, word choice, specificity of image and action, deciding when to enter and when to leave, and precise, perfect dialogue. Features are best compared to sonnets – lots of rules, not a lot of space. Short scripts, averaging 8-12 pages for festival play, are hyper-compressed haikus. They force a writer to communicate a great deal in a very small window. The best shorts focus on a turning point in a character’s life: a moment of change. They allow writers to perfect format and their own visual writing style. There’s a reason film schools require students to write shorts – it’s an excellent proving ground with a manageable page count, and doing it well is not at all easy. I’ve written four short scripts in the past year. Each one of them has proven to be a tremendous challenge and has improved my writing in very specific ways. No matter the page count, story is story.

Shorts Allow You to Break Type and Transition

Just as actors take on certain roles to break type, writers can do the same with shorts. I’ve spent my career writing comedies. Lately, I’ve wanted to do more dramatic work. Just as shorts provide safe training wheels to new writers learning the craft, they also allow writers seeking a genre or tone transition to do so in a more confined, controlled, lower-stakes environment. And yet you ask, if I’m an experienced, professional writer, why not just make the transition with a feature?

Shorts Allow You to Become a Filmmaker

Gamiconocron_Med

Gamiconocron by Brad Riddell

Not all story ideas are meant to be feature films, and I’m not one to give up on a good idea just because it doesn’t have feature legs. Plus, believe it or not, no one is calling me with a $30 million budget to direct my first feature. So – why not? Short films allow you to tackle every aspect of the production process, and to come away with something you can show. Exposure is critical for getting discovered as a writer, staying relevant if you are one already, or transitioning if you want to do something new or something more – and the only way to get exposure is to create and put something out there! A short film I wrapped earlier this month, Gamiconocron, is a proof of concept for the feature version of a script I’ve wanted to set up for years. If someone sees the movie and likes it, then maybe they will want to read the script. Plus, I can hopefully show them that I can handle directing it, too. Spending money, working with actors, finding locations, cutting material in post, all of those choices affect storytelling. Directing a film teaches you how to write a better movie, because you come to understand what it takes to actually make a better movie.

Shorts Expand Collaboration and Connections

Location Scout in Virginia by Meredith Veach

Location Scout in Virginia by Meredith Veach

What if you don’t want to direct? Then write a short for someone who does. I was telling a friend of mine about a script I was working on when he mentioned that he knew a director looking to do something similar. I recently wrote the short, Gone Into The Clearing, for director Meredith Veach, and she plans to shoot it in March. Meredith and I combined our ideas into a story we liked, and I can’t wait to see what she does with it. To help her reach her fundraising goal, I’m even offering script notes as a perk! This business is all about connections, and working with a filmmaker gets you in on the ground floor of his/her developing career, and gives you a chance to hone your collaboration skills while seeing your writing produced. You truly never know how one project might lead to another.

Short Term Perspective

In theory, shorts take less time and cost less money than making feature films, which means they can be finished in a reasonable amount of time. Writing a feature can take years, and getting it to the screen (if you are so lucky) can take a decades. We begin to feel like a script is never really done. It can always be tweaked, polished, or taken in a new direction. There’s no finality. In my life, I look for things I can do everyday that I can actually finish – plowing snow, mowing grass, washing dishes – little things where my efforts yield clear visual closure. Short films scratch that itch, too. While I fight for my next feature deal or to set up that pilot, I can make this little movie, hone my craft, collaborate, transition, and send something complete out into the world with my name on it. And it’s much more fun than washing the dishes.

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