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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Should You Write a Short Script?

So yesterday, The Wave-inatrix got together with my friend T, a DGA program graduate, gifted short film maker and soon-to-be CSI AD (assistant director). I'm leaving his name confidential so as not to jinx anything. Not that I believe in jinxing - how juvenile! - but still. Anyway, so T, as we already know here on the Rouge Wave, is in search of his next short film to direct. His last short film starred Sandra Oh of SIDEWAYS and Grey's Anatomy, just by way of wow, that's impressive.

T and I talked about Billy Friedkin and Werner Hertzog (VERNER for you non-teutonic types), then ordered mint lemonade and went over the scripts I had obtained for T through clients and a few submissions here on the Rouge Wave. I know, you're wondering why the pic of the fancy wine, above. It's coming. Read on.

Now I do want to note that yours truly has stupidly never bothered to write a short script. Why, I thought, would I do that when I should write a feature script - that's where the money and the careers are, right? Ah. But through this experience I have learned that in actuality, a well written short script is not only a trillion times more likely to get made, it can open doors FOR your feature script. I admit, I have secretly thought that short scripts were hobbyistic ways for nascent writers to spend time rather than facing the REAL work - a feature. Sure, I've seen plenty of short films and gone to short film festivals - wow, you barely have to feed the meter! But this experience with T has really been eye-opening for me. Had I bothered, in the past, to write some short scripts, my work would have been the first thing I would have given to T, and due to our friendship, my experience and sunny personality, I would probably be the one getting my short script produced. But no. I have never bothered. In fact, I pitched T a short story I had written awhile back. He LOVED it. Was it in short script form? Had I adapted it? Because he'd make it baby! Ahhhhh guess what the lame answer was? No. Hadn't bothered. I missed the boat. That crazy Willie Wonka boat. You know the one. Through the tunnel?

So - exactly what is a short script? How short is short? Well, there doesn't seem to be an exact measure. A short script can be anywhere from 10 to 30 pages long. Most often, short films submitted to festivals, etc., run about 10 to 12 minutes. So that's approximately a 10 to 14 page script. Price Waterhouse fired me for trying to use my abacus at work, just FYI. But you get the drift.

So there we were, T and I, drinking our mint lemonades and going over what DIDN'T appeal to T about the short scripts I'd given him, as he worked up to the one that did appeal to him very much. What, I asked T, is the short list, in your view, of qualities you look for in a short script?

And this is what he said:

Absolute and irreversible change.
Emotional payoff.
Gettable locations.

We've talked so much here on the Rouge Wave about sequencing, structure and character arc over some 100+ pages of script. How on earth do you squeeze that all down to say 12 pages? It's like trying to shove a camel through the eye of a needle, right?

As T and I reviewed the short scripts that did not work for him, two qualities came up over and over again: 1) Very expensive shoot; too many cars, extras and locations. 2) What was the point of the story and he could see the end coming a mile away.

Many of the short scripts that were submitted to me after I made the request here on the Rouge Wave fell into the "what was the point" category. They were clever and ironic but sort of ended with a thud. Wow - so the good guy was the bad guy. As if that revelation and irony was super powerful. But it isn't. Not really. Many of the submissions were dramatic dead-ends. Well written, from page to page but ultimately, what I saw again and again was the writer getting through nine pages and then essentially saying - PSYCH! Wait - did I spell that right? You know what I mean, like what your brother did to you all growing up until it left a painful scar. Here's money - PSYCH! You can borrow my car - PSYCH! My best friend has a crush on you - PSYCH! Ha ha ha ha. Ha. Yeah it's pretty funny now, dude. Who's pushing fifty? I'm just saying.

Many of us are familiar with the famed American short story writer, O. Henry. Famous because he wrote extraordinarily clever short stories that almost always had a major twist. Most famously, The Gift of the Magi. Ambrose Bierce, of course wrote the amazing An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

Those two writers - and I'm only stating the obvious and of course leaving off many, many modern writers who were inspired by them - knew how to tell an extraordinarily emotionally complex story in a simple way in a short space of time. Simple plot, complex characters. We've all heard that before, right? If that formula is true of a feature script, it is a thousand times as true for a short script. Because you do not have 90 minutes to tell your story. You have ten minutes. So writing a short script is not a free pass in which a writer doesn't need to bother with complexity and payoff. A short script doesn't ask less of you as a writer - it asks quite a lot more.

A short script has to be extraordinarily powerful because of the delivery system - 10 pages. It's not good enough that everything we just saw didn't happen or was ironic or awful or cute. Ten pages about two sisters who find a kitty and save their parent's marriage simply isn't compelling enough to warrant a short film. A short film really has to cover significant emotional terrain. As T put it, "absolute and irreversible change".

T said, on the one hand, he hates writers to censor themselves by worrying about expense and "gettable locations" but at the same time, the reality is - could this scene in the car be shot in a car that is moving or parked? Because the moving car is way more expensive and difficult. Can the scene set in a crowded bar be set on the sidewalk OUTSIDE the crowded bar? Because if we show the crowded bar interior, the film maker just got himself dealing with hiring dozens of actors to play extras. See what I'm getting at?

If a feature script is a field of grapes harvested and turned into a barrel of wine, a short script is that barrel of wine turned into one jeweled glass of exotic, apricot-scented dessert wine.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

This article of yours is like a fresh drink of guava-mango-papaya mix with Bailey.

If you had to answer this question .....Short scripts written by directors are so "dull", why? but on screen, they are so exciting and colorful?


Christian M. Howell said...

I should have sent my other one. The one I sent was definitely too controversial, but also definitely cheaper with fewer logistic issues. Someone suggested that change something but it was actually a test of my detachment from the story and characters.

Sorry to those who have no idea what I'm talking about.

Kirkland said...

Here's the thing about short scripts: it's much more of a medium for directing than it is for the writing. While the writing is necessary--as it always is--when used as a calling card, the kudos and potential for getting a feature made lean toward the directing end of the spectrum. Short films showcase the director's skills. So, my advice (and it's not mine alone, talk to other insiders--agents, etc) is, if you're a writer (even if the market for short films is drying up) who aspirers to by a hyphenate, then go for it. Otherwise keep writing the TV or feature specs. Make that spec your calling card.

Kirkland said...

P.S. A short script or film as described by the WGA, SAG, and DGA is any script/film (other than TV, of course) that comes in under 35 minutes. Most are in he less then 15 minute range, but from a technical perspective than can run up to 35 minutes. The reason for this is that that length allows for actors, directors, and writers to work in that medium under permissible work contracts and defer pay, etc. and still not violate Guild rules. This allows non-professional writers the opportunity to get professionals involved in their work. It's a win-win.

Julie Gray said...

Kirkland, as always, thank you for your informed perspective. Short films are a director's medium, for sure. But it can be a shorter route for a writer dying to see his/her word comes to life on screen. You won't make money, you may or may not kick start a career or valuable connections. But it's a much shorter route. And honestly, a skill set to be pretty durn proud of. I'm still kicking myself for not getting it in gear on this type of stuff. My gears grind slowly at this point. C-r-e-a-k.

Seth said...

This sort of brings up the question I often had back when I was making short films -- what is a "short" film? Is it three minutes? Ten minutes? A half an hour? Because those are three very different sets of parameters.

A three minute film is hardly "about" anything at all -- it's a music video, and music videos with strong narratives are usually terrible. Music videos that are largely imagistic, on the other hand (I'm thinking of Johnny Cash's "Hurt," or any of Spike Jonze's videos), are often quite compelling, even though we can't say exactly "what happened."

A half-hour film, on the other hand, is as long as, say, an episode of Californication, so obviously you've got some room for complexity and even subplots.

A ten-minute film is obviously somewhere between these two poles. Wes Anderson's Hotel Chevalier is a good example -- it has a plot, but it's not really about "what happens" so much as the tensions between the two characters in the scene.

My own shorts generally ran between twenty and thirty minutes, meaning I opted for complexity rather than punch. But could I write a coherent three- or ten-page script that wouldn't make me barf? I don't know, but it's an interesting question....

Michael said...

Great post Julie!

I have done a couple of short movies and always tried to apply some kind of dramaturgy.

Just yesterday i read a post from a "writer" that said "short movies don´t need a proper ending, they are short". Yeah right, make them just a waste of time...

Anyway, some time ago wrote a post about the structure of short movies, if anyone should be interested, here it is: