The 10 Most Promising Young Directors And The Short Films That Got Them Here
Behind every debut feature, there’s a short film that really started a career…
DEE REES (Colonial Gods)
Dee Rees’ star has grown significantly brighter since becoming the first African-American woman to have an Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay. After the critical success of Mudbound, Rees is sure to go the way of director Ava DuVernay and help get more African-American women behind major Hollywood projects. However, she’s been a renowned director long before this year. Her 2007 short film Pariah became a feature-length film in 2011, which got glowing reviews from major critics and became an influence on LGBT cinema.
Before ever making a feature though, she showcased her strong directorial abilities in the 30-minute social realist short Colonial Gods. It chronicles socio-political unrest in Wales and was the winner of the Iris Prize, a UK film award devoted exclusively to LGBT narratives. With a cool, harsh color palette and a gritty handheld camera, Colonial Gods feels like a stylistic companion piece to both the Pariah short film and feature. It’s no surprise that both Gods and the Pariah feature were lensed by the ultra-talented Bradford Young The Iris committee has since made Rees their poster child, and with a short film this assured and confident, it only seems inevitable that Rees will find a major audience down the road.
JUSTIN SIMIEN (My Women: (Inst Msgs)
The old adage write what you know applies to Justin Simien’s career thus far. It turns out going to film school at a predominantly well-to-do white campus was enough to feed Simien’s creative spirits for the next several years. In 2014, Simien became a household name almost overnight with the Sundance premiere of Dear White People. The years spent crowdfunding and creating promotional teaser material for what he hoped would one day become a feature may seem unnecessary to revisit now; after all, he is currently the writer/director of a successful Netflix adaptation of his feature.
Yet, when watching the Pilot episode for INST MSGS, a Simien short film production pre-Dear White People, it becomes evident that Simien has always had a sophisticated eye for satire. In this 3-minute film, he matches vintage, home-video style footage with a monotone voice-over (a script lifted directly from Craigslist) of a man demeaning all his past girlfriends. This juxtaposition between the ethereal camerawork and the offensive creates an ironical effect from the very first frames. Inst Msgs only gets crazier and more meta- from there, featuring staged scenes of the girls being described, all shot with the flatness of a multi-cam sitcom. Simien has always been best at holding a mirror to his audience, and his exemplary work in the short-form makes his transition into online television a natural one. Let’s just hope he’s got another biting short film in him before he directs the next hit comedy.
QUINN SHEPHARD (Til Dark)
You probably know this actress-turned-director from any number of hit network television shows (Hostage, Person of Interest, The Blacklist). But you can now add history-making filmmaker to her resume. She became the youngest director to ever premiere a feature at Tribeca this year with Blame, a film she put all her savings into after financiers dropped out at the last minute.
The same amount of blood, sweat, and tears can be found in her short film. Till Dark, a 2015 Montclair Film Festival premiere, is a moody piece, following an angsty teen struggling to reconnect with childhood friends. Despite its realistic setting, Shephard makes the forest a fantastical place. Evoking the tone of a Brothers Grimm fairytale, it’s no shock this film created enough interest to allow her a shot at a feature. The blurring between real and fantasy becomes even more heightened in Blame, where Shephard makes the high school thriller’s subject matter mirror Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in rather uncanny ways. It’s a showy feature debut, and one that could only have been made after establishing that tone in Till Dark.
ROBERT EGGERS (The Tell-Tale Heart)
He’s responsible for what many consider to be one of the scariest films of all time (The Witch), but did you know he started his career directing for the theater? His Gothic costume and production design in the New York theater scene first put him on the map. He could have continued along that track but chose instead to take his chances as a filmmaker. It was his second short film, The Tell-Tale Heart, an adaption of the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, that created real interest in his cinematic work.
On a modest budget, Eggers creates impeccable period costuming and some stunningly lifelike puppetry. Egger’s mastery of pacing and framing are on full display in The Tell-Tale Heart, a fitting adaptation given the psychological horror he would later explore. Look for his atmospheric terror next in The Lighthouse, starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
DANIEL SCHEINERT + DANIEL KWAN (Possiblia)
The Daniels (their industry name) are not only on this list for their filmmaking chops, but also for their story ingenuity. When Swiss Army Man (or the farting corpse movie) premiered at Sundance, many (let’s face it, all) were skeptical that the premise could actually be executed well. Despite reports of walkouts, winning the Director’s Award killed any pessimism and made these two the most in-demand directing duo since Phil Lord and Chris Miller.
POSSIBILIA: An interactive love story.
What if you could influence someone else's breakup? From acclaimed director duo Daniels. Starring Alex Karpovsky and…
But before they shocked the feature world with Swiss Army Man, they turned heads in the short film world with Possiblia. As if to answer the question, ‘What would a choose-your-own-adventure game look like in a breakup movie?’, the Daniels loop a 6-minute relationship drama that allows viewers to watch different perspectives along the way. The outcome is always the same, but with up to 16 simultaneous “realities”, there is never a chance to get bored by the possibilities. This multiverse-style filmmaking has grown more and more common in 2018, particularly with the rise in VR films. But back in 2014, the Daniels were the only game in town, and proved to be ahead of the curve. We’re sure they’ll still be ahead of the curve with whatever project they choose next!
DESIREE ARKHAVAN (The Slope)
It’s only been two months since Arkhavan won the coveted Sundance Grand Jury prize. The winning feature, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, enthralled the judges and proved that a film centered around a timely subject (gay conversion therapy) could feel both necessary for our present age and applicable to all times.
What many may not realize is that she’s been transcending expectations ever since 2010. Her first major effort, The Slope, gave her the confidence she needed to start a career. Though technically a web series, each episode acts as a 3-minute situational short comedy. The episodes follow a lesbian couple as they face the humorous, mundane and occasionally awkward parts of their everyday lives. Though the camera set ups are simple, and the production value is on the micro side, Arkhavan’s command of comedic timing and energy are apparent from the pilot episode. Matching up eccentric characters with timely, poignant social contexts are now her forte, but it was the short form where we first discovered that potential.
ANAHITA GHAZVINIZADEH (When the Kid Was a Kid)
When you’ve had the chance to study under late Iranian film legend Abbas Kiarostami, you know you must be doing something right. Ghazvinizadeh seems to have taken up her former mentor’s obsession with ambiguity in her own work. The title of her debut feature (a 2017 Cannes debut), They, is actually the title character’s name, as they work out their own gender identity. However, themes of gender ambiguity go all the way back to her short films.
The first in a short film trilogy (all connected by stories of children), When the Kid was a Kid follows young children as they get dressed up and play a game where they pretend to be adults for an evening. While the shaky camerawork and long takes evoke a hyper-realistic aesthetic, there is something surreal about the screenplay’s ability to blur the distinction between childhood and adulthood. Ghazvinizadeh saves a gender-related twist for the end, a move that promptly cements the type of social-realist LGBT cinema she has gone on to make in the feature world.
WILLIAM OLDROYD (Best)
Some of the greatest short films leave you with one simple, unshakable image. William Oldroyd’s Best fits that category. Only 3 minutes long, this 2014 Sundance selection packed a real controversial punch upon its premiere. The film opens with a nearly-1-minute blowjob a bridegroom gets from his best man. Despite virtually no backstory or plot, the tension between the two leads is real, and the subtext created by Oldroyd’s tight shot selection and minimalist approach proves very rich. He would bring a similarly restrained approach to 2017’s critically-acclaimed Lady Macbeth. We can’t wait to see how Oldroyd will polarize audiences next!
BARRY JENKINS (My Josephine)
It will surprise many to find Jenkins on an up-and-coming list after winning Best Picture in last year’s Oscars. Yet, it is precisely in just how quickly he went from virtual unknown to A-list talent that makes him perfect for his list. The future is still so bright (and so infinite) for Barry Jenkins that it seems foolish not to believe his best and most ambitious work remains before him.
While he was still making films at Florida State University, long, long before the most famous awards show debacle in history, he directed a delightful little short called My Josephine. The trademark stylistic moments in Moonlight that have since made Jenkins a young legend all started here. The story of an Arabic couple’s unconventional hobby of cleaning American flags for free includes a beautiful, wordless montage, complete with slow motion filming and rack focus techniques that would return in Moonlight.
But perhaps My Josephine’s greatest influence comes from one of Jenkin’s favorite filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai. This short specifically channels Kar-Wai’s films from the 1990s (especially Chunking Express), using wistful, romantic voiceover over scenes of mundane, grimy urban life. The POV shots from the perspective of the dryer tumblers perhaps feels a little dated, but he’s trying things. It is that very sense of wonder and play that Jenkins has brought to all of his work, and has made him one of the most exciting talents of our time.
ANA LILY AMIRPOUR (Yo! My Saint)
The final up-and-comer on the list has made many short films before and since debuting the feature film The Girl Walks Home Alone At Night that made her a major force in independent cinema. Yet it is Amirpour’s newest film that we choose to highlight, if only to show that some short filmmakers, no matter how famous they become off of their features, never abandon their work in the short form. In fact, it could be argued that Amirpour (and others like Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze) have leveraged their positions in the film industry to create wilder, more ambitious, and more expensive short films than were ever thought possible.
Part music video, part fashion expo, part surrealist film, this short experiment loosely follows a photographer and his subject, which, of course becomes his muse, with all the complications that typically entails. The film is a gaudy feast for the senses, mixing the excess of a Baz Luhrman, the musical rhythms of a Damian Chazelle, and the meticulousness of a Stanley Kubrick to make one of the most entrancing short films you’re likely to find this, or any, year.