These Sundance-Bound Filmmakers Pack Big Ideas into Short Films
The creators of ‘Crude Oil,’ ‘The Rat,’ and ‘Lavender’ on using the short format to experiment, grow, and create something concentrated.
Short films have a concentrated beauty — and, let’s be honest, they’re less expensive to produce than feature films. Because of that, the format lends itself to filmmakers — beginners and seasoned pros alike — looking to put new ideas on-screen. For Jim Cummings, the director of Thunder Road and winner of the 2016 Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize, the short was a way to explore a concept that he then turned into a feature. It’s also an art form all its own.
This year, three Kickstarter-funded shorts are headed to the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Crude Oil, Christopher Good’s follow-up to the Kickstarter-funded Brad Cuts Loose, blasts through 50 scenes of a toxic friendship in just 15 minutes, maximizing every second of its brief run. Carlen May-Mann’s The Rat turns the horror genre on its head by exposing the terrors we face in our everyday lives. And with Lavender, director Matthew Puccini (The Mess He Made, featured on Short of the Week) follows a young gay man entangled in the relationship of an older couple.
Here, Sundance-bound filmmakers Good, May-Mann, and Puccini share their thoughts on the value of working in the short format.
Short films distill an idea to its purest form
With most short films clocking in around 12 minutes, filmmakers are forced to deliver the most crucial elements of their stories in a concentrated dose.
“Short films are amazing exercises in narrative economy,” says Puccini, whose Lavender runs 11 minutes. “How much can you say in as little time as possible? It challenges you to make each frame count, and to be able to defend why each moment is there.”
May-Mann finds the challenge “uniquely satisfying”: “Every element of a short must be an absolutely vital piece of the film’s message,” she says. “Every cut, every glance, every word must bring you a significant step closer to the film’s heart.”
The format lends itself to experimentation
“Shorts can be a good way to try out new filmmaking methods or techniques that you might be interested in exploring,” says Good, who used Crude Oil as an opportunity to mount what he called a “stylistically audacious production” featuring custom sets and multiple film formats.
With The Rat, May-Mann chose to work in the horror genre, which she says has long been a means of expressing progressive ideas and critiquing society through metaphor. Her film subverts the genre’s reputation for gratuitous violence against women. “I wanted to use the stalwart conventions of horror to explore the ways in which men torture women in real life,” she says.
Creating a short is an opportunity to grow as a director
For both Puccini and May-Mann, their Sundance-bound shorts had them managing larger productions than ever before. On the set of Lavender, Puccini learned that “it’s important to take care of yourself while you’re making a film. At this early stage of being an artist, it’s so easy for me to wrap up my own sense of self-worth in the inevitable ups and downs of the creative process.”
“[Making The Rat taught me] the importance of having faith in my vision, even when things seem like they’re going wrong on set,” May-Mann says. “Never losing my belief that the film I was making was important and needed to be seen is the reason that I was able to maintain sight of the end product and to do whatever I needed to to bring it to life.”
A short film can stand alone
Many filmmakers use shorts as proof of concept for a feature, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Good, May-Mann, and Puccini view their shorts as an opportunity to solidify their voices, push themselves to try new things, and demonstrate their growing talent.
“The Rat is a film that encapsulates my style and ethos as a filmmaker and that speaks to issues that I intend to dedicate myself to throughout my career,” says May-Mann, who’s already at work on her upcoming feature, Strawberry Summer.
Both Good and Puccini are looking to write their first features in 2019, likely armed with the skills they picked up while working on Crude Oil and Lavender, respectively. “Making shorts has made me a better filmmaker,” says Puccini.