Short Films that Grew Up

Slide 1: Intro

Quite often filmmakers take on a short film only to find that after it’s finished there is so much more to say. Shane Acker worked for years to finish his 11-minute short 9 in 2004. And when it was released, audiences and filmmakers paid attention: it was invited to festivals around the world; it received a Academy Award nomination in the Best Animated Short Film category; and it got watched by two directors––Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov––who would soon step up to produce a feature film version of 9. What sold these directors and others on making a feature, beyond Acker’s obvious talent, was the wondrous universe he’d created, a world that begged to be bigger than 11 minutes. Bekmambetov remembers, “Shane’s short hooked me, so I wanted to hear the end of the story – and what happened before.” Film writer and programmer Mike Plante looks at a range of other short films whose universes couldn’t be contained by anything less that a feature-length format.

Slide 2: From Peluca to Napoleon Dynamite

In what might be the most humble introduction to a superstar movie character ever, Peluca is a nine-minute short film directed by Jared Hess, setting Napoleon Dynamite on an unsuspecting world. Produced by the same team who made the later surprising smash feature, the short was made for a BYU film class on stark black-and-white 16mm film over one day in Preston, Idaho.

Peluca follows a day in the life of Seth (Jon Heder, who became Napoleon), who thoughtfully tosses action figures out the bus window on a string and helps friend Gael (the character that became Pedro) find some hair (the film's title is Spanish for "wig"), both scenes that are repeated in the feature. Almost a scrappy, extended trailer for the feature, the tone of the short is great, quick and fun, a perfect intro to the long version. The short played Slamdance and the team went on to make the feature for $400,000, selling it to Fox Searchlight at its Sundance premiere. Big box office and clever merchandise later, a comedy classic was born. There is even a festival every year in Preston to celebrate the film.

Why didn’t Peluca play Sundance, where the feature exploded? Producer Jeremy Coon told me although they were from Utah, they just didn’t think it would get in and did not submit a tape. It worked out in the long run.

Slide 3: From Gowanus, Brooklyn to Half Nelson

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck wrote the script for Half Nelson as a feature, but with a lack of resources the duo made the story as a short film first. Gowanus, Brooklyn was titled after the area where they lived, and the 20-minute film ended up winning Best Short at Sundance in 2004. Forced to do the short version first proved fortunate, as local open auditions discovered Shareeka Epps for the role of 13-year-old Drey, a teen who learns more than she should about adults as she befriends crack-addicted history teacher and basketball coach Dan (Matt Kerr in the short, Ryan Gosling in the feature). Working with Epps in the short helped form the character for the feature (for which she won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead and a Gotham Award for Breakthrough Performance). The neo-realism carried over from Gowanus to Half Nelson, with the teacher learning about his downfall in a realistic manner, with youth’s eyes staring right at him. The vibe of Kerr as the teacher is more everyman with the character actor sinking into the role, giving the audience an authentic portrayal of addiction without the glossy nature of a film. Gosling brings more of a movie feel to the role, being a younger and recognizable actor. You aren’t going to think of him as your uncle. That said, Gosling turns in his best performance to date, achieving a strong level of realism and garnering an Independent Spirit award win and an Oscar nomination. In both versions, the down-to-earth atmosphere established Boden and Fleck as filmmakers to watch, and Epps as a great discovery.

Slide 4: From Bottle Rocket to Bottle Rocket

If you can remember the day when no one knew Wes Anderson and the Wilson brothers, then you can know how fresh and fun the short film version of Bottle Rocket was in 1994. Bumping around Texas, budding filmmakers and friends Wes Anderson and Owen and Luke Wilson wrote a serious crime film they were going to make themselves. Luckily they made a small comedy instead, concentrating on the unique, incredibly charming relationship of the Wilsons onscreen. The 13-minute short consists of them jabbering nonstop, walking around town, robbing a house you learn is the family home, planning a big bookstore robbery – scenes repeated in the feature. A slightly different feel comes from the decidedly jazz soundtrack, combined with the black-and-white low budget look gives a vibe of Cassavetes and the French New Wave reimagined in the sarcastic, jaded 1990s – realistic slackers figuring life out, free-flowing through society.

Whatever these idiot no-collar crooks do, you wanna see. It’s that great chemistry the whole group has, writing together with Anderson also directing, that makes the short cool. It played Sundance and got the group an eventual studio deal with Columbia to make the feature in 1996. While the feature didn’t make money it was a cult favorite right away, and obviously launched some big careers. Oddly enough, the short starts with Owen talking about Starsky and Hutch.

Slide 5: From Cigarettes and Coffee to Hard Eight

Film school for Paul Thomas Anderson lasted only two days (at NYU), as he moved on to work as a PA before making his career-trampoline short film, Cigarettes and Coffee in 1992.  Following three overlapping plots and dialogue in a diner over 24 minutes, the short establishes Anderson’s knack for intense characters on the edge of society, with their idiosyncrasies and clever fetishes. The combination of realistic people with genre movie plots, “what’s-it-all-about” dialogue in a booth with a hitman outside, harkens to the work of Mike Nichols and Robert Altman and hints towards Anderson’s later feature success. The lead story of Phillip Baker Hall as wise sage to a messed-up gambler was expanded by Anderson into the feature Hard Eight (1996). The short played at the Sundance Film Festival and got Anderson into the Sundance directors lab, where he developed the feature version. Just keep drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and everything will be fine.

Slide 6: From Five Feet High and Rising to Raising Victor Vargas

When a short wins both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, you hope it could work as a feature too. Cast, produced and edited by Eva Vives, directed by Peter Sollett and written by both, the 29-minute Five Feet High and Rising (1999) was their NYU student thesis film, winning those two prestigious fests. It was later adapted into the feature Raising Victor Vargas (2001, retitled from “Long Way Home”) with the same actors. While the short was inspired by Sollett’s life growing up in Brooklyn, the feature was inspired by the actors they found. Rather than remake or stretch out the original short, Sollett and Vives wanted to simply work again with actors Victor Rasuk and Judy Marte and base events in the film on their lives. Sollett worked on the feature script as part of a Cannes residency in 2001.

Both the short and the feature dive in to the oft-horrible world of puberty, where we try to figure out emotions, relationships and even the simplest move – a kiss. Both films have great insight into teen worlds, with realistic acting in everyday New York, without all the sensationalism of teen angst movies, probably due to the discovery of great non-actor kids who were allowed to adjust what they said. It feels like a documentary, but even docs have a tinge of exaggeration. Not here, sometimes kids just plain come of age.

Slide 7: From Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade to Sling Blade

The unforgettable character of inmate Karl Childers had a history before most crowds discovered him in Billy Bob Thornton’s award-winning feature Sling Blade (1996). One of many characters Thornton portrayed in one-man shows, Karl and his story first appeared in the 25-minute short Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1993). An effective drama, more than half is setup for the introduction to Karl, as reporter Molly Ringwald works out the kinks of conducting a difficult interview with the killer. Meanwhile the audience is misdirected by a tour-de-force from J.T. Walsh as another inmate. But as his turn in the feature, its Thornton’s startling eight-minute monologue that steals the show, balancing heavy mood with a strong acting performance.

Always intended to be worked into a feature, the short played to acclaim at many festivals, including Sundance, Locarno and San Sebastian. The characters and Thornton and Walsh carried over into the feature with more characters and story after the original short. Director George Hickenlooper did not stay on, as he and Thornton had a falling out, with the latter picking up the writing and directing reigns for the career-making feature.

Slide 8: From The New World to Stranger than Paradise

Escaping Ohio just led him back again. With aspirations in writing and music, Jim Jarmusch found his way out of Akron, through New York to Paris and back again, and eventually enrolled at NYU’s film school. Despite what he didn’t like about school, he did learn some techniques and met luminaries Nicholas Ray and Amos Poe, and early collaborator Tom DiCillo. Spending his tuition check on his first feature, Permanent Vacation (1980), the school said don’t come back and Jarmusch didn’t. He made a 30-minute film called The New World in 1982, using leftover film stock donated from Wim Wenders (who had made a doc on Nick Ray while Jarmusch was Ray’s assistant). Being the first section of the feature Stranger than Paradise, the short establishes the gruff but lovable hipster John Lurie, sweet and bumbling Richard Edson and the adorable out-of-towner Eszter Balint. Jarmusch wrote the other two sections of the feature before showing the first 30 minutes to anyone. People really liked the short and helped make the full version, which took the characters back to Ohio.

The short version did what the best short films do: capture a world and characters so interesting that you get mad, or sad, when the film ends. You want more of the style, want to know where are these people going, and why can’t I be there too?

For what it’s worth, NYU started attracted people by using Jarmusch’s name, so he asked for a degree. They sent him one.

Slide 9: From Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB to THX 1138

The first award George Lucas won (well, I’m guessing, he could have played the violin in 6th grade to success) was for best film at the USC student showcase in 1967, with his 15-minute Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB. Francis Ford Coppola teamed up with Lucas to produce the feature version, the now-classic THX 1138, made in 1971. Decidedly minimal and La Jetee-esque, it is about a man in the future tagged as THX 1138 who runs through endless tunnels trying to escape from some sort of police state, that warns escapees to not go through that last door. While the feature expanded heavily on the story and characters, it’s the proficient short that established the film’s atmosphere of 1984-style technological fear, as much about science fiction as it is about getting lost in the country’s maze of military psychology. Let’s face it – there are too many running shots here to sustain 15 minutes. But the short has a minimal utopian tone so effective that it comes close to reaching existential art.

Slide 10: From Cashback to Cashback

Writer-director Sean Ellis scored so much acclaim with the 19-minute short version of Cashback (2004), including an Oscar nomination, that he went back and added 80+ minutes to the film to make it a feature (released in 2006). Following an earnest art school teen, the short answers your dreams of being able to stop time. Being so bored working at a supermarket, main character Ben reacts to a big breakup by forcing time to stop at his will. This of course leads to undressing women for his charcoal sketches. Besides the ridiculous casting of all young, hip models (supermarket or American Apparel?), the short actually succeeds with a certain innocence to the main guy and a very nice, flowing style to the camerawork and narration. The feature doesn’t work quite as well for many viewers, adding a lot more narration and too-endearing supermarket shots, but the love of fighting back from the bottom of society’s food chain is still present and cheerful.

Slide 11: From Ellie Parker to Ellie Parker

Inspired by real struggles, Ellie Parker (2001) tells the story of an actress trying to make it, realizing her time might have passed. Writer/director Scott Coffey and actress Naomi Watts met while both were acting in the film Tank Girl (1995). Coffey hated the acting business and together they made Parker to satirize the world of actors, auditions and the Hollywood scene. The 16-minute short screened at Sundance, and over the next five years Coffey and Watts kept filming various scenes, finishing a feature version, also called Ellie Parker, in 2006. Their lives along the way, including both of them getting work on David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive, informed the film and kept it vital to the times.

A satisfying short, the feature rubbed audiences the wrong way. While still fun if you like Watts, the long version wore out its film world welcome. Ironically, in the five years shooting all the scenes for the feature, Watts became a megastar that overcame the doldrums of not being noticed.

Slide 12: From Mike Plante to Michael Plante
Mike Plante is the Director of Programming for CineVegas and editor of the Cinemad blog. He was a Short Film Programmer for Sundance for the 2003-2006 festivals.
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