Why do I make short films? In the world of movies, feature-length films most definitely dominate the cultural focus. And certainly financial viability remains in the realm of feature films at this time. I hope to have a chance to make feature films at some point in my life and have been actively seeking a means to make that happen over the last several years. However, long before I take on that first feature film, I have been making and continue to make short films. Why?
One clear argument often made for the value of short films is that new filmmakers should make them because shorts are a great training ground for feature films. And yes, this is quite true. I’ve seen, even worked with, filmmakers whose first feature films unfortunately show that further development of the vast array of skills involved in directing a feature film was probably needed. Many issues could likely have been avoided and a stronger first feature made had they taken the time to make a few short films first.
But there is so much more to short films than just learning the filmmaking craft! For a while I felt I was done with short films and that my time would be better spent focusing exclusively on how to get a feature film funded. However, one major development in my life changed all of that!
This story is probably a little weird, so please hear me out. In 2010, I got involved with an small start-up church. I know, I know, I’m one of those goofballs that actually goes to church. But you see, this church isn’t like just any other place. The River Church, in Quincy, Massachusetts, is a rather unique place where for the first time in my life my being an artist genuinely did not feel at odds with my involvement in a faith community. In fact, it was embraced and sought after. Here was a community of people genuinely interested in hearing diverse stories and perspectives as each of us journey through life together and learn from each other. By the end of the year, I was running The River Film Forum, a monthly event designed around watching movies with people from all around our area and engaging in meaningful conversations about what such stories have to offer us in terms of examining life.
In fact, movies became such an import part of what we do as a community, that even as part of our Sunday morning worship service we started using short films at times as the central piece of the day’s teaching. Focused on this shared experience of a brief story, we discovered something unique and amazing. Short films allow us to dive right into the some of the deepest and darkest areas of the human heart and mind in a matter of minutes. And the conversations the ensue are unlike any other conversations I’ve encountered in my life-long journey of faith in various churches.
So when Kristina Stone Kaiser, my pastor, asked me if we could possibly make short films that offered both opportunities for local filmmakers to gain experience and gave us stories that could spark meaningful conversations, we were off and running. In 2012 we created Stories by the River, for more information, check out this short video:
Now I know what you’re probably thinking. It’s probably something along the lines of, “Oh God no! A church making short films! Ugh!”Let me put your mind at ease by expressing with all honesty that I’m pretty sure no one in the world hates the agenda-driven-drivel that is the majority of faith-based movies more than me. Making “those kinds” of films is not at all our objective! In fact, many of the people we work with in making short films come from diverse perspectives and backgrounds. And rather then push a specific agenda, we would rather present as story and ask questions about life. After all, propaganda seeks only to push an agenda, but good art wrestles with life. We are interested in the latter.
You see, short films, when done well, offer us an opportunity to explore life together with ample time for conversation. A short film that might only last ten or twenty or thirty minutes is a brief moment where you and I can can share the experience of a story, offering us common ground for real conversations about things we might not otherwise normally talk about. And what I love about short films specifically is that, unlike a feature film, there’s no room for distractions. We have to dive quickly into the characters and expose the central problem they are facing in this moment. There’s a fine art to a well crafted short film as we seek to draw in the audience and give them just enough information so the story naturally slips forward with a sense of inevitability. Good short film scripts are lean and focused.
As a filmmaker
As a filmmaker, I also can take risks with short films which I might never have been able to with a feature film given all the financial concerns to be considered when making a feature. The first film I directed for Stories by the River was “A Silent Universe,”a non-traditional sci-fi film that uses the scenario of an alien innovation as a means to trap our two characters, brothers at odds, in an old garage and force them to navigate some of life’s toughest questions (which even I’d rather avoid on most days, if I’m being honest). In the face of what seems to be the complete absence of hope, can these two characters find a reason go on? Is doubt and despair the only appropriate response when confronted with an ugly and violent world? If you’d like to, you can see “A Silent Universe” here:
The most recent short film I directed for “Stories by the River”represents a very real risk for me personally as I opted to tell a story that feels quite important to me, but also stands well outside the perspectives of many people I dearly love while disagreeing with them about this important issue. “Playing with Ice”tells the story of a gay young woman who interviews to become part of an aggressive scientific experiment because she feels rejected and alone after being cast off by her family. For twenty minutes we get to dive into Jocelyn’s pain at being so deeply wounded. What’s more, we learn that she’s not the only one who been profoundly hurt by hatred and misguided ideas as Emma, the woman interviewing Jocelyn, drops her guard and reveals her own painful story. Is avoidance or denial the answer for these characters in light of the unfair treatment they have been given, or can they find acceptance and love right here and now? The film is brief, it’s a high pressure situation, and it was an amazingly challenging story to tell. It really stretched me as a filmmaker. It’s also one of the stories I’m most proud of being able to help bring to life. If you feel like checking out “Playing with Ice” it’s available here:
You see, what helping launch and run Stories by the River has taught me is that short films doesn’t have to only be a “calling card”so I can make a feature. It would be nice if they turn out to be that as well. But maybe they never will be, and that’s okay too. If there’s one thing that I really want to get across it is that when I set out tell a story—short or feature—it comes from that central and secret place deep inside my heart that desperately cries out for meaning and love, for understanding and connection. Now, this doesn’t mean I only make “serious”movies as I find comedy often provides great insight into some of our deepest hurts and biggest longings.