I’ve seen lots of short films made by directors who have fantastic filmmaking talent. They marshal their DPs and actors perfectly. They work with their editors, colourists and composers to make their films look and sound ravishing, and smooth, and cinematic. Or indeed grimy and fractured and cinematic.
And they usually have a decent concept, which doesn’t even have to be uniquely original. (There are only seven basic stories, right?)
Which leaves me wondering why so many short films have left me feeling let down.
Always, the finger points at the script and the story. Here are four mistakes I’ve seen recently, any of which can hole a film below the waterline:
One: several films were overworded. If you can write dialogue like Tarantino or Sorkin, go for it. But the fact is, you can’t. And even Quentin knows when to shut up. (Aaron, you’re fine, you just carry on.)
For one thing, more words raises the odds of dialogue being gratingly on-the-nose, boring, or irrelevant.
More importantly, and more fundamentally, too many words clutter the viewers’ minds and fence in their imaginations. Audiences who are corralled though the storyscape are given no chance to interpret it for themselves. Therefore they don’t internalise it, and there’s no chance for it to mesh with their own unique sensibilities. Therefore it lacks meaning, power and resonance.
A good exercise is to write your story in prose. Write what characters think and feel, as well as do, but use no dialogue. Now write your script, and bring in dialogue only where absolutely necessary.
Two: Stories that lack confidence. They have pulled back from pain and difficulty, leaving our hearts are unmoved. The end, be it triumph or tragedy, is weak, because all that preceded it was so ho-hum. Even the best writers can be too close to their story, and miss clear opportunities to ratchet up internal turmoil or external conflict, but least the best writers know these pitfalls. Filmmakers who won’t admit that they aren’t accomplished scribblers may never see how much better their film could have been.
Maybe we’re too frightened of melodrama. I say, be not afraid of melodrama. Embrace it, and tame it. Disguise it if necessary. Do it without words, and suddenly your actors are forced to feel rather than recite. Your audience will feel it too.
Three: Some blunder through events with the protagonist always being passive. Or, ironically, being active until the climax, then standing by as the denouement happens to them. In a short film, a character being passive then finally taking action works superbly. (In a feature, we’d probably have lost interest in a wet protagonist shortly into Act 2.)
Four: Or, lacking a good writer’s radar, would-be auteurs simply fail to see a beating heart hiding in the set-up. I watched one film recently where a boy’s tale could so easily have been tied in to his father’s backstory. Suddenly his adventure would have had huge personal meaning for him, and hence for us. Another, a potentially touching story about loss, suddenly veered off with a massive thriller subplot, and so failed on both counts.
It’s as if the producer or director understood the need to bring in the best cast and crew they could, but thought they could write their screenplay themselves, alone. They want the input of an experienced specialist DP, for example, because they know how important camerawork is, and they know their own limits. They don’t seem to recognise that the same applies to writing.
Glyn Carter is a screen writer, and senior reviewer at ShortFilmReviews.video. He also reviews screenplays. He talks the talk, you may say, but does he walk the walk? Get Glyn to review your short film screenplay from as little as £10, and if you don’t get anything from it, you can have your money back. www.storiesintolight.co.uk/script-services