Five shorts that launched careers – and how YOU can do the same’

By Max Ward @wardowriter

What’s the point of short films? They’re hard to make, nigh-on impossible to finance, and there’s nowhere for the mainstream to see them. You spend months, even years (in my case) agonizing over twenty pages, honing your dialogue, scrutinising every plot point…all for it to be fobbed off by actors, producers and agents alike. So…what’s the point?

Short films are where visionaries start their careers. If, like me, you want to see a project through from inception, to prove you can direct and want to continue to do so, then a short film is the ideal (and basically only) way to force yourself onto the scene. So strap yourself in and commit to the long haul.

What you have to understand is that production companies don’t generally like taking risks. They like what works, what they can market, what they can guarantee a return on. That’s why they turn to the same writers, actors, directors and SCRIPTS(!)…because they like track record. Because at the end of the day, it is a business, and we idealised luvvies must remember this (or at least keep it in the back of our idea-crammed craniums).

It’s your job to pierce this clique, by creating something that makes people sit up and take notice. Shorts are basically the most expensive business card you’ll ever buy. They’re your voice and your vision. They’re your ticket to the big table. So it’s important to understand that how and why they work.


Six Shooter by Martin McDonagh

Best known for his playwriting prior to 2004, Martin McDonagh used his theatre success as leverage for his transition to film. Attaching Brendan Gleeson, and with a big endorsement from the Irish Film Board, McDonagh went on to win an Oscar for Six Shooter. Four years later, he treated us to In Bruges, which undoubtedly had it’s noir-comic quasi-religious roots in the short. Shooter also gave Domhnall Gleeson his break into cinema as the stroppy train trolley pusher.


Bottle Rocket by Wes Anderson

We know Anderson best for The Grand Budapest Hotel, but his wacky voice began in Bottle Rocket, co-written and starring Owen Wilson. Wilson reprised his role in the feature version two years later and…well the rest is history.


Whiplash by Damien Chazelle

Proving that not everyone can get it right first time round, Whiplash was Chazelle’s second short, but made enough of an impression for a feature to be commissioned within a year of the short landing. J.K. Simmons reprises his role in the feature of the same name, which went on to win three Oscars.


Doodlebug by Christopher Nolan

Who would’ve thought that Chris Nolan would’ve achieved what he did after Doodlebug? A bizarre mini-odyssey, Nolan gave us a taste of the haunting psychosis and entrapment of the mind that he gives to his best protagonists. Memento followed shortly after, and possibly the best filmmaker of his generation was born.


Cigarettes and Coffee by Paul Thomas Anderson

Paul Thomas Anderson is perhaps the most remarkable filmmaker of modern times. He manages to apply his unique voice and methods of storytelling into almost any genre, but with a subtlety that perhaps belies others. You know you’re watch a PT Anderson movie, but he doesn’t jam it down your throat, managing to bring an indie quality to virtually everything he does. Perhaps understated, certainly controversial, and a renegade to the rules of Hollywood, Anderson followed The Dirk Diggler Story (which went on to become Boogie Nights) with the short Cigarettes and Coffee, undoubtedly influencing his first feature Hard Eight.

The diversity within this group, both in terms of artistic voice and genre is remarkable, and should give hope to any young filmmaker, as well as giving credence to the short film medium.

Currently, I am producing my own short, inspired by all five of these examples, we hope that it will bring success that will lead on to a feature. Here are my five keys to getting a successful short film made:

  1. Find your voice. This isn’t easy, but find something that inspires you, that makes you feel an emotion. Then aim to channel that spirit into your work. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from something you admire- all the greats do. Immerse yourself in any material related to that work. You may be surprised what you end up with.
  1. Dare to be different. The beauty of film is that there’s no right and wrong. Everybody has slightly different opinions on every single thing, so you’re never going to please everyone, nor should you try to. Write about something you care about, that has affected you, that makes you laugh, and the chances are, it will have the same effect on others!
  1. Assemble a team. You’ve got the script, and you couldn’t be happier. Now what? No matter how organised and ingenious you think you are, you can’t do this alone. Find a wingman, find a wolfpack, and share some of that overwhelming load. You’ve got no money, so people that want to work on your script clearly believe in it as much as you do. Having not gone to film school, I spent lots of time puzzling over how I would meet producers. It’s easy. Websites such a offer this forum.
  1. Stylise. This is going to be important in marketing your short film. Shorts don’t make money, so you need an eye-catching poster to grab attention on crowdfunding websites. Find a local graphic artist or photographer and see if they will help you out. Your producer should be able to advise you on this too.
  1. Gather a crowd. Crowdfunding is painstaking. It’s like asking a girl out on a date. Sweaty palms, constantly checking your phone, waiting for that notification. Bing and…oh. Great. Mum again. Get your producer to cost the film, and then see where you can minimise spending. Tarantino made the cast of Reservoir Dogs use their own clothes as wardrobe, so see where you can cut back. Once you’ve agreed a budget, launch an aggressive social media campaign. Seek re-tweets from celebrities you think could be interested. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  1. And for goodness sake, stick at it! It can be a long process. There will be times you want to quit. Don’t. Even writing this article I’ve wanted to chuck my short film in three times. There are always more solutions than problems, so think outside the box and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Max is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo for his short film, ‘(A Very) Ham-Fisted Stakeout’.