The shorts road to fame at Sundance

Budding directors take it to get ahead

January 22, 2004|By John Horn | John Horn,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PARK CITY, Utah - Show-business auditions are as old and varied as Hollywood itself, but in their newest incarnation at the Sundance Film Festival, these make-or-break tryouts have become a lot less private: Now you have to sell yourself in front of hundreds of spectators.

The new audition instrument is the short movie, a cinematic calling card that may not last two minutes but can change a director's professional life. The Sundance short has become the SAT for admission into the independent film community, and many of today's top independent directors - from Wes Anderson to Alexander Payne - first attracted attention with a Sundance short.

"When I think, `What am I doing?' that [list of directors] is what I come back to," Sundance programming director John Cooper says. "Careers are launched."

Thousands of filmmakers have noticed and have flooded Sundance with submissions, sending in far more short films than are tendered for the festival's more famous feature competition. A record 3,389 short films were submitted for this year's festival (which ends Sunday), with just 88 titles making the cut. The shorts are shown either in packages (there are six Sundance shorts programs, each with about six titles) or, in a more coveted slot, in front of a Sundance feature.

Having hundreds of industry executives watch your first filmmaking steps can lead to making the contacts necessary to advance up the food chain.

One of this year's Sundance features, D.E.B.S., began as a short film of the same title at last year's festival, and that 11-minute short helped persuade Screen Gems to finance the longer version of the lesbian-laced Charlie's Angels parody. The lovable-loser comedy Napoleon Dynamite, perhaps the festival's most talked-about movie, began its life in Park City last year as the nine-minute short Peluca. Director and co-writer Jared Hess didn't submit the short to Sundance; it played at the rival Slamdance Festival.

"I did the short as a showcase of what I wanted to do as a feature," Hess says. "It was totally instrumental in securing financing for the feature."

Beyond opening doors and bringing in money, these short films also afford writers and directors a chance to establish a filmmaking style that will become their signature for years to come. Because they are made so far below the radar and without studio financing, they are not subject to meddling and collaboration run amok.

Paul Thomas Anderson's short Cigarettes & Coffee showed in the 1993 festival; elements of the film and Anderson's storytelling technique were visible in his later feature Hard Eight. Todd Haynes' Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which played at Sundance in 1988, famously used dolls, including Barbies, to chronicle the life of the late singer. The foundations for the movie and TV show South Park were laid in 1997 when Trey Parker and Matt Stone showed the five-minute short The Spirit of Christmas, which itself began as a $2,000 animated greeting card.

"There are no commercial expectations with a short, so you are encouraged to make mistakes," says John Curran, the director of this year's Sundance feature We Don't Live Here Anymore and the 1997 Sundance short Down Rusty Down, which told the story of a dog's neutering with a human actor playing the canine.

It's not that fledgling filmmakers necessarily gravitate to short films because they want to. Some of the shorts are made as graduate-school projects, while others are brief because a few minutes is all the filmmakers can afford. Hess' Peluca, for example, was shot in two days at a cost of $500. When Hess made his feature Napoleon Dynamite, he had the comparatively kingly budget of $400,000 and a 22-day shooting schedule. (It just keeps getting better for Hess: Fox Searchlight bought the film for $3 million.)

Once short-film directors get a chance to make a feature, they very rarely return to the abbreviated format. Outside of film festivals, late-night cable, minor Internet movie sites and obscure DVD compilations, it's almost impossible for audiences to see short films.

"If you want to make movies and have a lot of people see them, you have to make features," says Ray McKinnon, who wrote, directed and co-stars in the Sundance feature Chrystal. McKinnon's short film The Accountant won the live-action short-film Oscar in 2002 but was not picked to be in Sundance.

Not every director of a short film is eager to circulate an earlier short; like an old haircut, they can be embarrassing to revisit. Michael Clancy's 1996 Sundance short Emily's Last Date helped get the writer-director a multiyear deal with DreamWorks. But once he began work on Eulogy, a feature in competition this year, he didn't use Emily's Last Date as an introduction.

"Its production values were so low that I became concerned the actors would become worried about the light they would be portrayed in," Clancy says.

The one thing short films can't do is prepare directors for the rigors of feature films. A lengthy short may be a half-hour long, but a 90-minute feature is hardly three times the work. Says Book of Love director Alan Brown: "It's about 100 times harder."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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