Writing Short Films

Peter Dillon has written for the stage, radio, theatre and film. He is a co-director of Wildcat Films for whom he has script edited and co-produced a number of films – several of them, shorts. Peter teaches screenwriting at Northumbria University and runs an Introduction to Screenwriting Course at the Tyneside Cinema. He’s completed a draft of a stage play called ‘Guts’ and is working on a film script for Airship Productions called ‘Where’s Charlie?’.

TCW: How long is a short film?

PD: Traditionally, a short film is regarded as any film under thirty minutes running time, or screen time.

TCW: What sets them apart from full-length features other than the length?

PD: Usually subject matter. There’s a limit on how much you can say in 5 or 10 minutes. So this should have a bearing on the content of your short film. I always say the best short films can only be short films – they can’t be anything else. They rarely work if they’re sized down features, or quite clearly the start of a much longer opus. The shortest short films tend to be about character rather than story. Again, this is due to the time-scale you’re playing with.

TCW: For someone who aims to write a feature film, why should they bother with shorts?

PD: In a perfect world, you should only write the films you want, be they short or long. But as we know it’s not a perfect world. It’s simple really – if you’ve got an idea for a short film and it can only be a short film, then it’s an exceedingly good idea to make it. The finished film, an especially polished jewel, can act as a passport into the industry, and also a pathway to writing more films, short or long. Of course money comes into it, but today at a basic level it might be just as expensive to make a feature as it is to make a short. It really does depend so much on what you’re trying to do, the kind of film you want to make, the aesthetic etc.

Two ex-Northumbria students who left the Media Production Course in approximately 1997 – Producer Samm Haillay and writer/director Duane Hopkins – made two short films, ‘Field’ and ‘Love Me or Leave Me Alone’, which did very well for them in terms of winning awards at festivals. This week they’re off to Cannes where their feature film Better Things is in competition. In their case they’ve navigated a path by doing their short films and now they’ve moved onto a feature. Doesn’t mean that they won’t ever make a short though. Dan Elliot, another Northumbria graduate, won first prize for his short at the Venice Film Festival last year. He’s making another short this summer.

Going back to my dream of a perfect world: it’s likely you’ll get far better work if you take the short film as an entity in itself, as a form as valid as a short story, and not just a ‘nursery slope’ try out. But invariably the latter is how shorts are seen.

TCW: In your courses you teach students to use the Three Act Structure in writing their films. Can you briefly explain what this is and why it is of benefit?

PD: It’s based on Aristotle’s theory of structure, which breaks down into 3 acts as follows:

Act One (Pity) – To induce sympathy or empathy in the audience for the protagonist’s plight.
Act Two (Fear) – To induce apprehension in the audience for the protagonist’s welfare.
Act Three (Catharsis) – The suspension of tension.

I teach Three Act Structure because I think it’s good to give embryonic writers something to hang onto; a principle that might help guide them through the chaos and difficulty of pinning down what their film is about. Actually that doesn’t just apply to beginners. It’s a structure that any writer can funnel their thoughts, images, stories, ideas and characters through, and provides them with parameters.

TCW: What would you say to someone who believes Three Act Structure films are too formulaic?

PD: Depends how good the writer is!

TCW: Short films have the reputation of being ‘arty’ rather than ‘commercial’. Is this a fair generalisation?

PD: I’m guessing you’re using the word ‘arty’ as pejorative in this instance. So yes, it is a generalisation and really not very helpful. Shorts come in all shapes and sizes, much in the same way as features do. But perhaps unlike features, shorts provide writers and film makers with the opportunity to experiment, try things out, find their voice, whether that’s ‘commercial’ or so called ‘arty’. Let’s use the word ‘pretentious’ – it’s probably better. I don’t think short films fall into the pretentious trap any more than short stories do, or painting, song writing, opera, theatre…or anything you care to mention.

TCW: What outlets are there for short films? In the UK? Internationally?

PD: In the UK, mostly festivals in London, Manchester, Bristol – all over the place and all over the world. If people are interested in the outlets they should contact the UK Film Council, Northern Film and Media, or your regional or national body. I’m sure googling short film festivals will reveal a mass of outlets.

TCW: (Here is a ‘short-list’ of international film council contacts and some UK regional screen agencies). Are shorts financially lucrative for a writer?

PD: No.

TCW:  What online resources could you recommend?

PD: There are a multitude of sites showing short films from YouTube to pretty well everything under the sun. Northern Film & Media run sites which regularly show new shorts
david-howard-the-tools-of-screenwriting
TCW: Of the many screenwriting books out there, which would you recommend?

PD: The Tools of Screenwriting by Howard and Mabley.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Peter, and look out for us at Cannes!

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5 comments on “Writing Short Films

  1. Pingback: Writing for Television at The Crafty Writer

  2. Pingback: Incurable Disease of Writing | Just Write Blog Carnival August 22, 2008 Edition

  3. Pingback: Short Film Science & Fiction | The Story Department

  4. need a good short film script

  5. Fiona Veitch Smith on said:

    Are you asking for one or offering one?

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