How Kim Sherman Turned a Crazy Story into a Sundance-Winning Short
An urban legend inspired this Sundance award-winning short film, made by a producer-turned-director.
When Kim Sherman came across the craziest story she'd ever heard, she knew she had to make it her directorial debut. Sherman had been producing for many years, working on films such as V/H/S and A Teacher; after attending the 2011 Sundance Creative Producing Labs and earning a spot on Filmmaker Magazine's 25 New Faces List of 2012, she thought it time to try her hand at directing.
Dogwalker, her first short film, premiered at Sundance last year, where it won the Kodak Short Film Prize, the Technicolor Short Film Prize, and the Women in Film/Women at Sundance Short Film Prize. It was inspired by an urban legend about a dog walker who finds one of her client's dogs has passed away and must transport the body across the city. But things don't quite go as planned.
In honor of its online debut as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere, No Film School caught up with Sherman to discuss the lessons she learned on set as a director for the first time, the mysterious origin of that crazy story, and what screening at Sundance meant for her and her crew.
No Film School: Where did the initial idea for this film come from?
Sherman: The short film is based on an urban legend, presented to me as true events that happened to a "friend of a friend." I first heard the story in Columbia, Missouri in 2012, from friends visiting from Omaha, Nebraska. They set the story up as “the craziest story” they’d ever heard, and after their retelling, I agreed it was the craziest/best/funniest story.
"Nothing will ever top the feeling that comes from an entire room full of people reacting to your film all together."
I did immediately think it would make a great short film. It was so complete in a small package. I asked them to please introduce me to the friend that had told them the story, so I could meet their friend’s friend, and ask for permission to tell the story in a film. They tried to set it up, but he eventually confessed that he didn’t actually know the woman—that he had heard it from a friend. That claim also led to a dead end. Somehow, after all of that, I still didn’t suspect it was an urban legend.
The internet only led to more retellings from people who swear the story happened to their friend’s friend. It was all over the country and in various parts of the world. But I never found any official documents, cases, or news that pointed to a legitimate source. I started sketching out my ideas for a short after that.
NFS: How did you shoot on the subway?
Sherman: We shot in Chicago, and received a lot of support from the CTA, especially Bill Reilly and his team. In this case, we worked with the system, and the system was supportive and generous with our small film. We needed this, because of how patient we needed the scenes on the train to be. Stealing the shots was never an option. I had originally set this in New York, but moved to Chicago because of the famous raised platforms. The Chicago L made for a better story component.
NFS: What was your experience like taking this film to Sundance?
Sherman: It was amazing. Beyond the incredible support the Sundance Institute/Festival gives to all of their filmmakers, I was so grateful to watch this film with a sold-out theater packed with people. The film has a few surprises, and nothing will ever top the feeling that comes from an entire room full of people reacting/taking a deep breath, exclaiming/and laughing all together. On top of that, most of our cast and crew were there, so we were able to really celebrate together. That doesn't always happen. When you make something with such a small team, and when really great people put their faith in you, it feels pretty magical to be able to have a prestigious festival point to their work and recognize it, as Sundance did for us. It's the best outcome.
NFS: What did you learn at the Sundance Creative Producing Labs?
Sherman: I learned that I knew nothing and that I had a lot to learn. It was really humbling, but also tremendously inspiring. I came from a small town in Missouri and had not really worked with experienced producers before that. I had to figure everything out on the job. So after the labs, I had a broader community and mentors, and new goals for myself and my career. I started to learn what questions I could ask and that I didn't have to pretend that I knew everything—a fear I learned most producers share. I also learned how to say no, which was a problem for me.
NFS: What should all short film directors keep in mind when setting out to write their script? What about when going into production?
Sherman: The reason I decided to write a short was that I wanted a chance to explore my own voice after years of producing for other people. I found this to be vital to my growth as a director. I took a story that had been told before—one that I loved and related to, oddly— and really threw myself into it. So, creatively, I got the most out of the experience.
I also wrote more than I needed, and whittled the edges more and more finely to just the necessary moments—to the moments that, for me, were most representative of what I wanted to say. Giving yourself options like that is much easier when working in short-form. It's harder when you have a bigger crew and more complicated schedules, so take the time to do this on your short, if you can.
Full Lineup of Vimeo Staff Pick Premieres
March 8: Bath House (dir. Niki Lindroth von Bahr)
Synopsis: Six characters meet in a public bath house. The bath house manager, a couple with a strange way of communicating and a gang with shady intentions. Something goes wrong.
March 15: Northbound (dir. Jørn Nyseth Ranum)
Synopsis: Ice, driftwood, foamy waves and … skateboards? In this poetic short film by Jørn Nyseth Ranum, four skaters head north to the cold Norwegian coast, applying their urban skills to a wild canvas of beach flotsam, frozen sand and pastel skies. The result is a beautiful mashup — biting winds and short days, ollies and one ephemeral quarterpipe.
March 22: A Mighty Nice Man (dir. Jonathan Dee)
Synopsis: An eight-year-old girl naively accepts a ride in a stranger's car without her mother's knowledge. Based on the short story by Patricia Highsmith. Starring Kristen Connolly (THE CABIN IN THE WOODS).
March 29: Brad Cuts Loose (dir. Christopher Good)
Synopsis: Brad, an uptight office drone, seemingly discovers the perfect vehicle for letting off steam when an advertisement for a business catering to his innermost desires pops up one morning on his computer. Brad's subsequent visit to the business and encounter with its receptionist Janine, however, don't quite go as planned. Starring Kentucker Audley, Tipper Newton, John Ennis, and Wilson Vance.
Filmmakers interested in having their work considered for a Staff Pick premiere can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.