Making a successful, festival-winning short is practically a prerequisite for any career in film. For good reason: it’s a great way to showcase your voice and your competence—and it may even serve as proof-of-concept for potential investors, if you decide to pitch it as a feature. Yes, it’s a jungle out there, but if you can execute a story well on a small scale… maybe, just maybe, there’s hope.
Twenty-six-year-old writer/director Alex Morsanutto is counting on it.
Morsanutto’s short film Hi-Glow Retro–or as he calls it, “my sweet disco baby”– premieres today on Short of the Week. His online release is the latest in a string of accomplishments for this film on the festival circuit, including awards for Best Comedy Short & Best Actor at Williamsburg Independent Film Festival, and the Audience Award at National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY).
What makes his film a stand-out? Hi-Glow Retro is a snappy, light-hearted ode to high school angst and 70’s disco culture. It’s charming, visually polished and emotionally electric. It’s about underdogs aiming high, failing hard…a trajectory with painful parallels to Morsanutto’s own career. You can watch Hi-Glow Retro here.
“I was so naïve, but I learned from my mistakes.”
In some ways, this film is Morsanutto’s big break, and he got there by making something out of nothing. Well, almost nothing. As he is quick to point out, success tends to happen over time, not all at once. Take Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash, often cited by up-and-comers because it began as a short before winning three Oscars; not even Chazelle got to Hollywood overnight. Like so many filmmakers, it took patience. And grit.
So what goes on behind-the-scenes when you’re facing that crucial career-building move and next-to-no budget to build with? NFS sat down with Morsanutto to talk backstory, cheat codes, production hacks and takeaways from his first high-stakes short film…which, if all goes as planned, will also morph into his first feature. Morsanutto's long game consists of one step at a time.
1. Learn the Craft
Back when he first got hooked on filmmaking–after reading a No Film School article, no less!–Morsanutto transferred from SUNY Purchase to NYU Tisch, determined to learn what it takes.
“I had a chip on my shoulder when I got to NYU,” he confessed. “I was two years behind everyone else, I had to prove myself. And that, as it turned out, was an asset: I’ve tried to channel that same hunger ever since.”
Hunger helps; but it doesn’t guarantee instant success. He sent his senior thesis film, Little Lion, to five of the top festivals and got turned down by all five. “I was so naïve,” he chuckled. “But I learned from my mistakes.”
2. Stayin’ Alive
After graduating from Tisch, Morsanutto was desperate.
“I knew it would be hard to make a living off filmmaking, especially at my age,” he said, “but I was stubborn. So I said yes to everything.”
He started off directing videos for friends, low-budget commercials for restaurants, non-profits and start-ups.
“I definitely paid my dues,” he recalled with a grin. “I hit up family friends, I cold-called small businesses, I made a little pizza commercial and leveraged that to get more restaurant stuff. You get work with work.”
"You get work with work."
He mentioned the site MoFilm as a great way to find commercial work. “They release a brief for an ad, you apply with a treatment,” he explained. “If they like your idea they give you a grant to make it. That was a great way to build up my reel.”
Morsanutto laughed at himself. “It was quantity over quality. No matter what they wanted, I threw my hat in the ring. Besides,” he added, “It’s also good to stay busy; it can be really discouraging waiting for that big break without hands-on work to do.” He paused, thinking back. “The opportunities weren’t always great, but I learned from them all.”
3. Try Again
Practice makes perfect…or at least, somewhat better. In between pizza commercials, Morsanutto took what he learned from his thesis film and began writing a new script. “I made it shorter, I tried to give it more mainstream appeal,” he explained. “I knew it had to be upbeat. Happy. And then, once I had a draft I could live with, I began to produce it.”
Casting helped a great deal with the writing process. The table read was apparently a script-saver: “The actors would say lines and suddenly I realized: they didn’t make sense, they just didn’t sound right. So we turned brutal, cutting sentences, paragraphs. The dialogue got trimmed down to essentials.” He smiled. “It wasn’t all bad. And there were also those magical moments where an actor would add a great line.”
Morsanutto credits Bryan Burton, his lead actor, for the script’s final polish. “During rehearsals and on set, Bryan was a great improviser,” he admitted. “He added some great lines, and got rid of some weaker ones. And I learned: as long as they share your intentions, you’ve got to let other people in.”
4. Use Production Hacks
Morsanutto was both scrappy and resourceful. When it came time for production, he used all the Robert Rodriguez-style cheat codes he could muster.
He re-used props. He salvaged speakers from a Nigel Stanford music video that he worked on before they were tossed. (That video was just released three days ago, too.) While on a commercial shoot for someone else, he used their camera package to grab pick-up shots for his film.
To outfit his actors, he looked through clothing catalogs like Patagonia, picked a specific “look” and then replicated it with cheap, off-brand replacements. He bought his cast’s entire wardrobe on a credit card, kept the tags on, and then returned it all when shooting was over.
“The cool thing about filming outside of NYC or LA is that people get really excited about film projects.”
One of his biggest challenges was the film’s climax: he needed extras for a big dance scene. “I barely had money to pay the crew,” he recalled, “let alone random extras even for just two hours. I really had to think outside of the box.”
He leaned heavily on hometown resources. He went back to his high school in Norwalk, Connecticut, and recruited film students. He reached out to local cheerleading groups, dance teams, acting schools and sports teams. He posted fliers in local delis and gyms. And it worked.
“The cool thing about filming outside of NYC or LA is that people get really excited about film projects,” he confided. “Parents were so excited that their kid would be in it that they showed up too. So even though it was supposed to be a high school dance, we used them as body wipes, and silhouettes in the background. We actually ended up with so many people–about 100 extras–that we had to politely ask people to move out of the frame, when it started to look too much like a packed club.”
5. Be prepared to pivot
Even with all the prep that Morsanutto put into his short, there were still issues.
“In the past, I’ve edited my own projects all by myself,” he said, “but this one was too important. I knew I needed another pair of eyes—so I brought in Carlos Zozaya. And I’m so glad I did.”
One reason why: “I realized when we finished the rough cut that the plot wasn’t totally clear,” he confessed. “And at that point, we didn’t have any more money for re-shoots.” So Morsanutto made lemonade. “Since we couldn't get the actors and crew to come back, we decided to add a short animated sequence. It’s actually pretty cool and adds to the film, I think."
It was an uneven process. “Basically, Carlos cut it to the point where I felt confident enough to dive into fine-tuning.” Morsanutto laughed, shaking his head. “Mainly because I couldn’t afford to have him cut it all the way.”
And then came the hardest part. “I learned early on that Hi-Glow Retro wasn’t a top-tier festival film,” he admitted, long past any sense of disappointment. “It wasn’t gonna get into Tribeca, Sundance. But I didn’t let myself do the usual ‘Wow, my film sucks.’ Instead, I cut the film down from 19 to 14 minutes–and suddenly started get a lot more acceptances. I wish I’d had the hindsight to make it shorter from the get-go. Ten minutes seems to be a festival sweet spot.”
For Morsanutto, it was a lot like the college application process or finding the right job. “After the first round of rejections, we just blasted it out to all the ones on the next level. Festivals you may have heard of, but you’re not like “Wow, buzzworthy.”
A still from HGR's animated sequenceCredit: Silvermine
6. Earn Eyeballs
The result of realistic expectations? Morsanutto got a lot of eyes on his film. “Building word of mouth is important, especially for something you want to turn into a feature,” he reminded us. “So I relished the chance to see what people thought of my movie in Texas, in Colorado, in Mississippi.”
"I gradually began to think 'OK, maybe I’m not that bad after all.'"
Over the past ten months, he applied to about 30 festivals, and got into close to a third of them. “And we did pretty well in the ones we got into,” he grinned. “It was actually inspiring: I gradually began to think ‘OK, maybe I’m not that bad after all.’ You need that extra push to keep moving forward.”
That’s where Short of the Week comes in. It's a carefully curated platform where filmmakers showcase their talen and get the attention of producers in the process. “I’d been trying to get my films on Short of the Week since I discovered it years ago. Two of my films had already been rejected by them and I was really discouraged. So it was nice when Hi-Glow Retro finally got their stamp of approval.”
7. Learn From Missteps
Despite the successes of Hi-Glow Retro–and all the previous lessons learned that guided Morsanutto to this point–there’s still a ton of details he wishes he’d done differently.
“I wish we’d treated the climactic dancing scene like a stunt sequence,” he mourned. “It would have served us better in the editing room. We had so many extras–non-actors who were just doing me a solid–that it was really hard to get coverage. They weren’t used to the long days, and we were lucky to get what we did.” He grimaced. “I learned the hard way: the downside to getting free help from strangers is that they’re less invested.”
On the flipside of that coin, he also realized that the more stake he shared with others, the better the outcome. “I didn’t trust enough people with creative stuff,” he said ruefully. “I didn’t wanna ruin my baby. Next time I’ll collaborate more. And I’ll remember to keep everyone happy and fed.”
8. Just Do It
Despite his mistakes, Morsanutto now has forward momentum. Even if this short only leads to more shorts, he has successfully stretched himself.
“I actually get emails from non-filmmakers now, asking me for guidance,” he laughed, mostly in disbelief. “As if I really know what I’m doing!” He paused. “But I do have some advice,” he added. “It’s all in your head. There’s always a chance to change your trajectory, if you can just change your mindset. You can be a filmmaker even if you’ve never made a film. You can be a filmmaker even if your first efforts go nowhere. Everyone gets rejected.” His voice is emphatic, the memories of his own self-doubt still fresh. “You just have to do it.”
Morsanutto seems poised to make his first feature–but don’t wait around to find out if that happens. Instead, make him happy: go shoot your own short.