From 'Mess' to Success: Make The Project That Scares You The Most
You just may find your cathartic short touring the festival circuit.
Matthew Puccini did something right with his short film, The Mess He Made. It premiered at SXSW in March, has been to over twenty festivals so far, competed for the prestigious Iris Prize, and has just screened at NewFest in New York. In the film, a young man awaits the results of a rapid HIV test in a small-town strip mall. The result is powerfully spare, emotionally resonant and mercifully short. NFS recently sat down with Puccini to see how brought his short film to life.
“I’m not a master—or even an experienced filmmaker,” Puccini laughed nervously. “I’m looking for advice myself, so I hardly feel comfortable giving it.” Despite his modesty, Puccini does have useful insight: a series of smart, careful decisions over the past few months have propelled his career forward. And he did this with next to nothing. Check out The Mess He Made below and read on to find out how you can achieve the same success—all within your means.
Make it personal
Like most artistic journeys, it started out with fear. Puccini graduated from film school, but was afraid to fail. We’ve all been there: our ideas become so precious that we dance around them in circles, delaying their execution.
“For a year and a half after college, I didn’t write anything. I didn’t make anything,” Puccini recalled, still rueful. “But the short span of time it took me to make The Mess He Made has given me more momentum than that entire year and a half, plus all of my assistant jobs combined.” (Puccini has assisted the producer Scott Rudin and director Cary Fukunaga, among others). “It’s so important to figure out a lifestyle that allows you the time to make as many films as possible,” he insisted. “Especially because you’re not always gonna get into South-by. I was lucky.”
Luck played a part. So did courage. Puccini had already made a number of short films in college, but nothing came close to The Mess He Made. He credits part of his creative evolution to increased maturity. “Back when I was in film school, I thought that all shorts had to be really clever. A twist, a gimmick, a payoff. Something shocking. But then I realized that the best shorts create a believable reality that you want to spend time in.”
"I was accessing something that I had buried inside. If you can let that out, if you can harness it into an actual story, it’s probably worth telling."
The Mess He Made does exactly that. The film is part horror-movie, part psychological drama, all mood. For a full nine minutes, we feel the dread build, we are drawn deep into the lead character’s psyche, all because Puccini dared make it personal.
“I used to think that my previous stuff was personal. Then I wrote this, and I was like ‘Oh, THIS is what it’s supposed to feel like.” He paused. “My close friend and I both had HIV scares last summer,” he admitted. “And while we were supporting each other—deep in this difficult emotional state—we both realized that we were feeling something we hadn’t seen portrayed onscreen.”
Everyone knows the screenwriting cliché, "Write what you know." For Puccini, it was more a question of writing what frightened him. “It’s so easy to censor yourself when you’re writing,” he reflected. “It made me really uncomfortable at first.” Puccini cited an exercise from his film school where a professor asked everyone to dramatize their most traumatic experiences. At the time, the whole class was struggling, Puccini included. “We all bury stuff that’s humiliating, traumatizing, upsetting,” he explained, “But I’ve learned that if you can access the way you were feeling in those moments—down to the most specific details—it can really empower your story.” He nodded, reliving the catharsis of his own film’s first legs. “It really pours out of you. It’s not that great a feeling. It’s just you. For me at least, I was accessing something that I had buried inside. If you can let that out, if you can harness it into an actual story, it’s probably worth telling.”
Pare down your content
Puccini had a good idea. But as he is quick to remind himself and his peers, “A good idea isn’t enough on its own. To make your idea come to life, strategy is everything. You have to choose your priorities.” His first issue was content. He recalls writing countless drafts of his script before achieving the streamlined version that turned heads at festivals. “It used to have two characters and a romance, but it gradually shifted away to just being a character study,” he said. “I decided that was enough.”
Length mattered. Because the HIV test takes 15 minutes, he chose that as the timeframe for his narrative. His completed film actually clocks in closer to nine minutes, but the events still unfold chronologically. “I knew the story had to be taut,” he acknowledged, “but beyond events, I wanted to focus on the internal drama.”
An important reference for him was James White, the cerebral hit from Sundance NEXT where the audience spends a lot of time in the headspace of the lead actor Christopher Abbot. “My goal was to introduce the character’s backstory through mundane moments, not exposition,” he explained. In fact, the film never explicitly reveals that Jude is being tested for HIV. “As an audience member, I appreciate when I’m not spoon-fed information, when a film trusts me to come to my own conclusions.” Puccini continued, “Don’t underestimate your audience. Audiences respond to ambiguity, they like to figure out things for themselves. People want things that challenge them, that do things they don’t expect. The programmers on the festival circuit most of all.”
Don’t scrimp on casting
For Puccini, casting was as important as content. “Even if it took most of our budget,” he said, “we knew we needed someone who could handle the role.” The film’s lead character Jude is played by Max Jenkins (High Maintenance, Orange Is the New Black). Puccini originally wrote the role with Jenkins in mind. “Writing the role for specific actors can help, but be realistic,” he laughed. “Don’t write it for Matt Damon.”
So how did he do it? He had a good script, and he aimed high. “I started by cold-emailing the script to various agents and managers. I was shocked to learn how many of them actually passed the script onto their clients, who carefully considered the role. These were actors in big Off-Broadway plays, even HBO shows.” Even now, he still marvels. “But as long as you’re offering them a good script—something they wouldn’t otherwise get to do in their professional day-to-day—it’s not a waste of time to aim high. If there’s someone you like who hasn’t been getting good roles, that’s a really smart way to elevate your film.”
"To be completely honest, I wasn’t thinking about limitations when I came up with this idea."
Puccini faced a lot of closed doors, but then he discovered that one of his friends knew Jenkins personally. They persuaded the actor to read the script. Jenkins said yes immediately. But even then, Puccini didn’t relax. “It’s easy to pat yourself on the back after you land your lead,” he attested. “But every supporting role—no matter how small a cast you plan to have, extras included—needs to be carefully considered, because you’re creating a world and you need people who will make that world feel believable.”
Puccini’s only complaint: he couldn’t afford a casting director, so he had to do all the legwork himself. “It really would have helped me to have someone with a working knowledge of local actors, in my case people in the New York theater and TV communities. You should always budget for a casting director. Otherwise you spend way too much time sifting through really bad reels.”
Pare down your budget
As Puccini tells it, except for a casting director, less is more. “To be completely honest, I wasn’t thinking about limitations when I came up with this idea.” He laughed at his own naiveté. “But in retrospect, I should have been.”
His third issue was cost. He’d saved about $5,000 from his first job after college, with the intention of making a short—but that wouldn’t cover what he had in mind. He knew it couldn’t be a one-man show. “It’s really important to know the things you can compromise on, and the things you can’t,” he insisted. “Especially on a small budget. You have to hold onto things that are essential to your creative vision—in my case, the actor and the setting—but you also have to allow more flexibility for things like camera and equipment.”
Puccini had his heart set on handheld tracking shots, a naturalistic look and a claustrophobic feel, but it took a while before he realized that he could achieve this without renting an Alexa. “You may think you need the best gear, but sometimes that’s just because you want to feel professional.” He chuckled, remembering. “But definitely rent good sound equipment!”
Don’t scrimp on prep time
Puccini’s next issue was location. The script as written involved a bunch of interconnected locations in a single strip mall. He made a trip upstate to scout locations, but couldn’t find the right fit. Even worse, that one trip exhausted his resources: he couldn’t afford another rental car in order to do more scouting.
His solution? He spent close to a month on Google Earth, zooming in on maps in search of HIV clinics in the tri-state area, cold-calling the ones that seemed likely. “We finally found everything we needed, all in one strip mall. We got lucky.” He laughed, shook his head. “I don’t recommend this strategy.”
His next headache was lighting. Because his script took place at dusk, during blue hour, scheduling became really important. “A full third of the movie takes place outside,” he explained, “but we had only one hour per day to take advantage of the light that we wanted.”
Puccini’s next solution? He persuaded his crew to start their days in the afternoon, rehearsing blocking, pulling focus, maximizing preparation, working out exactly what they needed for the shoot. Then, as soon as dusk fell, they banged out as many takes as possible, rapid-fire. It was tough, but the exhaustive prep helped. The film’s look became a distinctive element. Puccini repeated his mantra: “You have to be very selective about what you can—and can’t—compromise on.”
Prep for success
Even after his film was done, even after it began to get into festivals, Puccini had a rude awakening: his work wasn’t over. “I won’t pretend that the day I got into SXSW isn’t one of the best days of my life,” he admitted, “but I wasn’t fully prepared. There’s this myth that getting your short into a major film festival is a life-changing experience.”
Puccini still remembers the advice he received from SXSW programmers. “They told us, ‘Yes, this is a huge honor, but keep your expectations realistic. Just try to enjoy the experience of being here, joining this community.’” He looks back on their advice now with a certain amount of chagrin. “Sure, admission to a big festival is a huge stepping stone in any career,” he agreed, “but it’s important to remember that it’s just that: a stepping stone. You definitely need to manipulate the experience to your advantage, as much as you possibly can. And I wasn’t ready to do that.”
"Be clear about what you want your next project to be, and be prepared to talk about it quickly and eloquently."
He kicks himself for being unprepared. “Obviously, I didn’t know I was gonna get into South-by, but it might have made a big difference if I’d had a feature film script ready to show, or even another short script, a notebook, a sizzle reel.” He shook his head, emphatic: “When you finally get into a festival, bring material that shows your next project is real. Be clear about what you want your next project to be, and be prepared to talk about it quickly and eloquently. Ideally, it should be something that your festival entry film proves you can do.”
Puccini hesitated. “99% of the time, that won’t lead to a first feature, or a million-dollar check. But you never know. Next time, I’ll be ready.”
Puccini is proud of his success, but too driven to be self-satisfied. Instead, he laughs at past mistakes, and urges himself to heed his own advice. “You kind of feel like hot shit when you get into South-by, but then you get like ten rejections from other big festivals. That’s when you realize that programming decisions come down to so many factors. A lot of it is personal taste, or whether or not there are other movies similar to your tone or your subject matter. Sometimes it’s simply the length of your film. A lot of time, there’s just not enough space in their schedule.” He shrugged. “That makes you a little more humble.”
Despite his setbacks, Puccini remains unshaken. In fact, he seems fired up by the prospect of greater challenges ahead. After all, he has already faced his own demons head on. By writing about personal pain, by creating The Mess He Made, by presenting his truth to a judgmental public, he has visited his own private underworld more than once and come out the other side. Instead, he feels lucky. “I was so fortunate to find a personal experience that I could actually retell onscreen effectively.”
Puccini’s story is about gay shame: a sickening sense of doom and loneliness, and, even worse, the sense that he earned all this horror through his own doing. His own fault. It was no easy feat to recreate his darkest hour. It still makes him wince.
“It’s so hard to go there, to really tap into that place in the pit of your stomach,” he confessed. “But there is so much reward, both emotionally and artistically, in accessing those memories and using them as fuel for your work.” He paused. “I’m not saying that a film has to be a verbatim account of your own life. It’s a matter of letting the emotional truth of your own experience inform the circumstance and character you’re creating.”