I recently finished the festival run for my award-winning psychological horror short Shut Eye, and it just premiered over at Film Shortage. There were a ton of things I learned through the process of directing this film as well as my other shorts.
From pre-production through post, here are some key tips if you’re making your first (or third) short film:
Hone the Script
Take as much time as you need on the screenplay and study other shorts to see what they did well or didn’t do well. There are a wide variety of shorts that work—some of them are closer to tone poems, and some feel like mini-features with full character arcs. Get feedback from people who understand what you’re trying to do.
With every slug line and description comes hours of planning, shooting, and editing, so working things out on the page will make the best use of your time and energy throughout the rest of the project.
Also, consider the movie’s length—if you’re planning to send your short to festivals, it’s simply easier for a programmer to schedule a 5-minute film over a 20-minute film. I’ve seen 20-minute films get programmed, but they were extremely high quality.
On location in Virginia
Build a Great Team
Being surrounded by great people and having a good vibe on set is everything. I developed the script with a writer who is a close friend, Addison Anderson (CBS’s Tooning Out the News), and worked with another friend, Colin Moneymaker, to produce the film.
Having a great producer will shape the project in ways you may not expect. Colin did a huge amount behind the scenes from giving story notes to designing the structure of the shoot and a workflow for post. We worked together to find people from the commercial world who were excited to work on something narrative. Also, finding collaborators who are more skilled than you at what they do will be a chance to learn a lot about that area.
For instance, I often DP commercials and the occasional short, so it was amazing to have our DP Adam Carboni shoot the film because he’s got a deeper understanding of optics, lighting, colors, and visual FX. I learned a lot from watching him work—we’ve since become friends, made another short together, and he’s attached to DP my next feature Influencers.
These kinds of friendships and collaborations stem naturally from putting a good team together, so it’s important to put in the time upfront to find the right people.
A handful of final stills next to storyboarded frames
Storyboarding will help clarify the intention of each shot for yourself and also make it easier to communicate what you have in mind to other departments.
Before getting together with the DP, I’ll draw out how I imagine all the shots. Most of the shots in this film align with the storyboards, but there were also plenty of places where the DP suggested doing something completely different than I had imagined, and the film is all the better for it.
Beyond storyboards, I’ll cut together a mood reel with shots from films that inform the look. This helped me pinpoint everything from the look of moonlight in the night scenes to the lens focal lengths used on the main character, as well as more abstract things like tone.
The test demon and me
If you have a specific action scene or effects makeup, test it. Shut Eye is about a demon that haunts the main character during sleep paralysis, and it was important to create the right look with our special effects makeup artist Joe La Scola.
We did a screen test with his wife who graciously let us turn her into a demon one fall afternoon in their living room. The look of the demon changed a lot from this initial test, but this test was invaluable in figuring out how the demon should look and feel.
Even if you don’t have action or VFX, screen tests with your main talent to test wardrobe, filters, lighting, and color palettes for production design can also be really useful. The ones Paul Thomas Anderson did for Phantom Thread are a great illustration of this.
Use What You Have & Shoot When You Can
I designed the film around a country cottage my family owns in the Virginia countryside. Whatever locations you have access to, use them. Compared to NYC, where I live, finding locations in the country that were interested in having us film there was simpler than filming in the city, and also more fun.
Trey Edward Schultz shot Krisha in his parent’s home in Texas, and Clerks was shot at the convenience store where Kevin Smith was working. Work with your limitations, not against them.
Additionally, I would shoot whenever it’s possible. From my experience, there’s never an ideal time to make your film, but you would be surprised how things can start to coalesce around the project once you commit to filming at a certain time.
Adam, the DP, building the camera
As a director, it’s important to plan everything and then be open to doing something completely different.
One example in this film was that I planned a shot for the opening that had some interesting blocking and camera movement, but during the scout, we weren’t able to find a visually dynamic location to shoot it. While filming another scene, the DP noticed that the sun was going to create an incredible silhouette over the landscape adjacent to where we were shooting, and he suggested shifting that scene to this location. It’s one of my favorite shots in the film.
Limit the Length of Shoot Days
Every shoot is different, but on indie projects lasting more than a few days, it’s important to try and keep the days to 12 hours to be respectful of the crew’s time and energy.
We went longer than this one or two days of our shoot, and I wish we hadn't. Having an AD will help. Planning will help. There are always curveballs, but as much as humanly possible, it’s in everyone’s interest to stick to a sane schedule and turnaround time between shoot days.
Editing Shut Eye
Post-production & Festivals
Kill Your Darlings
In some ways, the film is only as strong as its weakest link, so losing pieces that aren’t working is critical. During editing, make sure you’re either collaborating with an editor or getting feedback from viewers who can give you notes on what’s working and what’s not.
I worked with an incredible editor, Alex Trierweiler, and he really helped to shape scenes, scares, and performance, and also got me to lose an entire 90-second scene. It included a separate location and character that we filmed, but in the end, it wasn’t critical to the story.
No matter how much time and energy you put into something, the only thing that matters is the final film.
Get Creative with the Score
This one is less of a tip and more of something I discovered and wanted to share as an option for those recording an original score. In all my previous films, I used source music, or the composer I worked with used a digital library of instruments to create the score.
On Shut Eye, I worked with a great composer, Jerome Leroy. There were some particular, swirling off-kilter sounds I was after that could only be created with live instruments, so he recommended hiring a Budapest-based orchestra for 30 minutes to record the pieces we weren’t able to digitally create. Jerome conducted the orchestra remotely from his studio in LA while I monitored in NYC and they recorded in Hungary.
This isn’t going to be an option for many shorts, but if you need to record something live, it’s an interesting option that exists.
Here’s a behind the scenes video of one element being recorded.
Consider Your Festival Premiere
Aim high and try for the best festival premiere you can get. Some major festivals place a high premium on premiere status, while other major festivals do not. However, premiering at a major festival will help set the trajectory of your film’s festival run.
Making a short is fun but can seem a little overwhelming if you haven’t done it before. Reading about it can definitely help prepare you. Even more helpful, collaborate with friends who’ve already made shorts.
These tips are nowhere near comprehensive, so if you have specific questions, feel free to ask in the comments! And be sure to check out Shut Eye over at Film Shortage.