Five things I learned from making my own short film after taking advice at LondonSWF

by Phil Lowe

Have you ever sat in the audience of a panel session at LSF and heard the moderator ask a panellist what their advice would be to aspiring screenwriters? The response is usually one of 1) Get an agent; 2) Write a play 3) Make a short film.

Well, given that agents don’t return my calls, and I fall asleep in the theatre, what choice did I have? I set out to write a short film and get it made.

And here I am, three and a half year’s later, finally seeing my short released online to the general public. What on earth did I do for all that time, you wonder? Well, there were the three months writing and workshopping, nine months preproduction, eleven months post production and seventeen months showing in festivals. Oh, and one day’s actual filming. Luckily, it was worth it: we were selected for forty festivals worldwide and won six awards. So, now I’m suddenly an “award winning writer/director”, what have I learned?

Writing a short takes more craft than writing a feature. Well, not necessarily, obvs, but if you want to create a memorable short you’ve somehow got to shoehorn three acts and a meaningful character arc into ten minutes or so. Which is tricky. Of course, there are plenty of impressionistic shorts which don’t go the whole hog on the story front – and lots of them are instantly forgettable because it’s story that tends to lodge in people’s heads. It’s not just the audience you’re hooking, of course – it’s that household name actor you’ve got in mind for the lead. Which brings me to….

Assemble the most talented team you can. The accessibility of film making technology means you are competing with more and more short films for the attention of festival goers and online viewers. Of course you could just shoot it yourself on an iPhone and rely on the purity of your art to come through. Or you could scour your network for a cinematographer who is on top of her craft, hugely experienced in shooting ads and music videos, and wants some fiction on her c.v. You could cast an old friend who went to drama school who looks kind of like the lead character and at least is easy to work with; or you can spend months searching for someone who can really bring the character to life; who will do your short for expenses only because they love the script, not because that’s twice the amount they usually get. The same goes for directing, editing, sound, post production. Which means, unfortunately….

Be prepared to spend money. You don’t want to spend money unnecessarily, and in many cases you don’t have to – a lot of highly talented performers and crew will do it for the pleasure of making art (and hot food – spend money on catering!) but you will have to make some tricky decisions: how good a camera do you need to hire to really make this look good? Are you going to risk filming without insurance? Do you want to use an existing song in the soundtrack? Oh, and don’t forget every festival you submit to will charge you a fee in double figures to view your short. So you need to think about….

Have a festival strategy. This one’s a bit like raising children – you won’t know until it’s too late whether your approach was the best one. At its simplest, you’re choosing between two ends of a spectrum: carefully select a small number of festivals and only submit to them; or go for saturation bombing, aiming to show at a lot of festivals in a short space of time and generate a bit of a buzz. The bugger factor in all this: it isn’t up to you whether the festival shows your film – and you will need to muster all your “dealing with rejection” skills when you get turned down for the East Grinstead Cub Scouts Film Festival (that’s if you’re doing the “saturation bombing” option, of course). All of this is taking a lot of time and effort, which is why….

You have to really love your film. You are going to be living with it for a long time. Apart from the writing of it (which you will probably love because, hey, you’re a writer) you will be having a LOT of conversations in which you persuade talented people to work on it by conveying your excitement about it – and then waiting patiently for months until they are free to work on it. Then you will sit through it over and over again in the editing and post production; then you’ll be watching it at festivals and being asked questions about it. So if it isn’t the best script you’ve written, and the best possible production of it, you may be in for a miserable time.

  • Watch the film HERE or below
  • Watch the behind the scenes HERE or above.

But please, don’t let me put you off. I kept reminding myself through the process of John F Kennedy’s words when he set out to put a man on the moon: “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. That’s the best description of the life of a writer, right?

Phil Lowe