From Kin to Lights Out, directors talk turning their short films into features
Hollywood is always on the hunt for movie ideas, all of which aren’t just based on books, reboots, or sequels. Whiplash, the film that put Oscar winner Damien Chazelle on the map, began as a short film he put out in 2013. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, Andy Muschietti’s Mama, and Taika Waititi’s What We Do In the Shadows had similar journeys. This weekend, another one of these films-based-on-shorts, Kin, will be released in theaters.
For David F. Sandberg (Shazam!), the viral attention his short film “Lights Out” received made the feature film version a reality. For Jeremy Ungar (Ride), “Ride” was the proof of concept he needed to sell Hollywood on his idea. For others, it was an uphill journey to turn their shorts into movies.
Six directors across four movies tell EW how they did it and offer tips for how other aspiring filmmakers can do it, too.
Short film: “Bag Man”
Jonathan and Josh Baker, a.k.a. The Baker Brothers, didn’t see their 2014 short “Bag Man” as “simply a tool to get the feature made.” “It was very much its own thing, created to exist as a short film with a unique tone that contributes something original to the sci-fi genre,” they jointly wrote to EW in an email.
The 15-minute-long story chronicled an African-American boy who journeys upstate from New York City with a mysterious duffle bag containing what appears to be devastating alien weapon. The Bakers started outlining a potential feature-length story treatment, believing “Bag Man” would “lead to questions of a movie version.” They said “it wasn’t long before those questions began to be asked” by Hollywood.
The goal with the feature film, Kin, “was maintaining a specific tone,” the Bakers explained. “A restrained and sophisticated indie spirit, mashed with sci-fi wish fulfillment, somewhat reminiscent of the ’80s movies we grew up with. A gritty real-world aesthetic that also plays with some bigger genre ideas. And then at its heart, Kin became about an unconventional brother relationship — two completely different characters learning to love and relate to each other.”
Tips for filmmakers: “Be prepared for when opportunity knocks,” but also “don’t underestimate the mind-bending, soul-crushing challenges that lie ahead. It is an absolute uphill battle that a short film director needs to be fully prepared for. People aren’t just giving out movies to anybody with a short, despite it sometimes feeling that way. There are so many checkpoints where you need to prove your level of confidence, experience, enthusiasm, and craft, so be prepared to do a lot of convincing as a first-time feature director — to development partners, writers, financiers, actors, key crew.”
Short film: “Prospect”
Directors Zeek Earl and Chris Caldwell used the SXSW Film Festival in 2014 as a springboard for their short “Prospect,” a coming-of-age story about a father and daughter living on a toxic alien planet. According to the duo, “We always intended on turning ‘Prospect’ into a feature, so the first step was to make sure the short film strongly established a world, tone, and characters that would become a compelling sandbox for the feature.”
They put the short film online in its entirety to correspond with its SXSW premiere. It was this viral “excitement” that then allowed Earl and Caldwell to fly to Los Angeles to pitch a feature version. “In retrospect, I think the thing we were least prepared for was the emotional grind,” they recalled to EW via email. “It took three years, with multiple false starts, before we finally connected with the right partner to finance the movie. Every time it felt like the movie might happen, we were on the precipice of throwing our entire lives into it, so when it fell apart for any number of reasons, it was a rollercoaster.”
The turning point came when they connected with their financiers, Bron Studios. “There was definitely a lot of luck and fortuitous timing involved,” they said, “but when so many circumstances are out of your direct control, all you can do is patiently persist.” Now the film will be released by distributor DUST, date TBA, with Jay Duplass as a father, and Chicago Med‘s Sophie Thatcher his daughter, and with Wonder Woman 1984‘s Pedro Pascal playing a prospector
Tips for filmmakers: “Know your audience for the short… get as many eyes on it as possible… understand what you’re asking for [when pitching a feature]… prove to [financiers] that you are capable, both artistically and practically… make sure your plan is logistically sound… find good partners.”
Short film: “Lights Out”
In the case of David F. Sandberg, “going viral” allowed him to make his first feature film.
The director behind Annabelle: Creation and DC’s Shazam! remembers a time when he was coming up with short film ideas with his wife, Lotta Losten, for an online contest. “What’s the scariest thing we can do in our apartment with no money at all?” Sandberg remembers asking himself. That ended up being Lights Out, a less than three-minute short that takes your fears of the dark and makes a new kind of monster out of it.
“It just happened overnight,” he says over the phone. “It went viral and all of a sudden all these people wanted to talk to me — producers and agents and managers and studios — and it was really insane.”
Lights Out landed at Warner Bros. with producer James Wan, a professional relationship that would continue in The Conjuring universe. Because the initial short was so (for lack of a better word) short, that meant Sandberg could essentially do anything with the story. “I actually took an idea I had for another feature that began with this little kid waking up in the middle of the night because he hears his mom talking to someone who isn’t there,” he says. Though, he’s not quite sure how the rest of the script unfolded.
“It came pretty easily to me because I think it was all this bottled up creativity,” Sandberg adds. “I was like, ‘I’ll finally have my chance to actually make a movie.’ Before I wrote the story, I wrote down a whole list of gags you could do with the concepts of this creature who doesn’t exist in light. If you shoot a gun at her, she’ll disappear during the muscle flashes. I also came up with this idea of turning on the headlights of a car to save yourself.”
Tips for filmmakers: Sandberg remembers being very overwhelmed when he made the Lights Out feature, feeling like it was his “one shot at Hollywood.” The director says, “I had never even been on a film set before. The PAs had more experience than I did. I didn’t even know, when do you say action?” The big advice he got from Wan, however, was “just have fun with it because it gets crazy.
“I didn’t know how to have fun with it ‘cause I was freaking out,” he laughs.
Short film: “Ride”
For writer-director Jeremy Ungar, his short film “Ride” was more a “proof of concept” for a hoped-for movie. “I wrote the script to ‘Ride’ as a feature,” he says. “I sort of knew as a first-time filmmaker in this day and age you really need to have a proof of concept to get people to have the faith in you to invest in that first feature.”
The short introduces an Uber driver named James who starts to make a love connection with a passenger, Jessica, but things take a dark turn when his next pick-up, Bruno, turns out to be a manipulative psychopath with a gun, sending them on a psychological journey to survive the night. It was a concept Ungar wrote with Will Brill from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and The OA, his “closest friend from college,” in mind for Bruno.
The short then served as a reference for every stage of the process, Ungar explains. He brought the short and a 15-minute version of the script to producers at Unified Pictures, who would eventually come aboard. “It became a way to get my [cinematographer] and my designers on the same page and really clearly show an initial aesthetic that we could build on.” Bella Thorne, who became one of the first actors cast for Ride the movie, then became an advocate for Brill playing Bruno after seeing the short.
The film, now starring Shaft‘s Jessie T. Usher, will be released on Oct. 5.
Tips for filmmakers: “Going into making the short, I think the clearer you can be about what you want your feature to be, the stronger of a position you’ll be in on the short. And the more you look at the short a chance to actualize your vision for the feature, the greater chance you have at success in both realms.”