Moderator Kylie Speer with Warwick Young, Martin Copping, India Dupre and David O'Donnell
AiF’s Member’s Film Night held on Thursday 11 May was a showcase of five short films created by a group of diverse and talented emerging filmmakers. Screened on the night were: Stripped – written, produced and directed by India Dupré; Safety First – directed by Shane Connor and produced by Martin Copping, who also stars in the short; Stuffed – written, produced and directed by Warwick Young; Picture Wheel – written, produced and directed by David O’Donnell; and Peekaboo – written, produced and directed by Damien Power.
Four of the filmmakers were on hand to participate in the post-screening Q&A session and share with the audience their invaluable experience and insights into what it takes to successfully create a short film. AiF also interviewed the four filmmakers about what it took to see their visions realized and their top five filmmaking tips to get your own short from script to screen.
India Dupré – Stripped
For writer, producer and director India Dupré, Stripped tells the very personal story of her own childhood migrating to Australia and becoming one of the countless victims of the “stolen generation”. It’s also a story about motherhood, the struggles faced by so many single-parents and the accidental icon India’s mother, Margaret Dupré, became in Australia during the 1980’s.
Set in 1981, Stripped stars Katheryn Winnick (Vikings) as Margaret Dupré, a shy yet determined British mother who moves her young family to Australia with the promise of a better life before facing the horror of having her three young children abducted by the government and placed in work camps as part of a “Keep Australia White” scheme. Becoming a stripper to survive, Margaret kidnaps her children back and flees across Australia while the government hunts them down.
The 12-minute short was created as a proof of concept to assist in the development of a feature film version – both were written through AiF’s Writer’s Room program – and funded in part by the Kevin Spacey Foundation after India won the 2015 Kevin Spacey Foundation Artist of Choice grant.
Stripped premiered last year at the Los Angeles Short Film Festival and has also screened at the Edmonton International Film Festival, where it won the Audience Choice Award for Best Dramatic Short, the Cleveland International Film Festival and the Gold Coast Film Festival.
India’s Top 5 Short Filmmaking Tips
1. Ask for help – set a date and create a call sheet (they are free online), start filling it out with the crew you have even if it’s just yourself and then look at the positions you need to fill: producer, DP, gaffer, etc – it makes people believe it is really happening. And then ask people, big people! People are kind and willing to give back if you show them how determined and passionate you are. Find a way to get a great actor involved. Film Festivals love a big name attached to a project but are also good with great talent. SAG-AFTRA help short films hire union actors so I paid my actors the minimum required by SAG-AFTRA…but if budgets are super tight you can also ask actors to defer their payment (and it is less paperwork). And help others with their projects and they will help you. My crew went above and beyond and when they created their short films, I did the same for them. Getting on film sets is a great way to meet crew and work for free (if necessary) at any position you can. It’s such a great way to observe, learn and save the call sheet with phone numbers.
2. Make sure your sound is sound –ask incredible musicians to score and or write original songs for your short, if they are inspired by your idea, they may enjoy creating music for it. And remember that recording on set is crucial. Make sure you hire a great sound person!
3. Tell a good story – the script is most important but know it will change on set due to weather, time, actors, etc so be flexible. Have a clear beginning, middle and end. Be provocative. Make it personal and make it something new. And if you can, plan to make your short 12 minutes in length or under – shorter shorts are more likely to be programmed at festivals than longer ones as they can squeeze more into the program’s time slot.
4. Clearly Communicate your vision – start with stick figure storyboards to clearly convey your vision to your DP and crew. Just like getting a haircut, it’s much better to take a photo of what you want than try to explain it to your stylist and rely on their interpretation! Then film your rehearsal with actors to get camera angles…and make a digital storyboard from it by creating screen-shots. And watch films you admire and chose specific references. This is the fun part! The clearer your vision and mood board, the more you will achieve what you want. Look on eBay for authentic props, costumes and set pieces. I found cassette players, a tent and Barbie doll clothing from the 70s.
5. Apply for grants – The Kevin Spacey Foundation is brilliant and just one example, if you search the web for grants you will find so many. Apply to them all! The most important expenses on a short film are equipment and insurance, then crew, location and food.
Martin Copping – Safety First
Directed by Shane Connor (Wolf Creek 2, Moby Dick) and produced by and starring Marty Copping, Safety First tells the tale of three bumbling Aussie burglars who decide to overcome the political uncertainty of a Donald Trump-presidency by robbing an L.A. bank before leaving the U.S. for good…in the safest way possible.
The stellar cast also includes Ashleigh Brewer (Neighbors, Days of Our Lives), Tyler Atkins (Puberty Blues), Ryan Porter (Out of the Blue) and David Ross Patterson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Saving Mr. Banks, Frost/Nixon), with the film edited by longtime Robert Rodriguez collaborator Ethan Maniquis (Machete, Sin City).
For Marty, the short also served as a test of his filmmaking skills acquired over the last fifteen years working as an actor and producer in Australia and the U.S., and an invaluable experience in the lead up to making his feature film directorial debut. A graduate of the St Kilda National Theatre, Marty is well known to Australian audiences from starring roles in Neighbours, Rush, Stingers and Blue Heelers. Since moving to Los Angeles, he has landed several roles in U.S. productions including the action-thriller feature film Zombie Hunter (2013) and television shows Hawaii Five-0 (2014) and Hand of God (2015).
Martin’s Top 5 Short Filmmaking Tips
1. Surround yourself with good people – the trigger for my journey with Safety First was that I'd just come from producing a feature in Louisiana where I wasn't the lead producer and it wasn’t my project. And because I hadn't had the opportunity to build the crew I wanted, I couldn't restructure the team when we ran into trouble or take as much of the initiative or the responsibilities I wanted in order to guide the team through the inevitable production hurdles we faced. This doesn’t make for a very satisfying creative experience to say the least! So when it came to Safety First I made sure the majority of the production team involved had as much, or more, experience as I did. This really is the best way to grow and learn…and also create something you’re going to be really proud of. Having Shane Connor directing all our performances was tremendous – he’s a very unique artist with an incredible eye for nuance and being a veteran actor, he has the ability to bring honest and electric performances to the screen. Chris Ekstein is a visionary DP and collaborating with him and Shane on the visual aesthetic was a privilege. And then having Darren Maynard save my ass in post and create a soundscape that I couldn’t be happier with was awesome. Surrounding yourself with the most talented and experienced people you can find really is a must.
2. Get as close to your mentors as possible – following on from my first point, don’t be afraid to reach out to your mentors and get as close to them as possible. I love immersing myself amongst inspirational artists and on Safety First I was lucky enough to have the support of two of my film heroes, composer Cezary Skubiszewski and editor Ethan Maniquis. I’ve followed both their careers for a long time and feel very honored that they were prepared to lend me their support, even when the money wasn’t there.
3. The project must always come first – be clear about what you what from the very second production starts, and clearly express this vision and your intention for how you will handle the process to all the cast and crew as soon as they come on board. This helps minimize speed bumps along the way. It’s always important to be flexible but without a clear direction you’re just floating in the open waters.
4. Be a creative diplomat – as artists and working in the film industry, creative differences are always going to be areas that need to be delicately navigated and this is something I'm always trying to better my skillset at. As people, we are all so different and our opinions always differ with every person and in every situation we are in. Being able to negotiate these creative differences is always a challenge but so important.
5. Prepare to spend more than you’d planned and utilize your support networks – I had originally hoped to make Safety First for nothing (which I’ve done before) but then there were some equipment ‘must have’s’ and they cost money so out came the credit card! Then, I pitched the idea to an old drama school friend who is now a very successful businessman and he helped to arrange our financing which was such a blessing. As a filmmaker, raising finance always seems to be the biggest challenge but having those additional funds for Safety First literally afforded me the ability to make the film the way I wanted. Like many others, I work full time creatively and don’t get paid for the majority of my work – reaching out to people who not only believe in what we do but are willing to support of our community and projects is a necessity.
Warwick Young – Stuffed
Since 1995, Warwick Young has worked as an actor in theater, film and television in both Australian and International productions. It was during his Master of Screen Arts (Directing) degree, completed in 2013 at AFTRS, that Warwick wrote and directed the multi-award winning short Stuffed. The film tells the tale of Peter, an introverted postal worker who still lives with his mother in rural Australia and fills his spare time as a taxidermist. When the local pharmacist Ellen shows romantic interest in Peter, he struggles to leave the comfort of home and the security blanket it has become for him.
So far in it’s festival run, Stuffed has accumulated an impressive list of nominations and awards including: 2016 Beverly Hills Film Festival Winner Best Foreign Film; 2015 Cannes Film Festival – Official selection; 2015 Cleveland International Film Festival – Official Selection; 2015 St Kilda Film Festival – Official Selection; 2015 Flickerfest International Film Festival – Official Selection Best Australian Short Film; 2014 Sydney Film Festival Nomination – Rouben Mamoulian Award for Best Director; 2014 Australian Directors Guild Award Nomination; and the 2013 European Union Film Award Winner.
Warwick’s other credits include writing and directing the short films Reconciliation (2012), Refuge (2012) and U-Turn (2007). Currently, Warwick is in development on the feature film version Stuffed and the feature film adaptation of the critically acclaimed stage play Brilliant Monkey.
Warwick’s Top 5 Short Filmmaking Tips
1. Tell stories with substance – make sure whatever tale you’re telling is about something that really means something to you. If your story has substance it will resonate with audiences because it has a level of authenticity about it. And make sure maintaining the integrity of the story is your number one priority in every sense, for example; don’t intentionally make the film’s length fit into a festival if there’s any chance of it compromising the narrative.
2. Don’t make a film that you can’t afford – you will so often see a film that was made for $5,000 that should have been made for $50,000 and in many cases you’re better off just not going there in the first place. There are always ways to be more creative and efficient/economical when it comes to filmmaking but because the integrity of the story must always come first, you have to make sure you can tell it the way you want it to be told
3. Surround yourself with likeminded mentors – make sure you surround yourself with people who you trust and who resonate with you. Someone might have amazing credits and a body of work that’s really impressive, but if it doesn’t say something to you then you’re kind of behind the eight ball. Fred Schepisi is a longtime mentor of mine and has been so great, he’s walked away from so many projects because he knew he couldn’t tell the story in the way he wanted to and I’ve learnt so much from him in that regard.
4. Choose your co-collaborators wisely – this not only comes down to experience and professionalism but in many cases is a matter of taste. Ask yourself, is your cinematographer looking at the shots coming through in the same way as you? Are the heads of departments onboard with your vision and even more importantly, the interpretation of your vision? To ensure the greatest chance of success for this you have to completely know your story, the world you’ve created and your characters inside and out. And you have to be a great communicator because everyone is coming at this from different perspectives.
5. Story rules – in short filmmaking and filmmaking in general every decision you make has to be about story. You could have the most beautiful shot in the world but if it doesn’t support the story, it’s worthless. Story rules, it has to. And you are the custodian of the story – it’s your job, your priority and why people are looking to you as the leader on a production.
David O’Donnell – Picture Wheel
Picture Wheel, a Grant Larson, Blk & Ginger and Five Lip Films production, was written, produced and directed by David O’Donnell and produced by Alex Russell and Tom Fox-Davies. Based on the premise that people often get stuck living in the past and let memories clutter their lives, the concept creatively plays out on screen in a world where memories are literally carried around in the form of photographs attached to metal headpieces. The film’s main protagonist, a heart-broken office worker called Elliott, is played by James Hoare who also stars in the upcoming remake of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Since graduating from WAAPA in 2007, David O'Donnell has starred in numerous Australian theater, film and television productions including Blue Water High (ABC), Underbelly (Channel 9), Cops LAC (Channel 9) and Ghosthunters (SyFy). He established Five Lip Films with producing partner Alex Russell (Chronicle, Carrie, Unbroken).
David’s Top 5 Short Filmmaking Tips
1. Don’t skimp on the art department – in low budget films people often skimp on art department costs and/or neglect them entirely. You can have the best camera gear but if what you’re shooting isn’t interesting then it’s pointless so investing time, consideration and money (if you have it) in this first really is a must.
2. Have a great script – this may sound obvious but apart from how compelling it’s going to make the final product, having a great script will also help you to get people on board with the project initially. Especially if you don’t have much of a budget.
3. Make use of your pre-production – pre-production really is a time to make sure you’re as prepared as possible, that you’ve got the best locations, you’ve spent quality time on your recces, etc. For example in Picture Wheel, the DP and I went to the office location to work out what the shots were going to be and ending up spending half a day re-working a number of them because he initially didn’t think the location was going to work. Considering the most important thing when you’re shooting is the shot, it’s imperative to be prepared and know you’re getting the most interesting and cinematic pictures in the can in the time you have available. And if you’re super prepared, you can more easily roll with the punches and have more time to be flexible on the day. Another tip for filmmakers in California is to consider going outside the Los Angeles county limits to avoid paying permit fees – we shot Picture Wheel in Riverside County and they have a great site with lots of information about locations. Check out http://www.filmriversidecounty.com/Home.aspx for further information.
4. Assemble a great team – when you’re reaching out to people initially to get them onboard with your project, make sure you’re prepared and show them that you’re serious about seeing this through. Have a strong vision, go in with the ball already in motion, inspire confidence in your cast and crew by showing them you’re not an amateur. On Picture Wheel we went in with a very art-heavy script and had our headpieces made up in advance so it was easy to communicate our vision. And if people are onboard with your vision from the very start, they’ll take much more ownership of its success – it’s vital to cultivate a team of collaborators on your short film projects.
5. Be bold – when it comes to the scripts you’re writing all the way through to the way the film is shot and how post-production is handled; make something different! Don’t settle for generic at any stage of the filmmaking process – make it interesting for you and for your cast and crew…and ultimately your audience as well. Projects like this will resonate and they will be remembered, like all great art should.