Short Circuit

Short Circuit

I’m in real trouble. My short film is set to start shooting in a month and, though all the prinicipals are hired, my script is clunky and long and, in some parts, unspeakable.

My producer and I have been running auditions for the last three weeks and every time actors new to the script speak my lines, a shudder runs through me. Too much of my dialogue breaks the cardinal rule of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. Hell, that’s the cardinal rule of any writing. You’d think I would have learned this lesson by now, but I’m slow like that.

The other day, my aforementioned producer (and at times, personal saviour) confronted me with a problem. Hey Paul,” he said, “It just occured to me that you haven’t given enough thought to how short films work.” There wasn’t much I could say to that. He was dead-on.

Sure, I’ve watched shorts. But, apart from events like the Canadian Film Centre’s Worldwide Short Film Festival, who gets to see short flms on a regular basis? It’s been ages since we saw shorts before feature films at the cinema. The short is a ghettoized medium, practiced only by students and auteurs.

I haven’t made enough of an effort to study the medium. As a result, I’ve approached making my film as though it were a feature pinched into 15 minutes. In a way, Pleased to Meet You (the name of my would-be flick) is two short films in one.

Yesterday, after a meeting with our Director of Photography, my producer handed me The Art of the Short Fiction Film‚ by Richard Raskin. “Read this,” he exclaimed, while simultaneously slipping a DVD copy of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes‚ into my bag, “and watch this. You have a lot of thinking to do.” And I did.

Raskin, a Media Studies professor at Aarthus University in Denmark, contends that there are two types of short films: the dialogue-based and the non-dialogue-based. Raskin admits that this might be an obscene oversimplification, but it’s the best model for approaching the medium he’s been able to find. His book identifies Roman Polanski’s Two Men and a Wardrobe as the paragon of the non-dialogue-based short. Two Men is a 15-minute, absurdist parable that Polanski directed while a film student in Lodz, Poland. It follows two men who emerge from the sea carrying a wardrobe. The men carry it into town, where they are chased and derided. “I think that in a short, it’s unpleasant to use dialogue,” Polanski argued. “When you use people in a short, if they talk, you expect it’s going to last for two hours…it’s not proper to the form.”

Not everyone agrees with Polanski of course. There is also, Raskin contends, the dialogue-based form, of which Jim Jarmusch is a master. The shorts that comprise Coffee and Cigarettes are some of the purest, best-executed examples of this form. They are simple, unified, often improvised, beautifully capturedPinteresque scenes. I first saw Coffee and Cigarettes just over a year ago. At the time, I saw it as an inspired, if inconsistent, patchwork of scenes held together by a common act and locus. As a smoker and compulsive caffeine imbiber who’d spent the better part of his university years in dingy rooms and bars drinking coffee and smoking haggard-looking cigarettes (believing that this was my highest calling), the film felt like it was made for me. I didn’t think of those short scenes as short films at all.

Looking at them again though, I recognized Jarmusch’s best vignettes for the gems they are. Shorts like Strange to Meet You (where a “wound up” Roberto Benigni meets comedian Stephen Wright and agrees to go to the dentist for him) and No Problem (communication fails two friends desperate to connect with one another) are the opposite of my work. They tell nothing and show everything. Both scenes dwell completely in the moment. There is no exposition. Everything is subtext and misinterpretation.

Though these shorts are wholly dialogue-based, they still adhere to Alfred Hitchcock’s belief that “When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.” Jarmusch’s characters do nothing but talk, yet they communicate more with their eyes and bodies than they do with their words. Jarmusch is always returning to an overhead shot of his characters‚ hands over a checkerboard table. Designed as a way of cutting away while continuing with dialogue, these scenes draw the attention away from his actors’ faces, and towards the other ways in which they communicate who they are and what they’re up against. Indeed, the words the characters utter are more of a barrier to communication than a means of information flow. When they flop, they flop, but when the shorts in Coffee and Cigarettes succeed, they are brilliant.

After watching them, I returned to my script. My movie is a Polanski-style short and a Jarmusch-style short tacked on to one other, except without the clear non-verbal communication associated with the former and far too much exposition for the latter. That doesn‚t mean that I need to separate these Siamese twins. They can remain in their current state. But what I need to do is learn from the paradigms that Raskin has identified. I need to find a way of cutting down on the dialogue in the second section and cleaning up my visual images in the first. Furthermore, I need a way of unifying the piece with bookends and recurrences. Reading Jarmusch’s comments on making Coffee and Cigaretteshas also emboldened me a bit. The best way in the world to fix your dialogue is to build it out of improvisation. Too often in the writing process, I’ve been afraid of that. Now that the film is almost entirely cast, it might be time to start playing with these scenes.

If anyone has any other interesting shorts they’d suggest I see, please let me know.

Finally, if you don’t feel up to The DaVinci Code or MI3 this weekend, check these intriguing events and activities:

Ryerson University Film FestivalMay 12–13, 7 p.m. Royal Cinema, 608 College StreetAfter-parties: Friday: Ciao Edie (489 College); Saturday: Lounge 88 (14 Clinton)

Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto’s New Directions in CinemaRESERVATION Xer: Films by Shelley NiroMay 12, 8 p.m.Latvian House, 491 College Street$5–$7 at the door416-588-6444

LIFT’s Annual Filmmakers’ Garage Sale is the bargain-hunting paradise of your celluloid dreams! Cameras!Projectors! Computers! Gear, gizmos, and so much more!May 13, 10 a.m.LIFT, 171 East Liberty St., Ste. 301

LIFT’s Screenwriters’ Circle May MeetingMay 24, 7 p.m.LIFT, 171 East Liberty St., Ste. 301

Register in person at LIFT (Cash, Cheque, Interac or Visa Mastercard &American Express) or by mail (Cheques only made out to LIFT) to:LIFT Workshops: 171 East Liberty St. , Ste. 301, Toronto, ON, M6K 3P6. More details can be found on or by calling 416-588-6444.