The recent Glimmer Festival showcased a wide variety of outstanding short films from around the globe, bringing further exposure to a form of filmmaking that is as industrially important as it is artistically invigorating. Three of the short films that were screened at the 2009 event were produced by the South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to promote filmmaking in the region through developing shorts and running events and competitions, such as the recent 2 Weeks 2 Make It. The network’s Glimmer entries included Susan Everett’s award-winning Mother, Mine, about a young woman tracking down her natural mother, and Matt Taabu’s Into the Woods, in which a family outing in the countryside takes a dangerous turn following the appearance of a stranger. Both are suspenseful and unsettling thrillers, while Kieron Clark’s Joy is an entirely different proposition involving a singing fish. Each film was produced by Rob Speranza, a native New Yorker who relocated to Sheffield 13 years ago to undertake post-graduate study, and is now the Head of Operations of the SYFN and will be line-producing his first feature film this summer. John Berra met with him to discuss his recent projects, the importance of festivals, and the supposed marginalisation of short films.
John Berra: What is the development process for short films at the SYFN?
Rob Speranza: When I get a script, I ask myself if it’s something that people are going to want to watch. It sounds really simple, but it’s the sort of thing that a lot of producers forget about; they ask themselves, ‘do I want to make it?’, and that’s a good question, but I ask that question after asking, is this something that people are going to want to see? Is it something that festivals are going to show? Is it something that is actually going to be marketable? Can I get bums on seats with this film, and can I see people enjoying it? If I can answer ‘yes’ to most of those questions, especially the festival one, then I ask if I want to make it and if I am interested in the subject matter. I might read the script and say yes to all those other questions, but the script might be about windsurfing, and I have no interest in windsurfing. But then I might read a script about a boy who wants to connect with his long-lost father, or a script about a war veteran returning to normal society, and I like those subjects, so then I ask myself if it’s going to be likely for me to have a working relationship with the writer and the director.
JB: Festivals are often discussed in terms of representing a creative community, but there is always an intensely competitive element to such events in terms of securing financing for future projects.
RS: I’ve rarely attended a short film festival with a direct view to financing, aside from Cannes. I love festivals. I go to them with a view to selling the film. I know a lot of producers who don’t like going to them, who don’t like networking and schmoozing with lots of filmmakers, but I really enjoy it, to an extent. After three or four days, I want to go home because when I go, I’m really intense; I go to all the screenings, all the events, I’m at every drinks reception, I’ll keep my mouth open and keep talking and, after a while, I don’t want to drink anymore, I don’t want to give away any more business cards and copies of my film, I just want to go home. But the most important thing about festivals is to go and watch other films, to enjoy other people’s work, and see what else is going on and go, ‘why didn’t I think of that? That’s a great idea, why didn’t I make that film?’
JB: It seems that much of your responsibilities involve handling the film after it has been completed and keeping it alive on the festival circuit?
RS: I’m very fond of saying that a producer’s job begins when the film is finished. It’s relatively easy to shoot a film, and I say that with an emphasis on the word ‘relatively’, but when it comes to getting it seen, that’s when you have to really step up your game. You have to get the film out there, send it to the right festivals and sell it. There is so much talent out there; everybody and their brother are shooting films on DVD camera or on mobile phones, so it’s a very competitive world.
JB: What can an award from a festival do for a short film or filmmaker?
RS: When you start to collect awards, as with a film like Mother, Mine, which is doing really well and has won multiple awards, you get a different kind of reputation where people hear of you and you get a bit of renown, which is very positive. Then, of course, sales agents come to you, and you start to see articles in magazines, and that’s the kind of thing that awards can do. They create a sense of importance, talent and maybe a bit of glamour, especially around the director because it’s a director-led industry.
JB: Do you think that putting a short film on the internet can suggest a lack of confidence on the part of the filmmaker?
RS: If you have a decent short film, you shouldn’t be putting it online first. If it’s a good short film, do the festivals first, put it out there, because that is where you are going to meet the people who will want you to make more films and pay you for the one that you’ve just made. I’m not saying that if you put it online, you can’t direct a sales agent to it, but there are all kinds of chances that you might scupper with a lot of festivals.
JB: The performances in Mother, Mine are very naturalistic and affecting. What is your approach to casting a short film, and is there much time for a rehearsal process?
RS: I always try to build in time for rehearsal for my directors. With short films, you don’t have a lot of money or a lot of time, so it’s wise to rehearse for as long as you can. With Mother, Mine the first thing we did was to get Rachel Fisher, our casting director, on board and she worked very closely with director Susan Everett; Sue wrote out her character descriptions and she had a short list of talent that she had been building up for a couple of years, because the short is a pared down version of a feature script she had written, so she had a short-list of names that she had gathered from either films or television. It takes time to generate the relationship between the director and the character, especially if the director didn’t write the script, and then for that person to suddenly come alive when they find them on the internet, or on the screen, or as a result of a casting director showing them clips. Most of the time when I’m working with somebody and they meet an actor who would be suitable for the role, they know it right away.
JB: Into the Woods is a very tight piece. How important is it to balance atmosphere and aesthetics with narrative urgency, and was the finished film stripped down from the original screenplay?
RS: The film did initially have a longer introduction. In the script, we spent longer with the family, they were walking through the woods, we were getting to know them, and it was clear that the mother and father were fighting and that the father may have had an affair at some point; but that was back-story, and back-story is the death of short films, so get rid of back-story, it’s not important. What is important is the way they are going to handle this confrontation because the subtle message in this film is that everybody probably has some kind of prejudice that emerges when you are confronted with a situation like that, when a stranger comes out of the woods, looking scary and bloodied, and saying all kinds of things in different languages.
JB: Why did you want to produce Kieron Clark’s Joy, a black and white film about a singing fish?
RS: Kieron is not the sort of director that I usually gravitate to but there was something about this story. He wanted to make a trilogy about the sea, and he is a very quiet guy, very reserved, extremely clever, very funny in a subtle way, and he knows what he wants. I thought it was a quirky little story, and he said he wanted to do it in black and white, and that there would be no dialogue, just a song. It appealed to my roots in poetry, because some of the first films that I made were eight short film-poems. I’m a much more mainstream, narrative, sales-and-festivals-driven producer now, I like to think I make things that people want to see, but Joy was a good mix because people do want to see it, because it’s not too weird, it’s not too avant-garde that it makes you go, ‘What in the world was that about?’
JB: How do you feel about the general perception that short films are marginalised, especially when compared to short literary fiction?
RS: Since the internet has taken off, you have all these different websites, popular websites like YouTube, Screening Room and DailyMotion.com, to show your film, and as a result of that, festivals are starting up all over the place. Every little town has a festival popping up, and bigger towns and cities a myriad of them, so there are so many ways to get your film seen. Short films are perfect for small, hand-held devices that do not have enough memory to store a feature film, like mobile phones and PSPs, so the market is expanding so quickly that there is a really good future for shorts. Short literary fiction was always marginalised, and yet now there is a massive market for short stories, mostly anthologies, and there are also more compilations of short films being produced and distributed.
JB: Do you think that short films should take more of an influence from commercial feature films in terms of narrative?
RS:A few years ago, people could only make a short funded by the Arts Council if you had to think about what it meant, but because of the popularity of short films now and the way that festivals like Times BFI London or Encounters have grown you have a very different world for short films now. People are making short films that have got great stories, great ideas, even if some of them are one-trick-ponies, and there are plenty of filmmakers out there who work in features but want to make short films in-between. You could make an argument that films like Short Cuts and Magnolia have got short film elements because they piece fragments together. Short Cuts is a good example because it’s based on a collection of short stories, but Robert Altman decided to merge the elements together and make the stories cross over. I love the way that a lot of short pieces can combine to create a really interesting whole and those are probably my favourite kinds of films.
Interview by John Berra
Rob Speranza is currently undertaking production work on two short films for Screen Yorkshire, shooting in 2009. Visit www.syfn.org for more information about the South Yorkshire Filmmakers Network.