Michael Almereyda, Sara Colangelo, and Kenny Riches Offer Up Advice on Making a Short Film

O Cinema Miami Beach, host of ShortsLab Miami. ©Sundance Institute | Joe Skipper

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Last week, Sundance Institute and the Knight Foundation held ShortsLab Miami, a free workshop dedicated to informing and supporting aspiring filmmakers in an open forum. In attendance were filmmakers Michael Almereyda, Sara Colangelo, and Kenny Riches, who participated in Q&A discussions moderated by Sundance short film programmer Mike Plante on topics such as the actor-director relationship, transitioning from shorts to feature films, finding financing and producers, and how to engage with and draw inspiration from your local arts community. Below, we’ve distilled the day down to include some of the most enlightening points overheard at ShortsLab Miami.

Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda, director of the award-winning short Skinningrove as well as feature films Hamlet and Experimenter, gave insightful commentary on working with actors at any level of skill or production size.

On the importance of intent when setting out to make a short film:

“Shorts are this weird hybrid form where, if you get past the idea of just being desperate to be known, desperate to get attention, desperate to get into a film festival—I think you have to scrape that all away. You can’t make a movie for that reason and expect it to be any good. There’s gotta’ be something else going on: a story that means something to you, an image or an atmosphere, something burning inside that you want to express and share. Otherwise, you’re doomed. You shouldn’t be doing it.”

On how to get away with not paying your actors:

“I have to recognize that shorts are tough to make. But I’ve never gone into it expecting I would make money. I’ve never gone into it spending a lot of money. I’ve almost always had a kind of imperious rule that, ‘If I’m not making money, I don’t feel bad about not paying people.’ That way you’re only working with people who want to be there; no one’s going to show up under a delusional thought that they’re going to get rich doing your short. So I feed people really well; I give them a lot of coffee if they want it. But usually, routinely, no one gets paid, and since that makes the playing field level, everyone’s in it because they want to, because they’re getting something out of it that’s beyond a paycheck.”

On Stage: Sundance Programmer Mike Plante and filmmaker Michael
Almereyda. ©Sundance Institute | Joe Skipper

On chemistry with actors off set, and how it factors into filming:

“I think it’s sort of deadly if the actor shows up on the set if you haven’t had at least one solid meal with them. Even in small parts, or especially in small parts, it’s important to feel comfortable with someone, and get them to tell about their lives and you try to share something and give them a sense of your hopes for the movie, the framework for the movie and the emotional temperature—not to tell them what it’s about, because that’s deadly, and you usually don’t know that going in. If you’re honest, you find it as you go—if you’re lucky. But it’s really about a kind of intimacy.”

On improv and stepping away from the megaphone:

“Actors are people, and they’re all different. There’s no uniform way to treat them, except to be open to them and not to insist that they follow your will. So if you want to alienate an actor, you tell them how to say something, or you tell them, ‘Don’t do this.’ You say no to them, and that’s a true way to get a bad performance. If there is a trick to working with actors, it’s to respect them.”

On eschewing power struggles:

“Most great acting is reaction. It’s about how you respond to the moment, and how everything that’s happening is active, and exciting, and flexible. So if you go in as a filmmaker or as an actor with a preconception that it’s supposed to be your brilliant idea that you have to defend rather than your brilliant ability to meld with other people, you’re in for trouble.”

Sara Colangelo

Sara Colangelo’s short film Little Accidents premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and her subsequent feature film of the same name (starring Elizabeth Banks and Chloë Sevigny) premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. In Miami, Colangelo offered helpful advice on first-time filmmaking and growing a short film into a feature.

On how to get your feet wet when first jumping into the world of filmmaking:

“I think it’s good to do something manageable. The way I did it, we started with a four-minute silent film where there’s just no dialogue, and you’re just kind of doing visual storytelling, and then you move to having a little dialogue, then being five to ten minutes, and then you kind of grow from there. But you have to feel comfortable as the director, because you’re gonna be calling the shots and making all the decisions, so it’s something where you kind of have to listen to your gut; you know if you’re ready for it or not.”

On recruiting actors in the street, and how inexperience could work in the film’s favorr:

“There are so many ways to approach actors. Sometimes I’ll see somebody in the Starbucks line, and I’ll just say, ‘Excuse me, I hope I’m not being creepy, but afterward, would you be open to acting? I’m a director.’ And you see what they say, and if they’re comfortable. It depends on what the project needs, and what the needs of the character are, and I certainly think that that can be a little scary—especially for a feature—to do that, but you never know. Actors are people, and they can come from different walks of life; some can be trained and some don’t have to be, and it really depends on the discipline you need for the role. Sometimes having somebody completely untrained is refreshing and exactly what you want.”

Filmmaker Sara Colangelo. ©Sundance Institute | Joe Skipper

On finding reliable crew members without a budget:

“In my case it had been other students and a lot of other people who were directors, so it was kind of a funny situation. It sounds sort of like a strange version of hell when you have 10 different people that want to be directors on set, but it was really nice because I think everyone really understood or tried to get a sense of what I was trying to do and they were very sympathetic to that and had read the script, and we were all really helping each other and not paying each other.”

On developing shorts and seguing into narrative filmmaking:

“Doing a short five-minute documentary on somebody that fascinates you—your local butcher, or anything, really—is really nice because it allows you to work on your shooting technique, work on camera, work on character. I find that when I do short documentary work in between these fictional or narrative projects, it really just helps me feel grounded; you’re around real people, and shoot a real person. So I would suggest moving from doc to fiction, because it’s a helpful tool.”

On how to expand a short into a feature:

“Look at the short, and you’ll get a sense of what the filmmaker wants to do and the direction she might want to be going in. I know people do kind of literal expansions of short films, or they already have a feature written and they know they want to do it, and they make one chapter of that feature as a short film. I think that’s a brilliant idea, and something that’s great, because you can really practice.”

Kenny Riches

Kenny Riches is a Miami-based writer and director of both short and feature films whose feature debut, The Strongest Man, premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. He also helped found The Davey Foundation, an association that awards grants to short filmmakers. Riches spoke at ShortsLab about integrating his passion for a city into a film, and the emerging independent film scene in Miami.

Kenny Riches. ©Sundance Institute

On how to procure an agent as a new filmmaker:

“Make films. As far as getting an agent as a director: just make stuff. Make as much stuff as you can, and just be prolific, and work hard, and make interesting films, and try to get into festivals.”

On working and making films in a non-“Hollywood” city:

“Right now, I have no desire to move to New York or LA. Right now, I feel like I want to be places that are giving me ideas, and helping me create things as opposed to—you just don’t need to be in LA or New York anymore, unless you’re an actor or a TV director.”

On harnessing the power of the local film community in Miami:

“Miami has a great thing going right now where there’s a lot of energy here. There’s something going on here that’s exciting. … I think that Miami is a little different because there’s this culture of helping support artists. I mean, we have one of the largest art fairs in the world here. I think that it’s those same people that will be supporting the indie film thing, more than it will be the large organizations.”

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