Short of the Week

Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade

The 1994 short film classic remade into the Oscar-winning feature Slingblade.

Alexander Mackendrick, a successful Hollywood director turned CalArts teacher, once wrote that “student shorts come in three lengths: too long, much too long, and really much too long.” This adage can be extended to all short films. There often seems to be a mistaken belief that making a long short film somehow shows an ability to make a feature film. In this day and age of microbudget features, making a feature film shows you can make a feature film.

What’s unfortunate is that these longer films might have had a shot at an audience if they’d trimmed the fat. Roberta Munroe, a former Sundance Shorts programmer, mentions that while choosing films to screen “we could often find a slot for an 8-12 minute film, but your 28-minute opus is going to sit on the ‘board’ and probably not make the cut. It’s a numbers game. As you’ve been told for years, bigger is not always better.”

A few notable exceptions keep hope alive for the filmmaker insistent on torturing programmers with their opus: Five Feet High and Rising (29min), Bugcrush (37min), and of course Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, which clocks in at 25 minutes.

Sling Blade is notable for many reasons beyond its length. It was made into an extremely successful feature that grossed 25 million dollars on a million dollar budget. It is also the first time I’ve seen a short nearly shot-for-shot incorporated into the beginning of a feature, and have it work. This is not a compressed feature, or a segment of a feature adapted into a short; it is a bona-fide feature film beginning that plays on its own.

The film follows a young woman reporter hoping to get an interview with a former murderer on the day he is to be released. He’s been in prison for nearly 20 years since he murdered two people Michael Myers-style when he was just twelve years old. Shot in gorgeous black and white and featuring a virtuoso performance by Billy Bob Thornton (who directed the feature version) it’s a short film that’s worth taking the time to watch in the dark.

Jason B. Kohl is an Austrian/American filmmaker from Lansing, Michigan. His short films have played SXSW, Los Angeles, Locarno and been finalists for the Student Academy Awards. His first nonfiction book, a practical guide to film school, will be published by the Focal Press in 2015.
  • Roberta Munroe

    Once again you hit the nail on the head, “A few notable exceptions keep hope alive…”
    What I tell students, clients, friends and anyone who will listen to me is this: Always research and consider the filmmakers behind a well received longer short.
    One of your examples above is Carter Smith (BUGCRUSH, 37min, Sundance 2006 Grand Jury Prize). Carter was/is a very accomplished photographer (Vogue, Elle, etc.) who had significant experience with lighting, camera, composition and a seasoned crew who he had worked with for years. The film was shot on 35mm, was impeccably cast and shot by multi-award winning DP, Darren Lew (who Smith and shot several high level commericals with) and based on the acclaimed short story by uber talented author, Scott Treleaven.

    You get my point.

    What I want filmmakers to remember is this: Your short should only be as long as required to tell the story. This sounds ambiguous but it really isn’t. There isn’t a filmmaker alive who wouldn’t show me their 22 page script certain these number of pages were *required* to tell the story. After a quick review from me, they always come back with another draft with at least 8 pages cut. Repetition is the killer of short films. Repetitive dialogue, action and shots.

    Your audience are not morons. Tell us something once and we’ll remember. Tell us something three times and we’ll think it’s YOU that forgot what this story was about.

    The best short films are: Economical, entertaining, and tell a FRESH story.

    Keep on keeping on Jason!
    I love this blog & the shorts shown are often amazing ones.
    Thanks for sharing the short film love
    Author, How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer

  • Jason Sondhi

    Great review Mr. Kohl. Would like to take just a second to honor the director, George Hickenlooper, a talented guy who passed prematurely last year at 47.

  • Stuart Willis

    I’m going to be a devil’s advocate here – partly because of my own bias (my short is 18 minutes):

    Long short film –> feature.

    It is a truism that only a feature can show that you make a feature. However, prior that I would contend that a successful long short is a far better indicator of ‘feature ability’ than a successful* short short. The construction of a 3 minute film is far different from a 15+ minute short. The former often requires little in the way of dramatic modulation, mastery of narrative pov, performance arcs, or pacing. The longer a short gets, the more those things matter and the less the factors that make a good short-short matter (which is normally stylistically driven both visually and in terms of narrative). Of course, it also means that the longer the short the more likely that it will fail.

    My analogy would the TVC–>Feature jump. Sure, there’s plenty of directors who make the jump effortlessly, but there are also plenty of others who churn out features that are completely lacking in longform narrative skill.

    * By successful, I mean artistically successful not successful in terms of festivals. They can be the same thing, but not always.

    I don’t think that contradicts Roberta’s points at all tho. At 37 minutes BugCrush is approaching ‘short feature’. Once upon a time Australia used to fund short features (50 minutes) to help develop directors. They developed some good ones. But the films themselves had no home. Too long for festivals, too short for distribution. They were fully funded and were expensive. They figured they might as well just push the younguns to full features.

  • Tom

    I think you could say confidently that some short films go on way too long, and some were probably built on the foundations of an average concept. There is an obsession with making short films hit somewhere between 11-15 minutes, I think this obsession driven by film festival need is also forcing filmmakers to pump out films that fit an act, usually its a one trick pony with the twist at the end etc…
    This bores me no end and you can nearly set a stopwatch to it, on the other side you have filmmakers working in the box, being forced to make a film around the 11-15 minute mark can have its advantages. I think somewhere around the 11-20 mark should be the cut for festivals. The twenty minute mark allows a filmmaker to flesh out characters if they so wish. It can become indulgent, if you can make a really good short around the 11 minute mark I think you have really achieved something. Each film is unique and should be judged as such. I’ve just made a film at around 18 minutes, everybody says…”that didn’t feel like 18 minutes”… I’m not sure how I achieved that feedback

  • Andrew S Allen

    @Roberta, Appreciate your thoughts.

    I agree with most of the comments on length, but I believe the real issue is pacing. At Short of the Week, we watch tens of thousands of short films every year and find the most common shortcoming by filmmakers to be pacing. We’ve all seen a 5-minute film that drags on and on and yet have been held captive for a 25-minute film (like Some Call it a Sling Blade) that seem to fly by. I think it all comes down to how well you can hold an audience’s attention through pacing. We find that online, films often need a quicker pace than they do in festivals to compete with other distractions.

    As filmmakers, we get very close to our work and often don’t see all the unnecessary moments. Get your film out there. Do rough cut test screenings with friends and family. Cut out what doesn’t work and frame what does. Editing is as much an art form as writing and directing.

  • Tom

    Couldn’t agree more Andrew..editing is as important as the writing, directing, camera, performance and casting. A film is as much about what you don’t show. Rough cut testing is also a great way to enhance what you’re trying to produce. I think its also important not to just get fatigued and settle for a finished film simply because its been such a marathon to get the film finished. If your gut instinct tells you something is wrong and needs fixing, go with that…90% of the time you will be right on the money. Nobody said making a film was easy…and it isn’t, but its also a really rewarding creative experience and with every film you make, you learn an enormous amount.

  • Elayne Wylie

    My time as an intern at SIFF taught me that, for shorts programming, a really outstanding 20-minute film usually got passed over for 2 ten-minute films of almost-as-good quality.

    For a while, I also ran a shorts festival as a filler at a much larger art festival, and we had many pieces that likely never got accepted anywhere else. The most common feature of all these films was that sense as we watched them that the director should have tightened up the story, either during production or editing. Less is more.

    at SIFF, my first job was alphabetically sorting every submission into shorts, features, docs, etc. Knowing what I knew, I could almost count on not seeing a single short film in that back room play at the festival, if it topped 15 minutes. Tragically, there just wasn’t room for them, in even a festival of SIFF’s girth. I wished that I could have rescued them. I hope some of them re-edited and resubmitted them.