A great filmmaker isn’t just born one day, ready to make the best movies right off the bat. Everybody has to start somewhere, and the film industry is notoriously tough to break into. There is no secret to success, and there’s no one method that will work for everyone, but perhaps the best bet for any budding director, is to dive into the world of short films.
If a director can make one or two really strong short films, there’s every chance that their path to Hollywood will open up. You see, by successfully putting together a short film, you prove not only that you are a good storyteller, but also that you can work within a budget, combat all the challenges and restrictions of smaller productions, and hopefully showcase your own filmmaking identity.
Arguably, making an effective short film is even harder than making a big blockbuster. But, directors like Christopher Nolan, Denis Villeneuve, Ari Aster, and even Martin Scorsese, all found their feet in the world of short films, before becoming the titans of filmmaking they are today.
If it’s good enough for Martin Scorsese
It’s hard to imagine that the legendary director Martin Scorsese has ever done anything other than make epic crime movies. But, long before the days of Goodfellas, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese dabbled in the art of short filmmaking many times.
In fact, between the years of 1959 and 1967, Scorsese made four short films. While he did actually make a feature film in 1967, Who’s That Knocking at my Door? ironically didn’t have many people knocking at Marty’s door, and it wasn’t until Mean Streets in 1973 that he would finally get his breakthrough as a feature filmmaker.
Scorsese’s first short film, Vesuvius VI, is a ten minute, miniature epic set in Ancient Rome because, of course, he wasn’t going to play it safe even with his first effort. This 1959 flick is fairly well-reviewed on IMDb, with an average rating of 7.4 out of 10.
It wasn’t until 1963 however, that Scorsese’s short films would start getting attention, with the movies he made during his time at NYU, really beginning to showcase what he was capable of.
Of particular note, are the shorts What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This? and It’s Not Just You, Murray! The former, is a nine minute exploration of the obsessive nature of writers, and the latter sees Scorsese dip his toe into the world of mobster movies, albeit within a 15 minute window.
Despite the clear limitations of budget and resources, it’s evident in these two shorts that Scorsese had a keen eye for city life, and for capturing the essence of very real, human storytelling, which would of course, serve him well for the revered career he has enjoyed since.
From Doodlebug to The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan is living the dream these days. Not only is he regarded by many as having created one of the best action movies of all time, with his Batman movie The Dark Knight, but he also seemingly gets given a blank cheque whenever he wants to make a film now.
From the mammoth cast of his upcoming movie based on a true story, Oppenheimer, to the jaw-dropping practical stunts used in the time travel movie Tenet, the concept of limitations doesn’t really apply to Nolan these days.
Nolan’s first short film, Larceny, is pretty obscure. His follow-up however, Doodlebug, is a three minute short from 1997, that pretty much encompasses all of the key features of Nolan’s work today.
Immediately, Nolan displays his penchant for exploring the psyche of unhinged and obsessive men, with his succinct story of a recluse trying to catch and kill a mysterious creature in his room.
Doodlebug has stylish camera work, immersive sound design, and of course, a clever twist ending. Just three years later, Nolan would make his mind-bending thriller movie, Memento, and it’s clear to see where some of those ideas originated.
Denis Villeneuve’s delicious short
For Denis Villeneuve, the journey to being trusted with the keys to blockbuster sci-fi movies like Dune and Blade Runner 2049 was far from straight-forward. Typically, a filmmaker puts out a handful of short films, then gets a small budget for a feature and goes from there.
Villeneuve however, made a few unorthodox shorts in the early ‘90s, then a couple of foreign language feature films, before returning to short films in the mid 2000s. His short film, Next Floor, in 2008, paved the way for his more acclaimed foreign language work on Polytechnique and Incendies, which was then followed by another two short films.
This back and forth between long-form and short-form filmmaking, which saw Villeneuve add seven short projects to his filmography, is probably as much about the director’s love for the process as it is about the necessity of proving himself as a filmmaker from a foreign language background.
However, you only have to look at Next Floor, Villeneuve’s dissection of greed and corruption, to know that he was destined for the very top. All Villeneuve movies look incredible, and Next Floor boasts the same kind of stunning cinematography and meticulous production design we have come to expect.
Evident here, too, is the director’s inherent instinct of leaning into the surreal side of storytelling. There is something in Next Floor which is reminiscent of Enemy, Villeneuve’s movie adaptation of a book about the phenomenon of the uncanny. If this is what Villeneuve can do with 11 minutes of film, it’s no wonder Hollywood wanted more.
The strange thing about Ari Aster
Ari Aster is the new kid on the block when it comes to horror movies, but even after just two feature films, he is being heralded as one of the most brilliant, and twisted minds in the genre working today.
For Aster, the route to the big leagues was, on the surface, surprisingly by the book for a filmmaker of his ilk. Eight short films, in eight years, between 2008 and 2016, would lead Aster to his ferocious feature debut, Hereditary. The man paid his dues in the field of short films, but one of his shorts in particular, is as far from by the book as you can get.
2011 was an especially prolific year for Aster, where he made three short films. One of them, The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, is still discussed regularly to this day, and was certainly a sign of things to come from a horror master in-the-making.
Tasked with making a short film while studying at the American Film Institute, Aster decided he wanted to truly make an impact, and this disturbing depiction of family life definitely did that.
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons flips all storytelling and societal conventions on their head. As the true horror emerges from this family drama, you’ll see exactly why Ari Aster is being touted as the next great horror filmmaker of his generation.
This is just a small sample of the amazing short films which have helped launch the careers of the filmmakers behind them. Other incredible filmmakers have followed the same path, like Damien Chazelle and his proof of concept short for the musical drama Whiplash, or Andrea Arnold’s Oscar-winning short film Wasp.
The next time you’re scrolling through IMDb, take a look at your favourite director’s early credits, and explore a whole world of bite-sized brilliance!