Screenmancer's Rea talks to screenwriter/author Linda Cowgill
Linda Cowgill has a B.A. and M.F.A from UCLA. She has written for both screen and television and currently teaches at Loyola Marymount University. Her book, “Writing Short Films” is in bookstores now.
REA: Is writing and/or directing a short a good way to break into
COWGILL: Right now, I think making a good short
one of the easiest ways to break into the business.
I mean, no way is easy, but it’s certainly easier to
slip a twenty or thirty minute cassette to a development executive as opposed to
handing them a 120 page screenplay. It’s very hard to get people to read
material these days -- watching a tape involves less time and if it’s a good
presentation, is much more enjoyable.
REA: Do you think Hollywood takes short films seriously?
COWGILL: Yes, I do now. Two films in the last ten years really point that
out. One is “Sling Blade” which started out as a 27 minute short. The people
at The Shooting Gallery saw it and asked Billy Bob Thornton if he had anything
longer using that character. That’s a real case in point that had he had
a feature length script that he was circulating with that character and did not
have anything on film to sell it, I don’t think it would have gotten made.
Another example is a short film James Deardon wrote and directed called
“Diversion” which is the basis for “Fatal Attraction”. Paramount saw it, said
this is great, bought it and hired Deardon as a screenwriter.
REA: What are some of the things that distinguish a short from a feature?
COWGILL: Part of what works in a short film is subverting expectations
that are based on our understanding of Hollywood’s three act structure.
In every good film the first act “sets up” the problem for the protagonist. Often what happens in the short film is that the problem is answered and solved in the middle of the story and the second half of the film deals with the ramifications of solving that problem.
One of the great things a short can do is focus on a protagonist who’s unsympathetic but fascinating. Since the audience isn’t spending along time with him/her, forty minutes at the most, they can enjoy the perverse fascination that comes with that type of character without getting overwhelmed by it.
Also, shorts can deal with serious themes that you don’t often find, especially
in commercial Hollywood films. One of the Academy Award winners in the last
ten years is a film from Germany called “Black Rider”, which deals with
racism, although comically and ironically.
REA: What’s the future for shorts?
COWGILL: I’m very optimistic. The list of film festivals that feature shorts is
growing. On an university level, I think making a short is a very important way
to learn about managing a story.
When I was at UCLA, I made one film -- a six minute silent short. I just stayed on the story and on the conflict and that helped me a lot in trying to find a way to tell a story through action and behavior. When you start on a simple scale and then start to expand, especially at the academic curriculum, I think people can learn so much about the structure of writing.
Linda Cowgill has a book, “Writing Short Films” (on sale now) at Barnes & Noble.