Short films, big Oscar hopes: Inside 4 Academy Award contenders for Best Live Action short

Salon talks to the makers of four of the 2019 Oscars' shortlisted Live Action short film contenders

Published January 12, 2019 11:00AM (EST)


Even being on the shortlist for the Oscar in the Live Action Short Subject category can change a filmmaker’s future. A nomination can generate visibility for a director and in some cases, help secure feature film funding. Most filmmakers who make shorts do so as “calling cards” — to show that they can tell a story, direct actors, manage a budget, and generate an emotional response. Short films often present characters experiencing an extreme moment of change. That makes the impact of the drama much more powerful and why they can often be more satisfying than features.

To qualify for the Academy Award, short films must win a prize at a qualifying festival and/or have a week-long theatrical exhibition in New York or Los Angeles.

Here are interviews with the writer/directors of four of this year’s shortlisted Live Action short film contenders.

“Madre,” Written and Directed by Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Marta (Marta Nieto) receives a phone call from her son, who may be in danger. The film won numerous awards, including Best Short at the Miami Film Festival to qualify for the Oscar.

Most shorts follow a setup, suspense and payoff formula, but your short eschews that narrative structure. It is deliberately ambiguous — this is what makes is so great. Can you talk about your approach to the story?

Sorogoyen: This ambiguity makes the story terrifying. It’s more satisfying if you don’t give everything to the spectator. That makes them build the story in their own mind, which is more powerful than any position I can take.

Most shorts are confined to few locations for budgetary reasons. “Madre” unfolds almost entirely in the confines of an apartment. Why this approach?

Sorogoyen: Once I decided the apartment scene had to be one sequence [with no edits], I knew that I had fewer resources and had to exploit them well. In general, I like telling a nightmare with wide shots because they are more terrifying. I like the idea of having only one shot — only at the end — when you see her face in close-up.

What does it mean for a filmmaker, especially one from Spain, to be shortlisted for the Oscar?

Sorogoyen: It’s a dream and an honor. It’s saying we’ve done a good job. While I haven’t been selected yet, that honor and the happiness is to come. I want to be prudent.

What can you say about the festival circuit and campaigning?

Sorogoyen: I think that the system of [qualifying through] festivals is good, because it’s a way to select among many shorts. If the academy had to see all the shorts, that would be impossible. But in the festival circuit, the voters see all the shorts, so it’s fair.

“Madre” is unusual in that you have already developed the story into a feature. Most filmmakers wait to do this, and many short filmmakers shouldn’t do this because the concise narrative serves their film best. Why did you make two versions of “Madre?”

Sorogoyen: I finished watching the feature an hour before you called! This short has won many prizes in Spain and that helped me make the longer film. It’s curious and infrequent that a long film has been done before the nomination. However, winning the Oscar will help distribute the feature. I knew the short was the first scene of the feature film, but I made the short independently, not to get funding.

* * *

“Caroline,” written and Directed by Celine Held and Logan George

When her mother (Celine Held) has a job interview, Caroline (Caroline Falk) is left in charge of her siblings — alone in a car, in a parking lot, on a hot Texas day. “Caroline” qualified after winning top prizes at the Seattle, Athens, and Palm Springs Film festivals.

You have produced six outstanding shorts in two years. That’s really prolific! What can you say about the process of making shorts?

Logan George: Shorts as a medium — you don’t have a room to play around with different themes or more characters; you have a finite amount of time to explore an idea. We throw ideas at a wall and as the story crystalizes, the story becomes things that we can’t get out of our mind.

Celine Held: We get wrapped up in stories. Our latest short, “Lockdown,” is premiering at Sundance. We seek out photos and find stories and try to make something a little more human out of them — change things up and find the gray in a black-and-white story.

“Caroline” is so wonderfully uncomfortable and claustrophobic. What decisions did you make in telling this story?

Held: If we get excited about a story, we start to write in the middle. What’s exciting is to start writing where you want the story to go. “Caroline” had a whole beginning scene at the family’s house, but it’s more exciting that it starts with the mother stuck without a babysitter. We wrote and cut 30-40 pages. We find details by creating intricate backstories. It always stems from what he character is going through. In “Caroline,” we’re not going to shoot outside the car because the story is from Caroline’s perspective. It felt natural to stay inside the car.

Do you cast yourselves in your films by design?

George: It’s never been part of the agenda for us to play the characters. We went to Texas to build relationship with the kids. And we lived with the family and saw a relationship develop between Celine and Caroline [Falk], so why put something between them? We trust each other, so casting each other, it makes the job easier.

Do you have any thoughts why “Caroline” became your first film that had a shot at the Oscar?

Held: This story is based on a few different true stories of actual moms seeking interviews or taking a final nursing exam, where child care fell through. One woman was living in her car. All of them were put on probation, served jail time, and didn’t get the job or finish the exam. We read these articles, and it’s never OK to leave a child in a car, but there are circumstances where we can’t vilify the mother or the good Samaritan. We hope this film allows people to see others as more human.

What observations do you have about making live-action shorts and how Oscar buzz can help build a reputation for a filmmaker?

Held: We make the films we want to make, regardless of who they could appeal to. It’s the biggest honor to be on the shortlist. For a low budget short to get this far, has been a dream. It wasn’t what we expected. We’ve had people reach out to us at Cannes and Telluride, but we said if it gets on shortlist we can think seriously. It’s a small short in the grand scheme.

George: For us, we found success by not hitching our careers to awards or accolades. We continue to make work and not use a festival or award as a catalyst for future work.

* * *

“Fauve,” written and Directed by Jérémy Comte

Tyler (Félix Grenier) and Benjamin (Alexandre Perreault) are two kids playing power games outdoors, challenging one another until one something happens that renders one of them powerless. “Fauve” qualified after winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, as well as awards at Palm Springs and other festivals.

You have been on the festival circuit for a full year now, culminating in a possible Oscar. What can you say about this experience?

At first, it was very unexpected. Being at Sundance was a dream. After playing more than 100 festivals and winning 60 awards, it’s been wonderful to be part of this community and get this reception to the film. I’ve met amazing filmmakers and programmers and it showed me the support you can have as a short filmmaker. It opens doors as a feature. Now that I’m on the shortlist — it’s very unbelievable to me to have been chosen out of 140 films — it’s really an honor. 

How did you come up with the story which gets increasingly, unbearably tense?

It was very organic for me. The story comes from a dream I had as a boy, the age of Tyler. I wanted to explore that feeling I had as a boy. I grew up in the countryside, and I explored the woods with my best friend, and we played pranks, so it was exploring an innocent childhood with cruel and lyrical elements. It was this feeling of coming of age through the eyes of a dream.

But it plays out like a nightmare! Without revealing too much, can you talk about your deliberate approach to the material?

The first time Tyler comes back, and Benjamin isn’t there, it shocks audiences. Everyone wants to see something, so it’s powerful, psychologically. There are more intense films with blood and killings, but this grabs people because you feel powerless. At the film’s climax, there is a different emotion. The ending is impactful because even if it’s ambiguous, it reconnects with the beginning, and creates an emotional response. I wanted to leave it open. The structure was not about having a pure short film structure, it was to organically to tell the story. By concentrating on an emotional response, it was closer to me and more personal. I wanted to push it to the limit of what it could be, and I think that’s what great films do. My producer wanted me to cut it tighter to build that feeling of tension.

What has your experience been campaigning?

For this film, we’re working on the campaign and hope that it gets to the next stage in the nominations. I’m excited about that. The film is a calling card. I’m developing a feature, but it’s not “Fauve,” which works as a short. It can’t really be turned into a feature. But the main characters and the tone of the film, the grittiness, and themes in “Fauve,” are what I’m playing with for my next film.

* * *

“Wale,” written and Directed by Barnaby Blackburn

Wale (Raphel Famotibe) is trying to put his criminal past behind him and improve his life. However, when he meets O’Brian (Jamie Sives), he encounters obstacles, not opportunities.

“Wale” won the Grand Jury Award at Dances with Films in LA, and qualified for the Academy Award after the festival paid to have the film screened in Los Angeles for a week at the Laemmle Theater. The film also won at two other Oscar-qualifying fests.

This is your film debut. Did you ever imagine your first film would be shortlisted for an Oscar?

When you make a film, the first thing you hope is that it evokes some emotional response from audiences. But the journey it’s been on to get shortlisted is incredible and beyond what you imagine when you start out. People work hard on short films for little financial reward.

What prompted you to tell this story in the short film format?

I had a conversation with a guy who came up to me like the scene in the market, with him wanting to start a business as a mechanic. That sparked thoughts that became the character of Wale. I was living in East London and the local papers disturbingly published frequent incidents involving young black men and the police, where the kids were not coming out alive as police were using unnecessary force. In the UK, you assume the police will be there for you if you get in a situation, but for young men in a certain background and race, the police are the last people you’d call if you found yourself in a grave situation for fear of immediate persecution.

What has making this short and being on this journey taught you about the process of filmmaking?

I’m not expecting anyone to give an unknown filmmaker a $1M budget to make a feature. There’s that initial constraint. The interesting thing is that with “Wale,” I ignored the rules of containing my film to 1 or 2 locations. It’s more of a featurette. It takes you on a bit more of an emotional journey than some films might. The intensity of our schedule had us shooting in 13 locations over 4 days. It’s a constant moving circus, and we had to work quickly and economically without many takes.

I tried to figure out how to do it as a short — determining the beats, and when things unravel. This is my first film, and it’s an interesting process from pre-production to shooting to the festival circuit. This is all new to me. I’ve been a commercial writer for 8 years, and I’ve had experience editing and sound design, but this was my first chance to have full control and direct actors, which is intimidating to do for the first time. Particularly with Jamie Sives, who is very experienced. You’re obviously thinking: How am I going to get away with this? It’s almost like acting yourself. You have to be honest about what you don’t know and try to communicate what you want in each scene.

What can you say about the festival circuit and getting the film to qualify for the Oscars?

Being our first film and working with three producers had never done festive circuit before, we were green and tried to get advice and info about it. We left enough in our budget to cast a wide net to get into festivals. How much do you need to suck up in cover letters when submitting? We entered all the big ones, Tribeca, and Venice, and Sundance and we didn’t get into those festivals. I thought “Don’t take any of this personally.” A 20-minute short is long, so they have to show ours at the sacrifice of two ten-minute films.

How do you approach campaigning?

Short films are not in the front of regular people’s minds when they think of the Oscars. We try to make it about as much awareness about possible. The exciting thing is working towards a first feature, so as many people as we can get this film in front of, the better.

There are messages in “Wale,” even though it’s a short. It won’t reach as many people as a feature, but if it can impact people, and they can take away some meaning or message from it, that’s a huge win for the film.

How would a nomination or win impact your career at this early stage?

I am against developing a feature from a short unless it’s a “proof of concept” short. What gets people hyped up is that they are invested in the character, but developing “Wale” into a short has been a 2-year process. I have a lot of love for the film, but to work another 3 years on it, I’d lose my mind. There are other stories I want to tell. I’m preparing another short film at the moment. Hopefully the Oscar nomination might open up some avenues for that.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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