That said, with shorts many of the ones that do well will tend to throw you into a specific moment with high stakes or will have a powerful punchline/twist. You have almost no time to set up a story so it’s good to keep it moving and let the audience play catch-up.
MPI: Similarly, what advice would you give to other filmmakers who are beginning their film festival submission process?
TF-H: Be realistic with your expectations. If it’s the first attempt at a short, it’s better to aim for more local and niche-interest festivals rather than spend $2,000 on festival fees for the biggest ones and expect to go to Cannes. The goal is to get the film seen and to meet other filmmakers. As you make a few shorts you start to develop a sense of where it might play and you build relationships with programmers who will give you waivers and invite you to submit. At the start, I found that going for the big short film festivals like Palm Springs and Clermont was a good starting place.
MPI: What should filmmakers know about getting distribution for their shorts?
TF-H: It’s hard to get distribution on TV, but online platforms are creating more new opportunities. If you have a good festival run, distributors will tend to find you. Winning awards will often attract interest. There’s also a lot to be said for approaching places like Vimeo and Short of the Week, which can often get you more exposure than you’ll ever find at festivals!
MPI: Could you talk about your writing process? Do you follow popular structural recommendations or books that you’ve found helpful? Particularly as you move into features?
TF-H: The biggest part is just to write, every day. That’s the hardest challenge. Books-wise, Aristotle’s Poetics lays out the key elements of plot and character really succinctly. On Filmmaking by Alexander Mackendrick and On Directing Film by Mamet are also great for story. Listening to Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) talk about writing is always an education. He gave a masterclass at Columbia that changed the way I thought about structure and endings—I can’t get it out off my head when I write! There’s a great intro to first acts by Arndt and Pixar on YouTube.
MPI: Is there anything you learned on your filmmaking and writing journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?
TF-H: I found it useful to keep a journal that I would make a note in whenever I saw a film, art, or read something that I had a strong reaction to—over time you start to see what things matter to you and it clarifies what you want to explore in your own stories.
MPI: How have your Moving Picture Institute fellowships and participation in MPI programs like screenwriting workshops helped develop your career?
TF-H: My Moving Picture Institute fellowships were a great extension of support beyond film school to develop scripts with talented filmmakers who all have unique perspectives. The last short, Balcony, went through one of the script development labs and the discussion helped me gain a clear sense of when things were really working.
MPI: As you know, the Moving Picture Institute’s mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas, as you did in Balcony or MPI-supported Little Shadow?
TF-H: I try to focus on the characters and their problems, then link that into the wider story world. Whenever I attempt to impose an idea or perspective onto the characters first, it usually goes wrong! Really wrong! It becomes preachy, mechanical, and lacks authenticity. If you can come up with an interesting character and get them talking to you, then it’s much easier to drop them in a situation that might dovetail into current events or tensions.