I recently had the opportunity to speak with Oscar-nominated director and producer Vincent Lambe, a double winner of the Cannes Young Director Award and has received numerous accolades at a variety of international film festivals. He sits on the jury for WeScreenplay’s Short Script Screenwriting Contest and is a wealth of information for any writer diving into the world of short-form storytelling.
Helenna Santos: Hi Vincent! I’m excited to talk to you about your experiences with short films. Why are you drawn to shorts as a style of storytelling?
Vincent Lambe: I’m in it for the money! Ha! That’s a joke, obviously! Well, every director started with a short, didn’t they? DETAINMENT was entirely self-funded – I emptied my entire bank account into it. If I had a few million dollars, maybe it would have been a feature. But I didn’t want to attempt to make a low-budget feature as it could easily get over-looked and it almost certainly wouldn’t have been nominated for an Oscar. So, I think a powerful short film can have much more of an impact than a mediocre feature.
HS: That’s such a fantastic point of view. For you, what is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a short film?
VL: Economy of storytelling. As it’s a short, everything needs to be as concise as possible and there shouldn’t be anything there unless it is moving the story forward or telling us more about a character.
HS: When do you think it’s better for a story to be told in short film format vs. a feature?
VL: With certain feature films, I find the pacing can be extremely slow and the story may have worked better as a short film. If there isn’t enough in the plot to keep a viewer engaged for the duration of a feature film, I think it’s far better to make an engaging short film than a dull feature-length film.
HS: Couldn’t agree more! It’s so difficult to watch a feature that drags on and on for seemingly no reason other than the fact that it needs to hit a certain timestamp. What do you think the best source material is for a short film?
VL: Well, the short films that affect me most are the ones that shine a light on important issues by allowing us to see something from a different perspective. I admire films that have the power to affect social change. I have always been fascinated by true stories and obviously my short film, DETAINMENT is a true story, based on interview transcripts from the infamous James Bulger case in which two ten-year-old boys are detained by police under suspicion of abducting and murdering a toddler. The film is entirely factual with no embellishments whatsoever. However, it’s an enormously sensitive subject that has always divided public opinion in the UK and it sparked a major controversy when it was nominated for an Oscar. The film has since received widespread acclaim from critics and experts connected to the case, leading to a public debate on the circumstances in which the crime occurred and a wider debate regarding the right to tell true stories.
HS: That’s amazing. It’s so impressive to see the impact that your film has had on society as a whole. It’s truly a testament to the power of storytelling, especially with a project based on a real-life event. In your opinion, how long should a short film be? Is there a “too long”? Is there a sweet spot?
VL: Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences define a short film as being up to 40 minutes. While many film festivals will accept submissions up to 40 minutes, it is extremely difficult for them to program longer shorts as they have limited space. While a 5-minute film would be much more likely to be selected for a lot of festivals, I think it would be unlikely to win at those festivals as it simply wouldn’t have the same depth of character or the emotional punch which comes with a longer film.
For the Academy Awards, it is generally longer shorts that connect with voters, but the film needs to warrant its length. There is no point in making the film a certain length if it can be told effectively in less time. So, I suppose it depends on the story you are telling, but I think somewhere around the 15-minute mark is a good length.
HS: Are there things that you focus on when creating a short film that you believe are particular to short-form content?
VL: On account of the short running time, I think short films can be particularly powerful. They can deliver an important message and a strong emotional punch in a short space of time which will resonate with viewers long after the closing credits have rolled.
HS: Are there any specific mistakes that you see writers making when crafting a short screenplay?
VL: One of the biggest mistakes I find with short screenplays is that there is often lots of unnecessary dialogue and instead of having a character say something, it can often be communicated more effectively with a simple look or a gesture.
HS: Such great advice! Do you think there are benefits for a writer to focus on short films as a way to break into the industry?
VL: I think short films are a wonderful format for writers to examine the essential elements involved in the telling of a story. But in terms of breaking into the industry, the very fact that a short film can be produced for a fraction of the price of a feature means it is much more likely to get made. Short films take a lot less time to watch and for that reason, they can be extremely effective as a “calling card” for industry personnel.
A big thank you to Vincent for his time and sharing all of this knowledge with our community! Learn more about Vincent here.
Got your own short script? Enter WeScreenplay’s Short Script Screenwriting Contest!
Helenna Santos is an actor, writer, producer, and was the founder/editor-in-chief of Ms. In The Biz for its seven-year run. As an actor, she has been seen most recently in CW’s THE FLASH, ABC’s A MILLION LITTLE THINGS, and THE GOOD DOCTOR as well as THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB on Netflix. Helenna produced and starred in the female-driven sci-fi/thriller feature film The Shasta Triangle and the adventure movie At Your Own Risk. Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Backstage Magazine, IndieWire, Film Inquiry, and BUST Magazine, and she can often be found on panels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter!