James McNally is a real man-about-town. I first met him years ago when he invited me to his film blogger meet-up during TIFF, something that he organizes annually just for the fun of meeting other cinephiles over a pint. He writes about film at Toronto Screen Shots, and while I do see him online – on his site, on Twitter, and elsewhere – I also see James out in the real world quite a bit. He seems to always be at events, screenings, festival parties and receptions. He’s just one of those guys who, in addition to being a film lover, also enjoys bringing people together.
So it seems perfectly appropriate that we should conduct this interview over drinks at a cocktail club. He starts with a bubbly French 75, and I with a Rye Crusta, which has the peel of an entire lemon stuffed into the glass, and smells better than any lemon meringue pie I’ve ever eaten. James has diverse interests when it comes to film, but one of the things that stands out about him is a passion for shorts — not because shorts aren’t something to be passionate about, but because my perception has always been that most people never watch a short film in their lives, unless it’s by accident, like catching one of those amazing NFB animations between shows on TVO when we were kids.
I start by asking James how he got into short films.
“I don’t think there was one ‘ur-short’ that led me to all the others,” James says, “but I do remember being very intrigued by the 2005 launch of Wholphin, a quarterly-ish DVD of short films from the guys behind McSweeney’s and The Believer magazine. I bought every issue and couldn’t understand why nobody knew about any of these films. The internet has made things much better lately, but short films are still ridiculously underseen.”
James currently runs a screening series called Shorts That Are Not Pants, and it’s how I first discovered his interest in shorts, so I ask him for a brief history of the series.
“I wanted to show my friends some of these great short films and instead of lending out my Wholphin DVDs and maybe not getting them back – thanks, friends! – I decided to hold screenings at my place,” he tells me. “We held the first one in December 2009, and I put together a kind of mixtape of some of the best shorts from all the issues that had come out so far. I added a couple of great animated NFB shorts from the Animation Express blu-ray, and an incredible short film called 2 Birds from Icelandic director RÃºnar RÃºnarsson that I’d heard buzz about. The series kind of went quiet through 2010 and then we did three more in 2011, all at my 800 square-foot apartment. After I realized I couldn’t fit more than about 10 people around my TV, I thought about taking the series public, which I did in January of this year. It was really satisfying to have nearly 50 people there.”
Since then, James has held another instalment, which happened in April. I’ve now switched to a drink made with mescal and jalapeÃ±o, and James is on to something that looks bourbon-y. It occurs to me that a good short film is a lot like a good cocktail: a few key ingredients in the proper balance — too many muddy the flavour (or overcomplicate the story).
After a few years of curating short film programmes for friends and strangers alike, I ask James if he feels he’s hit upon the magical formula that makes for a really great short.
“I think one of the things I like about shorts is that there is no magic formula,” he says. “Since a ‘short’ can be anywhere from a minute long to a half-hour or more, that gives filmmakers tremendous freedom. They’re not at all limited by a three-act structure. And I like to be surprised, so when a filmmaker finds a new way to make a great film, that’s always really satisfying. I am a little less tolerant of one technique that short filmmakers tend to use a lot, and that’s the ‘punch line’ where there is a sudden reveal at the very end of the film. Some filmmakers do this well. Nash Edgerton’s Bear jumps to mind, but the idea of treating a short film like it’s a joke you’re telling can wear thin in the wrong hands.”
Short filmmakers often make shorts as a stepping stone to feature length work, and I’m curious about whether James has discovered any real talents early in their careers, who have gone on to bigger – or should I say ‘longer’? – things.
“I can’t claim to have discovered anyone… but one of my favourite Icelandic filmmakers who I mentioned previously, RÃºnar RÃºnarsson, recently made his first feature film, Volcano, after a series of really excellent shorts. But I hope he keeps making short films, too. Although I thought Volcano was fantastic, his short film 2 Birds might be the greatest 15 minutes of film anywhere. Canada’s own Jamie Travis has just made his feature debut as well. His film For a Good Time, Call… was at Sundance this year.”
Several drinks deep into the evening, I feel I can ask James the real burning question in my mind, which is why so many short filmmakers abandon shorts entirely when they move on to features. Don’t filmmakers see the value in just making shorts for their own sake?
“I’ve always disliked shorts that are just blatant ‘calling cards’ to get the filmmaker a feature deal,” James tells me. “But sadly, I think the reality is that making short films for your entire career isn’t economically viable. However, I’m hoping that with all the new distribution platforms available online, shorts will be more widely distributed and so maybe a few brave souls can make a living at it… I think in a way it’s a product of the way film schools teach filmmaking. You know, start with shorts and then ‘graduate’ to features. It’s really a bit insulting.”
I tend to agree. A good short film can have just as much emotional impact and resonance as a feature, and there’s no reason to privilege one form over the other so exclusively. And much like the novel vs. the short story, a short film can often be much more difficult to craft effectively. At least, if you’re interested in avoiding the ‘punch line syndrome’ James mentioned earlier.
“I do think that films should be free to be whatever length they need to be,” James adds. “Nowadays, if a film is available on-demand, it can be any length at all. I’m hoping that frees filmmakers to make films shorter or longer, whatever length is needed to tell the story in the best way”.
I know it’s unfair to ask programmers to pick favourites among their selections, but I want to know what James was most excited to bring to audiences at his last event, just a few weeks ago.
“Well, I saw Trotteur at the Canada’s Top Ten screening at the Lightbox earlier this year and on a lark decided to see if I could get it. This visually stunning and wordless short was being screened in front of The Artist during its theatrical run in Quebec, and I thought we wouldn’t be able to afford the screening fees, but everyone involved was great.”
The first two public screenings of Shorts That Are Not Pants have been held at the NFB, which is set to close its Mediatheque as a result of recent budget cuts. James is hoping to drum up support for keeping it open. “There really isn’t any other space like it in the city, and a lot of smaller screening partners, like us, are going to be seriously put out”, he says.
The next instalment of Shorts That Are Not Pants will be held on Friday, July 13, 2012. Check James’ website for more info.
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