A Bad Review and "Crossing the Line"

If you'd like to participate in reviewing my short film (featured above), please watch it first before reading below. Plot spoilers and associated comments will most likely alter your original thoughts, so please watch first and read second!

I had a unique opportunity recently. A blog I really like and respect ($1000 Film), posted about why "Short Films Suck" and then asked filmmakers to submit their shorts for review. I did, and today received quite a roasting for my short, Middle of Nowhere. This is the first in-depth review I've received, as the most I could get out of others boiled down to "it was cool" or "I didn't get it." $1000 Film's take wasn't very flattering, but I've learned some good things from it.

After explaining the setup, and a connection with the Twilight Zone (one of my main influences) this comment is made:

...there is a fine line between telling a story of unexplained weirdness and just plain confusion. This film has definitely crossed the line; it just is confusing.

This perspective isn't too much of a shock, as I've had several people tell me that it went over their heads. I felt when I wrote the script that it was pretty clear what was happening, with the 'why' not needing to be explained. Maybe I should rethink this. Watching movies like Memento, Donnie Darko, and Primer may be having a negative effect on my writing. I think I need to work on clarity and use the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid!) theory.

...the issue is that there isn’t anyway for the audience to connect with the protagonists.

I totally agree, but the short form with any kind of story really prohibits this. If you want to get to know the characters well in a five minute movie, where to you fit the story in? Shorts are all about plot, a small event that the viewer peeks in on. I gave about a minute to establish that these two like each other (her head on his shoulder, he rubs her head, smiles), but I had to move on if I wanted any kind of narrative. This is probably why the reviewer dislikes shorts so much--not much connection to the characters. Not the only reason he disliked my movie, unfortunately.

Then the woman sees someone run across the road behind her in her mirror and her immediate reaction to this is to get a gun from the glove compartment and chase him into the woods — why?

This is a pretty good point. I thought I established that she was either police or military by his line of "cover me", but everyone seems startled (and/or confused) when she pulls out the gun and leaves the car. I admit that this action now seems more compelled to move the story along, rather than something born of her character. Why would she leave? If you saw something run behind your car, would you run after it, even if you were armed?

I kept hoping that there would be an incredibly clever Twilight Zone pay off, which would give the audience the one piece of the puzzle that would allow them to go “Oh, so that’s what was going on.” In which case this could have been a really good short.

I thought the screeching tires sound at the end wrapped it all together, but not this time. The only faint praise was this:

I mean it looks OK, the acting’s not bad...

This hurts a bit since I spent a lot of time on lighting and framing (especially since the whole story takes place at night in the woods--a tall order), but if your movie doesn't work for someone, technical prowess means little.

...but where I can see the actors really struggling is with why they’re doing the things they’re doing.

I was really lucky to get the (auditioned) actors that we had, and felt they did well. I wasn't able to work with them as much as I wanted, due to struggling with tech issues, which I will address the next time out. I know performances are key, and I want to contribute and be there for my actors. This is hard when you are wearing many hats and spreading yourself thin, which is pretty common when trying to do a lot with a little.

Overall, a pretty harsh review, but there are lots of lessons I can learn. Focus on connecting with the characters (which will be easier in a feature) and make sure their actions make sense. Keep things crystal clear so you don't lose your audience, and simplify, simplify, simplify!

What do you think? I encourage anyone reading this blog to review my movie and give me your thoughts in the comments below. I love input and would love to hear your opinion and how accurate you feel the above review was. Growth is my desire, so please help me with your observations. It only makes me want to do better next time.


Anonymous said…
I appreciate your honesty in sharing the negative feedback on your film. I'd already watched part of your short, and reading the review of it was quite instructive. Thanks for being open!
jen said…
"...the short form with any kind of story really prohibits [connection with the characters]."

Wow, I have to completely disagree with this. It's hard to build character in a short time, yes, but it's not impossible. And a focus on plot over character development makes it even harder to get to the characters, but the characters can (and sort of have to) come through, despite all these difficulties. In real life, we humans feel connections to people we see doing the smallest things--a tough-looking kid gives his seat to an old lady on the train and almost blushes when she routinely thanks him. There's enough in that tiny moment for someone to feel like they know that kid. Finding those sorts of moments for your characters, though, that's not easy.

For an example of amazing character dev. in no time at all, have a look at the opening scene in Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count on Me. Not the same genre at all, but this scene has two people we've never seen before in a car, and in about half a minute it's like we know them. Why? For one thing, they're talking about something else, and that something gives us a sense of them. But more importantly, that something else is something an audience member can think about, too, and in that thinking the audience becomes actively involved with them. It's a fine, fine scene (and Lonergan is one of the best playwrights alive right now, so it's not a huge surprise he can pull off something like that).

After the car stops in Middle of Nowhere, I'm afraid I also just don't get it. Basically, as soon as she pulls out the gun, I'm confused. (I took "cover me" to be a joke between civilians--if she were a cop, someone accustomed to responding to emergencies, wouldn't she be out the door before him?)

More confusing to me, though, was the fact that neither character was surprised to see the other materialize somewhere they couldn't be if the laws of physics were in effect. By the end, I sort of get that there's a parallel universe thing going on, but I'm not sure what that might be exactly, and I definitely don't know why. Here's where I think you maybe have hit on something impossible to do in five minutes--there isn't time to establish the rules of this universe. Heck, Primer and Donnie Darko are still confusing after 80 or more minutes!

But my hat is off to you for trying. (And who am I to say it's impossible? I know I couldn't pull off something that complex in such a short time, but this film has probably brought you closer to discovering the key to micro-sci-fi.)

So what if this one doesn't completely work? I want to rewrite everything I've ever written, including (or maybe especially) those that have already been shot. It's part of becoming better at what we do.

And along the way you've obviously learned a thing or two about casting and working with actors (solid acting here), production values (looks sharp) and editing/pacing (moves very well). All good things. Things you will need for your next films, too.

That's good work.
Scott Eggleston said…
Thank you Jen for your excellent comments! I think you are right about connecting with the characters in so short of a time. I think I tried, but didn't do so well. With only about one minute to do this, I should have tried harder. I also think the whole concept may have been too much to cram into a five minute short. The orginal script was seven pages, but it could have been a full length (22 minute) Twilight Zone episode.

Thanks for your praise about the acting and the technical end. I feel like I'm getting better with every movie, but next time I'll work harder (and get feedback first) to make sure my script is built on a more solid foundation.
Anonymous said…
Interesting. I was googling for examples of violations of the 180 degree rule (or "crossing the line") and this seems to be one, though nobody remarked on it. I found it a little disorienting to move from one side of the car to the other because the characters change relationships to one another so dramatically. Is this an intentional violation of the rule to emphasize the "parallel worlds"? Or is it even a violation? I'm just learning about this stuff.
Scott Eggleston said…
Actually Andrew, I never "crossed the line" in a technical sense, but that line from the original review refers to crossing the line of understandability.
Jason IL said…
The only thing that I didn't get is where did the gun come from and the comment, "cover me". maybe a line could been inject in the beginning that could have tied in where the gun came from and "cover me". Overall it was great. Some people lack of imagination and creativity causing creators to spell it it for them. I enjoy work that causes me to push myself past the obvious; a direct imitation of life. Kudos.