Talking Head: Screenwriting for short films with Kristina Heaney
Kristina Heaney (Flotsam , Vanishing Trick ) is a London-based screenwriter and Creative England alumna, previously backed through their iShorts2 scheme and the BFI Net.Work. Here she discusses short film as a creative medium, her writing process and latest project Cold Reader. which screened at the Exit 6 launch and is part of the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
A fantastic short film script is taut and clean, delivering the writer’s ideas sharply like an arrow.
Short film is the purest, and certainly the smartest form of visual storytelling. It’s a challenge to convey something that is meaningful and complete unto itself in a tight time-frame. You don’t have the luxury of a feature film running time: you must quickly establish a world populated by real people with real air in their lungs. This is an enormous ask of a writer, and yet shorts are still considered to be the ‘easy’ route into long form narrative.
The most successful shorts are the ones that find the simplest way into the idea the writer wants to explore. For example, Andrés Muschietti's 2008 short film Mama (that inspired the 2012 feature film) is a truly chilling piece of filmmaking in under five minutes, which the feature never quite manages to live up to. I’m not an advocate of making a short purely in pursuit of a follow-up feature. This can be a trap for screenwriters, as they struggle to sandwich every theme and idea they have for their project into 10-15 pages.
My short Cold Reader, seeks to subvert the preconceptions surrounding identity. It focuses on the way in which identity is threatened, diluted and – in extreme cases – lost entirely when circumstances change. I've always been intrigued by the notion of identity: both our own and how we perceive others.
The idea for the script came about after a serious of storms grounded all flights from Heathrow. As British Airways staff made their way through Terminal 5, organizing hotels for stranded travellers, they encountered a concerning number of well-dressed, suitcase-wheeling people who admitted they weren't travelling anywhere: they were just keeping warm. They were homeless.
The idea presented various challenges: how to write about such a delicate and gritty issue with warmth, how to subvert it without causing offense. I didn’t want to write an urban drama about life on the streets. I’ve seen that before, and frankly I wouldn’t know the first thing about how diabolical it is to sleep rough. What I do understand is how close each of us is to being in that position. It only takes a few small things to go wrong, some safety net to fail, and that’s your reality. If you will forgive the oxymoron, I wanted to delicately attack preconceptions surrounding homelessness. When someone is murdered they become their murder and that alone. The entire life that came before is lost in the glare of violent death. The same can certainly be said of homelessness: it’s easy to forget there's a human being, with a full life, attached to that situation.
I moved the action to a library. As a producer as well as the writer, it was obvious budget would not stretch to filming in an airport – nor would anyone want the associated production headache. Also, I liked the story opportunities a library afforded. The idea of exploring a provocative subject in such a mild-mannered setting appealed to my playful side.
My initial drafting process is usually pretty fast and the script was complete within days. Whilst it’s often very tempting to launch straight into a draft without outlining on a short film, I’ve always found this leaves me with a brilliantly strong opening followed by a very long period of indecision as to what my characters should do next, how their actions will affect the narrative arc, whether the dialogue I’m given them is even appropriate. Ultimately, it’s a waste of time.
For me, outlining a short is as crucial, if not more so, than on a feature-length script. As previously mentioned, time is tight on a short – not a second of it should be wasted. An outline can be very simple: a series of bullet points with perhaps a few lines of dialogue that have floated into my head during the thinking process. It’s just about being able to see the overall shape of the piece upfront. I tend to hand-write my first draft and then type up, so I automatically get a second draft from the tweaks I make during transcription.
I'm often asked how I know what my film is about while I'm writing it. Often I don't completely. I know the themes I want to explore and the order I feel things should happen in, but quite often it's not until several drafts in that I can stand back and say, 'oh yes, I've written about this.'
Ultimately it doesn't really matter, provided I'm continuing to examine something with real meaning. Whatever the genre, it should always have heart. In fact, my next writing project is a dark comedy drama about a man who's made such a mess of his relationship he removes his heart and keeps it in a box. Bittersweet is my favourite; if I can make people laugh, then make them tearful I'm doing my job.
Do you have a particular screenwriting process that works for you? What are your thoughts on writing specifically for short film?
Follow Kristina and her latest projects by following her on Twitter: @KristinaFilm