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SHORT CIRCUIT: Directing - Feature Movie, Part 1

You've dabbled in short films, but now you want to take the next challenge. Dan Goforth discusses how to make the move from directing shorts to feature films.

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Many short film directors dream of making the move into feature films, and some feature directors even dream of making short films. Short Circuit sat down and visited with some successful short film directors who have made the leap from shorts to features, and asked them to reflect on their experiences and perhaps share some advice.Josh Mills is an award winning director/producer with over 14 years as producer, director, casting director and production manager. His latest feature film, Brother's Keeper, will be released theatrically in the spring of 2015.

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Dawn Fields has directed eight short films and also runs the annual Palm Street Films Script Contest. She will be shooting her feature length holiday horror film in 2015 (details are being kept tightly under wrap at this time).

Michael Gordon's first feature narrative film, Black Water Wilderness, is now in post-production and is expected to be released in 2015.

See what can you learn from their experiences...

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Director Michael Gordon and actor Motell Foster on the set of Black Water Wilderness

Michael: This wasn’t just my first feature, it was by far my biggest cast (unless you count one scene from a short with a bunch of extras). That brought on a new level of complexity in itself. Everything matters more: balancing time, money, morale, etc. Staying on schedule was a big priority for us, some of our actors were on a deadline to leave town for their next job. For several weeks, sleep was definitely deprived. We shot a couple of nights thinking we would be done by 2pm at the latest, and then would be out until the sun came up. We were lucky because our cast was very committed and showed us a lot of grace by working over and keeping a great attitude. We wrote the script knowing what we had to work with. I think that is key in being able to shoot on a budget. The biggest difference in the directing experience compared to shorts was rehearsal. All of the shorts we’ve done were very short, like 10 minutes or so. With that, it never seemed too hard to work out things on set. We had enough foresight to know better than that on a time crunched feature shoot. We rehearsed for over a month. Rehearsing is a game changer.

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Director Dawn Fields with actress Ronni Hawk on the set of The Dancer and the Boy

Dawn: I think the biggest lesson I've learned in the past year and a half of directing film is how to better handle when things go wrong. And things always go wrong. In the beginning, I was devastated by this and really hard on myself and others. I longed for the day when we would finally get everything right, mistakenly thinking that I could actually control that. The greatest gift I've received this year is being able to truly embrace the imperfection and to forgive myself and others for their mistakes. Besides, things always happen for a reason.

The short film, Found, has been the most amazing experience for me. I made the decision early on to limit the amount of expositional dialogue in the film in lieu of letting the audience piece it together and figure it out for themselves when more information gets revealed later in the story. Some people resonate with this style and really 'get it' and some people just don't. It's a choice. What I love about the short film format is that it allows filmmakers the freedom to explore, challenge and deviate from the norm. Once you move into features you're almost bound by necessity to 'play by the rules', in most cases. But that's what makes short films so exciting and why I cherish my time and my freedom (thanks to my ongoing donors and supporters) to continue expressing my stories as I see them.

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Director Josh Mills with DP Scott Peck and actor Graham Miller on the set of Brother's Keeper

Josh Mills is is a member of The Directors Guild of America and The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In addition to Brother's Keeper, he produced and directed the feature documentary Sugar Wars - The Rise of the Cleveland Mafia. While working for Warner Brother’s reality division, he was involved with the productions of over 200 episodes of Change of Heart, Elimidate and multiple pilots.

Josh: We absolutely started with short format when I first came to LA 10 years ago. I got my start working in commercials and TV on reality shows (NY) where I honed my physical production skills then moved out here in 2004. My first short film was titled Reason for Stayin’ . I produced it with my directing partner TJ Amato. I think I shot that in 2005. I started DWF in October of 2008 and have been plugging away ever since.

SC: What advice would you give someone preparing to direct their first short film?
Josh: Work with people you know and trust. It helps when asking for favors. Also keep in mind the budget parameters before stepping on set. Take your time and create abbreviated versions of expensive scenes. Many times you’ll find a subtle or creative implication is just as impactful as an overt expensive set up. Also, if working with CGI, friends matter. There are so many talented vis effects artists out there now with ridiculous technology. Could save you a truckload and add fantastic production value.

SC: What advice would you give to anyone about to direct their first feature film?
Josh: Preparation…. and make sure to collaborate with the producers on hiring the best crew possible. Crew can make ALL the difference and make your life easier.

Follow Josh Mills at Desert Wind Films and on Facebook

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Follow Dawn Fields at Palm Street Films and on Facebook

Dawn Fields headshot

Follow Michael Gordon at Skypark Agency and on Facebook.

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Learn how to direct your film with Bethany Rooney's book,
Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing