How to make a good short film

How to make a good short film
Published: Oct 29, 2023
Film and television writer-producer Steve Lucas is using his decades of experience to help young filmmakers advance their careers. The first step is making a short film. Ten minutes or less. Here's what he tells them.

Film school, Steve Lucas, journal of wild culture Whitney Smith

In the film studio watching a scene play on the monitor.


WHITNEY SMITH   So what kind of teacher are you?

STEVE LUCAS   Sorry...?

SMITH   Are you a hard taskmaster? A buddy to your students?

LUCAS   I’m probably more of a mentor than anything else. At least, eventually I am. In the beginning, I’m just the guy students meet on their way through the door. You know, the one who tells them that first they’ll be working on this, then they’ll be working on that.

SMITH   You lay out the process.

LUCAS   Which in our case starts with an idea for a short film and ends, ideally, with the students turning that idea into an actual short film by the time they graduate. Along the way I try to get them to see drama the way I do.


Your job is to embrace those disruptions and turn them into films that can move an audience—or at least entertain it.


SMITH   Which is how?

LUCAS   As a fundamental building block of life.

SMITH   That is, nothing too complicated.

LUCAS   Life?

SMITH   . . . and the building blocks. Please elaborate.

LUCAS   Drama is what you don’t want to have happen to you, right? An illness, an accident, a death, a divorce, any kind of major disruption – you’ll go out of your way to avoid it. But if you’re an aspiring filmmaker, your job is to embrace those disruptions and try to turn them into films that can move an audience or at least entertain it. You'd be amazed how many people have trouble doing that.

SMITH   They want to make a film about something that’s happening to them or someone they know. Only there's one catch, and that is . . .?

LUCAS   It turns into an assault on Everest. I mean, all I’m asking for is a little story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And not necessarily in that order, as Jean-Luc Godard famously put it.

SMITH  That's the way to make it sound easy — a story has a beginning, middle and end — but it isn't.

LUCAS   It is not. But it would be if they taught storytelling in school. Only they don't. Analysis, yes. Storytelling, no. I get the feeling I’m maybe the first person who’s ever asked these students to tell him a story.

SMITH   So what do you do if they can’t — or say they can't?

LUCAS   I ask them to come up with a character. Put that character in a situation. Upend that situation and show me what the character does next. Pitch me your show idea orally. Outline it on paper. Get some notes back from me and your fellow students. Outline it again. Then, once you’ve got a rough structure together, write me a first draft screenplay.

Script to Screen Centennial College, Steve Lucas , journal of wildculture

Dosa writer-director Shashank Banawalikar (centre) and director instructor George Mihalka (centre right) discuss the show’s first shot while crew members look on.


SMITH   I’m still back there wondering why they can’t do it. I mean, we tell each other stories all the time.

LUCAS   Something happens to people when they sit down to write a story. Particularly the high achievers. They start comparing what they’re putting down on the page to all the great movies and TV shows they’ve seen. They start comparing themselves to industry giants. Jesse Armstrong, Shonda Rhimes. Before they know it, they’ve shut down their computers for the day.

SMITH   What do you do then?

LUCAS   I beg them to keep going. Just get through to 'fade out.' Even if you think what you’re writing is crap. Once you’re done, let me have a look at it.

SMITH   As a writer-producer, you've been through it yourself.

LUCAS   Too many times, awful. So now it's their turn to trick themselves into writing 10 or 12 pages. Something, anything — knowing they’ll have to go back and fix it.

SMITH   "Fix it," meaning exactly what?

LUCAS   Get the material to a place where everybody reading it -- the money people, the cast, the crew, whoever can give them a deal on the gear – is going to say, "Hey, you know what? This could actually . . . really . . . be something!" The goal is to come up with an idea for a short film that says, as my directing instructor colleague George Mihalka likes to put it, “Hey, look at me! I’m talented.” We’re trying to help them make a short film that will get into festivals, win an award or two, and help them take the next step in their careers. But nothing happens without a script. No script, no show.

SMITH   What is the simplest way to get them to start? To psyche them into it?

LUCAS   They need an idea -- one line, a logline – that they can turn into an outline and eventually a first draft screenplay.

SMITH   How long does it take?

LUCAS   In this program, 14 weeks. But that’s only because they’re taking a bunch of other courses. If all they were doing was writing a 10-page screenplay, it wouldn’t take nearly that long. But it takes longer than most people think. Coming up with an original idea, a fresh take we haven't seen a gazillion times before, I mean...

SMITH   It’s hard.

Film School, Steve Lucas, journal of wild culture

Sound Instructor Jon Pacifer (left) gives location sound recordist Manoj Gopu some final instructions.


LUCAS   It's very hard. But that’s the job, right? You didn't know where Succession was going, did you? Or The Bear, Hacks, Barry, I May Destroy You. That's the joy of those shows. We have no idea what will happen next. Why? Because the people behind those shows have unique sensibilities and something new to say, as opposed to, you know, fade in on a warehouse, some black SUVs pull up, some tough guys get out. Once they’re inside, they have an angry exchange with some other tough guys and before long, everybody’s gunning each other down over a suitcase full of cash and another suitcase full of drugs. Please don’t write me one of those. Have you got a pen?

SMITH   Waiter!

LUCAS   [Laughs] Write this down. On S'Embrasse.

SMITH   Which translates as what?

LUCAS   "Shall We Kiss?" It’s a French short made 20 years ago about a young actress who has an audition coming up. She walks into a bistro and she looks around for somebody she can run lines with. She spots this gloomy-looking guy sitting alone at a table. She sits down and they read a scene together a number of times. The direction he gives her, the suggestion he makes, it changes her life. When you see this show — it’s, like, six minutes long — you go, oh, my God, this is a work of genius. The location is perfect, the casting is perfect, the script is perfect. And the director knows exactly what they're doing. My pitch to the students is, if you can come up with your version of On S’Embrasse and you’re able to get it made, you can walk into any film and TV production office in this town and I guarantee you people there will want to meet you and work with you because inside six minutes, you will have said, “Hey, look at me! I’m talented!” Without having said a word.

SMITH   Your film says it for you.

LUCAS   There's another short. Write this down, too. Lily and the Snowman, just a little two or three-minute long animated piece Cineplex sponsored a number of years ago to try to get people interested in going back to the theatres to see movies. And it’s, like – I must have seen it 20 times and I still can't watch it the whole way through without crying. That damn snowman, he reminds me of our oldest dog.

SMITH   I think I know it. It's the one with that wonderful music track. The acoustic guitar. It just makes you feel so good.

LUCAS   It’s a Phil Collins song.

Film school, Steve Lucas_journal of wild culture

Continuity supervisor Diana Gilligan double-checks a line reading.

SMITH   Phil!

LUCAS   Yeah, but it's somebody else singing it.

SMITH   It's a young female singer . . .

LUCAS   . . . who sings it beautifully. And the animation, everything is just so -- it's a perfect little piece. I don't see those very often. I’ve never done a perfect piece in my life, now that I think about it. There's something wrong with everything I’ve ever done, even if it's been good enough not to get me thrown out of the industry. But every once in a while, a perfect little film comes along that makes me go, yes, yes, yes, that’s what I’m looking for! That’s what we’re all looking for! But before you can film it, you have to write it. No script, no show.

SMITH   So how’s it going?

LUCAS   How’s what going?

SMITH   The school year. How are your students doing?

LUCAS   Well, we’re 11 weeks in.

SMITH   And . . .

LUCAS   . . . I’m still waiting.

SMITH   For what, a script?

LUCAS   No. An idea. I’m still waiting for someone in the class to come up with an idea that’s worth going to town on.

SMITH   You can't just give them an idea?

LUCAS   Well, it's supposed to come from them. All I need is for someone to give me something that George and I can help them turn into something we can shoot. We need to have professional actors in the show to make it worth shooting. I mean, it’s our main class project. There’s no point shooting it with people who can’t act. Plus, the college has a pro bono agreement with ACTRA. But the catch is, professional actors will only agree to appear in the show if the script is good enough to warrant their involvement. If the script is no good, well -- I can’t very well take it to the casting director and ask them to find people. Well, I could, but I’m not going to. That's not the way the business works. It runs on good material. No script, no show.

SMITH   There's that echo again.

Film School, Steve Lucas, Whitney Smith, journal of wild culture

Lead actors Connor Lucas-Loan and Gauri Prasad get some direction.

LUCAS   Actors flock to a good script.

SMITH   And professional actors are artists who can knock us out of our seats.

LUCAS   When the actors come in for the read-through, and they're pros, and they’ve been on Broadway or in feature films, or on TV series and they come in, two things happen. Number one, the level of the script goes way, way up in the students’ estimation.

SMITH   Actors need to be able to find their path through the forest — through the script. They need to be able to find the bread crumbs.

LUCAS   There's no comparison between what an amateur performer can bring to a piece of material and what a pro can bring to it. You and I reading a script, well, I mean, you can probably act but you do not want me in your show, trust me.

SMITH   I did act, but I could tell the difference between them and me.

LUCAS   A pro comes in, suddenly the script goes from here to here [raises his hand a foot higher to demonstrate], that's number one. The second thing that happens is the student crew members — all the keys sitting around the table listening to these three or four or five actors read the material aloud — they go, "Oh my god, I better not blow this! I mean, look who I’m working with!" Most students, until we do a read-through, they’re not sure whether the script is good or bad. They've got so much going on in their lives, you ask them to read something, they can't muster the peace of mind needed to sit down and absorb the material. So until we have a read-through with professional actors, pretty much everybody in the room is in the dark. After the read-through, boom! Suddenly people are going, "Hey, this is actually pretty good!" Well, at least good on paper. That’s when they go, "I better do my part." When you look at the program website, that’s what you see. You see what happens when a bunch of accomplished actors deliver the material. Which is the whole point of making one of these things.

SMITH   What do you mean, "the website"?

LUCAS   We've got a program website. There’s a filmography on it that includes a number of main class projects we’ve made over the years. There are six or seven films there that have been to 35 festivals, won 10 or 12 awards, received half a dozen award nominations.

FIlm School, Steve Lucas, journal of wild culture ©2023.jpg

First assistant camera person Alexa Martinez Galicia checks an image on the monitor.

SMITH   Seeing those films raises the level as well.

LUCAS   Plus, the students have other people around them, industry pros mentoring them, saying, "No, no, no! Don’t do it that way, do it this way!"

SMITH   So the script gets written and finally they're on set . . .

LUCAS   In three weeks of prep and a two-day shoot, they probably learn as much as they learn in the other seven months of the program combined. But here's the thing, the most important person on the production right up until the start of prep (preproduction) is often the writer. The minute the cameras start to roll, it’s, hey, Writer Person, you can go home now if you like. Nobody cares whether you wrote the script or the craft services person wrote the script because now the cast and the crew are focused on making that script come alive in front of the camera. Right? But to get there, you have to have a script, which means you have to write one or at least learn how to write one. No script . . .

SMITH   Stop! I should have learned it by now.

LUCAS   I’ve been doing this most of my adult life, so, of course, I’m going to get worked up about it. I’m also coming off two days of reading submissions and, well . . .

SMITH   "Well" what?

LUCAS   The students are young, okay? If they knew what they were doing, they'd be out there doing it already.

SMITH   But you're passionate about this and you have a job to do. You want to succeed, you don't want to have to say at the end of all this, "Oh, sorry, we have nothing. There’s nothing we can film."

LUCAS   "Yeah, Steve, too bad you couldn't get a script together this year. Maybe next year."

SMITH   That's not going to happen, is it, Steve?

LUCAS   I run the program. I’m supposed to get a script together we can shoot. But like I said, it’s early. We’ve still got time. ≈ç



Script to Screen’s 2023 main class project turned out to be a hostage-taking comedy, Dosa, written and directed by Shashank Banawalikar and shot on Centennial’s East York campus in English and Hindi in early April, 2023. Everyone involved in the project expects it to be out on the festival circuit in early 2024.



STEVE LUCAS is a film and television writer-producer. Nominated for an Academy Award for his first film, After the Axe, in 1982, he has been involved in, and often financially responsible for, more than 40 productions. Since 2014, he has been the Screenwriting Professor and Program Coordinator in Centennial College's Advanced Television and Film — Script to Screen program. He lives in Toronto.

WHITNEY SMITH is a the Publisher-Editor of The Journal of Wild Culture. He lives in Toronto.

Photos by MILAN PODSEDLY, who served as the film's cinematography consultant.


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