The Shortiest Short

The Academy Awards were six weeks ago, and already it’s like six years ago. Truth is, I tuned them out this year more than I have in decades, with the exception of one category, for “Best Live Action Short.”

“Six Women,” the short I wrote, was in editing then, and coming in at a frustrating (to me) 20 minutes long. It has since been “picture locked” at exactly that length, after my pleas to speed sequences here, and to trim my own bits of dialogue there, which had long been yielding diminishing returns, started giving the story less feeling. We had a few discussions about the ideal length for a short film, which I was insisting was nine to 12 minutes – inconveniently, since I’d written an 18 page script, and we all knew that a page roughly equals a minute.

I’d settled on that short length from what I knew of film festival programming. The shorter a short is, the more places it can fit into a program: You can always stick an extra six minute film, if it’s at all decent, into a two-hour showcase of shorts. And the best way to see a short is before a feature: A day after seeing a program of, say, ten 10-minute films, they’re mostly a blur in your memory, but if you can see one substantial short before an 80 to 100-minute feature, then it’s probably made an impression, but programmers understandably prefer 10-minute films for coveted slots like these.

The key word, substantial. Short films tend to have narratives like jokes, a short to medium-length preparation for one single punch line. At six minutes that’s literally all you have time for. If you want a character with more than one quality, and to take him or her plausibly to an unexpected place, then you’d better double that time. Much longer than that, and you’re in uncharted territory. The determinant must be the substance.

As with any venture, a maker of a short film must ask, “What are we doing this for?” Is it a widget for a short film program? A piece of art? Or a showpiece to persuade someone to make a full-length feature? I’ve made a case in the past for why some films can’t be made cheaply, but are still worth making, and some stories can’t be told in eight minutes but are still worth telling.

Watching the Oscar-nominated shorts back in February as we were refining ours, I got that strange burst of confidence you get when you see the top-of-the-line material and realize, “This isn’t all that great.” I also found it very reassuring that three of the five Oscar nominees were longer than ours, including the American favorite “Day One,” written and directed by Henry Hughes. That persuaded me to let go and let God, or maybe let go and let Ted (Teddy Schenck, who was directing, and saw the light about the length of “Six Women” weeks before I did).


From “Shok,” by Jamie Donoughue.

The two other nominees were the Palestinian-European production “Ave Maria” (written by Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil) at 15 minutes and “Stutterer,” a 12-minute short written and directed by the Irishman Benjamin Cleary. My favorite, hands down, was “Shok,” a Kosovar-British production written by Jamie Donoughue, about two boys who were friends during the Balkan war in the ’90s. It was the all around best-realized story, and you simply didn’t want it to end. My friend and fellow cinephile and I left the IFC theater after watching them all and agreed on this, but immediately started speculating that the American film, which had just as grand aspirations but showed no restraint whatsoever in the scope or subtlety of its themes, was probably going to win.

Which brings me to a brief digression, the reason I like to tune out the Oscars. Like American politics, they too quickly become a discussion of why something will win, rather than why something is worthy. You can speculate for months (and we do) about why The Academy or The Electorate or the primary voters of New Hampshire will feel one way or another, but what do you think?

The Academy disagreed with us, it turned out. I liked “Stutterer,” which prevailed. Far from a one-gag joke, in just 12 minutes it shows three very touching scenes: A type-setter, who’s most loquacious in his own head, is having an online romantic relationship via witty instant messages, hiding his stutter. We can tell by one delightful scene with his father, in which he stammers in painfully long real time through a deeply poetic thought, that knowing him would be very rewarding to anyone who has the patience to listen. Then comes the scene in which he overhears a man at a bus stop verbally abusing a woman, but isn’t able to intervene because he can’t get the words – this is where the average short would place the finale. But Cleary brings us to a new place, a meeting with the on-line love interest. The payoff, slightly cheeseball, lands satisfyingly because Cleary has already accomplished what a good story should: Taken you to the place you thought you’d end up, and then gone one step further.

Still, you can’t compare it to “Shok”! That’s just so much better. Ah well. It won’t be the first time The Academy gave preference to an English-language film over a foreign one. Neither was it the first nor last time, I’m assuming, that some members of a film jury took the time to actually watch a 12-minute movie and skimmed the 20+ minute movies any time they lost patience.

That’s the reality I’ll be living with the rest of this year as Teddy and I figure out where to premiere “Six Women,” and where to screen it after that.


I was so delighted to read that Ida won an Oscar last night. And it’s not just a Polish thing. In a night that was once again all about men, and bloated stories, at least the Best Foreign Language Film went to a super-tight, 82 minute narrative that was crystal clear and yet full of surprises. That more than passes the Bechdel test. And in a night when The Imitation Game took home a screenwriting award for its unnecessarily sprawling account of Alan Turing – telling stories about him in not two but three times at once – here’s a film that managed to pack more emotional resonance, with no cheap CGI, and all in one time, most of it over about four days.

"You've no idea the effect you have, do you?"

“You’ve no idea the effect you have, do you?”

Truth be known, I saw Ida (screenplay by Pawel Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) in the theater months ago, then watched it with some friends last night instead of the Oscars. It was so rewarding the second time through, I went home and watched it again so I could make a beat sheet of it.

The most gorgeous thing about it is what’s not on the beat sheet. Pawlikowski the director is so economical in his story-telling, you sometimes think he’s just marking time, but only at the end do you notice that practically every time Ida – the young nun who is his heroine – goes to bed, we are there to take a few-seconds-long look at her emotional state of mind, and the journey she quietly takes to the heart of darkness.

You could say it’s a meditation on Polish identity, in which an honest accounting of the pox of anti-semitism leads to a stark choice between hiding in the church and a still-far-away liberal internationalism. While it’s another dirty World War II story, it’s also a character study of a universal type: a person learning from a mentor she didn’t choose, in whose shoes she’ll only dare walk for a short time.

Ida Beat Sheet

The first shot is IDA, all of about 20, staring into the face of a life-sized statue of Christ. She is a young nun helping other nuns restore a statue and reverently put it back in its place.

Chanting. Meals in silence. Spartan surroundings. She’s an apprentice nun, not dressed like the older ones.

MOTHER SUPERIOR insists that she must go to visit her living relative, her aunt WANDA GRUZ before she takes her vows.

Ida packs and leaves the convent in the snow. It’s bright! The streetcar in the provincial town is the big city to her.

She finds Wanda Gruz in her flat, a hard-living city woman who has a man leaving her bed when Ida shows up. Like many people, the man greets the nun with an extra dose of respect.

Wanda tells Ida right away that she, Ida, is in fact Jewish by birth (minute 7!), Ida Lebenstein, from a village called Piaski. This is news to Ida, but Wanda has a photo that corroborates this, and she cursorily sends Ida away.

At work that day, Wanda thinks about Ida while presiding over an ideologically charged trial. She regrets sending her away and goes to get her from the bus station.

Wanda shows Ida more photos, including one with Ida next to a boy – though Wanda denies that Ida had any brother. Ida decides to stay and visit Piaski the next day, and Wanda says she will take her in her car.

On the way, Wanda suggests that Ida is pretty and should try hooking up with a boy while she is out, to try a dose of the things she’ll be swearing off in the convent. (It is minute 13, and already two characters from different worlds are on a road trip together – in Poland in 1962!)

Wanda takes Ida to the farm where her parents lived, but the current occupant, a woman, asks them to come back later when her husband is there. Again, her status as nun is recognized, when the woman asks Ida to bless her baby.

While they’re waiting, Ida goes to church, and Wanda goes to a bar. The bartender says he doesn’t remember the Lebensteins; she can tell he is bull-shitting, and in her irritation she drinks lots of vodka.

A judge, and a privileged Party member, with half a load on, Wanda boldly tells the OWNER of the farm that she knows his father Szymon Skiba helped hide Ida’s parents, and she demands to know where they can find his father.

Ida sees a stained glass window in the barn, like Wanda had told her her mother used to make, but they leave the farm empty-handed, the OWNER still playing dumb.

While leaving the village, Wanda, still drunk, rides the car into the ditch, and gets put in jail overnight to dry out.

Ida stays with the local priest, who denies knowing the Lebensteins – and she denies having any special connection to them.

In the morning, Wanda is released with an apology, and Ida wants to know who she is that she’s so important: She’s “Red Wanda,” a former star prosecutor in Communist show trials, now a Party insider. They’re going to go to Szydlow, the nearest city, to find Szymon Skiba in a hospital.

On the way they pick up a traveler named LIS, a saxophone player also going to Szydlow to play an all-weekend gig for the city’s anniversary. Wanda tries hinting that Ida and Lis should hook up. She’s intrigued enough to watch him play at his soundcheck.

They find Szymon’s flat, but a woman there says he is in the hospital, and once again they have to come back.

Wanda tries persuading Ida to come to the party with her; it is in the bar of their own hotel. Ida insists on staying in the hotel room to read the Bible.

When Wanda comes back to the room, with a guy following her, she drunkenly tries telling Ida she should not take her vows. They struggle over the Bible, and Ida leaves the room testily.

She hears Lis doing a sensuous Coltrane tune on saxophone, during the post-party jam, and goes downstairs to hear him, and joins him while he smokes afterward. She tells Lis the truth about why she is there (whereas she had lied to the priest!) but then says good-night.

Wanda and Ida go back to Szymon’s flat; when no one answers, Wanda tries forcing her way inside. For the second time, Ida steps outside when she feels Wanda is becoming too aggressive.

Wanda is so distraught she can hardly light her cigarette, so Ida says “Let’s go,” meaning, to the hospital.   (This is a major turning point I missed the first two times through, it’s so subtle: suddenly Ida takes control! Since old Szymon is in a hospital, which is a nun’s domain, and not a political judge’s, it’s a place where she is free to open doors at random till she finds Szymon. A midway turn, it comes at Minute 39 in an 82 minute film.)

Ida leads Wanda to SZYMON, who is old and wheezing in bed, and they question him. He admits to knowing Ida’s parents but turns mum when asked if he killed them. Wanda can’t resist asking him about “the boy.”

Wanda tells Ida that she had a son whom she trusted to Ida’s mother so that she could fight with the partisans (which naturally led to her post-war priveleges).

Now it’s Ida who puts Wanda to bed early, and the farm owner (Szymon’s son) comes to their hotel room door. He offers to show Ida where her parents are buried, in exchange for her agreeing to leave them alone – alone in ownership of the farm, of course. She agrees. (Here Ida, who has been pliant with both friend and foe throughout, declines to shake the owner’s hand, partly because one doesn’t touch a nun, but also because she is learning to pull rank on other Christians.)

Ida has a drink at the second night of the party where Lis is playing. She coyly finds him outside while he is smoking. She tells him she still plans to take her vows the following week. (And he delivers the sexiest line of the film, “You’ve no idea of the effect you have, do you?” To a nun!) They’ve got all the body language of two young people hot for each other.

Alone again, Ida looks at herself with her hair down.

In the morning, she says good-bye to Lis, and shakes his hand, at which point he awkwardly kisses her cheek.

In the morning, the farm owner takes them to the woods where he digs up the 18-year-old grave. They gather the bones in blankets, and the owner, crying in the ditch, tells Ida that he personally killed the three victims (her parents, plus Wanda’s son) but spared Ida because she could pass for a non-Jew. That’s when he dropped her off with the local priest. (Which implies that he was lying too when he when he said he didn’t know any Lebensteins.)

Back on the vodka, Wanda drives Ida all night to a city called Lublin, to a Jewish cemetery where they have a plot.

It’s dilapidated and overgrown, but the two women dig a grave and bury their loved ones. Ida still blesses herself with a sign of the cross.

On the car ride from the cemetery to the convent, the car and POV pass from shadow into light. Ida gets dropped off at the convent.

Back to her old routine, Ida is out of step with the other young nuns, and she finally decides she must postpone taking her vows. She watches her friend take her vows before Mother Superior, and cries.

Wanda, meanwhile, has taken to looking at the old photos of her extended Jewish family. She gets blotto and sleeps with another man (her third man of the film, each less attractive than the last). In the morning, she abruptly jumps out the window of her flat.

Ida comes – next of kin, she has apparently been notified. She listens to her aunt’s music – the record she was listening to when she jumped. Cleans. Sleeps in her aunt’s bed – can’t sleep, actually. Tries on her aunt’s clothes and lipstick, and tries smoking and drinking.

Ida attends the spartan, Communist funeral, not wearing a habit. Lis is there!

She attends Lis’ next gig. Now her hair is down, and she’s showing lots of collarbone. He teaches her to slow dance….and they have sex back at her aunt’s place. Lis invites her to join him: Come to his next gigs, maybe even get married.

In the morning, while he’s still sleeping, Ida puts her habit back on. She indulges in one last look back at him, and leaves him there. Back to the streetcar. Back to the country road to the convent, as the sky grows darker.


Like most screenwriters, I am a tad jealous on the morning after the Oscars, but more mystified by all the righteousness in the opinions about what the Academy should or shouldn’t have rewarded this time around. It’s not a national film academy with a public mandate, it’s a professional association obsessively protective of its own brand. As far as the two best screenplay awards go, I’m just glad to see them go to earnest writers rather than offered as consolation prizes to the loser in the best director or best film category.

Oh! Dessa!

Oh! Dessa!

I am, however, overwhelmingly jealous of the writers of tabloid headlines. I was born for that job! Reading Vladimir Putin’s self-serving comments about the U.S. and NATO’s double standards today, I muttered “Putin To O: ‘CRIMEA RIVER!’

They’re pun-happy and tasteless and veer hard to the Right, these tabloid writers. But the liberals who don’t admit to at least a little soft spot for their best work take themselves far too seriously – and might even do their own cause a disservice.


Spider Man Is Dead!

Much to tell in coming days about all the films I’ve seen during the pre-Awards season festival: that last month or so of the year and first few weeks of the next, when the cinema-going public matters a little, and revels in that relevance.

It’s the time of year when the industry tries to figure out who deserves the Academy Award® brand moniker, which has some bearing on home viewing sales and a handful of artists’ bankability, but first they have to get past the four women having movie night in Boston: Which one of them will say “Okay,” suck it up and watch a film a second time for the sake of group cohesion? Past the gay guy in Lawrence, Kansas trying to figure out which matinée to take his mother to. Past the theater owner in Pennsylvania who’s looking at the numbers wondering whether he can keep a screen for Dallas Buyers Club for another week.

Every year I swear I’m not going to get caught up in it – I’m a serious artist, after all! – but, like the Democratic Party, I end up a sucker for it every time. But that’s not what we’ll be raising our glasses for this afternoon when I visit my friend with his stack of S.A.G. DVD screeners. We’ll be toasting to last night’s closing of a Broadway show: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

“The producers and investors,” says the Times, “are expected to lose up to $60 million on the Broadway run, though they could still see some financial return if the show runs in Las Vegas and proves popular.” Go west, young man!

You can spend $75 million on play development for a comic book story that even people who never had a comic book phase, such as yours truly, already just know by osmosis. You can hire two of the best-selling (though not especially known for narrative) rock songwriters to write the lyrics. Disney could even buy Marvel Comics around this time, which it did. You can pair up Julie Taymor herself and a children’s TV writer, and it can still flop, and you might have to call in one of the writers of Glee, who currently has a musical adaptation of American Psycho up in London, to do his best to save your story.

Get back to where you once belonged.

Get back to where you once belonged.

True story digression: I was on a Chinatown bus about six years ago, and a 16-year-old Latina sits next to me. Her phone goes off, starting with an unmistakeable acoustic guitar riff: Bwim-BEEM! Beep-bip-bip-beep.”Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…” “Hola?” Where’d this girl come from, listening to John Lennon? And where was she when I was obsessed with that song when I was 16? Then I remembered the Julie Taymor film Across the Universe that had just come out.

I absolutely loathed it, but if it got the kids to listen to the Beatles for another decade, God bless. I have no such connection to Spider Man, so good-bye. I guess there were enough 16-year-olds in 2007 willing to drop ten dollars on a second viewing of a childish story with a cartoonish sense of history, but not enough families willing to drop $400 since 2011. It’s a good day for writers when a titanic production that put someone other than a writer in charge of the story finally sinks.