Short or long, there are only good and bad films
April 9, 2002
Filmmaker John McKay has never seen short films as simply a requisite stepping stone toward the promised land of the feature-length movie.Instead, the Scottish-born McKay has viewed the shorts medium as holding the potential for short bursts of artistry.”I think if you only have features in mind, and only see the short as a calling card, you will make a bad film,” he said. “There aren’t short films and long films, there are only good and bad films.”The 37-year-old McKay has spent a good amount of his time making short films. A graduate of Britain’s National Film School, McKay has made nine shorts. Several of those have been very good: “Wet and Dry” is a stylish comedy about a 5,000-year-old mummy who comes back to life and looks to cure a horrific dry-skin condition.The 25-minute “Favourite” is an involved examination of the difficulties in a multifaceted relationship between a schoolgirl and her teacher, a sophisticated woman. Aspen Shortsfest, which opens today and runs through Sunday, will feature a retrospective of McKay’s shorts. The retrospective, which includes “Wet and Dry” and “Favourite” and two additional McKay-directed shorts and will be followed by a discussion with McKay and producer Lee Thomas, is set for Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.As much as McKay has been devoted to shorts, however, the prospect of directing a feature film was always somewhere in his mind. “It’s like moving from the camp stove to a fully equipped kitchen,” he said about the move from shorts to features.McKay seems to have made the transition to features a successful one. McKay’s feature-length debut, “Crush,” will be screened tonight at 9, with McKay and Thomas – who produced the film, his first feature – in attendance. The film opened several weeks ago in New York, and in Los Angeles last weekend, and has already created a positive buzz. “Crush” was the centerpiece of a story about female friendships that appeared on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times two Sundays ago.”Rare indeed is a movie that portrays the anxieties and joys of single women in their 40s as John McKay’s ‘Crush’ does,” wrote reviewer Molly Haskell. “Even rarer is the movie that penetrates the surface of that camaraderie and looks unblinkingly at its darker side.”The film stars Andie MacDowell as a 40-something schoolteacher having an affair with an ex-student. Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor play fellow single women, friends of MacDowell’s Kate, who nevertheless attempt to prevent the affair from getting more serious.McKay found almost every aspect – from financing to fitting the shooting into his life to the artistry involved – of making “Crush” to be a wholly different experience than making his shorts. When making a short, said McKay, you put your life on hold and focus on the movie for a few weeks, an impossibility with a feature film, which can take years to make. (McKay began the process of making “Crush” five years ago, when he was asked to adapt his play of the same name for the screen.) As far as financing goes, McKay went from seeking to borrow cameras and contributions of film stock to trying to raise large sums of money. (“Crush” cost approximately $6 million.) About the only similarity between shorts and feature films, said McKay, is that “the quality of begging is the same.”And in their creative substance, said McKay, shorts and features shouldn’t even be considered as the same medium. “It’s an illusion that the two are the same medium,” he said. “A short, at its best, is like a poem. You only need one or two ideas for a short. For a feature, you need more ideas to sustain the audience’s attention and tell them the story.”Much to his surprise, McKay enjoyed the making of “Crush.” Despite the years between writing the screenplay, getting the project fast-tracked, actually shooting the film and finally seeing it released, McKay found himself pleased with the process. “This is a marvel to me. Because most people making their first feature report that it’s a horrific experience. I was expecting to be fired, or die of a heart attack,” said McKay, who grew up in a fishing village on the east coast of Scotland and says that his inspiration to make films was “growing up in a fishing village on the east coast of Scotland.” If there was one thing that McKay learned from making his shorts that he has applied to his first feature, it is writing female characters. After having made a handful of shorts, McKay realized he had never created a central female role. This is no small point: “Favourite,” McKay’s most involved short, is directly about female relationships, as is “Crush.” The mummy in “Wet and Dry” is female, as is the lead character in the four-minute “The Price,” which is also included in the retrospective program.”Some way, through the shorts, I realized I’d never written a strong, central female character,” said McKay. “And then I began to make short films about women. I’m going through my girl phase.”Now that McKay appears on the verge of a successful career in feature films, his attention, of course, is on … shorts.”Now, with the experience of having made a feature, I find myself wanting to make a short,” said McKay. “As I wait for my next project to get lined up, I’m sitting around thinking, ‘I’d like to get out and shoot.’ As the work gets bigger, the waits between projects get longer.”The 11th annual Aspen Shortsfest opens today, with a special free community program at 12:30 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House. The program includes seven films, all made by local filmmakers, as part of Aspen Shortsfest’s Local Filmmakers Category. The films were made under the theme “Bringing Heroes to Life.”Shortsfest continues this evening with an opening reception at 5 p.m. at the Wheeler, followed by the first shorts program. “Crush” will be screened at 9 p.m. tonight.Shortsfest continues in Aspen through Saturday, with daily evening and nighttime shorts programs and such special features as “9/11 Filmmakers Respond,” a program devoted to the Sept. 11 attacks; the forum The Collaborative Process, moderated by film journalist Bob Fisher and featuring filmmakers and cinematographers; Allen Daviau on E.T., with the cinematographer Daviau reflecting on the making of “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”; and the kids-oriented ScreenPlay! Closing night will feature a conversation with Todd Field and Serena Rathbun, the husband-and-wife team behind the recent Academy Award-nominated feature “In the Bedroom.”Shortsfest will also include a downvalley program at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre Friday through Sunday.For a full Shortsfest program, including times, dates and titles, see the special supplement in this edition of The Aspen Times.