LAST WEEK, Peter Chelsom took the trophy for Most Promising Newcomer at the London Evening Standard Film Awards. It was a popular decision, since Chelsom's idiosyncratic comedy / romance Hear My Song was that rarest of British birds, a crowd-pleaser that also managed to be a critic-tickler. Pedants, however, could justly have claimed that Chelsom was not qualified for the category of Newcomer, since Hear My Song was not in fact his first film. To be precise, he made his debut a couple of years ago, with a rather more acerbic comedy set in Blackpool and entitled Treacle. Why, then, did the judges give the laurels to Hear My Song rather than Chelsom's first film, which he describes as 'much closer to me than Hear My Song'? Baffling: unless it had something to do with the fact that Treacle's running time is a trim 11 minutes.
The point might seem no more than a quibble, were it not that more and more young British directors are starting to follow precisely the same career trajectory as Peter Chelsom - that is to say, making a short film with high production values and then using it as a kind of calling card, something to assure potential backers that they know what they are doing. Mark Herman took his short film Unusual Ground Floor Conversion to Disney and persuaded them to back his first feature Blame It on the Bellboy; Sue Clayton, after the warm critical reception of her debut short, Heart Songs, is now in pre-production on a full-length, pounds 1m-plus feature to be shot in Eire and Scandinavia.
What's more, many of these directors have also managed to wheedle, charm or bully cinema managements into giving their shorts a proper theatrical showing, and so brought about a slight return to traditional programming, in which no night at the pictures was complete without, at the very least, a Look at Life. Heart Songs was shown with Terence Davies's The Long Day Closes; Unusual Ground Floor Conversion went out with The Tall Guy; Louis Malle's humid Damage has just gone on release escorted by Carl Prechezer's The Cutter at a number of venues. And from 17 February, London's Prince Charles Cinema will be adopting the policy of showing new British shorts with each of its main features.
In common with many other revivals and renaissances, the Return of the Short is due as much to economic as to cultural factors. Treacle, Heart Songs, The Cutter and the others were all commissioned over the last six years by British Screen in association with Channel 4, which has screened them season by season under the generic title Short and Curlies. The reasoning is simple enough. Since it is heart-breakingly difficult for anyone to break into what is left of the British Film Industry, why not spread the budget of a single feature among five or six neophyte teams and thereby quintuple or sextuple the number of openings each year?
Stephen Cleary, Acting Head of Development at British Screen, elaborates: 'We have an annual development budget of about pounds 500,000, and about 30 per cent of that goes on funding shorts - a minimum of five, a maximum of eight or nine a year. Once you've added in the money from Channel 4, this means that the Short and Curlies films are without question the most expensive shorts that are being made in this country, with an average budget of around pounds 70,000 to pounds 100,000 each. We try as far as possible to simulate the conditions of producing features - they're fully crewed, shot on 35mm and with no sacrifice of quality.'
The film-makers who have had the chance to make a Short and Curly seem to agree that the policy is an inspired one, though their reasons can be as varied as their films. For Peter Chelsom, the 'calling card' aspect of Treacle was as tricky as it was important: 'If you start out to make these things just as an ambitious move, it's the wrong way - I made Treacle because I passionately wanted to. But because I hadn't been to film school or anything - I'd worked as a photographer and an actor, and made it my business to find out a lot about film-making - making Treacle was an essential part of persuading people that I was able to direct.
'I don't want to sound like I'm crawling to Channel 4 or British Screen, but it really is a fantastic beginning to go straight into shooting on 35mm and with that level of production values and so on. For someone like me, who wanted to by- pass television entirely, it's really the best possible way of starting.'
For Sue Clayton, the main opportunity in Heart Songs was the training it offered, and particularly the chance to think in feature film terms: 'It seems ironic that Heart Songs was billed as my first film, because it was actually something like my 17th, but all the others were documentaries or television dramas or whatever. Heart Songs was my first chance to work in 35mm and to think in terms of the depth that features can have - not just depth of character, but depth of image too. It gives you a different sense of place - we shot it all on location in Ontario - and of the relationship of characters to that place. For example, I'd been used to doing close-ups that fill the screen, but in 35mm you suddenly have to take account of the fact that with a close-up two-thirds of the screen is still wide open . . .'
Sue Clayton also stresses that she had already been discussing a first feature with Channel 4 before she made Heart Songs, so the 'calling card' aspect of the short had not originally been so significant for her as it was for others. Even so, it unexpectedly took on just that dimension when it was shown as part of a 'First Films' package in America: 'Suddenly you found yourself in New York and Los Angeles talking to Jim Jarmusch's producer, Hal Hartley's producer, Paul Schrader's producer and they're all saying 'Let's make movies . . .' '
Short and Curlies has yielded other success stories: James Hendrie's Work Experience (starring Lenny Henry) won an Oscar for best short film, and Peter Cattaneo was nominated in the same category for Dear Rosie; Philip Ridley went on from The Universe of Dermot Finn to The Reflecting Skin; and Peter Chelsom is now turning down Hollywood offers by the week as he prepares to make his second feature over here. It's not surprising that British Screen and Channel 4 are being deluged by scripts from optimistic outsiders - Stephen Cleary says that there are more than 1,000 submissions every year, and the figure is rising.
What makes the difference, then, between the half-dozen or so which are eventually filmed and the 994-odd which aren't? Stephen Cleary suggests that, though it's hard to set exact rules, he and his colleagues are looking for ideas which are more like features in miniature than short stories, and that the conventional Saki / O Henry twist-in-the-tale tends to be frowned on. Peter Chelsom agrees:
'I don't think a short film should be a short story. If you think of the standard feature-length film as being a prose narrative like a novel, then a short film is a poem. It doesn't have to have a literal, literary beginning, middle and end, but it does have to have an emotional circle. In other words, at the risk of sounding pretentious, you could say that it's like a sonnet - it has to have an emotional structure that's satisfying. And that doesn't have to mean a happy end, or a twist, or a Tale of the Totally Bloody Predictable.' In other words, wit need not always be the soul of brevity. Yet, as long as the British cinema continues to bump along the bottom of recession, it does seem as if the best way for our aspiring film-makers to think big is to start by thinking short.
Short and Curlies at the Prince Charles: Box-office: 071-494 4687
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