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Starting Small: Ten Notable Shorts That Became Features

Starting Small: Ten Notable Shorts That Became Features (photo)

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While some filmmakers spend their entire careers maximizing the succinct pleasures of the short film, others start out by making shorts that they hope will maximize their chances of becoming a feature film director. This week alone will see the feature debuts of two directors who have turned their short films into full-length one — Neill Blomkamp, whose 2005 socially conscious alien invasion tale “Alive in Joburg” has been turned into the Peter Jackson-produced “District 9,” and Paul Solet, whose 2006 horror short “Grace,” about a mother who refuses to give up on her miscarriage has morphed into a feature of the same name starring Jordan Ladd. Here’s a look at ten other notable shorts that got the full feature treatment.

“Bottle Rocket” (1992)
Directed by Wes Anderson

What’s another $4,000 after paying private school tuition? That was probably the pitch made by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson to their fathers, a year after the two met in a playwriting class at the University of Texas at Austin and decided to pen a script together about a trio of unlikely hoodlums. Similar to the clueless would-be criminals they created — Bob (Robert Musgrave), Anthony (Luke Wilson) and Dignan (Owen Wilson) — Anderson and Wilson scored the initial amount of cash that they asked for from their parents, but only wound up shooting eight minutes of 16mm footage before running out of funds. As a result, the Wilsons’ father contacted family friend and “Paris, Texas” screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson to see if the kids’ work had promise, which led to Carson finding enough money to finance the rest of the 13-minute short, as well as producer Barbara Boyle getting in touch with then-Gracie Films vice president Polly Platt. The short got into Sundance in 1993, and though the unusually rhythmic patter of the characters didn’t make much of an impression on audiences in Park City, it got the attention of Platt’s boss, James L. Brooks, who would ultimately bankroll the feature — which ironically was rejected by Sundance, though there’s no question who got the last laugh.

So What’s Different? Beyond an expansion of the plot, not a whole lot is different except for a jazzier score and that it’s shot in black-and-white.

“Sin City” (2005)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller

While it was never technically released as a short, Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel never would’ve happened without the film’s opening scene, which was made long before production started on the feature. That was partly because Rodriguez first wanted to get Miller’s blessing on the project, and figured there was no better way to do so than to show him some footage. So Rodriguez called up his “Faculty” star Josh Hartnett to star opposite Marley Shelton in an adaptation of Miller’s “The Customer is Always Right,” in which a monochromatic Hartnett plays an assassin hired to kill Shelton’s woman in red. On the film’s DVD commentary, Miller relates Rodriguez’s invitation to join him in Austin as they shot the scene, saying Rodriguez told him, “We’ll see how it works out. The worst possible thing is we’ll end up with a cool short little film and part ways. And you know, maybe you’ll agree to do this.” Ten hours later, the shoot was complete and Rodriguez got Miller’s yes. Afterward, the pair used the short to recruit actors for the film by listing their name in the accompanying credits, even if they hadn’t agreed to star in it yet.

So What’s Different? Not a thing.

“The Dirk Diggler Story” (1988)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

In the October 2008 issue of Esquire, writer John H. Richardson did a fairly exhaustive job of piecing together how a high school senior named Paul Thomas Anderson corralled his friends and family to make what would become the inspiration for his second feature, “Boogie Nights.” The gist: with his friend Michael Stein in the lead, Anderson was going to make a mockumentary about the well-endowed porn star Dirk Diggler, based on “Exhausted,” the documentary of real-life porn star John Holmes, featuring interviews with Reed Rothchild (later to be played by John C. Reilly) and a pampered porn producer played by character actor Robert Ridgely, who also had a role in the feature. (Ridgely was a friend of Anderson’s dad, Ernie, who had a prolific career as a TV announcer and would also lend his voice to his son’s short). The short so obsessed Anderson that he used a Diggler quote for his high school yearbook — saying “All I ever wanted was a cool ’78 ‘Vette and a house in the country.”

So What’s Different? Not as much as you’d think, given that Anderson was only 17 when he made it, though having been shot on video, the short doesn’t have Robert Elswit’s lush cinematography to convey a certain elegance to the otherwise déclassé subject matter. Though it’s crude in other ways as well, the general story remains the same, including Diggler’s drug problems and desire to become a musician, though he doesn’t survive a fatal overdose in the end.

“Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade” (1994)
Directed by George Hickenlooper

According to Billy Bob Thornton, this 1994 short shouldn’t be on this list, since he considers the full-length “Sling Blade” as an extension of a monologue he performed as part of his 1986 one-man play “Swine Before Pearls.” But that’s a bit of revisionist history, since Thornton and “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade” director George Hickenlooper had a falling out after production wrapped on the short about a simpleton who gets released from prison. Thornton has rarely discussed it since. In a 1997 interview with the L.A. Times, he said, “I would have been glad to have talked about the short if George hadn’t badmouthed me all over town,” shortly after he won an Oscar for best screenplay for the feature and MVP Home Entertainment, a video company looking to capitalize on the feature’s success, decided to release the short as a standalone video. Before all the bad blood set in, Hickenlooper and Thornton met after Thornton’s script for “One False Move” was produced and the director cast Thornton in a small part in the Civil War horror film “Ghost Brigade,” followed by a three-day shoot for “Some Folks” in the same Simi Valley hospital where “Terminator 2” was shot.

So What’s Different? For starters, the use of black-and-white skews the tone of the film and Thornton’s Karl Childers character towards a completely darker tone. Molly Ringwald plays a reporter who interviews the murderer on the day of his release in a role that was later inhabited by Kathy Sue Brown — the idea of the interview proved to be a leaping off point for the feature, which made Childers far more sympathetic.

“Peluca” (2003)
Directed by Jared Hess

Before he became Napoleon Dynamite, Jon Heder was Seth, an eccentric teen who comes to the rescue when his friend’s cousin gets a bad haircut, putting down his ninja books long enough to find the perfect wig. Heder actually was dabbling in animation when his BYU classmate Jared Hess cast him in the short, which was based in part on his childhood exploits in Preston, Idaho. With less than $500 and some black-and-white 16mm film stock, Hess and Heder went back to the land of potatoes to shoot the nine-minute short, which as Hess admits on the commentary track for “Peluca” on the “Napoleon Dynamite” special edition DVD looks especially grainy since he overexposed the film stock by accident. “Peluca” made a splash at Slamdance in 2003, a year before “Dynamite” would hit Sundance in 2004.

So What’s Different? Besides being shot in black and white, Pedro and his cousin Giel would be condensed into simply the Pedro character in the feature and Heder’s Seth would be rechristened “Napoleon Dynamite,” though Heder’s in full-on “Gosh…” mode in the short.

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The Break-Up

Watch Bill Hader and Other SNL Favorites Break Character

Catch Bill Hader on the new season of Documentary Now! premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: NBC/YouTube

Aw, Friday. A day of happy hours that begin at 4PM and “too rotten to miss” movies like Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey on IFC’s Rotten Fridays. A truly magical day where the possibilities are endless and the regrets are just around the corner. So as we partake in the pre-weekend, sit back and enjoy another gaggle of funny videos to run out the clock.

From a despondent croissant to unintended giggling on SNL, here are the five best videos of the week.

1. SNL Cast Breaks Up

Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels famously decries ad-libbing during the live runs — though with hilarious folks like Will Ferrell and Documentary Now!‘s Bill Hader, there are bound to be some unscripted moments that cause the cast to lose it during a sketch. Some of the greatest SNL moments involve the players or guests breaking character, as this compilation clearly shows. (Fortunately, the shame of ruining the scene has been replaced by video viralbility.)


2. Croissant Man

Pity the breakfast pastry, for its existential ennui is too much for this world. In this short courtesy of the NY Television Festival, our favorite light and flakey morning pal waxes melodramatically to his therapist and compatriots regarding the hopeless, Sartre-level gloom that hangs over every search for Life’s purpose. (Click here to see more great shorts from the NYTVF.)


3. That Time Ray Charles Beat Willie Nelson in Chess

For your guaranteed smile of the day, here’s the tale of a game of chess between crooners Ray Charles and Willie Nelson. Turns out ol’ Ray was a bona fide chess master on par with Bobby Fischer — or maybe he was just good at evening the field by making them play in the dark. As Willie puts it, “He kicked my ass three games in a row!”


4. Why Jump Scares Suck

Ever since primitive man leapt out of a bush to scare his friend, jump scares have been employed as a cheap and easy way to jolt your audience. As YouTuber Jack Nugent explains in the latest Now You See It video, it’s far more difficult to instill a growing sense of dread and suspense than just simply having a cat screech across the foreground of a dimly lit basement.


5. Best Supporting Weirdo

“Here’s to the crazy ones,” Steve Jobs famously said, paying homage to the oddballs and misfits who stand out from the pack and, more often than not, define their surroundings. In this rapid-fire supercut, some of our favorite nutjobs (like Beetlejuice, Cameron Frye and Death) are paid homage for keeping pop culture protagonists on edge and the audience entertained.

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Rotten Journey

5 Reasons Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey Is Too Rotten to Miss

Have an excellent time with Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey tonight at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

We live in an age of unimaginative sequels. Filmmakers know the easiest way to cash in is to trot out the same plot and characters and hope we don’t notice. Which is why what we need now more than ever is Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, airing tonight at 8P as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays.

Sure, the 1991 sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (coincidentally airing on IFC tonight at 6P before Bogus Journey) scored a meager 54% on the Rotten Tomatoes. (Even before the “Tomatometer” was a thing, Bogus Journey was the definition of a lackluster sequel.) But its mix of head-scratching craziness (Robots! Aliens! William Sadler as Death!) and solid gags (“You sunk my Battleship!”) have earned the flick a cult following among fans of oddball sequels. Before you tune in tonight, check out some reasons why Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey earns the coveted title of being one of IFC and Rotten Tomatoes’ movies that are “too rotten to miss.”

5. It’s Visually Most Triumphant.

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

The first movie may be a classic, but there’s no doubt the look of this scorned sequel took things to a whole other level. Instead of resting on Excellent Adventure‘s laurels, new director Peter Hewitt decided to go for broke creatively, offering up a vivid visual style that highlighted the film’s themes of life, death, failure and regret. While it may not be the popular opinion, there’s no doubt that as pure eye candy Bogus blew the first flick out of the water. Just ask Michael Wilmington, who wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Bogus Journey is better than the original: more imaginative, more opulent, wilder and freer, more excitingly visualized.” Righteous review, dude!


4. Evil Bill and Ted Robots? Excellent!

Bogus Journey robots
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Bill and Ted have to be two of the most loveable doofuses to ever grace the silver screen, so it shouldn’t come as a shock that seeing them go full-on bad guy is a real treat. The evil robot clones of Bill and Ted still have their sleepy-eyed, stoner outlook on life — they just also happen to be bad to the bone. This fun twist brings new life to the franchise, another example of how screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon really mixed things up. Plus, they rock!


3. Bill and Ted Go To Hell. Outstanding!

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

If Tim Burton ever directed a Freddy Krueger movie, it might end up looking something like Bill and Ted’s journey to Hell. While the sequence is righteously funny — with an unending descent into Hades going from terrifying to boring in the blink of an eye — it also has a dark, nightmarish quality that’s like an M.C Escher painting that knows your deepest, darkest secrets. Alex Winter’s turn as young Bill’s toothless “Granny Preston” wanting a kiss still gives us nightmares.


2. The Grim Reaper is Bodacious.

Bogus Journey
Orion Pictures

William Sadler, who’s played everything from a badass terrorist in Die Hard 2 to a loveable convict in The Shawshank Redemption, kills it as, well, Death. Heavily influence by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Sadler plays the Grim Reaper as a stoic force of nature who learns to loosen up thanks to some righteous new friends. The scene where Bill and Ted best him in a batch of board games may seem a bit broad at first blush, but what are Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esq. supposed to do? Play chess?


1. The Dudes Truly Become Wyld Stallyns.

Bogus Journey Wyld Stallyns
Orion Pictures

One of the few shortcomings from the most unrivaled first film is that we never really get to see the boys become rock legends. Thanks to some time traveling shortcuts — and a 16-month sabbatical of guitar lessons and baby making — Bogus Journey ends with the Wyld Stallyns finally living up to their righteous reputation, ready to make the music that will put an end to war and poverty and align the planets into universal harmony. Also, it’s excellent for dancing.

Catch Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey this Friday at 8P on IFC’s Rotten Fridays!

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Choose or Lose

The Funniest Political Comedies From the ’90s

Documentary Now! tackles '90s politics with "The Bunker," premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

While this election season seems like the greatest source of political comedy ever, it’s got nothing on the ’90s. During the original recipe Clinton Era, there were a large number of films that shined a light on the dark humor of politics.

As we gear up for the September 14th premiere of “The Bunker,” the season premiere episode of Documentary Now! that takes a look back at the tumultuous 1992 Ohio Governor race, let’s flashback to a simpler time when Donald Trump was just a rich guy happy to be in Home Alone 2. It was the time of flannel shirts, Beavis and Butt-head and politicians with their heads up their own butts. Grab some Crystal Pepsi and check out the funniest political comedies of the ’90s.

10. My Fellow Americans (1996)

Legendary actors James Garner and Jack Lemmon play two politically opposite ex-Presidents thrust together in an attempt to prove that the current President (played by Dan Aykroyd) is behind a bribery scandal that Lemmon’s Pres. Kramer is being framed for. My Fellow Americans was supposed to star Lemmon and his Grumpy Old Men costar Walter Matthau, who backed out of the project due to health problems. As great a duo as they were, James Garner seemed like the perfect choice for Pres. Douglas — with his natural Southern charm, his character is like an older Bill Clinton.


9. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)

The Distinguished Gentleman might be the last movie you would shout out if you were ever on Family Feud and “Eddie Murphy movies” was a category, but it’s still a fun comedy with Eddie bringing the cool factor that made him a huge star in the ’80s. Here Murphy plays a con man who decides to run for a Florida Congressional seat because he shares the same name as the congressman in his district up for re-election who just died of a heart attack. After getting the backing of a Florida seniors organization (the Silver Foxes), Murphy’s appropriately named Thomas Jefferson Johnson runs as the “name you know” and ends up winning. He starts out buying into the idea of “playing the game” in order to get paid by lobbyists but eventually ends up changing his con-man ways. Hey, it’s a ’90s Eddie Murphy comedy. Things tended to work out in Eddie’s favor.


8. Black Sheep (1996)

The second buddy road trip comedy starring Chris Farley and David Spade suffers from being compared to the much funnier Tommy Boy, but there are still some hilarious moments here. Farley, in one of his final roles, plays Mike Donnelly, a well-meaning but goofy mess who manages to repeatedly muck up his brother’s campaign for Governor. Casting Tim Matheson, of Animal House fame, as the smarter and handsomer brother was a great choice and Farley and Spade get into plenty of shenanigans including encountering Gary Busey as a crazed Vietnam Vet. The scene where Farley takes the stage at a “Rock the Vote” concert will have you snorting Crystal Pepsi out of your nose.


7. The American President (1995)

Before he created The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin honed his presidential speech writing skills with the screenplay for The American President, a romantic comedy where Michael Douglas’ single Prez romances Annette Bening’s plucky environmental lobbyist. Directed by rom-com master Rob Reiner, the movie is loaded with sweet and funny moments, like when Pres. Shepherd (Douglas) calls Sydney (Bening) to ask her out the first time and she hangs up thinking it’s a prank call. We even get a sneak peek of President Bartlett, as Martin Sheen turns up as Shepherd’s no-nonsense his Chief-of-Staff. Sorkin claims he wrote the screenplay during a time when he smoked a crack. If that’s the case, every screenwriter should be give that method a try.


6. Wag the Dog (1997)

Before Dustin Hoffman joined Robert De Niro’s “circle of trust” in Meet the Fockers, the legendary actors co-starred in the David Mamet-scripted dark comedy Wag the Dog. You can’t capture the era of ’90s politics better than a film dealing with the cover-up of a Presidential sex scandal. Oddly, the movie actually came out before Monica Lewinsky and her dress entered the minds of Americans. Today, the plot of Wag the Dog might be an episode of Scandal, but if you look back to 1997, it was a biting political satire of what goes on behind-the-scenes of power and politics. De Niro plays D.C. spin-doctor Conrad Bean, who hires a Hollywood producer to stage a fake war in Albania as a distraction to help insure the President’s re-election. In a stellar cast that also includes Anne Heche and Woody Harrelson as a psychotic ex-soldier turned war hero, Hoffman stands out as a Hollywood bigwig who has a strong resemblance to Godfather producer Robert Evans. (Look for Bill Hader’s take on Evans in the new season of Documentary Now!.)


5. Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty was born with the looks of a guy who should run for Senate, and in Bulworth he plays a veteran senator who has lost his way and hires a hit man to kill him. Faced with his impending death, Senator Bulworth has an almost religious conversion to honesty and starts railing against the corruption of corporate money in politics. (We imagine Bernie Sanders has this one in his Netflix queue.) Like a lot of ’90s movies comedies, there is a gimmicky scene where Bulworth raps during a speech. Still, the film is so sharply written, the scene is both hilarious and a prescient look at the way white establishment types would go on to co-opt hip-hop culture.


4. Bob Roberts (1992)

If you love a good mockumentary with conservative folk songs (who doesn’t?), Bob Roberts is the movie for you. Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in this underrated comedy, which was inspired by a SNL sketch he had appeared in a few years earlier. Bob Roberts is a folk-singing, conservative self-made millionaire running for Congress in Pennsylvania who appears to be 100% All-American. Robbins is great at using his wholesome grin to mask the fact that his character is a drug smuggling tyrant with fits of rage. Look for everyone from Alan Rickman as Roberts’ campaign manager to a young Jack Black (see above) as a scarily enthusiastic fan.


3. Dick (1999)

Before the Watergate scandal informant was revealed, there were plenty of theories over the years as to who “Deep Throat” really was. The 1999 comedy Dick posits a possible alternate history of Nixon’s downfall as it follows two adorably upbeat and politically clueless teenage girls (energetically played by Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) who randomly become “Tricky” Dick’s dog walkers after ending up meeting him on a White House field trip. Over the course of the rollicking disco-fied comedy the girls come in contact with every player in the infamous White House scandal, including a hilarious Woodward and Bernstein, played by Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch of Kids in the Hall fame. (The duo’s ’70s hair alone is worth watching for.) Dan Hedaya is perfectly cast as Nixon, showcasing a softer side of the infamous president after he unwittingly eats some pot cookies. An underrated comedy, Dick is a blast of ’70s fun and a great showcase for its cast of rising stars.


2. Dave (1993)

Dave is a classic everyman-turned-hero story with a winning Kevin Kline as an affable guy who just happens to be a dead-ringer for the leader of the free world. When Pres. Mitchell has a stroke while fooling around with his mistress, his Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) hatches a plan to temporarily have Kline’s Dave fill in for the President. Langella and Kline are great together, and the scene where Dave calls his accountant friend (played by Charles Grodin) to come over to the White House and balance the budget is just one of the sharp ways director Ivan Reitman and screenwriter Gary Ross (Big) poke fun at politics. Look for Sigourney Weaver, reteaming with Reitman after the Ghostbusters movies, as the First Lady who slowly begins to realize something is off about her Husband-in-Chief.


1. Election (1999)

If you think national politics is cutthroat, just wait until you meet high school president candidate Tracy Flick. Tracy, as played by Reese Witherspoon, is like a teenage version of Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, but without the likeable personality. Mathew Broderick hits all the right notes as the teacher who starts off being respected but finds his whole life falling apart while overseeing the election. A dark comedy that shows the downside of driven political candidates, Election is a film that remains topical with every new voting season.

Watch MTV’s Tabitha Soren covering the heated 1992 Ohio Governor race below. To find out who wins, catch the season premiere of Documentary Now! September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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