Behind the Work is a series by Filmsupply that brings you lessons from leading creatives where they share essential techniques they bring to their work. All shot from their own homes or studios, Behind the Work, brings you an entirely new set of skill sets that you can put into practice to grow in your craft.
On this episode of Behind the Work, Director and founder of Neighborhood Film Company, Ricky Staub, breaks down how he used a short film as his proof of concept to create his first-ever feature film. Read to learn the steps Ricky took to make his work stand out.
My name is Ricky Staub, and I am the founder of Neighborhood Film Company. This last year, I got to direct my first feature film. I hit up one of my mentors, someone that I worked for a long time; Sam Mercer. He’s produced films for Sam Mendes, M. Night Shyamalan, and Steven Spielberg. He said, “Well, first of all, it’s very different to tell a story in 60 seconds, then it is to captivate an audience for 2 hours.” I was making commercials that were interview-based for corporate clients. A lot of really cool work for me but, nothing that I felt that could perfectly transition me into making a feature.
While a lot of commercial work taught me everything I know and gave me a real handle on my craft, it wasn’t a true expression of my voice and my heart. So, I asked Sam “what do I need to do?” He told me that I needed to make an unforgettable short film, a short film could be just as powerful as a feature film, if it contained three really important pieces.
What are the three keys to a great short?
First, it needs to be unforgettable. When someone watches it, it lingers in their mind. That’s something unique about the texture, the tone, the voice of the filmmaker that makes them want to tell other people about it. Thousands of short films get made every year. So, what unique piece of your voice are you going to let the world into?
Second, you need to make sure that you can prove to executives or producers like Sam that you know how to work with actors. When our short film The Cage was finished and it went out into the world, something that was really impressive to people was that not only was the acting really strong, but it was performances from people that had never actually professionally acted before.
So, what this did is instill confidence in people that were going to put money behind me as a director. It also instilled confidence in actors I was meeting with that I could actually work with them and pull out pretty great performances.
The third piece that’s really important is that you need to make sure that the short film has an A, B, and C part to the story. Sam felt that a lot of short films lacked an arc. They’re a really beautiful scene, a slice of life, lyrical or visual. But, it didn’t convey to an executive, a production company, or a producer that this storyteller knew the story. If you’re like me and you’ve made commercials for a really long time, you know what it’s like. You can cut corners, do cool tricks and have really cool edits that make you feel something, but you only need the audience to feel something for 60 seconds. Sustaining that feeling for 2 hours is much harder.
So how did The Cage get attention?
What really helped is we didn’t have a million views, but we had the right views. People were sharing the film and making other people watch it. So for instance in my story, we had one of our producers on the short. Her name is Stacy, she’s a location manager. She actually shared the film with two producers, Jeff Waxman and Jen Madeloff. She went ahead and sent the film to them in an email and said “Hey, I really want you guys to watch this film. Super proud of it. It’s only 14 minutes long. Please watch it.” As she tells the story, she got an email back from Jeff that said “Really nice.”
Now, if you’ve seen The Cage, you know that you can’t watch it and say it was nice. She actually ended up calling him and said, “No, I need you to sit down. I need you to actually watch this film.” Jeff apologized and said, “I’m sorry. I was on a plane. I didn’t have good reception. It wouldn’t play and I forgot about it.” Had she not actually followed up and called Jeff to watch it, he would have never watched it. His response when he did watch the short was “I need to meet these filmmakers.” Now Jeff, Jen, and Stacy have gone on to actually help produce my first feature film.
Describe the importance of the people you meet.
The relationships that you make along the way are so important. Not just important for your soul, for your own person, for having good friends but, for over ten years, I worked in the industry, not as a director. I made some really lasting beautiful relationships. By the time that I finally directed something and sent it off to other people, I had advocates. I had people that cared about me as a friend. I had people that cared about me professionally, and they were willing to not only watch the film but also share it with other professionals.
Were you always planning on making a feature?
I think the best weapon that you can have if you’ve made a great short film is having a feature script or two. I actually suggest having two really strong feature scripts. If you are a director that doesn’t write, then I suggest you immediately find a gem of a writer, partner up with them and write, write, write — and write some more. Being a director that’s attached to the script as a creator can be one of the most important pieces to watch, from making a short film to making a feature film. Certainly, it’s not the only way to go about it, but we have found a lot of success in meetings when working with producers and working with our agent.
Being the actual creators of content and the actual creators of the script lends us a lot more power in a room. It lends us a lot more power to get product generated. As a director, it gives you a lot more power to convince someone that you are the best person to see it through because you are actually connected to the origin of the material. For instance, if you’re a first-time director and you have a really great script that you found and love, but you didn’t actually make it — in the eyes of a financier, in the eyes of a production company, in the eyes of an actor, there’s a gap now: do you understand the script as much as we understand the script? They’re evaluating something different versus they fall in love with you as a creator on the page, it makes sense then for you to be the director that finishes this project through.
How important are visuals when you pitch?
I never knew how much I’d be using Photoshop, how much I’d be using Illustrator, how much I’d be using Lightroom, and all these different coloring programs to try to make really beautiful PDFs, and make sure that the vision that’s in my head looks good on a PDF. It has benefited me greatly to be able to put together a really beautiful presentation that is representative of the film that I see. The best-case scenario — even something that just wins the day — is when they’re scrolling through that email and they say, “this filmmaker, this writer/director, clearly has a strong vision.”
What goes into convincing people to believe in you?
We had two very strong projects that we were presenting to people, and one of them was Concrete Cowboys. We partnered up with some really beautiful producers, we got a really awesome agent and Concrete Cowboys was getting circulated everywhere. Then, I had the opportunity to meet actor Idris Elba and that whole project came together from one phone call. We didn’t even meet in person the first time that we made a connection. Like I was saying, just being on that phone call and making sure that you can be passionate, sell your story as a filmmaker, and make sure that they can really understand your heart and vision for the peace — even over a phone call — is so important. Do they believe in you in that meeting? Really in a lot of ways, you’re winning your job in that room, you’re winning that job on that phone call. If you’re terrified to be in a room and share your story, I would take classes. I would practice in the mirror. I would literally script out how you’re going to do it and memorize it, whatever works for you.
I think it’s really important to be personable and treat all those meetings as though this is your shot to seal the deal. Even on a phone call, I try to imagine that if this is the only shot that I get with a producer or an actor, does my voice contain the energy, excitement, and passion around this project that they need to make them feel good about the decision?
How crucial was an agent during all of this?
We have been fortunate to sign with a really strong agent that we love. What actually makes him great is that he thinks and acts like a producer. He is most effective when we’re giving him things to produce. We’re giving him great scripts and building great material. We’re having great meetings. We’re always deploying our hard work into his hands, versus a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that an agent or manager is actually going to break their career. While an agent and manager will do that, I think it’s actually a byproduct of people that are creating beautiful work already.
Any final thoughts for those wanting to make a feature?
Make sure that you treat your short film the same way that you treat your feature film. If you make it a project that happens on the weekends, it’s something that’s flippant — everyone working on it for free is going to treat it flippantly. If you are putting all your heart, soul, passion, and your own money into the project, everyone else is going to come alongside you. In my mind, I wanted the cage to be a home run. I wanted it to be unforgettable. I wanted it to have incredible acting. I wanted it to have a full arc, as much as I could in 14 minutes. I wanted it to be full. If you’re not swinging for the fences, why are you even swinging the bat? I think it’s really important when you go to make a short, why would you spend money, why would you spend time on making something that isn’t going to be in your mind, in your hopes, in your dreams are home run?