10 Tips on Turning Your Short Film Into a Feature

The last five years for first-time feature director Gillian Robespierre have been pretty amazing — she managed to develop her  small short feminist romantic comedy into the award-winning feature, “Obvious Child,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, was later acquired by A24 Films for national distribution and became an indie sensation when it was released this summer.

Yesterday on a panel at IFP Independent Film Week, Robespierre and “Obvious Child” producer Elisabeth Holm spoke about the process of adapting Robespierre’s short into a feature.

“It was an introduction to a whole new world of ‘Obvious Child’ because it is so different than the short; the heart is still there, the beginning, middle, and end are still there, but everything around it that makes it the feature is nothing like the short, and it was really exciting to participate in and manipulate that brilliant transformation,” said Robespierre.

Robespierre and the film’s producer Elisabeth Holm shared the following 10 tips for filmmakers who want to turn their short into a feature:

1. Meet people who like your film.

“Mixers in general seem to be a little awkward, but I went and I had a lot of wine and a lot of sliders! Liz and I started talking about growing up in New York — we gravitated towards each other without discussing films or why we were at IFP — we were talking like regular human beings who happened to make films and that led to a more legitimate film/dinner/date where we solidified the idea of doing a feature ‘Obvious Child.’” – Gillian Robespierre

READ MORE: IFP Independent Film Week Is Not Just for Filmmakers Anymore.

2. Hunt for grants.

“It was very encouraging for me what people has said about the short film, so I applied for several grants and finally got one from Rooftop Films, which actually led me to IFP.” – Robespierre

3. Keep hunting for grants.

“We got a very cool grant from the San Francisco Film Society that gave us the opportunity to participate in Off the Page. They flew us [and cast members] Jenny Slate, Gaby Hoffman and Jake Liebman out to do a table reading and workshop of the script. We got to run through the bullet point list of things that Jenny would discuss on stage. She would improvise them and we would record them, and [Robespierre] really incorporated them into the rewrite. it was the first real rehearsal other than during production on set.” – Elisabeth Holm

READ MORE: Sundance Review: “Obvious Child” Takes on Love, Abortion, and Stand-Up Insecurity

4. Get your story in front of as many people as possible.

“I also learned how to get your short out there. When you put it on Vimeo, that doesn’t mean you’re going to get 40,000 hits. It also doesn’t mean that all the great blogs out there are just going to pick it up — we wrote to them, and the editors, and the people who write articles that we really like, and said ‘Hey we made this movie!’ I think that helped tremendously when we were going into the feature. And we had a short to show which was excellent for our Kickstarter Campaign.” – Robespierre

5. Kickstarter, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.

Following up on point No. 4, given that Robespierre already had a short film to share, Kickstarter was an ideal way to raise funds for a feature. The campaign for “Obvious Child” exceeded its $35,000 goal. But crowdfunding didn’t only help financially. It also helped to get the word out about the film.

6. Work with close friends.

“We don’t have any barriers between professionalism and friendship. I think Gillian and Jenny [Slate] are incredibly trusting and respectful of each other and each others voices — the way they are similar is really beautiful. However, in a lot of ways the boundaries of roles are very fluid; there are things that I do that are directorial and things that [Robespierre] does that are producorial and we both write. Making a project is intensely collaborative. With collaboration comes the grey area of roles not being perfectly clear. I think we all have similar voices in the piece, but we also challenge each other and are not afraid to disagree. I think we are really lucky.” – Holm

7. Use your actors personalities to develop your characters.

“In the short, Jenny’s character is a freelancer. She doesn’t have a job, and so while writing more and for Jenny’s feature role it felt natural to make her character a stand-up comedian, especially since that is who she is in real life. When [Hoffman] and [Liebman] were signed on before we got equity, we basically wrote their characters for them!” – Holm

8. Be ‘fun-to-run’ people who meet every weekend to work on the script.

“We are both fun-to-run people who don’t like idle time. We both, at the time, had day jobs. Our relationship oganically grew into what it is now from the Saturday summetime meetings and making the consensual decision that this is what we wanted to be doing, making this film. We didn’t want to go to barbecues, we wanted to make this movie and we weren’t lazy about it. We both had crazy work ethic. We would meet on weekends and even email throughout work days!” – Robespierre

9. Keep your feature simple and concise.

“Yes, we were maniacs working sixteen hour days, but we kept it simple. We weren’t taking on anything we couldn’t do and I think with telling our story we were just trying to keep it genuine and true to our motto. With every trick in filmmaking — it’s not really a trick, it’s something that someone else has done before that we followed the lead of. We learned from films and filmmaking styles that came before us.” – Robespierre

10. When you finally complete your feature, remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect.

“While there are some known actors in it, I am a totally unknown person, first time director here. [For Sundance] we wanted it to be polished — with sound, color, for every song to be perfectly mixed- that is how we were going to apply. But we learned as we went that we didn’t really need to have a polished film, we just needed a really good edit, time to tell a story and to get the jokes right — not to overload the first act with so many fart jokes — but to bring fresh eyes to the edit to ensure that it was tweaked in all the right places.” – Robespierre