Interview: Eve Edelson, Short Films and Festivals

DSC_0365-cropped-shrunkEve Edelson’s short films have played in festivals and she has crewed on feature films. She directed and produced her own scripts, and her short film “Shelter” won the East Bay Express Indie Scream Fest judges’ award in 2013. Additionally, Performers Under Stress produced her play “Scamoramaland” in San Francisco, Fall 2013. Eve was a member of my screenwriting group, and always had high quality feedback and insight.

Justin Sloan: I still remember the funny moment in our critique group when a new member pointed you out and said you were a big deal, and then she was surprised to see you come to our table. It’s best to start off by embarrassing you, right? Can you tell us about your short films and the journey you’ve taken? Where did your interest in making short films come from and what were the steps you took in the early days?

Eve Edelson: Ha! my ego thanks you. I’m very flattered to be a subject of your interview.

I didn’t go into film right out of school, I was mostly involved in theater. Although I’ve shot a lot of film over the years, I didn’t get back to serious filmmaking until about six years ago when I signed up for a video editing class. To have material to edit, I grabbed a friend and a coffin and made a short film called “Insomnia,” about a vampire with noisy neighbors. It was in black and white, no dialog, and the whole story popped into my mind like a comic book. It felt like coming home.

I kept making short films, partly because the ideas keep coming to me pretty much full-blown, because they get into festivals, and because I can make them. It can take years to get a theater to take on a play, or to get a screenplay greenlit by a studio. I don’t need anyone’s approval to make a short film. [The evolution of the tools helped. In college I shot 16mm and edited with a blade. Digital video rocked my world.]

The journey has partly involved a shift in my writing from the wordiness of my stage plays to the ‘show it’ aesthetic of film, and partly it’s been an education in production. Especially, being my own editor has alerted me to the consequences of my writing choices.

JS: When you are putting together a film, where do you start?

EE: I have to envision the whole thing to decide if I can go ahead. I daydream and storyboard. [A storyboard is optional – it just helps me think. My storyboards are not as polished as yours! I have a decent handle on stick figures.] Based on the storyboard, I make a shot list – building in coverage, and multiple takes, and time for crew set up, makeup and costume, meal breaks and set photography and everything. This exercise yields a number of days, and thus personnel costs, and thus a rough budget. Then I say “Yikes!” and re-write. Rinse, lather, repeat. That’s how I start.

Note – for a bigger film, with a really big budget, and for which you may seek big investors, you would get a producer to do a breakdown and a budget that folds in everything – overtime, workmen’s comp, union rules, contingency, legal, insurance.

JS: How do you go about finding film festivals to submit to and deciding which ones are a good fit for your film?

EE: Since my films have mostly been ‘genre’ — horror/fantasy — those are the festivals I’ve targeted. Some are well-known like Shriekfest or Toronto After Dark. Others can be found by browsing Film Freeway or Withoutabox. Some members of filmmaking groups I belong to run their own festivals and solicit entries. There’s a Facebook group – probably more than one – where festivals solicit entries. Many ‘mainstream’ festivals have added a horror category but I have no sense of whether they’re seriously interested in it or just want to attract the submissions.

My stuff wouldn’t fit a slasher or grind house festival, so I look at what a festival programmed in the past. I like to know how many years the festival has been running, and who’s on the judges’ panel, and – seriously – if whoever wrote the description can compose a sentence. It may or may not make sense to pay for expensive delivery formats, depending on the exposure you think the festival will provide.

Fan conventions often have film festivals and have been generous to me. There are also traveling festivals, such as Etheria and Geekfest – you apply once and they try to slate your film at other festivals. [My film “Shelter” was in the Etheria tour in 2013.] Also see if the festival offers networking possibilities. Cash prizes make a festival more attractive! But most of all, try to get your film in front of enthusiastic audiences. There are lots of smaller film events with a constant appetite for material. These are people who really want to see your film.

JS: Can you tell us more about your experience with film festivals? Do you have any cool stories you can share?

EE: Scream Fest was great. It’s run by the East Bay Express newspaper in Oakland. The last year I had a film in it, 2013, it was at The New Parish club, with Jamie De Wolf (“Tourettes Without Regrets”) MC’ing the awards, and live burlesque re-enactments of scenes from classic horror films. The atmosphere was high-energy, yet intimate – a chance to meet other filmmakers. Winning the judges’ award was a kick and the money helped with production costs.

I’ve also attended the Etheria Film Night in LA. This is a festival for women in ‘genre’ film. There’s a red carpet shindig, screenings, an award ceremony and parties. I’ve gone twice and it’s been worth the trip both times just to meet other women filmmakers. I salute the organizers for their huge efforts to promote women filmmakers.

JS: Sounds like some amazing times! Let’s step back to the writing process. How did you learn to write and what do you do to continue to improve your craft?

EE: I learned to write by writing and rewriting, starting when I was old enough to scribble. I read voraciously – books, plays, screenplays, graphic novels, newspapers, journals. I’ve never taken a writing course, beyond English classes in school. I don’t know if I’d have the patience, but I don’t knock it. For people who thrive in a structured, team-based environment, film school can be great, and the famous programs at UCLA, NYU, etc. can provide a valuable future professional cadre.

I watch a lot of films, including the Making Of stuff on DVDs. You can learn a lot about the role of cinematography, sometimes subliminal, in putting a story over, sometimes making dialog unnecessary, and this has implications for writing. Producing my own films has affected my writing – knowing what it takes to produce a certain effect, how expensive and tricky it can be to dub dialog in post-production, lessons like that have made me more adept at writing around potential production problems. It’s nothing unlimited money wouldn’t take care of!

JS: Do you stick to the story structure so called rules, or is there any standard that tells you when you have a good script?

EE: If you mean rules about by what page you should deliver a certain plot turn, I’ve read books on that subject, but I don’t think about it much when I’m writing. My notions of story structure come more from theatrical play structure. Proportion definitely influences the impact of a piece. If the curtain falls on the most important dramatic event in the play, with no chance to show the aftermath, it’s a melodrama. Etc. Film is more liberating in some respects. I’m adapting a play of mine to a screenplay at the moment, and jumping around in time and space more freely than I could on a stage. I don’t dismiss the value of structure, but I don’t necessarily feel bound to it.

Also I’m a musician, and there are ‘rules’, or rather, expectations, that our ears have, about movement and tension and resolution – possibly culturally conditioned, but strong all the same. I think the average filmgoer has some natural instincts about pacing – we’ve all seen so many films. Rules are good to know about, but then I think you should forget about them and forge ahead. I read my scripts to myself, and if I’m entertained, if I forget that I wrote what I’m reading, that’s a good sign. If something doesn’t feel right, if the proportions feel wrong, or you’re just stuck, then I guess reading about structure can goose you until the momentum picks up again.

JS: Do you have any favorite books on writing? Are there other resources you recommend?

EE: Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing) and Stephen King (On Writing) are good reads, and inspiring in a general way, not because they feed directly into my writing but because they make me want to sit down and write, which maybe is the best compliment I can pay a book on writing. On Writing Horror, from the Horror Writers Association (yes there is one!) offers interesting thoughts on literary tradition, rather than formulas.

I enjoyed Zen & the Art of Screenwriting by William Froug – mostly interviews with other writers. I also like The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking by the Polish brothers, and The Big Picture by Tom Reilly, about his experiences on film sets. These are books about production, but they offer implicit lessons on how to make a screenplay more producible, or less un-producible. There are many books on screenplay format (which is important), and you can also find a lot of that information online.

JS: Aside from our writing group, have you been a member of other writing groups? What makes a good writing group and what should writers hope to get out of these groups?

EE: I sometimes attend a playwrights’ group. It’s useful to hear material read out loud. Is the dialog easily spoken? Do the laughs come where you expect? The criticism can be helpful. This is a bit different from a screenwriting group, but the reality check is just as bracing. I also get my actor friends to read my work. They’re not shy about their opinions.

 JS: What are the next steps for you? Do you have any projects lined up?

EE: I’m working on several feature-length screenplays, and curating Weird Film Fest – a short horror/fantasy festival held at a winery in Berkeley. []

[Curating a festival is another way to get a cinematic education – you watch a lot of films!]

JS: Thank you again, Eve. Can you leave us with a last piece of advice for aspiring screen makers, either something I forgot to ask about, or a summary of points made above?

EE: I’ve read an interview you yourself gave, in which you talked about following your interests and passions. This appealed to me. I’d say — and I need to remind myself of this from time to time — wherever you are on life’s journey, feel free to follow your interests. In her eighties, just for a lark, my great-aunt – who up to that time had not been an actor – tried out for a film. Not only was she cast, the part was considerably beefed up, and it led to a decade of acting in professional films, and a walk on the red carpet at Cannes. You never know how life will go!


For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)


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