Regardless of the length of your film, it’s rare to deviate from the chains of an event. Ever heard about the almighty inciting incident? It is nothing beyond an event that generates a situation which permeates through the story, changing the balance of the reoccurring routine of our characters. Often films end whenever the balance is reestablished. Sometimes an event is a conglomerate of circumstances. An orchestra would be a major situation, meanwhile each instrument would be a situation on their own, although part of the main event. This trigger will define your story, as there is a limited number of ways for certain events to restore balance. This is what makes you decide that an idea fits better as a short film than a feature one.
It’s a common resource of short films to hold themselves within a single event. Sometimes they don’t, as our last review shows. So your starting point is a limited situation, that being one of the reasons you chose it for a short film. Every concept is restrained somehow within the course of dramaturgy, yet we might leave this for another article. This abstraction comes to reinforce the necessity of a great concept when working for a short film, as you can’t expand it endlessly, however it must feel complete whenever it is done. As every story has limitations, the first step to achieve a powerful script is to bring an awesome concept into the table. And now we may discuss The Piano Tuner, a film which showed up at Short of the Week two months ago and had an outstanding approval from its members.
The Piano Tuner, by Olivier Trainer is the tale of a failed pianist whom pretends to be blind to obtain the empathy of his customers. Until, at one of his client’s visits, he stumbles into the pool of blood. I won’t pretend it is a mastery of the craft, it ain’t, but this french short film is pretty well thought. It demonstrates how hard it is to setup an intricate story using a resource we’ve seen a lot lately: starting your story with a flash forward. I don’t support the abuse of flash forwards, however if there’s a lot of ground to prepare, it is an effective way to keep your viewer tuned in. And The Piano Tuner requires this previous briefing because we must learn, in natural terms, that our main character only alleges his blindness. So it is a pretty delicate setup and half of the movie is dedicated into it.
Technically, the inciting incident is when the main character trips on the recently murdered husband’s blood. The dead man’s wife (i assume) and also his executioner now has to deal with a witness, even a blind one. She asks for his blood-soaked clothes and he keeps his roleplaying, trying to remain calm. He tunes the piano and the woman points a nail gun to the back of his head. He starts playing and that gives him a few minutes, but he doesn’t own much choice and proceeds playing as if it would keep himself alive.
It’s quite the thrilling situation, but what this short film incites me is the discussion about endings.
Do you remember that Robert McKee’s line in Jonze’s Adaptation?
I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.
It might not be a rule of thumb for feature films, but most short films rely on a great ending to be remembered. Specially if you’re aiming at film festivals, as several films are projected one after the other, one impression is swallowed by the following and if you want to stand out you have to hammer into the viewer’s head with your last utterance. You must reverberate.
As events are limited, you’ll often find yourself into a TICKING BOMB range of possibilities to conclude your story. Whenever you introduce a ticking bomb as your situation, there are only three ways to end your movie: the bomb blows, the bomb is disarmed, fade to black with the tick-tack. Whenever you place a main character in a situation like The Piano Tuner you’re starring at a ticking bomb. The ending not exclusively creates a visual impression the viewer will carry, but also expose the layers of the tone you presumed the spectator would take home with him. And how you handle with a ticking bomb is what commonly separates the good from the bad. How you twist your ending to lead into a very specific idea you want to transmit when the credits start rolling is crucial for a successful short film.
In the particular case of The Piano Tuner, we would wonder if the protagonist would getaway or die (we rarely expect the “open ending”). This kept me my attention while the credits rolled until the music ended. It was quite disappointing. If you felt the same way, stop reading and replay the short film until the title shows up, then come back here.
Got it? The sound of a nail gun shooting. This means we have a full-experience (the protagonist is killed), but our last impression is his despair and attempt to keep alive. As non-conclusive, it echoes in our head. I’ve pointed out previously how using non-linear narrative to change your ending is among the most effective ways to use of it.
So whenever you find yourself facing a ticking bomb situation, don’t panic and let it blow on your hands.