WTF Do You Do With Your Short Film? Clarissa Jacobson Speaks!

If there is one thing I love about running a film festival, it is giving a platform for the short film format. With Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, we have made a concerted effort to give our short films attention in press, in online materials, and in the program itself. Sometimes the short film blocks can feel like an afterthought at a festival; we like to think of them as central to our mission of exploring or expressing fear in a variety of ways. They lend themselves to horror genuinely well, and offer greater points of examination. Our audience has always called out the short films as highlights in surveys we have done.

Another important point that I have always considered is that the short film format is generally one that is esoteric to audiences. Short films are no longer a part of the normal cinema experience as they have been in the past, and, unless a short becomes part of a larger anthology, they often disappear into the ether after completing a festival run. To me, this means that a film festival is a prime event to experience the pleasures of the short film format.

All of this thinking about short films, how best to serve them, and their place in the storytelling landscape highlights exactly how challenging it can be for filmmakers to know exactly how to get the most out of their short film projects. That is why I was excited to learn about a new book from filmmaker Clarissa Jacobson. Her knew book I Made A Short Film Now WTF Do I Do With It, by its own description, covers everything from what festivals to submit to, how to maximize your money, how to secure an international presence, how to deal with rejection, gain publicity, harness the power of social media, what a sales rep does and much more.  

Clarissa Jacobson Headshot

Clarissa Jacobson

Screenwriter / Voice Over Artist / Actress

Ultimately, Clarissa’s book is a very thoughtful reflection on her experiences making and marketing her successful and hilarious horror comedy “Lunch Ladies.” This reflection is a wonderful knew resource for filmmakers who are making or have already completed a new short film, but are looking for some help maximizing its audience-seeking potential. I had some questions for Clarissa, and I thought this would be a great place to publish her answers.

After you read this, you can get her book at the link above. Also, her award-winning short film “Lunch Ladies” is currently available to stream via Amazon Prime. I highly encourage you seek it out! Here is a teaser for you:

Now, on to the chat! Clarissa’s responses are in bold.

Horrible Imaginings: Let's talk first about your filmmaking and your short film "Lunch Ladies." Give me a little history about your experiences as a filmmaker (how many films, learning experiences from the set).

I started as an actress and used to do a lot of sketch work – over the years I would create little videos of my characters and skits.  I also did a short that never saw the light of day. I just kept learning and getting better. I look back at some of these things and just cringe!  But, I learned from mistakes.

So, though this was my first film, I had been prepping forever, always learning with a goal in mind to make a film.  Not just any film, either, I wanted it to be professional and I wanted to have 100% creative control. That meant it had to be my own money.  So, I saved, and worked a lot of jobs in-between to get the cash – it took a long time.

 As for lessons on set, the things I learned:  

  1. Treat all crew with respect – from the PA to the director – everyone is equally important.  

  2. Don’t give shit jobs to others just because you don’t want to do them yourself.  I see a lot of productions where people are like I’m the producer or director so I don’t do anything except the creative work – it’s indie film, everyone gets their hands dirty.  

  3. Treat every cast member as if they’re the leads.  When I was an actress, I’d been treated poorly as an extra – know every single actor’s name on set and let them make creative acting choices whenever possible - they will amaze you, help you, and do incredible things.

  4. Surround yourself with people who know more than you as much as possible.  Ask for help on things you don’t know.

  5. LISTEN TO PEOPLE THAT KNOW MORE THAN YOU.  If your set designer has an idea or suggestion, consider it very carefully - they know more than you about set design – you aren’t a set designer.  Same with the writer, that’s a huge pet peeve of mine, everyone wants to tell the writer what to change in the script yet most doing the telling can’t write a good script themselves!  

  6. Hire people that are great at what they do and let them do it.

Horrible Imaginings: The strength of "Lunch Ladies" relies so strongly on the comic timing and magnetism of your two leads. What was the casting process like? Did you know who you were going to select as your actors, or was it a long series of auditions

For the lead, I wrote this for Donna Pieroni, so she of course was cast as Seretta.  J.M. Logan, the director, knew Mary Manofsky and suggested her for the other Lunch Lady.  We brought her into read with Donna and she was perfect – we never tried anyone else. Daisy (who played the cheerleader) was a daughter of a friend of Shayna Weber’s (producer on Lunch Ladies) and Shayna suggested her – once again she was perfect, and the only one we auditioned.  Chris Fickley who plays the headless Principal was in my writing class. For the students, I cast off pictures from Backstage, because I didn’t know anyone young enough – all the students were aged 15-18.

We never had any formal audition calls other than for the dancers. I used everyone I knew and I knew a lot of talented people!  This was important to me because over the years I’d seen a few friends of mine bypass actors that were fantastic that they knew or disregarded recommendations simply because they felt important having a casting.  They seldom found anyone as good as the people they knew.  

Horrible Imaginings: Clearly a lot of work was put into making "Lunch Ladies" a short film of very high production value: the sets, the costuming, the number of actors and extras, the effects, and the dramatic musical score. I would like to hear about your production, what it took to not cut corners on these aspects of the production.

We did a lot of preparation and I had a lot of talented people involved.   

We prepped for six months before shooting – and the script had been worked for five months before that plus it was based on a feature that took a year and a half to write!  So, the high production value comes a lot from being prepared and working with really talented people and knowing exactly what we wanted. Never underestimate the power of being prepared and surrounding yourself with talented people. 

I never felt I had to cut corners on anything.  If a challenge arose, we’d figure a creative way to solve it that would make it even better.  For example, I didn’t have money for costumes for the students, so we had them bring their own costumes – we had goths, nerds, jocks – all the stereotypes.   We told them what they were and they rose to the occasion bringing the best costumes ever!

For the meat grinder, which could’ve cost 2K or more for a real one,  I found an amazing artist – Krystopher Sapp – I’d seen his work and reached out to him.  He was so creative and found a way to make it cheap and BETTER than anything that could’ve been bought.  It was perfect!

 Another example:  when we couldn’t find a high-end school to shoot at that would let us - which was the original concept – we had to come up with a solution on how to set dress the new more rugged school.  Josh came up with the brilliant idea to do an eastern bloc motif with Russian posters and it became a positive that we didn’t have the ritzy upper-class school. Any challenge was topped with even better ideas  because of the talent and preparation.

 Also, I know this sounds hippy dippy, but I meditated a lot, and amazing things came to me - whenever something was a challenge I’d meditate and a door would open, a solution would come.

 Horrible Imaginings: What are some of the successes that "Lunch Ladies" has experienced?

So much love! It has been in over 100 film fests, won 38 awards, got distribution all over the world, a great sales rep, tons of promo and it keeps kicking!  It’s been wonderful!

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Horrible Imaginings: So, you created and released your short film into the world. Then you decided to write about the process. You talk a lot about purpose in your new book. What is your purpose for sharing your experiences and advice?

I had to learn so much on this journey.  I knew nothing when I started!

For example, I couldn’t’ find anything about subtitles, I learned that by calling the person who did our DCP, getting a recommendation, and going from there.   I learned most everything from trial and error, determination, and reading what little was out on the subject of what to do with your short.

When I started succeeding on the festival run and with promotion, other filmmakers would ask me tons of questions.  Josh, the director, told me I should write a book. At first I didn’t want to do it, but I was getting so many questions from filmmakers and I couldn’t even cover half of what I’d learned in an hour conversation with them!  I thought hell, if I write a book I can just say it’s in the book and could help people.

I also wanted to be a positive voice in the midst of all the negativity.  Many times, you read about why your film can’t succeed or what you have to do to succeed which usually means not being true to your voice – by all accounts Lunch Ladies never should’ve – it was 19 minutes long and a horror comedy!  So, I wanted to be a voice that said you can, and here’s why and here’s how.

Horrible Imaginings: The book really highlights an important aspect of any art, and that is that the creation of the art itself is less than half of the job, and likely it is the easy half. Talk about the personal learning experiences you had that gave you the confidence to teach others. 

I always think of life before Lunch Ladies and life after.  I grew so much, not just as an artist, but as a human being!  I learned that people want to help you, that most people are supportive, that you have to promote, that rejections can be looked at in a different way than “my film is bad,” that social media is incredibly important to a project and more.  I got the confidence to talk about it because so many people would ask me and I’d actually have the answers!

Horrible Imaginings: In your section on asking for film festival submission waivers, you mention that a lot of filmmakers believe that receiving a waiver gives their film more weight in the selection process. Where do you think that line of thinking comes from? 

There’s a lot of thought in the ether that films that do well in a festival run that have some “in.”  What I wanted to tell people in this book, is that you don’t have to have an “in” your film can do great with no “in.”  With waivers, there is some idea that if you get a waiver from a festival they want to see your film more than others, that you have an “in.”  I’m talking in terms of waivers that were given to you by the festival not that you asked for. I just haven’t seen proof of it. I had festivals come to me that gave me a waiver and didn’t program it.  And others that did. And 95% of the festivals we got in? No waiver.

Horrible Imaginings: You pose the question: does the festival give prestige to the film, or does the film give prestige to the festival. You also lament the lack of actual data surrounding this point. This makes me wonder about the possibility of conducting more empirical studies of this nature. What kinds of data points would you like to see as helpful to a filmmaker. 

 I would love to see something like that!  I hear so much scary rhetoric about premiering at the “right” festival.  I just don’t buy into it and it causes people a lot of anxiety. It did me until I realized it’s just talk - as Lunch Ladies did just fine without premiering at Venice for example.  There are no studies done and no one knows. I think it would be a lot of work to do a study on it, but I know for my film it didn’t matter.  

Horrible Imaginings: Did you really get flack for wanting to submit to international film festivals?

People didn’t say “don’t do it” or loudly hate on me for doing it – but there were a few with an undercurrent of smug energy of “that’s crazy, it’ll never happen.”  Or people just completely confused by it, like “why would you enter a foreign festival?”  

Also, there was my own fear and insecurity as well, like who am I to do this I don’t know many others doing it, should I really pay for subtitles and do this?  Now there were people who were really supportive as well and other filmmakers that I found out that were entering foreign festivals too. But a lot I knew weren’t.  And this is one of the reasons I wrote the book, there’s not much information about entering foreign fests, how to do it, and why it’s a good idea to do it. 

Horrible Imaginings: The differences of understanding of what makes a film a horror film is addressed in your book. Horrible Imaginings, for example, has an extremely broad definition of horror, and every year we meet filmmakers who incorrectly assumed their film wouldn't fit into our program. How has this experience changed your understanding about the nature of what many of us consider a horror film?

This is what I’m trying to convey in the book.  That sometimes a genre plays across several genres. You can have a drama with horrific elements making it cross the line for horror.   And you have to look at your film to see if it hits more than one genre because that can open up getting programmed at more festivals.

As for me, I had an eye-opening experience with Lunch Ladies.  I realized that I’m a huge horror person! You don’t have to love Friday 13th for example to love horror.  There are so many different types of horror!   But I thought if you didn’t like slasher film for example you don’t like horror.  I think this is a huge misconception by people - it was for me. I realized from my fest run and Lunch Ladies getting into horror fests that horror has so many sub genres.  I love psychological horror like The Shining, Let The Right One In and Get Out. I love Comedy Horror. I’m not big on slashers but some slashers I like. And some who like slashers don’t like comedy horror – we are all horror fans though – it’s just different roots of the same tree!

Horrible Imaginings: Thank you, Clarissa! Everyone can watch “Lunch Ladies” on Amazon Prime or Kanopy. You can order “I Made A Short Film Now WTF Do I Do With It” here!