Watch Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Swan Song’ and 7 More From the Most Important Year for Shorts at Sundance

By  · Published on January 18th, 2014

This is a special edition of Short Starts, where we look at the Sundance shorts program class of 1993.

1992 and 1994 are very notable years in the history of the Sundance Film Festival. Mostly for features. In between, the 1993 event should be recognized for its short film program. It was only the second year of this section – though shorts were an increasingly significant part of the fest since 1988 – and it remains, two decades later, probably the most important (if not best) batch of short films to ever come together in Park City.

Among the filmmakers receiving their first real notice in this program were Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, David Wain, Eugene Jarecki, Tamara Jenkins, Ted Demme, Stanley Tucci (as writer/producer), Gary Fleder, Alex Sichel, Mike Mitchell and animators Eric Darnell and Matt O’Callaghan. Their early works played alongside shorts by Michael Almereyda, Lourdes Portillo and two eventual Oscar nominees, Christian Taylor’s The Lady in Waiting and Kenneth Branagh’s Swan Song.

It is the last film that is especially relevant now because Branagh helmed the biggest new release in theaters this weekend, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. That’s the latest franchise entry for the actor-turned-director, another feature that’s very far removed from his initial reputation as a filmmaker interested primarily in Shakespeare adaptations and movies with an old fashioned dramatic sensibility (I don’t care how Shakespearean his Thor movie seems, it’s still just a Thor movie).

Kenneth Branagh’s Swan Song

When he arrived at Sundance with his first short film, Branagh had already made Henry V and Dead Again. So, it is hardly a short start. Instead, because of his stature, it brought a certain prestige to the new program, even more than Portillo, a fellow veteran Oscar nominee. It also helped that Swan Song is an adaptation of a one-act play by Anton Chekhov and stars the legendary Sir John Gielgud as an old comedic stage actor reflecting on his life and career. Highbrow stuff. I don’t know which feature it played before, but I hope it was Orlando.

Watch the film in two parts starting with the video below, just for reference. Like many shorts of the period, this one isn’t available in any form except a VHS rip, and it looks terrible (why people don’t just get their early work online already, I don’t know). Still worth playing it to listen to Gielgud speak Chekhov’s dialogue, which I do believe he’d performed on stage before this.

Continue watching the film here.

Almereyda is another director now known well for his adaptations of Shakespeare, including the modern-set 2000 film of Hamlet and the upcoming Cymbelline. And he too was in Park City that year with a film based on a work of a Russian: Mikhail Lermontov’s 19th century novel A Hero of Our Time. Dennis Hopper stars in this directorial debut from 1985, which wasn’t shown at Sundance until years after it was made, following Almereyda’s initial feature (Twister), and had a score by Carter Burwell, his first after Blood Simple.

The short was actually only made from a chapter of the book and modernized so Hopper played a violent record producer. Apparently Harry Dean Stanton was first choice for the part, but he refused to play any more bad men. In an obituary for Hopper, Almereyda says this of its festival appearance: “Eventual acceptance by Sundance seemed anti-climactic; I was more pleased to have the movie included in a traveling Hopper retrospective, From Method to Madness, organized by the Walker Arts Center in 1988.”

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Cigarettes & Coffee

Anderson’s Sundance selection that year wasn’t quite a short start. He’d made a mockumentary in high school about a porn star titled The Dirk Diggler Story. Yep, it was the precursor to Boogie Nights. His sophomore short, which cost a good deal of money and is credited just to “Paul Anderson,” was Cigarettes & Coffee, and while it isn’t exactly the basis for his first feature, Hard Eight (aka Sydney), it is a sort of precursor to that film. Some label it a remake.I don’t see it.

The link is Philip Baker Hall, whose character is unnamed so he could very well be Sydney, but that just makes this maybe a prequel. Here he’s at a diner with another young gambler (Kirk Baltz, who famously lost an ear in the previous year’s Sundance hit, Reservoir Dogs), who tells of discovering that his wife is sleeping with his best friend. Meanwhile there are two other stories going on in the location, one in a booth next door between a married couple (Scott Coffey and Kim Gillingham) and another at a pay phone outside involving a mysterious man (Miguel Ferrer). There’s a matter of a $20 bill changing hands, too, which is funny since the similar feature Twenty Bucks was also at the festival that year.

It’s the kind of intertwining ensemble piece Anderson would go on to be known for, and the dialogue and direction might be the best ever encountered in a debut of this level. It can be seen below, again in a copy that really shouldn’t be the only way we can watch it. I saw an interview where Anderson was asked if it would be on the Hard Eight DVD and he just said, “no.” No explanation why not. Well, okay, this may be the best we have for now.

Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket

The other Anderson had the original 13-minute black and white version of Bottle Rocket. This is the sort of short start where the director’s debut feature is a remake or expansion of his first film. One thing that’s uncommon, especially when the remake is produced by a studio, is that this stars the later feature’s lead actors in the same roles. Luke Wilson and Owen Wilson, who co-wrote this and the remake, are friends preparing for a bookstore robbery by breaking into one of the character’s parents’ home. Thats’s in the feature but with very different kind of music. Robert Musgrave also originates his role here as their other partner, who drives the getaway car during the robbery.

When I first saw the short, ahead of a special advance screening of The Royal Tenenbaums, I was surprised to enjoy it more than the color feature. But it makes sense, because as is made clear in Matt Zoller Seitz’s popular new book on Anderson, the 1996 version involved a lot of meddling by the execs at Columbia Pictures and so wasn’t as much the director’s (and Wilson brothers’) complete vision. The short is sharper, tighter, funnier and simpler, of course. It also makes me wish Anderson would do a black and white feature someday, like his friend Noah Baumbach just did. Everyone could stop making instagram jokes, then.

This one is available on the Bottle Rocket releases from Criterion Collection and the below copy is pretty pristine. Watch it to agree with Seitz, who writes, “Bottle Rocket didn’t just signal the start of a career, but the birth of a voice.”

David Wain’s Aisle Six

Wain’s short start directorial debut is a student film he made at NYU, which is where he got together with the group of friends he later made The State with and continues to work with and employ. Titled Aisle Six, it stars two members of that troupe, Thomas Lennon and Joe Lo Truglio (and features the voice of Kerri Kenney-Silver’s dad, Larry Kenney), and as an absurd teen movie where plumbing is a hobby for cool kids and electric work is rebellious activity, it kind of feels like an extended sketch from their later comedy show. Also collaborating with Wain early on is composer Craig Wedren, who is next scoring Wain’s upcoming feature They Came Together (debuting at Sundance this week). Only true Wain and Stella and Wainy Days fans will understand and get this weird foreshadowing effort:

Gary Fleder’s Animal Instinct

If you’re not as familiar with Fleder’s name, you’re at least aware of his latest feature, the recently released Homefront. He also made Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, Don’t Say a Word and Runaway Jury. His short start, which followed the near-feature-length video Michael Jordan: Air Time, is another documentary work titled Animal Instinct. It’s about a boxer named Philip Paolina who dreams of being an actor and also features Mickey Rourke as the guy’s friend and idol. It’s a fine character study that definitely makes me sad that Fleder hasn’t done a doc since, especially when he’s done junk like Impostor instead. Watch it below courtesy of the filmmaker.

Matt O’Callaghan’s Itsy-Bitsy Spider and Eric Darnell’s Gas Planet

As for the two animators, neither are household names today, but you may know O’Callaghan’s work as the director of Curious George and Open Season 2 plus some recent Looney Tunes shorts that make sense coming from the guy who made Itsy-Bitsy Spider, which is more cartoon episode than short film and features the voices of Jim Carrey and Thora Birch. You can watch it on YouTube. As for Darnell, he’s the co-director of Antz and the three Madagascar features. His short is the rather stupid but still kinda fun Gas Planet, basically about farting aliens. You might have seen it on MTV back in the day. Now you can see it below.

Other shorts from that class that I’d love to see include a silly work of fiction from Jarecki, who is mostly now a documentarian, titled Season of the Lifterbees, which went on to win a Student Academy Award. Another student work was from then-animator Mitchell (he’d go onto features of live-action, animation and hybrid varieties) called Frannie’s Christmas, part of which you can see in a restoration sample on Vimeo.

Jenkins, whose Slums of Beverly Hills and The Savages also played Sundance, had a quirky black and white something called Fugitive Love. Sichel, who made the 1997 feature All Over Me with her sister and now teaches at NYU, had Amnesia, which was in the experimental shorts section. Demme’s short, only a start if you dismiss his Dennis Leary comedy special from 1992, is called The Bet and is about brothers, one of whom has a gambling problem and ultimately a mob problem.

1993 was an interesting year for short starts in general, some that debuted later on at the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals. Outside of the Sundance program, we got Ben Affleck’s embarrassing I Killed My Lesbian Wife, Hung Her on a Meat Hook, and Now I Have a Three-Picture Deal at Disney (previously written about here), Steve McQueen’s Bear (an installation film) and Edgar Wright’s Dead Right (previously written about here).

Christian Taylor’s The Lady in Waiting

I leave you with one more short to check out, and that’s Taylor’s The Lady in Waiting. It won the Student Academy Award and then, as I stated before, was nominated for the real deal Oscar. Taylor isn’t one to otherwise get a short start post all his own since he’s become a writer and producer for TV (Lost; Star Wars: The Clone Wars; Teen Wolf). The film is about an upscale elderly lady stuck in an elevator with a lower class drag queen. As simple and wonderful as that. It’s used as a model for short filmmaking, though while it’s great it isn’t exactly the best film on this post (the two Andersons’ are hard to beat). Watch below.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.