16 Influential Movies You Didn’t Know Were Based On Short Films

Let’s say you’re a rookie filmmaker with a great script or idea but no Hollywood street cred. Often times, in order to secure financing, these aspiring writers/directors will make what’s called a proof-of-concept short that shows off their vision for a feature length film. In fact, some of the most acclaimed cinematic auteurs in film history got their first feature made based off of their short film. Here are 16 famous movies based on short films.

Producers were not going to just hand Paul Thomas Anderson, a relatively unknown filmmaker at the time, millions of dollars to make an epic about a porn star’s rise and fall from fame. But once Anderson showed off his 32-minute mockumentary, The Dirk Diggler Story, financers got a sense of both the direction of Anderson’s story and the talent that the writer/director possessed.

You won’t believe all the famous films based on shorts that became straight up box office gold. And while some of the cult movies based on short films may not have lit up the box office, they have since become extremely popular with a passionate and ever-growing fanbase.

Photo:  Lionsgate Films

Short Film It’s Based On: Saw (2003)

Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell couldn’t get funding for their horror film, Saw, Down Under, so they flew to Los Angeles to make a nine-and-a-half-minute proof-of-concept short centered around the horrific jaw trap. Lionsgate liked the script and short enough to give the pair $1.2 million to make the feature, which basically takes place in a single location with just two actors. The gamble paid off: Saw (2004) made more than $100 million at the box office and spawned six sequels (and counting.)

Photo:  20th Century Fox

Short Film It’s Based On: Milton (1991)

Mike Judge of Beavis and Butthead fame created a series of animated shorts in the early 1990s called Milton, which followed a meek office worker and his daily battles. Judge also wrote, animated, and voiced all the characters. Some of them aired on MTV’s Liquid Television, and some even made it onto Saturday Night Live. Judge based his 1999 cult hit Office Space on these animated shorts. Milton (Stephen Root) is the main character in the shorts, but was a peripheral character in the film.

Following the monster success of There’s Something About Mary, 20th Century Fox wanted to make a “big, broad comedy.” They figured a feature based on the Milton shorts was a safe bet. Office Space didn’t perform well at the box office, but has become a cult classic.

Photo:  New Line Cinema

Short Film It’s Based On: The Dirk Diggler Story (1987)

A lot of acclaimed feature film directors got their start making shorts. When Paul Thomas Anderson was just 17-years-old, he shot a Spinal Tap-influenced mockumentary The Dirk Diggler Story, which was inspired by the rise and fall of porn legend John Holmes. Anderson used a standard video camera and VCR editing (he hooked up two VCRs to his TV, showing raw footage on one and recording segments onto the other) to create his 32-minute short film.

After making his feature debut as a writer/director with Hard Eight in 1996, Anderson revisited Dirk Digger, writing and directing the now classic Boogie Nights (1997). His sophomore effort instantly put him in the discussion of rising film auteurs and launched the career of Mark Wahlberg, who played Diggler. Check out the engrossing oral history of Boogie Nights for a great behind-the-scenes tale of the making of a classic.

Photo:  Miramax Films

Short Film It’s Based On: The Customer Is Always Right

Famed comic book writer Frank Miller had just about had it with Hollywood after working on RoboCop 2 and 3. In order for director Robert Rodriguez to convince Miller to sell the graphic novel rights for Sin City, he decided to make a three minute proof-of-concept short film called The Customer Is Always Rightto show Miller that he wanted to stay true to the source material, even calling it a “translation, not an adaptation.”

The short film starred Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton. Miller liked what he saw and agreed to allow Rodriguez to adapt his graphic novel. The short film footage actually opens Sin City, which turned out to be a huge commercial and critical success. Miller received both directing and writing credit for the film.

Photo: New Line Cinema

Short Film It’s Based On: Within the Woods (1978)

Some people are born to make movies. Sam Raimi started at the age of eight, with an 8mm camera. At 19, he made the 32-minute Within the Woods with the specific intention of drawing investors for a feature. Raimi casted a few friends (including Bruce Campbell, who also starred in The Evil Dead), whipped up $1,600, and went out into a remote cabin in the woods to shoot his crude horror short about demonic possession.

Raimi screened the short at a local theater, alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show. After a little financial success, the future Spider-Man director earned enough goodwill from investors to turn his short into The Evil Dead (1981), the first of a four-film franchise and the beginning of Raimi’s prolific career as a writer, director, and producer.

Photo: Gramercy Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: The Hard Case (1995)

Londoner Guy Ritchie earned money directing music promos and commercials in order to fund his 20-minute short The Hard Case, which he wrote and directed. Lucky for Ritchie, Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, saw the short and decided to finance Ritchie’s feature adaptation Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Sting took a small role in the film which made Statham an international star, paved the way Snatch, and helped usher in a new wave of post-modern, post-Tarantino crime films.

Photo: Universal Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: La Jetée (1962)

French New Wave director Chris Marker’s 28-minute, black and white short, which consists of still shots and voice over, is a film school staple. La Jetée takes place in post-apocalyptic Paris following WWIII, where everyone is forced to live underground. A POW is selected to travel back in time in order to try to prevent the war.

Director Terry Gilliam has admitted his 1995 sci-fi feature Twelve Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, was heavily influenced by Marker’s short. You could less kindly say it’s a blatant rip off. In Gilliam’s film, the protagonist must stop a deadly virus unleashed by terrorist organization The Army of the Twelve Monkeys, not World War III, in order to save the world. Otherwise, it’s more or less exactly the same.

Photo: TriStar Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: Alive in Joburg (2005)

South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s documentary style short Alive in Joburg may only be about six minutes long, but it’s loaded with exemplary visual effects and explores themes of apartheid.

After success as a commercial and shorts director, Blomkamp was set to make his feature debut with an adaptation of the Halo video game. When that project fell through, he opted to expand his short into District 9 (2009). The science fiction thriller turned out to be a box office success and was nominated for four Academy Awards, including a nod for Best Picture and Best Visual Effects.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse (2007)

The nine minute short written by Evan Goldberg and actor Jason Stone, starring Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel, centered on two Hollywood actor friends trapped in an apartment, arguing during the end of the world. The filmmakers planned for the short to exclusively screened at festivals, but when it appeared on YouTube, several production companies fought for rights to the comedy.

The short was adapted into This Is the End (2013) and starred several of Rogen and Goldberg’s real-life friends (James Franco, Jonah Hill, Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera) playing exaggerated versions of themselves. The fourth-wall-destroying apocalypse comedy mostly takes place at James Franco’s house, where a slew of celebrities are partying when doomsday comes knocking on the door.

Photo: Warner Bros.

Short Film It’s Based On: Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967)

George Lucas was a film student at the University of Southern California when he made a 15-minute short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, about an underground city in a dystopian future. The US Navy funded the short. In return, Lucas taught a film class for Navy students. The short won first prize at the National Student Film Festival in New York City, and caught the eye of Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola.

Lucas turned his short into THX 1138 (1971), produced by Coppola and starring Robert Duvall. And while most people probably haven’t heard of THX 1138, it gave Lucas the cred neededto make American Graffiti (1973). The success of that film ultimately paved the way for him to make a double trilogy of movies about a galaxy far, far away.

Photo: Disney

Short Film It’s Based On: Frankenweenie (1984)

While working at Disney, before he made his first feature, Tim Burton made a $1 million, 30 minute live action short about a boy who uses science to bring his beloved dog back from the dead. His reward? The company fired him for spending too much money on a kid’s movie that was too scary for kids.

Of course, Burton turned out to be the visionary director behind box office and cult hits like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Beetlejuice. In 2012, he turned his short into a stop-motion feature also called Frankenweenie. It has the same story, and pays homage to Burton’s love of horror and science fi. Frankenweenie, which, ironically, was produced by Disney, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Short Film It’s Based On: Whiplash (2013)

Sometimes going through hell is worth the trip. Writer/director Damien Chazelle describes what it was like to be a drummer for an oppressive conductor at a very competitive jazz band in high school.

“I remembered being very terrified. That was my overall emotion during those years. Just dread. And not being able to eat meals before rehearsals and losing sleep and sweating my ass off. I wanted to pour that into the movie.”

Chazelle was able to channel the dread in a screenplay based his experiences. From there, he secured financing to make an 18-minute short based on 15 pages of his script. The short, like the feature, starred J.K. Simmons as the authoritarian conductor, and screened at the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival, where it drew interest from investors. The feature version, Whiplash (2014), earned three Academy Awards, including a Best Supporting Actor trophy for Simmons.

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: Bottle Rocket (1992)

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson were students at the University of Texas in Austin when they met and co-wrote the 13-minute black and white Bottle Rocket. The short, about dimwitted thieves, screened in 1994 at the Sundance Film Festival, where James L. Brooks liked it enough to fund a feature version. In an essay written for The Criterion Collection, Brooks describes exactly what he admired about the short:

When I first saw the thirteen-minute video I was dazzled—the language and rhythms of the piece made it clear Wes and Owen were genuine voices. The possession of a real voice is always a marvel, an almost religious thing. When you have one, it not only means you see things from a slightly different perspective than the billions of other ants on the hill, but that you also necessarily possess such equally rare qualities as integrity and humility. It’s part of the package of being a real voice, ’cause when your voice is real, you can’t screw around. The voice must be served; all other exit doors, marked ‘expediency’ or ‘solid career move,’ are sealed over, and the only way out of your inner torment is genuine self-expression.

The feature length movie starred both Luke and Owen Wilson, and was directed by Anderson. It may not have lit the box office on fire, but has become a cult classic.

Photo: Paramount Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: Diversion (1980)

Screenwriter James Dearden describes how he thought of the idea for the short film Diversion, which beaome Fatal Attraction (1987) in an interview with The New York Times.

I was sitting at home thinking, ‘What is a minimalist story that I can do?’ My wife was out of town for the weekend, and I thought what would happen if a man who has just dropped his wife at the railroad station rings this girl who he’s met at a party and says, ‘Would you like to have dinner?’

It’s a little fable about the perils of adultery. It is something that men and women get away with 99 percent of the time, and I just thought, ‘Why not explore the one time out of 100 when it goes wrong?’

Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe, who produced Fatal Attraction, saw Dearden’s short and asked him to turn it into a feature length screenplay. The psychological thriller, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, earned six Academy Award nominations and made spouses think twice about the ramifications of a one-night stand.

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Short Film It’s Based On: Peluca (2003)

Jared Hess made the nine minute black-and-white 16mm short Peluca for an assignment while attending Brigham Young University. It starred Napoleon Dynamite (Jon Heder), though the character’s name in Peluca (which means wig in Spanish; buying a wig is an essential part of the narrative) is named Seth.

Peluca was good enough to screen at the 2003 Slamdance Film Festival, where got encouraging reviews. Hess decided to turn the short into an indie feature, Napoleon Dynamite (2004), and feature Heder as the titular character and embodiment of a socially awkward nerdy teenager. It earned nearly $50 million at the box office on a $400,000 budget, and received instant cult classic status.

Photo: Miramax Films

Short Film It’s Based On: Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994)

Billy Bob Thorton has emjoyed such a storied career as an actor it’s easy to forget he wrote and directed Sling Blade, earning an Academy Award for his script. The movie was adapted from Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, a 29-minute short Thorton starred in and wrote. George Hickenlooper, known for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the famous making-of Apocalypse Now, directed the short, about a mentally challenged man released from a care facility after serving 25 years for murdering his mother and her lover. The short also starred Molly Ringwald and JT Walsh.

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