Natalie Metzger loves short films for a lot of reasons: As a writer-director, she loves telling a tight, punchy story. Her recent short “Sleep Study,” for example, is a grounded, ruthlessly uncompromising domestic horror story about the exhaustion of being a new parent.
But as the vice president of development and production for acclaimed indie company Vanishing Angle, she also sees a strong business case for making shorts: They can be a proof of concept for a feature, a way to vet people you’re thinking about working with for years to come, and a way to bypass studio bureaucracy.
“Features can sometimes take so long — they can take years to develop and get greenlit, and then months to shoot and for post production,” she says. “There’s something really fun about a short where you have the idea, you do it, and it’s very hands-on: a ‘Let’s make something together’ type of thing that doesn’t get stuck in the kind of Hollywood development hell that can be so frustrating sometimes.
“We love making shorts, because you can just do them, you can knock them out. And it’s a great way for us to keep the craft alive. We’re always encouraging directors: ‘Just keep making stuff.’”
Natalie Metzger on Her Work With Vanishing Angle
Her work with Vanishing Angle began with the kind of twisty backstory most shorts have no time to get into: She started off wanting to dance. As an undergraduate at Emory University, she double majored in theater and dance and minored in English. The plan was to start a theater company with a strong emphasis on dance. Then she took a film editing class.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun to have on the side. And I can use it to cut some dance films.’”
Then she went to Cal Arts for graduate school, and began working on more and more films, first doing dance and choreography. But her responsibilities kept expanding.
“I would help out where I could. So they would say, ‘Oh, I need a costume designer,’ or, ‘Oh, we’re looking for a location.’ And I’d be like, ‘Oh, I have a costume designer from my last dance piece,’ or, ‘I have this great location, let me call them’ — not realizing that it was starting to produce,” she recalls.
“And at the same time, I had just bought a DSLR camera and started filming my choreography, just in interesting locations, and cut it together myself, and started submitting those to festivals.”
Vanishing Angle has made so much stuff in recent years that the Academy-qualifying Indy Shorts, the beloved festival put on by Heartland Film in Indianapolis at the start of each summer, devoted a spotlight section to the company’s films. In addition to Metzger’s “Sleep Study,” the program included Alden Ehrenreich’s sibling-rivalry directorial debut, “Shadow Brother Sunday,” Jim Cummings’ 2017 shorts “The Robbery” and “It’s All Right, It’s OK,” and Danny Madden’s “Krista,” which later led to Madden’s feature Beast Beast, a drama that premiered at Sundance in 2020. Metzger produced five of the 10 shorts.
The films earned recognition and awards. And at the same time, word of her skills as a producer got around.
“I started getting emails from strangers saying, ‘Hey, we can pay you this much money to produce our thing.’ And so I started getting more and more on-set experience.”
Metzger also started working with the nonprofit Women in Film, and began to get commercial work. And she made her first documentary, Special Blood, about a rare disease in her family, which received several awards on the festival circuit.
“It’s been a snowball thing from there, where I’m now doing film full time,” she says. “And every once in a while I get to choreograph a piece and have it in a film, when it calls for it.”
She met the Vanishing Angle team at the Hollywood Film Festival. She was a fan of their 2015 feature Too Late, a film directed by Dennis Hauck and starring John Hawkes that uses five 22-minute single-shot scenes to explore the relationship between a troubled private investigator and the woman he’s been hired to track down.
“I saw that film and I’m like, ‘Whoever’s making this is really cool,’” she says. “And they said, ‘Oh, you’re a producer! We’re in need of producers. We’re expanding.’”
The company, founded by Matt Miller and Erich Lochner, enlisted her to help with a pilot for YouTube influencer MatPat. Music videos followed, and then six shorts with Cummings.
Cummings broke through with “Thunder Road” — a short film he wrote and directed in which he also plays a cop who eulogizes his mother with help from a Bruce Springsteen anthem — that earned a slew of festival accolades, starting with the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2016.
Metzger’s first feature with Vanishing Angle was producing the feature version, also called Thunder Road. (MovieMaker house style is to put the titles of shorts in quotes and the italics in features.) Since then, she has produced films including the horror comedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow (which Cummings directed), Josh Ruben’s video-game adaptation Werewolves Within, The Beta Test (which Cummings and PJ McCabe co-directed), Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s dark comedy Greener Grass, and Sean Mullin’s recent Yogi Berra documentary It Ain’t Over, among other projects.
Working Fast and Avoiding Obstacles
The Vanishing Angle strategy of working fast and avoiding obstacles is working. Several shorts have followed the “Thunder Road” approach of expanding into features after they prove their viability as shorts.
But how to develop a short into a feature? Do you start with the entire feature in mind, and then break out one small chunk of it into a short? Metzger doesn’t love that approach.
“I think it’s always better when the short is a standalone that can exist on its own. We’ve done a lot of shorts to features, but a lot of them were not planned that way,” she says. “For Thunder Road, Jim didn’t think that there was a feature there. He had made the short one, it won the Grand Jury at Sundance, and everyone kept on saying, ‘Is there a feature?’ And he was like, ‘No, that’s just that moment in that guy’s life.’”
The cathartic song in the short seems like a natural climax for a feature, and it felt anticlimactic to go in and fill in all the details.
“He just spent about a week in his friend’s basement, trying to figure it out. And he finally cracked it when he realized that that is the opening of the feature,” Metzger says. “And then it’s just like a spiral from there. So he wrote himself into a corner, which I think makes it a much stronger feature, because you’re already starting from this intense place.”
A thrilling short puts more pressure on the filmmaker to develop a spectacular feature — and that’s a good thing, says Metzger. Her film “Sleep Study,” for example, reaches a devastating conclusion that seems hard to top. But she promises she will. She made the film as part of Hulu’s Bite Size Halloween short film series for Disney’s 20th Digital Studio.
“To me, there was only one version of how dark it could go. But the 20th Digital team was very concerned about it. They actually had me write a different version, and film a version that didn’t end that way, just as a safety, because they were really worried about it being just too horrific. And then we got into post, and I just kept doing my version, sending them the rough cut,” Metzger says.
“And they kept on giving the same note. And then when it came time to lock picture, I said, ‘Listen guys, I don’t think it’s going to be a unique short if it doesn’t go down the full path that’s set up.’ And to their credit, they were so collaborative, and really listened to me.”
Main image: Natalie Metzger on set.