You may not have heard of John Polson, but there’s no chance you haven’t heard of his work. Originally an actor, the Sydneysider has found greatest success behind the camera, directing hits like Swimfan and Russell Crowe’s Tenderness, plus TV shows like FlashForward. He is also the proud father of Tropfest, the world’s biggest short film festival. It’s now accepting entries for 2011, so we gave him a call in New York…

How did Tropfest start?
It was 1993, I was 27. I was really an actor but had a burning ambition to be a filmmaker. I made a film largely set at the Tropicana Café in Darlinghurst so I asked the guy if I could screen it there. I put the word out and when I got there on the night there were 200 people. People who heard there was going to be a screening, I think they were impacted by the fact that a lot of it was shot in the café and they probably saw the film crew around. Maybe they were even in the background of some shots. They all showed up to watch it and at the end of the night I said “lets have a festival”. 

And it grew pretty quick didn’t it?
Three months later nine people made films for it and 1,000 people showed up. The next year 19 people made films and 7,000 showed up. It went on like that. Eventually we had to show it in the street, I managed to close the street down. Then we went to the local park, and that was jam-packed with about 25,000 people within two years. So I went to the biggest park in Sydney which is the Domain and we filled that with 100,000 people. Now it gets beamed to venues in all the capital cities in Australia and on cable TV. I won’t pretend there was any grand plan, I just wanted to show one short film and it just grew. It became this big thing that started by accident.

What is it that makes short films so special?
It’s really three attractions for me. One is it’s definitely a breeding ground, a great springboard. But I think it’s more than that. That sort of belittles the art form itself. A short film is incredibly unique because there are certain ideas you can explore that you could never explore in a feature film. Number three is it is incredibly enjoyable for the audience. How many movies, 10 minutes in, do you go “this is shit”. The great thing about Tropfest is if you don’t like the movie, you can move on to another one quickly. 

And you can enter through YouTube this year?
What we’ve done this year is we’re making a push to the international audience to say, “this is a huge event in Australia, you may not of heard of it, but have a go and enter. If you get in, we will fly you to Sydney for free, we will put you up and you can have an amazing night”. The other thing is YouTube is helping us. For the first time we have a channel dedicated to Tropfest, so you can just upload it to our private channel where we will be able to watch it and judge it. 

As a film fan, how did you feel the first time you started directing huge stars like Robert De Niro?
I was intimidated. I grew up watching De Niro films and suddenly I’m on the set with him. But you realise very quickly he’s just another guy who wants to do a great job. He actually happens to be a very generous guy that made me feel really comfortable. We became pretty good friends actually. There’s two personas, I suppose, the one that you have always grown upwith and then the one that you’re working with. Somehow I think you just never put those two together, you can’t. If I really felt like I was directing the guy out of Taxi Driver I’d probably crap my pants. Instead I’m just working with this actor.

What are you working on now?
I just finished a show called No Ordinary Familywith Michael Chiklis, and I’m about to do Lie To Me with Tim Roth. I’ve been getting some good stuff. 

For info on how to enter Tropfest, visit To see the finalists, join the 100,000-strong crowds in Sydney’s Domain on Sunday 20 Feb.