By Matthew Wade Reynolds.
Once you’re in, you’re in, right?
Not in Hollywood.
Even with five spec screenplay sales under his belt, Shawn Christensen was getting the cold shoulder from the studio system: development hell, rewrites, and feeling like a stranger at his own movie premiere.
But it wasn’t a Hollywood legend, wise guru or powerful agent who brought him up from the depths – it was a chance conversation with 9-year old girl, whose optimism and spirit not only turned him around, but also inspired the jaded filmmaker to spend his own money to write and direct a short film, Curfew. Hollywood responded with an Academy Award.
Now Christensen has expanded the powerful film into a feature-length release, Before I Disappear. Both films tell the story Richie, a suicidal young regular in the drug-soaked seedy underbelly of New York City who gets an urgent phone call from his troubled sister begging him to babysit his 9-year-old niece – his reluctant agreement leads to a life-changing night.
Christensen took a breather from his own hectic life – he’s also a front man with indie band stellastarr*, an accomplished painter and a married father of one – to describe the pitfalls of early success, the challenges of adapting his short film into a feature, and how he’s using his reinstated indie credibility to rejuvenate his career and take back what’s his.
Most aspiring screenwriters hone their skills between shifts or after working a full-time job. But you sold your first screenplays while on tour with an indie rock band right out of college!
I starting writing scripts because I was a big film buff, or became one in my late high school and college years. But I was also doing a lot of other things, I was jamming in a band at night. I was pursing acting but my band signed a record deal with RCA, and I toured for a few years and continued to write.
As we were touring I started to sell a couple of scripts and after a few years of that, the band kind of took a hiatus and I started to concentrate on film.
Did your reputation in music help when it came to getting read?
Really what it was is I was friends with (actor) Paul Wesley, who’s in Before I Disappear, and he gave a script I wrote called Sidney Hall to his manager at Endeavor, before they were called WME. And they liked it, and they signed me and my co-writer, Jason Dolan. That was kind of how I got into the business in an unsolicited way.
Before that I had written a couple of scripts and I didn’t know what to do with them, and they collected dust, never to be seen again. In Hollywood you can network for ages and not know who or where or when the right person might come back to give you a helping hand.
It helps to know someone, but obviously your talent was there on the page. What happened to make you lose faith, despite your initial success?
I don’t talk about it much because I don’t want aspiring screenwriters to feel like it’s going to happen to them. But to me it was an extreme scenario.
As a screenwriter I had sold four or five screenplays – two commercial scripts, which were food-on-the-table spec sales, and then three or four smaller movies – and they weren’t panning out the way I wanted. They were getting shelved or made into movies that were completely rewritten.
It was a really horrific experience to be honest. One of those situations where you get rewritten and no one talks to you for a year and you don’t meet the director and yet you go to the premiere and see your name up on the screen with people you’ve never met and had no association with.
I was questioning the industry and questioning my writing. I had to get down to basics and make my own little films.
So the writing of Curfew came from two sources – your own feelings of outsider status and a real-life encounter with a particularly insightful young girl.
What happened was, I was hanging out with a friend who had this next-door neighbor who had a couple of kids, and one of them was this 9-year-old girl – as someone in my mid-20s, you don’t really talk to kids that age, you kind of only talk to other 20-year-olds. Just conversing with her, for 10 or 15 minutes, it was – what’s the word I’m looking for – invigorating, and inspiring, her energy and her pure view on life and what’s important.
It reminded me, talking to this younger person, how I missed that idealism I used to have and thought it would be something I would like to explore.
I wrote it in two days. It was a short script.
Curfew ended up being a big hit, winning the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short in 2012. That must have felt surreal considering where you were coming from.
We had Curfew in the festival circuit for a year. Before you’re nominated, there’s a short list of 10 or 11 films. So it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Because I’m a chronic pessimist, people would come up to me and say, “You have a 50 percent chance you’re going to be nominated,” and my response was, “Well, there’s a 50 percent chance I’m going home.”
It was a ride, but it did feel like a ride that had been going on for a year.
Some Oscar winners describe the award as a kind of vindication, as much as recognition, for all their efforts.
My attitude was, well if they’re not going to make my scripts or if they’re going to change all of my writing, then I’ll at least use the money for something proactive.
And here I made this film with just my friends I thought were talented, in New York, with my own money and without any Hollywood involvement whatsoever. It was like I re-entered Hollywood from this entirely new entrance.
(Winning) most certainly opened doors for me – just a whole new side of the town that wanted to sit down with me, completely different people, many of whom I respected, and loved the work they had done.
Unlike many short films, Curfew has a layered quality that seems to lend itself to expansion. What was that process like?
At screenings, my producer Damon Russell and I kept hearing from people that they would love to see it as a feature and we felt like we would too.
For want of a better word, it’s a complicated short film: it’s a simple storyline, but it does have a lot going on in under 20 minutes. It’s in many locations, and took you on a journey that feels like a feature. So it made sense for us to work on expanding it, but it took us a year. I spent a good 150 pages writing backstory to all the characters, and adding more characters.
What were some of the different ideas you exploring?
One of the more outrageous directions was, at one point it was an ensemble movie called Tribeca Grand and it took place at a hotel where a large family was meeting for a celebration of their mother who was a huge movie star in the 60s. It was this Robert Altman-type of interspersing of characters and scenes, and Richie and Sophia were just two of a bunch of characters of cousins or nephews or brothers and sisters of this woman who used to be a starlet and faded. That was one direction.
And there’s another movie I wrote which was Richie’s backstory, a love story. It was more of this sort of Coen Brothers romp.
It took me a long time to come back to the heart of the short film itself, which is just two people over the course of one night.
There seems to be such emphasis these days on developing – maybe even overdeveloping – a character’s backstory, even leading with it. It seems to be nicely underplayed here.
There is a mystery to the short film as to who both the characters are and their background and where the come from. Sometimes the mystery is more exciting than saying anything at all.
When I was shooting the short film I felt like I really knew this guy, that I knew him from his current, present place. And later, the backstory becomes more fun because you know what wouldn’t be the backstory, because you’ve already established a glimpse of that character earlier on. It definitely was a new experience for me.
There is a case to be made that it becomes easier to write backstories to characters when you’ve already kind of implemented them.
Right. In reality we meet and get to know people all the time, sometimes without knowing much about them. So conveying authenticity seems more important.
That’s what the screenwriter’s job is to do in most cases – he only has a few minutes, if that, to really get people on board with a character, sometimes only two or three seconds. So you make that character do something edgy or cruel or heroic. But that’s kind of how real life is.
To your point about when you meet somebody – this is why we get attracted to people within minutes when we meet them sometimes, because you have your imagination, or you have an idea of where they come just from the few words they’ve spoken, or the way they move or walk or they way they smile. You get an idea from that, and you want to search further.
You play the lead role of Richie, but you’re acting opposite a young performer, Fatima Ptacek, in both films. Did working with a child actress present any special challenges in your writing process?
Not on the short film. Fatima came in, and she was game on. She had a dark sensibility about her at a young age, which is not to say she was a dark person – like me. But you get the feeling Richie was a guy she would hang out with.
I think she was 10 years old when we shot the short film and I think she was 12 when we shot the feature. I had to age up her dialogue. In the short film, Sophia is basically oblivious to everything that’s going in. In the feature she can’t be, because she’s too old for that. So it opened the doors for me to explore her character some more.
And in some scenes, identical actions have different meanings, such as when she runs away crying from Richie in the tenement type building.
In the short film, she’s just a kid, she’s scared and doesn’t want to be here. In the feature when she runs out of the there she’s tearing up because she’s been broken, and she thought of herself as someone who never gets broken.
It’s always interesting to see what minor line changes there are – in the feature, Richie defends smoking by saying it feels good, in the short, he mutters that it’s not as bad as they say it is.
Not sure why I changed that line but I think it stems from Sophia being a little older – he can be a little more real with her.
There’s also another line in that scene where she says you can’t smoke indoors. She didn’t say that in the first film. But sometime between when we shot the first film and the feature, smoking indoors became something you never see in New York.
What are some other differences? In the short Richie mentions getting in out of the cold, but in the feature he wants to get into the air conditioning.
I had many, many hurdles in the feature. In the short, the idea is that it’s the shortest day of the year, in late December. But I didn’t get funded in time to shoot in winter so I changed it to the longest day of the year. I wish I could have made it a winter movie instead of a hot summer night movie.
It’s one of the things where, when the money comes in, you take it and go make the movie (laughs).
A neat moment that makes it in both films is that musical interlude, when Sophia gets up and starts dancing at the bowling alley, with all the other patrons following suit. It was almost like a classic Hollywood number.
The way it’s written on paper is not the way it works in the movie. On paper, Sophia goes out there and starts dancing and lip-syncing to the song. Richie looks around and everyone is dancing to the music, and he looks down at his own feet and he cannot move to the music, he’s not in rhythm with the rest of the world. And so it’s a little bit sadder the way it’s written.
The next disaster is that I had a song picked out for it. The day before we started shooting, the band pulled out. My wife said to me, “You’re a songwriter. You should just record everybody dancing to their song and later on you can write a song in the same tempo.” Everyone in the scene is dancing to this other song.
But after completing the film came the ridiculously tough task of writing a song that a 9-year-old would get up and dance to in the same tempo as the other guy’s song. It took me weeks.
It obviously helped to a huge degree that you have a music background. Was it an original interest before film?
I started playing guitar in college. I grew up in upstate New York and went to college (at the Pratt Institute) and ended up getting a degree in illustration primarily. I was looking to be an animator for Walt Disney or Pixar. I was already interested in animation and always drew these flipbooks. I almost certainly will get into it in some way at some point or another.
As far as majoring in illustration and painting that certainly plays into my love for film and cinematography and dreaming up the picture.
Wait – so the flipbooks of hand-drawn animation that Richie shows to Sophia are also yours?
Those were based off of flipbooks that I did draw when I was 6 or 7 years old, that were since lost.
Now that the feature film is in release, in theaters and on-demand, what is your next focus?
I’m actually writing two scripts simultaneously – whenever I get inspiration for one or the other, I work on it.
And I am reacquiring the script Sidney Hall from Fox Searchlight. That was my first sale, and it’s probably my favorite script that I’ve been part of. It’s about this really bright novelist who writes the book of his generation, and it kind of destroys him. It takes place at three stages of his life, when he’s 18, 24 and 30. The writing is the closest to my heart.
With all of these interests, art and music, not to mention writing, acting and directing – it must seem like there is a lot on your plate.
It’s funny because I feel extraordinarily lazy. I don’t feel like I get anything accomplished, oddly enough, mostly because I want to be creating or doing something which we can’t all do everyday.
That said I don’t really get a lot of sleep. I have insomnia. So I’m often up late at night, wondering about new ideas, or maybe playing music or writing – anything to occupy my time but most gets thrown away, it never goes anywhere.
That’s part of the process right – working through things just to see what’s there?
Usually it happens by accident. If I sit down and say I’m going to write the best movie ever, that’s never going to happen. The ideas that turn into scripts eventually just come out of nowhere, or when you least expect it.