One of the best aspects of the annual Tribeca Film Festival in New York is its showcase of brilliant short films. This is especially true of Curfew, which is being screened as part of the Men-Hattan program this year.
The harrowing drama is richly crafted and profoundly affecting. It begins with the interruption of a discouraged young man's suicide attempt. Richie is pulled from the depths of his depression after he receives a phone call from his sister, asking him to look after his young niece for a few hours. What follows is a stunning moment of clarity and imagination.
The wonderfully written gem constitutes a rousing metaphor for mental illness that contains elements of comedy. For the film's director, writer, and star, Shawn Christensen, Curfew was a chance to avoid the constraints of commercial filmmaking and instead develop a piece that is both fresh and honest. This is his second film to be screened at Tribeca. Last year, his film Brink was featured among the festival's shorts.
The International Business Times had a chance to sit down with Christensen -- and Curfew producer Damon Russell -- to talk about the fate of short films, avoiding the pitfalls of the industry, and finding the humor in tragedy.
How has your work and creative process been affected by the recognition you've received from the Tribeca Film Festival?
Christensen: It was only a year ago, but I'd say that the two short films that have been in the festival are completely opposite films. I think what's changed for me is that I gained confidence. I gained confidence about being a director as opposed to writing, which I've been doing for a while. We did a film five years ago, which was the first short film that I directed, Damon [Russell] produced it, and I didn't show it to anybody. Then Brink showed at Tribeca last year and a few other festivals, and I realized that's what happens when I show it to people. Then this film got into way more festivals, and it's been a confidence-builder. I think it's hard to tell how you are as a filmmaker until you have an audience's reaction, and for short films you really can't get that except at festivals. You can put short films online, and they can become viral, but until you see it with a crowd and notice now they respond, you don't realize what's working or not working.
It seems that people's attention spans are getting shorter and you would think that there would be more of a market for short films.
Christensen: Exactly, you would think that they'd be a really huge deal. I don't know what the problem is.
Do you think that shorts will become more popular as more movie lovers download films onto their phones, iPads, and other devices?
Russell: I think in some ways short films are harder. Just to execute a story in such a short amount of time. You can easily make one, but to make one that hits and that people understand is really difficult. So I'm surprised that there's not more respect for that medium.
Christensen: That's also sort of a geographical question because short films are sold and considered sources of content in other countries. In America not so much, but there are some countries where feature films have a short film that happens before them, just like Pixar does. In some areas, they even buy short films.
When people see short films or want to see one, I think they associate it as something they ought to be watching for free. There are sites like Funny or Die and, of course, YouTube that make short films seem like something to be watched at no cost. That's fine because most people who do short films or skits are trying to do other things, like get a show made or a feature, but I wish we could see short films more.
Russell: Yeah, I'd rather see that than commercials. We've been lucky with this film because we've gotten involved with a distributor called Watt Media and they've actually sold this film for us. It's going to be on Air Canada for a couple of months. So on any Air Canada flight you'll be able to buy the film and enjoy the film. It's perfect to consume a 20-minute movie on a flight.
Leave it to Canada to do something cinematically innovative.
Russell: Yeah, we just sold the Spanish rights and maybe our French rights. It'll be on TV eventually. I used to live in England, and on Channel 4 late at night they would show shorts for a half an hour block, so maybe something like that. It's perfect; it's like what music videos used to be.
Back when they showed them.
Russell: Yeah. Maybe it'll be like that with short films because you can just tune in and happen upon something in the middle of the night.
Your background is in illustration and graphic design. How does this affect the way you approach a film. Do you ever start with colors and props and work your way to an idea?
Christensen: Colors and props! [He laughs.]
Russell: You're not far off because a lot of times, just having worked with him for so many years, he will just start with a shot, but he's not sure where it fits in. He comes up with random shots.
Christensen: There are sometimes shots I just want to see, and I'll let the tail wag the dog. I'll build my story, but I'll also try and see if I can get to a point where I can get this certain aesthetic in, this certain shot or this certain scene.
Film-geek question: Where did you find such a cinematic red rotary phone?
Christensen: That was actually kind of funny because one of the people in our art department brought in these phones that I and the director of production considered unacceptable. We wanted something a little more broken-looking, and she found the one we used online. We needed something that would show that this guy's lifeline could break at any moment. We needed it to be a red phone for obvious reasons. It was funny because we asked for a red phone and she brought back all these peach and white phones, and there were all these '80s-looking phones and others that were oddly futuristic.
He's the kind of guy who can only afford a phone that you would find in the Dumpster somewhere. We looked at the phone as a ball and chain that he brings everywhere in the hopes that someone somewhere will call him. He certainly doesn't think that his sister would call.
It's easy to take a dark concept and make a dark film, but it's incredibly difficult to take something tragic and give it a comedic edge. Though this film is dealing with attempted suicide, it's actually quite funny and amusing. How did you manage to pull that off?
Christensen: First of all, I did different kinds of takes, and when we got our first edit back, it was all drama, and there wasn't an ounce of irony, humor, or levity in it. I realized that I had to start leaning toward the more humorous takes and the more humorous shots. That was evident right away. If you read the script, it doesn't come off as humorous. Some of it happened on set, I think.
The dance scene wasn't actually humorous on the page. It was more that as we shot it, it dawned on me that it was actually kind of funny. Originally, he saw everyone dancing around him, but he could not dance himself, which is a more dramatic tone. Then it became that he sees everyone dancing, but has to close his eyes to realize if he's imagining things or not.
Russell: I think, on the page, it wasn't clear if we could laugh at this concept. Then his performance brought this character some humor, and we realized that it is OK to laugh at him. There's something sort of funny about how pathetic he is.
He hasn't lost his imagination.
Christensen: That's an interesting point that I haven't really thought about before, which is that, as an actor, I couldn't help but add some of the humor. When you're dealing with something that's tragic, no matter how serious the issue, you have to have levity of some sort. We knew that going in, but we didn't know the extent of how far we could push that levity.
You could argue that there are even elements of a musical in Curfew. Would you be open to doing a dark and depraved musical short film?
Christensen: I guess if it was handled in the way that Curfew was. I would never do a musical where some guy just busts out into song. [He starts singing in a mock musical-theater tone.] It would have to be something in the sense that you're talking about where it's seamless and the music doesn't feel cued.
Do you think that the film industry will begin to mirror the publishing industry, where writers are producing and selling their own work? Will filmmakers try to avoid the studio system and attempt creative ventures without them?
Christensen: I have income from screenwriting, and what happens to those screenplays is unacceptable to me. When I sell a screenplay and I have differences with executives, I have to walk away. I've never had a satisfying experience yet with a screenplay being turned into a film or the ones that are in turnaround at the studios. For me, these short films are a way to see my writing the way I think it ought to be portrayed. Maybe it's a control thing or the fact that I have not seen my writing properly executed. Part of it is me not knowing whether or not I'm a good writer. I don't know until I put myself out there the way I want it to be done on-screen myself.
We kind of hide away and do these little short films and we do our own thing on our own time and build our name that way. We don't have to deal with anyone trying to destroy the vision of what we're trying to make. Curfew and Brink are 100 percent our vision -- and if someone doesn't like them, it's OK because it's our vision and we did it. We like our work to be judged while knowing we were behind everything.
Right, because if you don't do that, then your name is on something that doesn't even feel like yours anymore.
Christensen: That happens a lot in the industry. It's important that you do your own short films, and it's important that you have Final Cut. A lot of directors in Hollywood don't have that when they start off. They can go make a really beautiful gem, and then someone else can just re-edit it because the director doesn't have the right to that edit. That's a scary notion.
What do you think is the role of short films at this point?
Christensen: I think the more you put under your belt with short films or content, the stronger you'll be when someone starts giving you money to make a feature. You can ask for the control to see the project through until the end. I think there's a big reason why a lot of people do short films. I think that the definition of what a short film is can be difficult to determine sometimes. They're really a calling card, and a lot of people do them because they can be made cheaply.
How do you think the film industry will be altered now that the accessibly of movies has changed?
Christensen: Personally, I love the theater experience. When films are released on demand, it encourages people not to go out. I like to stream on Netflix and watch things on my laptop or on TV, but I also like to go to the movie theater. In terms of moviegoing, this year, this first quarter has been phenomenal. I feel like every weekend, the box-office intake is more than it was last year. It's going to be a good one, too.
I think that the theater experience is an important one. As long as people are dating and as long as there are teenagers and kids going on dates, movies should be in theaters. That's not to say that the chains haven't been taking a hit these past few years, but that's my theory, and I'm sticking with it.
At the moment, you're developing a feature-length film. Are you going to avoid the studio system and produce the film the way that you see fit?
Christensen: Yeah. I'll meet with people that I know at studios, but if I don't have final cut, it's a no. The reality is that I don't care if I lose a budget of $2 or $3 million on that one issue. I don't care. I won't do it.
Creative license over money, what a great concept!
We're writing the feature now, and it's clear that people don't want the film to end the way it does, but I disagree and stand by the ending.