Leading the pack in the race for the best live-action short Oscar is Hollywood screenwriter Shawn Christensen's gritty 19-minute "Curfew," which stars the multi-hyphenate as suicidal New Yorker Richie who babysits for his nine-year-old neice Sophia. Safe to say we will be hearing from this actor-writer-filmmaker again: he's currently expanding "Curfew" into a full-length feature. (See the short on iTunes.)
The film's knockout centerpiece is a dance break in a bowling alley: Sophia (the excellent Fatima Ptacek) jaunts down a lane as a line of people holding bowling balls shake their shoulders in unison. "Curfew" pulses with energy and dark humor. It starts with Richie bleeding out in a tub, but his suicide attempt is derailed by a phone call from his estranged sister, begging him to care for her daughter for a few hours. As pale Richie spends an evening with prickly Sophia, they eventually bond.
After studying graphic design, Christensen was a member of the band Stellastarr before turning to screenwriting. His Hitchcockian 2010 Blacklist screenplay "Abduction," which starred Taylor Lautner, flopped at the box office. Christensen has said that it was mangled beyond recognition. And so he turned to short films like "Brink," which also premiered at Tribeca, over which he has some control. (He's been signed to write "The Man from Nowhere" for Dimension.) Below, Christensen talks about the strictures and rewards of making shorts.
Maggie Lange: Talk about your settings, from the opening decrepit apartment to Chinatown and the bowling alley.
Shawn Christensen: We had half location-scouting, half rolling with the punches. For the bathroom scene, we couldn't fit cameras, because of the shots we wanted, so we built one. I thought, "let's get it to look like the 'Trainspotting' bathroom" — this way he looks like a glorified squatter. With Brooklyn Bowl, it directs itself. We didn't do anything to it. It already has these screens above the alleys with these strange visuals. The scene when Sophia is schooling Richie, there are those dolls in the background– they happened to be there. I didn't have a production design budget, so it came down to finding places that directed themselves.
ML: Do you act in all your shorts?
SC: I did a film called "Walter King" in 2006 and had a role in it, not the main role, and I remember thinking I'll never direct and act at the same time. I don't know why I regained confidence for "Curfew" because I had very low confidence going into it.
ML: There was something perfect about the length of "Curfew," which is long for a short film. Was this time frame planned out ahead of time?
SC: We didn't think it was a perfect length. In short films over fourteen minutes, every minute gets you into trouble because distributors have a harder time scheduling you. For Cannes you can't submit anything over fifteen minutes. I sat with my producer, Damon Russell, and we looked at it to see what we would cut and there wasn't anything self-indulgent. There wasn't a guy staring into a field for two minutes. We thought, "okay it's a 19-minute long film." But I think that's why we didn't get into some festivals. We thought it would be shorter. We were working with a fourteen page script, so we thought it would be fourteen minutes. And the dance sequence was only a couple of paragraphs, but it ended up being a couple of minutes.
ML: How did you find the dynamic between the tough and mature kid and her immature uncle?
SC: Nothing specific, when it comes to writing things I have most fun investing in characters — and the dialogue. I know roles — Sophie could tear Richie down verbally all day long, seven days a week, and he would just take it because he loves her. Strangers it would be another thing, but for his family, he'll let them. I kept that dynamic throughout.
ML: Tell me about the flip book from Richie's childhood?
SC: My dad taught me how cartoons worked by drawing them on ten-page flip-books, and my Mom bought me 100-page pads and I drew my own. The idea came to make it part of the movie, but sadly, I didn't have any of the books from childhood that would work in the movie so I had to redraw them.
ML: You drew the flip-books in the movie?
SC: Well, you'll see there is only one I show in the movie and the other one underneath, I didn't get to finish. I would do them overnight when we were shooting.
ML: In these flip-books, there is a cartoon character named Sophia, who is shot by an arrow, and then has an anvil dropped on her — but still survives. This is a Phoenix theme paralleled by Richie, who tries to kill himself, but bounces back.
SC: I think he's a fatalist at every level. He wants to be needed, he wants people to pay attention to him, he wants someone to come look at his flip-books. He hopes his niece Sophia is named after the cartoon character he drew.
ML: What's going through Richie's head when he says "okay" — both at the beginning of the film and at the end? Do you see a difference?
SC: These are slightly different "okays." In the first one, he felt needed for the first time in a long time, he was flattered. In the second, the "okay" was similar but now it was saying: "I'm not going to end my life." It's a dark sense of humor, you know: "I gotta check out of this place, but I can't because I need to look after Sophia next Friday."
ML: The music in "Curfew" is also really engaging. How did you you choose the specific pieces?
SC: Our music supervisor, Brienne Rose selected the type of music. She would give me about thirty choices, I didn't like any of them, she would come back with ten or twenty more. She was looking for things that were really fresh, and cool, and also affordable. I had the Vera Lynn song in the beginning and the Alexander song at the end credits, those were the two I had in mind.
ML: Do you have a favorite song in the film? One that you were listening to a lot at the time?
SC: The Alexander song, "Truth" — I fell in love with it when we started shooting. It wasn't out on the radio, but it was in my head and I was playing it all the time. It happened that the management said we could use it, because they could have just as easily said no or given us a really high quote. At one point we went after a Rolling Stones song and they gave us a quote [laughs]. And it was a good quote, but it was just too expensive.
ML: What song was it?
SC: "Playing with Fire." But it was good that we went with a song that was more fun, so the audience knows they could laugh a little. With something dark, they might not have known they could loosen up.
ML: What's next for you?
SC: What I'm mostly working on now is trying to get a feature length version of "Curfew."
ML: Will this be a sequel or extension of the evening? How will you expand it?
SC: It will still take place over one night, but with more depth about Richie and about Maggie [Richie's sister] and what she's going through, and more about Sophia and Richie. I wasn't sure about it at first, though now that I have a draft I feel better about it.