Oscar-Winning Director Shawn Christensen on His Feature Film Debut

Last year, Shawn Christensten took home the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film for Curfew, the poignant and darkly humorous tale of a man who puts his suicide on hold to take care of his young niece in New York City for the night. Needless to say, a lot of eyes are on the triple-threat writer/actor/director as he unveils his feature-length debut — a more fleshed-out, retitled version of his Oscar-winning short, with new narrative elements including a pair of seedy nightlife impresarios, several criminal incidents, and an increasingly blurred boundary between fantasy and reality.

Shot on a tight budget in an even tighter timeframe, Before I Disappear premiered at the SXSW Film Festival earlier this month, where it won the Audience Award in the Narrative Feature Competition. In addition to Christensen himself, it stars Fatima Ptacek in a reprisal of her earlier role, along with Emmy Rossum, Paul Wesley, and Ron Perlman. Following the debut screening of his film in Austin, we caught up with Christensen — who is already well into his second career, after fronting early-aughts indie-rock band Stellastarr* — to discuss, among other things, how he made this remarkable movie so fast.

You won the Oscar for Curfew a year ago, and at the time, you were talking about wanting to make a full-length version. In one year, you went from saying that to screening it. How were you able to make it happen so quickly?

Christensen: We had started securing financing before we were nominated, actually. We had investors who were excited about the script. But I don’t really know how we did it, because it was a struggle to shoot it and edit it that fast. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, that kind of turnaround.

So why did you end up working on such a tight schedule?

There were a couple of reasons. One was that the stars aligned for us getting the cast that I wanted to have. Emmy Rossum had a break from Shameless, Paul had a break, and Ron Perlman became available. And then there was just the feeling that we had a script, and people thought it was in great shape, and we wanted to go make it.

The other part of it was that there wasn’t a lot of money to make this film, so it was a short shoot. And in order to submit to SXSW, we needed to get the edit into shape fairly quickly, so there was a little bit of rushing for that.

If it were completely up to you, would you have spent a longer time on it, then?

Yeah, of course. From beginning to end, from pre-production to finalizing this film — not just editing, but also color and sound, all the aspects, the music — I think it was eight months. I did what I wanted to do, but I also lost things I wanted to try out, things that I would have maybe done re-shoots for. We didn’t have budgets for re-shoots, or time. We didn’t have a lot of resources that I normally would like to have. Of course — and this is true with all my work — I tend to see the flaws more often than I see the things that are working. But that’s part of my makeup. It’s just who I am.

Was this longer narrative always there in your mind, or did you have to figure out how to work the additional story elements in after the fact?

I didn’t have this longer narrative in mind for the short film. I had to figure that one out. It’s funny to say this, but with the short film, I had so little confidence in my writing, and also was fairly new at directing. It was only my third short film, really, and I was just trying to make something that I hoped one or two people would like or watch. I certainly didn’t have any long-form ideas about it then. But as we started getting positive feedback and getting into the festival circuit, I started thinking about a long version, and it started coming together.

Where did those additional ideas come from?

I tried exploring all kinds of things — backstories, non-linear storytelling, flashbacks, flash-forwards, voiceover, no voiceover, ensemble-cast ideas — all kinds of directions. And then I kind of rounded back to the short film and the core simplicity of it, and just rolled with that. I wanted the script to be 75 pages or so, real simple, but it ended up growing to 100 pages. I had to cut down some stuff, and I probably should have cut some more, to give us a little more time to breathe during the shooting. But that all just came to me after I had gone through all these other variations.

So how do the new elements change the way the narrative itself functions, in your view?

It’s basically getting into [main character] Richie’s background and adding a symmetrical element to his story — which is that he has two bosses, who are completely opposite types of people, with opposite philosophies, and that’s something that he’s caught in the middle of. So it’s not just that he has to take care of this kid who really doesn’t care about getting to know him for the night, but he also has a lot of other things going on, too.

Did you want people watching to be unsure at times about whether something was actually happening or not?

Absolutely. I definitely want there to be times where you’re not quite sure what’s fact or fiction. That was something I wanted out of the gate. This guy has lost a lot of blood, he’s taken a lot of substances to get the pain away; so it’s a unique opportunity to explore him having hallucinations, and having things happen to him that maybe aren’t real, or never happened, or we just don’t know. And it’s also an opportunity to explore cinematic ideas. There’s a scene where the Grim Reaper sits next to him, and that all plays ultimately for humor, in the end. I wanted to go for the humor aspect of it, as well. I wanted that trippy vibe of just a little bit of this wacky, crazy night.

What was different from a technical standpoint between making this and Curfew, especially with an eye toward the fact that you had to recreate a lot of the shots from the first film?

We wanted to shoot it anamorphic again, the same way we did on the short film, but unfortunately, we were doing a non-union shoot with a small budget, and Panavision is a union house, so we didn’t think they were going to allow us to use their equipment. So, the short film was a RED camera with an MX sensor with Panavision Primo lenses, and the feature became an Alexa with Hawk anamorphic lenses. So the look is a little bit different, but it still has the anamorphic quality, and also has a little bit of — I don’t want to say gritty — but it’s a little darker quality, and it has different kinds of colors in it this time around. So that was a big change.

But outside of that, on a technical level, there weren’t many other changes, because our post-production was kind of the same. I still edited this one mostly on my laptop, or my other editors’ laptops, and at one point, we didn’t even have an office anymore. I just edited the movie in my apartment then, which was the same as with the short film. So the post-production wasn’t too different. And I used the same people for the coloring and the music supervising, everything like that.

Had you had any experience working with the Alexa camera before?

I haven’t used the Alexa before. It was very crisp, which I had to get used to. I think the RED might have a touch more of a filmic quality, maybe because sometimes it’s a little bit softer. But the Alexa is also beautiful and crisp, so it’s pretty gorgeous on another level. And Daniel Katz, the DP, had worked with the Alexa before, obviously. It’s a very popular camera that’s being used now on most movies, probably, these days. So he was familiar with it.

Do you find it difficult directing and starring in a film at the same time?

It wasn’t difficult in the short film, but it was incredibly difficult in the feature. Part of the reason is that for the short, we shot about two pages a day. So, we had time to set up the framing and to rehearse a little bit, and there was a smaller crew; it was more intimate. For the feature film, it was five pages a day, which was extraordinarily tough for me. It got to the point where I basically took my acting, my takes — especially if it wasn’t a two-shot — as the least important thing. I’d give the other actors all the reverses, and get their stuff taken care of, and allow them as many takes as they needed to get their performances, and then we would do my takes last. Because I knew that, since it’s all on the line for me, I’m going to have to do it in one or two takes, so we can move on and get on to the next shot or the next location. I didn’t want to put the other actors in that position.

Do you know just from doing the take that you’ve got it, or do you have to watch it back?

What I’ll do is I’ll frame it up, and I’ll ask them to record not the take, but me, for a minute, so I can see it on the monitor. I’ll see if the framing is right, and then I’ll do one or two, or maybe three takes if we have time, and I’ll know in my head which is the one I really like. I don’t watch it. I never watch my own takes. There’s just no time to do it.

So your main focus now is getting distribution for the film?

Correct. We’re here trying to get the film sold and get distribution. There are a lot of other festivals coming up now, too. We had a really good relationship with a lot of festivals with the short film, and they wanted to see screeners for their festivals this year, but I think SXSW is a great place for buyers and people to get eyes on it.

Are you feeling good about the reaction so far?

I feel great about the audiences, and I really only care about the audiences in the end, to be honest. That’s where it’s at for me. To see them laugh and cry at the places they’re supposed to laugh and cry at, and to hear them come up afterwards and talk about what they liked, or what they enjoyed about it, that’s just extremely satisfying.

Before I Disappear will screen next at the Florida Film Festival, the Monadnock International Film Festival, and the Nashville Film Festival.