SXSW ’14 Interview: Chell Stephen on Polishing a Diamond in the Rough Into “Crystal”

On her comic short about a profane, hot steppin' 17-year-old looking to get out of town.
Kate Stephen in "Crystal"

Upon one’s first glance at “Crystal,” a comic short about an irascible, dance obsessed teen who wants to get away from home as far as hitchhiker-friendly truckers will take her, you might think its writer/director wouldn’t want to return to her roots. But for Chell Stephen, the film offered the chance to introduce her family from work, the Brooklyn-based filmmaking collective Think/Feel, to her blood relatives up north, a particularly easy sell during a sweltering summer.

“We shot up in Canada, and the squad was not mad at leaving stinky NYC-in-July for a lakeside shoot,” says Stephen via e-mail shortly after “Crystal” debuted at SXSW, leading many to pop and lock out of the shorts program it played in.

As refreshing as that lake in rural Ontario might’ve been for both sides of Stephen’s family, “Crystal” aims to be an equally cool breeze put on blast, featuring the filmmaker’s sister Kate in the titular role of a small town girl who can’t help but move, whether it’s practicing her steps in convenience stores or empty diners or plotting her escape from the idyllic countryside that’s far too quiet for her tastes. More than happy to extend her middle finger to the local dullards who don’t share her passions, she is loud in every way, profane and outspoken while attired in eyecatching pink.

Yet once “Crystal” grabs your attention, the Stephen sisters keep it, gradually upping the ante on the lead character’s exploits until she goes out in a literal blaze of glory. It’s a fire that continues to burn as “Crystal” makes its way across the festival circuit, stopping next at the Atlanta Film Festival on March 31st and shortly before, Stephen spoke about how the short came together, how her background in making music videos helped the production and how she only knows her new favorite person by the back of their head.

Kate Stephen in Chell Stephen's "Crystal"Even the film’s description calls your lead character an “asshole” and then you went and cast your sister. How did all that come about?

Teenage years are so ripe with uncomfortable experiences and raging misguided feelings, which I personally find pretty funny. When I first pictured the character Crystal, I imagined this person, who we’ve all known someone like and feels like the world is out to get them, and they’re way better than everything and everyone around them. I do love calling her an “asshole,” but of course, I sympathize with Crystal too and a few years ago when I started thinking about Crystal, my sister Kate was getting more serious about her acting. I thought it would be great fun to work together, and also make something to showcase our respective passions. I wrote the role for her, it was always hers to play.

After making music videos, why was it the right time to make a short?

I will always love music videos, but I really wanted the challenge of writing and covering scenes of dialogue in a visually interesting way. That was a muscle I hadn’t flexed in a while. In a music video you don’t necessarily have to stay with a character’s arc, or understand them. You can sometimes just get away with whatever you want because it looks awesome. I wanted to be fully accountable to a character and a story, so a short felt like a good way to do that.

Beyond your sister Kate starring in the film, I understand your sister Jennifer put up some of the budget and your husband Elijah Ocean did the music. Was the fact that this was a family affair make this special?

The people I care about most knew I was going all in on this, so they had my back. That goes for my sisters, my husband, Think/Feel, my mom, my family and friends. Jennifer was also one-half of the hair and make-up team — the other being the brilliant Caitlin Allen, who I’ve known so long she might as well be my sister — and also “base camp mom” during production. We stayed at my family’s cottage for 10 days to make the film and she was kind enough to field the questions like “Where can i put my towel?” so I was free to focus on directing. My sisters and I had collaborated on a short experimental piece that I shot and Kate starred in, with make-up by Jennifer, a few years ago, so I knew we had the talent needed – and that they would work tirelessly to make sure things came out the way I wanted. We’re all very close.

With regard to my husband Elijah, I truly love the songs he writes. He’s such a smart songwriter and we are lucky that we can scratch each other’s backs in our respective careers. I directed a video of his called “The Diplomat” in 2012 and my Think/Feel team were all up in that too. For Crystal, I knew I wanted a country radio vibe throughout the film, so I explained what I was after and he cooked up some perfect songs for the film. It was great to have an in-house guy – literally!

Did either dance or the music in general influence how you wanted to move the camera?

I had some pretty specific visual styles I wanted to reference in the dance sections. ’90s Britney Spears video dance sequences tend to be shot dead on – the camera is facing one direction the whole time on what is usually a massive set and they let her moves do the talking, with some camera sweeps and moments of slo-mo. In the chair dance sequence [at the start of the short, a fantasy of Crystal’s in a diner], we shot a bunch of snap zooms and played around with camera shake, as that dance sequence was meant to be the more “badass” and “gritty.”

An amazing friend, James Dean Wells, enlisted the company he works for, human, to compose the dance tracks for us, which didn’t happen until after photography. We used some regular pop songs that I love to shoot the choreography set-ups, and then gave those as references to the composers at human. They kept the [beats per minute] mostly the same, and gave us some original riffs on the major pop songs I’d be using as subs.

The movement in the narrative sections of the film is also of the dance world. It’s meant to feel like you’re experiencing this world with Crystal and that’s how things are for her – dance infused!  So camera slides by the mean girls [in the film] are like an electric slide and dutchies out as the truck drives off… It’s music and movement based, for sure.

Kate Stephen in "Crystal"Speaking of the truck, was it more difficult to pull off the shot in which Crystal dives headfirst into the pickup through the window or setting the hills on fire for the climax?

The challenge of lighting the hills on fire was indeed a tough one, but once they were lit, we had our super-strong steadicam operator Derek Barnes flying around and capturing Kate. She did get burned by the road flare during one shot though – sorry Mom! We shot the truck jump shot from several specific angles to give the coverage that makes it seem like she’s really nailing that leap – my favorite was our martini shot, when the camera is pointed directly at the sky and Crystal dives over it. We had the camera protected, but in the lake, and Kate ran down a dock and dove onto a floating water toy thing. Hilarious and fun, both.

The colors of the film really pop and create a nice contrast between the natural environment and the characters who are heavily made up, something I gather may have been inspired by the fact you grew up in the area.

The colors are my favorite, so I’m glad they felt poppy and fun to you too! I’ve been spending all possible summer moments in the area we shot since the age of four. There’s something about the colors up there, and the feeling that is so perfect and surreal. I know there are blue skies and green trees other places, but I think they just might be extra special in Seeley’s Bay/Grippen Lake. The winding awesome weirdness of roads we shot on is something I’ve been wanting to capture for years and I also have to give major love to Alex Delany, who took what we’d shot and ran with it making the colors pop even more. It looks exactly like I dreamed it would. Those colors were a major touchstone I kept coming back to throughout the making of the film: the pink of Crystal’s outfit against the blue and the green.

What was it like to watch the film with an audience on the big screen at SXSW?

I’ve never seen my work that on the big screen before and hearing people laugh while it screened was probably the coolest thing — I’d hear a little titter, immediately look forward and then fall in love with the back of that person’s head. “This back-of-the-head gets me!! And I love them!”

“Crystal” has been made available online and you can watch it right here:

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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