Shirley Chen in "Krista"

SXSW ’18 Interview: Danny Madden on the Creative Catharsis of “Krista”

It wasn’t planned this way, but Danny Madden has almost done something no other filmmaker has, having a film premiere in nearly every category at SXSW.

“I haven’t had a film play in the narrative live action shorts category, so it’s a new category,” exclaims Madden, who in addition to having a narrative feature (“euphonia”), an animated short (“(notes on) biology”) and now a narrative short (“Krista”) produced the festival bumpers in 2014 as part of the creative collective Ornana, before joking, “I’ve got to start doing documentaries.”

If truth is what you’re looking for, however, Madden has had a knack at getting just that, albeit in a different way than most. The variety of projects he’s had premiere in Austin is indicative of a consummate filmmaking skill set that allows for tactile experiences to get lost in more than narratives you observe at a remove, using evocative sound design to create environments as vivid as he can visually and a playful sense of cinematography that goes where the eye would be naturally attracted, requiring no adjustment from walking into one of his films and stepping right outside. However, Madden’s works are fully transporting and “Krista,” premiering as part of Shorts Program 2 this week at SXSW, may be set inside a high school theater department, but it takes audiences to a place that couldn’t exist anywhere else but the mind or the fever dream of great cinema.

“Krista” hones in on a student bearing that name (Shirley Chen), who unbeknownst to (most of) her classmates has been subject recently to a vicious assault on her way to school. Performing a monologue from a classic play takes on contemporary ramifications as Krista channels her trauma into what would typically be a rather mundane exercise for the other kids, but as Madden blends the ferocity with which Krista attacks her role onstage with the out-of-body experience of being grabbed off the street, you begin to realize how deeply the young woman has internalized the incident yet cannot express herself in any way but anger, leaving her to deal with more complicated emotions stemming from the assault at an age when she might be better equipped to understand them.

Although the film tackles a serious subject, it’s handled with great care, but a refreshing lack of delicacy, at least as far as how Madden lets the fervid energy of a teenage cast to drive the drama to dizzying heights, drawing on their primal screams during theater exercises to create the sound mix for the film and tormenting his poor brother Will, who plays their teacher. Shortly before the film’s premiere in Austin, Madden spoke about how letting go a little bit, both creatively and emotionally, resulted in such an impressive film, working with a cast that mostly hadn’t been on a film shoot before and once again finding innovative ways to sweep up an audience.

How did this come about?

It came about with just these stories from friends – girls who had all these experiences that to me were just horrific, but to them was just another drop in the bucket. And being a guy, I don’t have that kind of tension in my life, so I ignorantly, naively didn’t realize how common that was, that there were incidents where they realized they really needed to put a guard up in the world.

I did actually experience something in the neighborhood where we shot where somebody tried to mug me and I ended up running. It was this whole thing where your heart’s pounding, your adrenaline’s up, and for weeks, I’m looking over my shoulder, thinking what would happen if I saw this guy again. There’s just that hypothetical and I didn’t have an outlet for that. I guess this film is my outlet, either like a middle finger to the guy or “Hey, man, this is how you made me feel. I’m trying to reason with you.” But for this character Krista, she had the scene [in drama class] that she could put it all into and find this catharsis through the theater.

Did you actually conceive it with a high school class in mind?

Yeah, I wanted to use real high school-aged kids. It’s a whole lot easier to make a movie with people who are all older that play younger, but for me, there is something more visceral to see kids with braces or still in the process of puberty because there is this vulnerability there and this learning at that point of life that I don’t think you can’t fake so much, what’s on somebody’s face.

There’s [also] a larger idea here of teenagers portraying these [characters in] classic plays written for and by middle-aged people about life and then you have a 15-year-old playing like a 48-year-old mother of three who’s burnt out on life. There’s something interesting about that dynamic [of] pulling from life to breathe life into these characters, but what experience does a 17-year-old girl who grew up in a nice neighborhood have? So we’re exploring those concepts, but also [how] theater is an outlet – we show the exercises, like tribal yelling and hitting extremes because they have this valve that they can release their frustrations and their anxieties – everything can come through their performance. It’s this really unique form of therapy, if you think about it. [laughs]

Your lead Shirley Chen is incredible. Was she actually going to the high school you set this up inside?

Yes, she was. And we had no expectation. We were like, “Let’s try it. Let’s see what we can get.” The high school location we got through our producer Kara Durrett, who got it for free for a couple days and she was like, “Well, we might as well send them a casting call, seeing if any of their theater department wants to come out.” Sure enough, we ended up casting the whole thing and Shirley came and just astonished us, so we were like, “Of course, she’s in.”

You’ve said this was more improvised than other things you’ve done. What kind of structure did you have?

As far as the page, it was really just a five-page thing outline that I wrote. It wasn’t in proper script form and when it came to specifics, like [Krista’s dramatic] monologue, I just wrote that separately and sent it to her. and I was like, “Oh, this is the part you’re going to be performing, by the way” and she learned that apart from what the movie. But as far as the structure of it, a lot of times, especially on the last short “Frolic and Mae,” every single shot is planned out [how] everything cuts into the next thing is all there already before we show up on set, so for this, it was like “let’s figure it out as we go” and shoot it in a documentary kind of way.

Because it was a lot of discovering while the moments were happening with this one, I ended up operating [the camera] a lot of the film and allowing the actors the freedom to just be in the moment. My brother Will, who I co-wrote the film with and who was playing the drama teacher, is actually coaching them through these exercises and [the camera is] there like “Let’s capture it. Let’s see if we can get this energy that’s happening in the room that Will was actually stirring up as the teacher,” so it was this really fun opportunity to trust Will to keep them going and then every now and then I would pepper in some direction to Will to tell the kids. It was this really wonderful process – and fun for everyone too. Most of these kids hadn’t acted on film before.

Did Will actually have any experience as a drama teacher? The exercise, for instance, felt extremely accurate.

Will has been studying theater since he was about 16, so he has a decade of theater training – he went to BU for theater acting and then worked in Boston in the theater for a couple years, and then in between, he would teach high school kids at some summer camp things, and he was summoning some of his professors too in that role.

Since this was semi-improvised, was there either something during a scene or a quality this may have that you weren’t expecting, but you’re happy it’s in there?

It was how it all ended up coming together because it reached a point where we could keep it all flowing together. It almost feels like the whole movie is a montage, and we’re intercutting all these different scenarios. That was the experiment for me because I had never done parallel stories before, so it was finding when to check in and what would be most effective. A few scenes were cut – we shot another lecture that the teacher has and a scene of Krista] walking through the neighborhood with a friend of hers, not wanting to walk down that street. But getting people’s reactions and ideas from showing it to friends – it helped shape this movie. So I liked it for that process of it. I was a lot less precious about this than I have been [on other films] about how shots come together. I was more open to suggestion and the movie’s better for it.

As is often the case with your films, the sound design and the score are quite innovative, creating a tempo through the diegetic sound. Since you’re grabbing that from what you’re getting on set, how much of an idea did you have before filming of the rhythm of it?

That’s the kind of stuff that gets the geek fire burning in me, like oooh, we have the opportunity to form fit a soundtrack for the film with sounds that are organic to what this movie is, so that percussive, melodic idea of this innocent kid dragging a stick along the fence [at the start of the film] and where that scenario goes from there, having that [sound as] punctuation in her mind – and subsequently the audience’s mind – in triggering the memory or the memory conjuring up the sound, I thought, “Oh cool, that’s our score.” Then of course the day we’re doing our tribal circle of theater kids, we led them through some stomp/clap stuff and they were a little bit like, “What the hell is this for?” But we recorded five or 10 minutes of that, changing the rhythms and I ended up combining those two things over the course of it. You can’t tell where the sound design stops and the score begins, but you put these things together in a way that just attempts to interpret what [Krista’s] feeling.

Were most of the theater scenes shot in a day?

We broke it up [over] two days. The first day was half in the theater, so we got the fun stuff out of the way, doing the different scenes that are intercut within Will’s lecture of them performing in costumes and then the different lighting setups, [which] also taught the kids what the process is because most of them haven’t really done film before. So we let everyone play and do their thing for half a day [with the full cast] and then we said, “Alright, we’ll see you guys tomorrow for the full day,” and we went with Shirley and Eli Raskin to go shoot the neighborhood stuff [where the traumatic event occurs] around Sunset. We saved a whole half a day for the ending.

Have you actually shown the film to the students yet?

Yeah, we did. We actually planned for it in January and it happened so that we heard the news [of getting into SXSW] two days before we screened it for the kids. It was so neat because they had no idea what they were doing [with this short]. For them, it was just two fun days in the summer to show up and be in a movie. Shirley was [more] aware [because] she’s done a little bit of television before, but they all watched it and they were like, “Whoa…” They really didn’t know what it would feel like and then afterwards, [we] got to announce afterwards that it was playing at South By, so it was great. All their parents came out too, which was exciting too because everyone was volunteering — they were the ones driving their kids and dropping them off for us to film, so to have that kind of support was really important for us, and it led to a really great discussion. Onnie [Williams], who plays Isaac with the glasses, his father is a big, strong guy and he comes over [to me] and says, “You know, I’m a big guy and I’ve never really had an experience like this, and I don’t understand how to talk about it in film terms, but it really made me feel what [Krista’s] feeling.” And I’m like, “That’s it, man. That means it works.”

“Krista” will play at SXSW as part of Shorts Program 2 on March 10 at 2:45 pm at the Alamo Lamar E, March 12 at 5 pm at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center and March 15 at the Stateside Theatre at 11 am.

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