Sean David Christensen on Giving Himself the Room to Remember in “What I Had to Leave Behind”

As Sean David Christensen recalls leaving the gas burner on his stove on overnight by accident in “What I Had to Leave Behind,” one realizes the flame will never be entirely extinguished for his old home, an apartment in Los Angeles that might not be much to look at until the filmmaker insists on a closer inspection. Once living in the heart of Koreatown, Christensen might’ve been subject to the sound of constant traffic outside his window and whir of helicopters passing above, but few stopped, including himself, to consider all that was happening inside the walkup where stains would mysteriously creep across the floor and the bug life that may have been annoying at the time but now he can marvel at its persistence.

If all these memories come flooding back into Christensen’s mind, they come alive for a viewer in his inventive 10-minute short where he reconstructs his former flat in miniature though no detail becomes too small to draw a lively story from, made all the more vibrant with the hand-painted animation of Cassie Shao and the free association jazz of Branden Brown. While they bring flourishes of color to the empty beige apartment, Christensen leads a tour of the place that may have served as the modest home you’d expect for a burgeoning artist, but keeps expanding in its dimensions as he remembers the air mattress he’d pull out for guests or the pictures that he had hoped to get around to lining the walls with and never did, recognized only in retrospect as markers of his aspirations and the things important enough to make an impression on him that he was unlikely to catch in the moment but now are likely to haunt him for an eternity.

That lingering quality hasn’t been limited to Christensen alone as “What I Had to Leave Behind” made its way through the festival circuit from DOC NYC to Palm Springs Shortsfest and with the film recently making its debut online at NoBudge and Vimeo (on which it can now be seen below), the director generously spoke about how he’s learned he’s created a space for others to look back on where they’ve been, the collaboration behind it that pulls the past into the present so vividly and how each step of the artistic process helped him rediscover the story he wanted to tell.

How did this come about?

I was moving out of my apartment and with each box that I took away from my living space, it felt like I was making room for memories that I had pushed aside or I was making space for a new story that I had been writing in the back of my head about what it was like to live in this very specific apartment during this time in my life. As my apartment got emptier and emptier all the walls started to feel like they were blank canvases that were asking me like, “Well, now’s now’s your opportunity,” and I’ve been wanting to do a hybrid doc that would blend animation and live-action for a while. That’s when I asked my friend, Cassie Shao. She brought everything together with her unique hand-painted illustrations and animation. Her eye was critical to telling this story. Looking back, I can’t imagine making the film without her.

I wanted the film to represent the last afternoon that you’re going through your apartment and if you notice, the light changes over the course of the film – it starts with like daylight and then as the sun goes down you feel like, “Oh, this is really the last afternoon” – and I came up with this idea that I all these memories I had were animated ghosts or traces of dreams or obsessions or compulsions and they were waking up during the last moments of looking around at the space, so over the course of the sun setting, these memories were waking up for the last time because maybe they realized, “Oh, this is my last chance.” Funnily enough, the last shot of the film was the first concept that I had, [where I] was like, “I want to have a hand and reach through a scale miniature recreation of my apartment as just a nice kind of gift to the audience of those who had an eye for detail and those who were like really following along.

I know that striking image is what made me want to watch it. Did you actually know as you were leaving this place that you wanted to make a film or was this rebuilt from memory?

Basically, I had halfway moved out of my apartment by the time I started filming in November of 2019, so my apartment was half empty, but I thought I want to do something with the emptiness of this place, so I invited my cinematographer Wenting Deng Fisher to come over and I had some specific shots already in mind, like “I’d want to use this wide shot for the animation of the air mattress blowing up” and I definitely wanted to do something about the stove as a focus point that activated my OCD. Then she came over one afternoon and I’m like, “Alright, so here’s the deal. “I want to film just a bunch of empty walls and light sockets.” [laughs] We discovered things along the way, like Wenting set up shots of the dripping faucet, which ended up being the scene for talking about the bed bug. And we just shot it in an afternoon, so I’d say about half the shots in the film were ones that I had storyboarded, and I love how a shot list can become a conversation. Because she had visited my apartment in the past before, it was like both of us rediscovering the space together and then to create the miniature, I took a bunch of reference photos. I measured the walls, and then I just recreated everything down to 1/12 scale, which is standard dollhouse scale where one inch equals one foot.

Your interest in miniatures seems to predate this film. Where did it come from?

Yeah, I did miniatures in college for school projects, like making set design maquettes because I studied a little bit of theater in college. The first film that I used miniatures in was a short documentary about my parents’ divorce called “Empty House” in 2008 [where] I made a series of dollhouse sets that represented the varying levels of how the house was dissolving [with] furniture being taken away and being replaced and the house being divided up. That was an interesting experience for me of using a miniature set with narration to dislodge the audience’s sense of reality and time and to put them within like a space where the memories were the only thing that was real you could really grab on to. You’re leaning in that much closer to the narrator’s voice because everything around you seems to be abstracted and falling apart.

I really enjoyed that process and that was my first film where I really used miniatures in a story-driven philosophical approach, so I continued using miniatures. I worked with Lili Taylor on this live storytelling show she did in New York called “RISK!” Her story was called “The Duel,” [where] I recreated all these spaces from her childhood with the purpose of centering the audience’s experience within that interpretive memory space.

When you’re making these memories tactile to some extent, are there ways in which you’re seeing a narrative form that you may not have in your initial experience?

I have a pretty fixed narrative when I enter, and I know the words and the construction and the description of these scenes that I want to take place. What always surprises me and where I find these new emotions and undercurrents that come up almost supernaturally are when I involve music and sound design. My composer Branden Brown is a brilliant jazz musician/composer/saxophonist, and when I was describing the story to him, I didn’t give him any notes of like “In this scene I want you to focus on X, Y, and Z…” I laid out what the story meant to me and I gave him very broad tonal directions. Like in the opening of the film, I remember describing the music to sound like it’s like dust particles you see suspended in the air [when] you’re moving a box and then dust particles come up and I gave him these very light performance notes.

What was so astonishing is Branden was able to find all these tones and sound colors that I had no idea that were there in the words and when he came in, his music made me feel the impact of my memories in a whole different way. He asked our drummer Lauren Ellis to do this remarkable thing of scraping the drumstick against the cymbal to make this haunting, metallic drone sound of sheet metal being dragged across some concrete basement, and his ability to find the right tone to fit when the color of the narration darkened, that was really astonishing. That’s what I love the most about working in film is you’re relying on a network of so many different artists and perspectives and I really make a lot of effort to create a home for them within the story where they can feel comfortable to bring their ideas.

Is there some wiggle room once the process gets started for cross-pollination? It seems like with animation especially, one thing can no longer influence another?

Animation is tough because once an animator is brought on, it’s almost like architecture [where] you’ve got to have your floor plan, pretty much down to the nuts and bolts exactly where you want those beams to go because once you start shifting the duration of a scene or a shot, you’re adding on a lot of excess labor because the the animator has to shift their entire sequence and draw more frames. Cassie’s animation was all was frame-by-frame, all hand-drawn, so the difference between like an extra two or four seconds can be anywhere from 26 to 52 additional frames [or individual drawings]. I had to have a lot of confidence jumping into the film and locking in my timing and getting the “picture lock” of like, “Okay, this sequence is me talking at this speed…” and I really had the entire film almost pre-timed in my head before I handed it off to my composer and animator, using my own sense of pace and speed and I didn’t use any temp music.

When I was editing, I just used the silence and the flow of my voice and [I may have] had a leg up because I have a background in live storytelling. I do live storytelling with the Moth and I’ve had those experiences where you’re on stage and there is no safety net with the audience. You really have to control the pace and speed of your story, so you have to listen to the room, you have to listen to the air escaping when you feel like you’ve said something that needs a little bit more time to resonate with folks and I brought all of that background to the editing process, knowing that once things got moving, I really wasn’t going to be able to extend or shorten things because it depended so much on the production timeline.

Sound in general seems like such an important part of this. What was it like working with Jackie! Zhou?

Jackie! is one of these amazing designers where I’ve seen so much of their work and [whenever] I see Jackie’s name in the credits, I go, “Oh, wow, they did that one too?” But Jackie! was an amazing collaborator because I hadn’t mixed a film in 5.1 before and they were able to really expand the sonic space of the soundtrack by just moving things around and creating more tones and shapes that exist outside of the normal stereo presentation — fly things overhead and behind me. The sound design process for me became another way for me to rediscover my film all over again because the apartment world became so much more real when we started putting all the tracks together, like the sound of people murmuring behind a wall or street traffic on the outside of a window and you can feel the vibration of the glass.

Jackie! is a remarkable collaborator and everything was so, so detailed. Sound design is really one of my favorite parts of the process because mercifully, you feel that the end is in sight because you’ve picture locked the film. Everything’s pretty much in place. Sound and music are all there. You’re just creating the space and it reminded me hearing the soundtrack back for the first time when I was doing like my sit-in mixes, even though I had since long moved out of that apartment by the time we started mixing, it felt like the apartment was coming to life again. I remember the first time I sat in on the mix and when Jackie turned and said, “So what do you think?” And I was like, “Yeah, it’s done.”

What’s it been like getting this out in to the world?

The reactions have been astonishing because I never know how an audience is going to react. I’ve been in some screenings where it’s like air moving across the surface of the water, kind of a placid reaction, like I can’t really tell if it’s doing anything, and I have been really grateful for people who have messaged me directly either on Instagram or text. I’ve gotten some just amazing one-on-one personal notes, which is really gratifying for me, not only as a filmmaker, but as an artist because I feel like so much of what we do is, you’re just stuck in a dark room for weeks or months or years, and you’re [asking yourself], “Is this any good? What does this say?” I’ve had people describe how the apartment made them think of their first apartment — people on the West Coast tell me, “Oh, that’s such an L.A. apartment because of the shape of the archway or the space heater,” and then when I showed it on the East Coast, I’ve had people in New York be like, “Oh, that reminds me of my first apartment in Queens because of the doorways.” So I feel like that idea of the American apartment is such a tabula rasa [where] people will project their own lives into these spaces and I’m amazed that people have been willing to give as much of their own personal experience to the process of watching the film.

[Now] It’s out on Vimeo and it premiered on NoBudge, which was really exciting since it’s such a wonderful platform for emerging voices and a younger generation of filmmakers that are finding their own way to express themselves outside of what’s traditionally been available, so I think it’ll find a new audience online and who knows? It may inspire somebody else to tell their story, too.

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