“The only time I want to make short films is when I’m confident of the first minute,” Shawn Christensen tells me just minutes after our own conversation began. “If I can come up with something that’s really intriguing in the first minute of the film, then I feel like I’ll have my bearings to continue on after that.”
First impressions haven’t always been kind to the filmmaker, but they’ve always been strong. Just a little over a year ago, Christensen might have been licking his wounds from the critical and commercial drubbing of “Abduction,” the Taylor Lautner action vehicle that earned him his first major feature writing credit but that he insists now bears little resemblance to the script that earned him a place on the Black List in 2010. But the man of many mediums – before filmmaking, he studied graphic design and played in the indie rock act Stellastar – has found a comfort zone in making shorts where running times may be more limited, but creative control is far greater. To date, Christensen has picked up many prizes for the films “Walter King” and “Brink,” but next week, he’s up for the biggest award to date as an Oscar nominee for the darkly comic “Curfew,” which he wrote, directed and stars in.
Naturally, “Curfew” opens with a wallop, introducing Christensen in a bathtub full of water with a razorblade not far from his grasp, but in the process of ending it all, a phone call from his sister pulls him out of his apartment to babysit his vivacious nine-year-old niece Sophia who threatens to pull him out of his stupor. Within 19 minutes, the film plumbs the depths of despair to reach the heights of a toe-tapping musical number, managing to be both a crowdpleaser and a incisive character study all while tapping into the grit and magic of an evening in New York.
Before Christensen can walk the red carpet next week, he took the time to talk about the genesis of the film, which is available on iTunes as well as playing theatrically as part of this year’s Oscars shorts program, how he became interested in filmmaking and the unexpected pleasures from the film’s successful run on the festival circuit.
How did the short come about?
A couple ways. Mostly, I had the idea for a little bit in my head over the years, but not to direct it, just to act in it and maybe write it. And then it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen. No one I knew wanted to direct, so I ended up coming into 2011 thinking that I should just do it myself.
If you had the idea for a while, what was it about it that lingered on in your head?
I wanted to explore the relationship between someone who’s really at the lowest point of their life and someone at a very high point spending a brief moment in time with each other. I thought the idea of Richie being suicidal and getting the call to take care of Sophia was so absurd that it was a good starting point.
If you wanted to primarily act in it, did that change how you approached directing it?
When I wrote it, I was a bit depressed about other things in my life, so I was writing a little bit more of a depressing film. As an actor, I tend to go for the humor, so thinking about myself to do it, I think I realized I needed to have that element of humor mainly because when I would be in it, I wouldn’t be able to help myself. I think that kind of saved me. (slight laugh) Because if it was just a dramatic short or straight melodrama, it wouldn’t work.
It had to be helpful once you found your lead actress Fatima Ptacek. Is it true you saw her on the morning news?
Yeah, that’s just sheer luck. (laughs) Child actors and actresses are tough to come by, for obvious reasons. They simply haven’t been around long enough to build up the chops sometimes or sometimes they’re so naive, it’s wonderful. With Fatima, she’s a 30-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old’s body, so I just really lucked out. I did see her on a national morning show and then we had her come and audition a week later. She was fantastic and probably the only thing on the set I did not have to worry about.
You’ve said this could be the basis for a feature. Was there a larger story in mind when you first wrote the short or is it something that has developed?
I didn’t have any feature film idea when I made it. Then as the year went on and as I wanted to control my work more, I felt obligated to write a feature for myself to direct to have control over my screenplays more. And honestly, I just had no [other] ideas. (laughs) I just felt I might as well see if I can make it into a feature. It took a while, but I managed to complete the draft.
In general, how did you get attracted to film in the first place?
I think it starts with nostalgia for when my dad brought me to all these science-fiction films when I was a kid. All those George Lucas and Spielberg films, “Goonies” and “Gremlins” and the John Hughes films — all those films made me feel nostalgic for movies. Then as a writer, I remember seeing “Chinatown,” and it wasn’t the first time…it was maybe the fourth time I had ever seen it, it just clicked for me. I watched it 10 times in a row and that’s when I started writing.
Because you’ve been involved in many different art forms – does making films encompass all of those things?
I never thought of it that way, but that’s probably true. Another thing, though, and I’m commenting specifically on directing these short films, it’s also the first time that I’ve ever been able to completely control the vision of something. In my band, I was married to three other people essentially and although I’m proud of a lot of the work that came out of that band, in the end, there was never anything that was 100 percent my vision. There were always compromises, good and bad. In screenwriting, there’s none of my vision. Once I sell it to a studio, they can do whatever they want with it and they have done whatever they want with it. But short films as an art, I’m able to just control it and pass or fail, it’s on me.
You’ve said before your experience on “Abduction” wasn’t that great. Is it nice to have something with a more positive connotation such as “Oscar nominee” going forward as people’s primary association with your film work?
It’s a good feeling, but it’s odd because those films couldn’t be more opposite as far as my involvement in them. “Curfew” was a film I made with my friends in New York City on my own dime and it had nothing to do with anything in Hollywood. It didn’t have anything to do with my managers or my agents. It just was something I did, so for short filmmakers out there who are looking to get into the medium, I would love for them to know I did this film on my own, regardless of the fact I was writing screenplays [for studios].
Have you had a particularly great experience on the road with the film?
The whole year has been a great experience for myself and for Damon [Russell, a producer on the film] and for everybody involved. We went to Tokyo, we were in France. We’ve been in a lot of festivals, but here’s what’s exciting: you make a short film and you don’t think anybody is going to like it. Then it gets into a festival and you’re thinking that’s amazing and then it wins an award and you’re thinking that’s amazing and then it gets into more festivals and then the journey kind of unravels. That entirety, I think, is exciting.
And an Oscar nomination to boot.
Of course, but before we were shortlisted, the film had such an amazing year. We had such an amazing time watching it take a life of its own and I think if you make a short film that’s close to you personally and if you have the means to do it, it can be very rewarding.
“Curfew” is now available on iTunes and playing as part of the Oscar Shorts program. A full list of theaters can be found here.