Thank My Mom: Shawn Christensen on Curfew
Curfew stood out in the Oscar Nominated Live-Action Shorts with its emotional portrayal of an uncle (Shawn Christensen) bonding with the niece (Fatima Ptacek) his sister generally forbids him to see. Christensen wrote and directed the short, and it’s not his first film, only the first film of which he’s proud. Christensen is the credited screenwriter on the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, though he told us in detail all the ways in which the film is not his script. Other scripts by Christensen have been purchased by studios but not produced, so this Oscar nomination is a big step towards being recognized as the filmmaker he wants to be. We got to speak with Christensen before about is nomination, the making of Curfew and what really happened with Abduction.
CraveOnline: If you win, will you thank Taylor Lautner and the producers of Abduction in your Oscar speech?
Shawn Christensen: [Laughs] Probably not, probably not, but I do have a good rapport with the producers. Not so much the studio executives on the movie unfortunately. I’ll probably thank my mom because if I forget to thank her, I’m never going to hear the end of it.
Of course, but it’s a great story. Just being a working screenwriter is a big deal, so to go from that to an Oscar nominee is quite a story.
Yeah, I sure turned that around. I mean, the difference of course is vast between those two movies anyway. I mean, yes, I have a couple other screenplays that are sort of floating around studios and I hope something happens with them, but with a movie like Abduction, it was a pretty horrific experience overall. There’s no control there. I think part of the reason I made Curfew was so I can have control over my writing. I wanted to find out if I could write and direct something that was just simple and smaller, and just see it through myself instead of giving away my scripts to studios.
We definitely want to talk about the studio experience later, but for now, where can our readers see Curfew?
Well, it’s in theaters internationally with the other four nominated films. It will be, I believe, on iTunes with the other four films and by itself I think, February 19.
How do you submit to the Oscars for consideration? Do they just pick it out themselves?
The way it works is you have to win the top award at an Oscar eligible film festival, of which I think there are probably 40 or 50 of them in the world. And if you win the top award, you qualify to submit for Academy consideration, for Oscar consideration. So we won a couple of them. We won Cleveland and we won Nashville, and then we submitted. I think it’s just a one or two page quick little form and you just submit it to the Academy and then you don’t hear anything for a while.
I guess even 10 years ago and certainly prior to that, when short films were nominated for Oscars, no one had any chance to see the competitors. Have the shorts become a much more vital category now that there are forums like iTunes and VOD?
Definitely, without a doubt. In fact, they’ve done a lot, especially in the past five years. I think they’ve been releasing them in theaters now for six or seven years, the nominees together and it works because it comes out to about the length of a film. People can go see them and they can judge for themselves or they can just enjoy. They have the animated short film block, the live action short film block and the documentary short film block and it’s a great idea. Then they package them together on iTunes so I think Curfew on iTunes will have its own [page] and it’ll be part of the nominees’ block as well. As you can see, they do it the month leading up to the Oscars so everybody has a chance to watch them. It’s a great idea.
What are you wearing to the Oscars?
I’ll probably just wear a purple thong. Just keep it simple.
That must be a question you never thought you’d get asked.
That’s probably an answer you never heard too.
Who do you hope to meet at the Oscars?
You know, I haven’t thought about it. I didn’t know if I was hoping to meet anyone or I don’t know if I even can meet anyone honestly. I actually don’t even know how it works. I think I just go in and sit down and just be glad to be there. If I meet a couple people who I really admire, I mean if I meet Daniel Day-Lewis I’ll probably say something very stupid by accident.
You got all that emotion in 20 minutes of Curfew. Does that kind of suggest that feature films might be too long?
Is that a leading question? Look, there are feature films you feel like should be short films and there are short films I guess you feel like should be features. I think it’s tough to try to cram what I did in Curfew into a short film. I did another short film the year before called Brink which was just one single concept, very minimal dialogue. Went on for eight minutes and is a different kind of movie. I think the short film format just has a lot more risk-taking go on in general for a lot of people. It’s tough with Curfew because honestly, I’m extending it into a feature and it’s hard. It’s really hard.
Did you originally see it as a feature you started as a short?
Or you started to think of a feature now that you’ve done the short?
Yeah, I started thinking about it long after. What I did was I made this film and I hoped that just one person would like it. I was very depressed when I made the film honestly and I was very pessimistic about its chances of getting into any festivals or doing anything. So when I started getting a little encouraged by it and I talked with my producer, Damon [Russell], about it, we decided it might be interesting to explore the feature version of it so I started writing it. But it took me this past year. It’s definitely a tough one to do because it takes place only in one night and it has very few characters. I didn’t really want to spoil that core part of it.
Would the feature expand the structure we see, or would it be the short and then jump off?
It would expand on the structure. It would expand the night and it would expand where Ritchie comes from more and where Sophia comes from more and their backgrounds a bit more, the differences of course in the worlds that they come from.
The flipbooks just broke my heart because it was such a sincere and thoughtful and maybe misguided at first but well-meaning thing, and so personal. What was your inspiration for the flipbooks and how they are used in the story?
Well, I made flip books when I was a kid, starting from about five and my entire life, all I wanted to be was a Disney cartoonist. So throughout my childhood I made probably 60 or 70 of those flip books. When I was writing Curfew, I don’t know where the idea came from but I thought maybe if he talks about the flip books and how maybe she was named after them, I ought to show them at one point. Like you said, maybe he gets them from the wrong place but I just want to come up with some twists and turns and I thought that was a nice one. I wish I could have drawn a couple more because in the film, if you notice, there’s only the one. He just flips it over and over again because I couldn’t find enough time to finish the other one.
Do you have more personal inspirations like that for further connections they can make in a feature version?
I do. I do. It’s tough though because I don’t want to get melodramatic is the thing, because there’s some heavy issues in there. I want to keep the sense of levity involved, so it’s very personal but I also don’t want to lose the audience with anything that’s so personal it becomes too dramatic, if you know what I mean.
What was it like shooting in the bowling alley?
That bowling alley sort of art directs itself. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there. It’s called Brooklyn Bowl in New York and it just looks like the way you see it on screen. So when we showed up to location scout, and I had been there once before, I just really, really had to get that bowling alley. It was huge. It’s really kind of a half nightclub, or half rock club/half bowling alley. So a lot of the scenes in the movie take place there but you don’t realize it because it’s really that big. It’s a big place and it’s not your normal bowling alley with all the bright lights and the bad music.
How did you find Fatima Ptacek?
I auditioned just a handful of actresses but before I auditioned them, I’d seen Fatima on a morning show, a national morning show just being interviewed about some things she was doing. She knows how to write and read Chinese, she speaks Spanish, she’s the voice of “Dora the Explorer,” she’s a gymnast, a regional gym champion so she’s an all around prodigal kid. When I saw her do this interview on the morning show, I was secretly hoping she would really nail the audition and she did. She was phenomenal.
She must be one of the newer Doras. They must have to keep recasting.
Yeah, they recast every two years. She actually became the voice of Dora while we were shooting Curfew. She just had booked it.
Did you choreograph her dance or did she just go?
I have a friend in acting class named Allison Plamondon who helped me choreograph that scene. I told her what I wanted Fatima to do. In the movie when Fatima does the split, she did that on her own. We just were filming and she did that at the end of it, and everybody was like, “Okay, you need to keep doing that now after each take.” The rest of the extras in the bowling alley, they were choreographed by bowling alley.
You’d said Curfew was an experiment to see if your writing could stand on its own. Would that mean you direct it sort of minimally so it’s not as flashy? What sort of directing did you want to showcase?
Well, I have very specific ideas of cinematography and very specific ideas of performances that I wanted to get. I wanted that anamorphic feel but I also wanted it to be a little bit gritty. So that was what I was thinking, but as far as the writing’s concerned, what I meant was my screenplays had either been made into a movie that I completely didn’t even recognize when I saw it, or they’re in turnaround at studios. I reached a point where I was really second-guessing myself and I had lost almost all confidence as a writer and I felt like I needed to write something that I would direct and make and not give away just to see if I really could do it. I didn’t know if I should maybe get out of the trade.
Does this establish you as a director as well?
I don’t know, does it? A short film? I guess. I hope so. I’d like to get into directing more after this.
Getting into the film industry, you must have heard stories about screenwriters and the studio system. Was it really that surprising what happened on Abduction? Is it even more surprising than the rumors and stories we hear?
I think it was surprising the length they went a little bit to me honestly. You’re right, because I had sold a couple scripts before that and I had had a little bit of luck. I knew some people but the studio executives on that particular movie, what they did to the script and to me, to my work and to just the whole project, the way they ran it was shocking. A, because I hadn’t physically gone through it. I hadn’t literally just gone through that before. And B, I personally feel like they overstretched. For example, I wasn’t allowed to speak to the producers when I sold it to them to do a rewrite. That’s weird. The people developing, the creative people around it, I wasn’t allowed to talk to while I did a rewrite when I first got there, so it was kind of all downhill from there.
So you were doing a rewrite but weren’t allowed to talk to them about what the rewrite would be?
The rewrite was driven by the studio executives who aren’t there anymore now. The studio executives at the time were running the show and would not allow me to bounce ideas off the producers of the film. So I was just on my own doing a rewrite that I didn’t believe in. Then after that, I was shut out so I didn’t know what was going on until I saw the premiere.
At least they invited you to the premiere.
At least they gave me a guest, myself and a guest at the premiere.
What was your original script for Abduction like?
It was a bit more of a Hitchcock type. I think I went in there thinking, probably foolishly, that there could be some sort of an updated Hitchcockian type thriller with a teenage star. By the way, my script was very rated R, so when they made it PG-13, there was a lot they did to make it PG-13 and a lot that was taken away. They rewrote all the dialogue, so that’s probably the thing that in a way hurts me the most, even though the second half of it was rewritten, but the dialogue being rewritten was the thing that irked me the most for some reason. I think it’s because it’s my favorite thing to write, the dialogue. For them to change it like that was probably the most heartbreaking, but I was thinking it was a Hitchcockian script with, I don’t know, maybe a little bit of those ‘80s R-rated action movies, like Die Hard, those things mixed in for contemporary audiences. They just were thinking like Bourne Identity. In fact, all they ever said was Bourne Identity 20 times a day.
Was the rewrite you did already actioning it up or did that come later?
I did kind of half the rewrite because they didn’t give me a lot of time. Where I checked out emotionally on the rewrite was they wanted a scene where the lead characters make out with each other, which I never had. I never even had them kissing in the script. They wanted a lot of dialogue between them, a lot of soapy dialogue which I’m really bad at writing that kind of stuff. So I just wasn’t writing that stuff and then it was like, “Okay, we’ll see you later” and I flew back to New York and they just went on and did all the rewriting without me after that.
Do you have any other scripts that are likely to go?
I have a feature version of Curfew and then I have another spec that I’ve been working on that’s a bit bigger. I’m no longer going to sell my screenplays unless I’m either attached as director or have a bit of say in the director. So I’ve been very apprehensive about selling specs since that ordeal.
Do you have agents or a team that’s good at pitching you as a writer/director package now?
Yes, I do and it’s new territory because Curfew is newer. Yes, I did make this in the hopes of it being a calling card and we’ll see what happens.
Were you at least able to make a good living as a writer, and has it been harder to stand your ground and insist on writing/directing?
Yes, I made a good living out of it. The problem before I did Curfew was I had no pride in my work. Even though I was making a good living, I just needed to do something that I was happy about and so the directing thing is sort of new. I directed a film called Brink in 2011 and then Curfew is the next one, so I think just now I’m starting to be able to say, “Hey, I’m interested in directing” and I’ll see if people are interested in working with me.