So as we wind things down at the SAGindie offices, we take a look back at our staff’s favorite movies of 2014, from big-time blockbusters to sleeper indie hits to obscure festival finds. These are the flicks that best represent why we love movies (and also give us a chance to step onto our soap-boxes and yell our extremely valid and important opinions). You’ll also see that we’re not very good at the whole “sticking to 10 films” thing.
Happy movie-watching, and we’ll see you all in 2015!
I also feel I should get this off my chest: I actually liked Men, Women & Children! Sure, it didn’t change my life or anything, but the amount of hatred people have for it kind of baffles me. Settle down, folks. It wasn’t that bad. At least admit that Kaitlyn Dever and Ansel Elgort were straight-up adorable, you heartless monsters.
Amanda’s Top 10:
Snowpiercer – Fav of the year, also Tilda Swinton, what a gem
As the end of the year approaches, media outlets and clairvoyants contemplate how the film industry has changed in the past 12 months, and what could be in store for the months ahead. So this week we’ve compiled some of the most interesting insights, analyses, and predictions on the future of moviemaking.
Wow, Awards Season came out real strong and indecisive: The Gotham Awards chose Birdman, National Board of Review went with A Most Violent Year, and New York Film Critics Circle opted for Boyhood. On top of that, Sundance announced their festival picks for 2015, and there looks to be a lot of good stuff to choose from. So while you pore over the list of flicks you’ll want to see in Park City, or debate how your favorite movie stacks up against the early award-winners, take a look at some of the best film writing from the week. It was a great week for in-depth coverage of some SAGindie favorites, like Ava DuVernay, Chris Rock, Tilda Swinton, and The Duplass Brothers.
The Rise of A24 and Drafthouse Films (via Matt Mergener for Tiny Mix Tapes)
Actors and filmmakers weren’t the only ones getting press this week. Here’s a great analysis of two breakout indie distributors.
Well this is it, people. The last movie month of 2014 (also the last regular month of 2014). After this, it’s all Year End Best-Of lists, office party regrets, and “Auld Lang Syne” sing-alongs. So without further ado, here are the December movies the SAGindie staff plans on overindulging in during the month of family, charity, and sweet, sweet commerce.
December, of course, has some big movies. While I’m leisurely awaiting Christmas (as if), I do plan to sneak away and see a few films. I’m VERY curious about Chris Rock’s Top Five. Having taken Toronto by storm, I need to see what all the fuss is about. The clear choice for a family movie is the new Annie. And when my kids see that they have no presents, just lumps of coal, “It’s a Hard Knock Life” will certainly seem apropos.
However, this December isn’t without some controversy. Namely, Exodus: Gods and Kings (the all white album). Yeah, so Ramses, Pharaoh of Egypt is played by an Australian, and Moses is played by a Welsh. What’s next? Melissa McCarthy IS Harriet Tubman? Nope, not gonna go.
Annie – because my mom hated this musical so much it was banned in our house but now I am an adult and can go see whatever I want and that’s Annie, so THERE mom. Inherent Vice – did you read the book? I didn’t! (don’t know how to read). Just kidding I read the book and its great and so now I have to see this movie. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry – required viewing. Zero Motivation – f yeah Big Eyes – I will see anything that Larry Karaszewski has written.
I feel like I’d be struck by lightning if I didn’t choose Inherent Vice (or at least be plagued by falling toads – get it?). Paul Thomas Anderson is batting about 90% in my book, so I’m hoping I like this outing better than his and Joaquin’s last pairing. For a prestige pick, I’ll likely go with Unbroken. I keep hearing great things about the book, but since reading is for nerds I’ll just see the movie.
But if I’m being honest, it’s all about The Interview. Seeing Seth Rogen and James Franco try to assassinate a real-life world leader is exactly how I want to celebrate and honor Baby Jesus’s b-day.
If I’m not curled up on my couch re-watching Holiday classics pretending it’s snowing out, I’ll probably be at the movies seeing:
Selma – The trailer during Interstellar had me open-mouthed, so I can’t wait to see what the movie will do. Inherent Vice – If this does well I can still hold out hope for the Crying of Lot 49 adaptation, can’t I? Definitely going to be a weird trip, which might give me some reprieve from my family (just kidding! my family is totally normal). Wild – This is really going to gauge for me if I’d ever do a 1,100-mile solo hike.
And I will be definitely, absolutely, NOT be seeing Exodus: Gods and Kings. I’m not sure why Hollywood is in the trend of epically re-telling Biblical stories with additional bad guys and love interests, but Ridley Scott should know that this story has already been adapted to its best possible form in The Prince of Egypt and we should just leave it alone.
WHAT MOVIES ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING THIS DECEMBER?
If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent film-related topic we should write about, email email@example.com for consideration.
LIFE PARTNERS is about two female friends: one gay, one straight. Not coincidentally, it was written by two female friends: one gay, one straight. One of those writers, SUSANNA FOGEL, also took on directing duties, and she and co-writer Joni Lefkowitz have created a relationship comedy where the focus is less about landing the perfect boyfriend and more about how said boyfriend can come between two best (girl) friends. In this case, the friendship between Sasha (Leighton Meester) and Paige (Gillian Jacobs) is about as co-dependent as they come, which makes it even more difficult when Paige starts dating Tim (Adam Brody) while Sasha is still struggling to find a serious girlfriend of her own.
Sasha and Paige’s story (which began as a one-act play) portrays a more nuanced, multifaceted friendship between women; something that contrasts the backstabbing Real Housewives on TV or the wise (and wisecracking) has-no-life-of-her-own sidekick in romantic comedies. Life Partners is the feature film debut for Fogel and Lefkowitz, who also serve as showrunners of the ABC Family series Chasing Life. The film boasts a supporting cast including Gabourey Sidibe, Julie White, Beth Dover, Abby Elliott, and Kate McKinnon. It’s currently available on VOD through Magnolia Pictures, and hits select theaters on December 5.
We caught up with writer/director Susanna Fogel to talk about how Life Partners came to be, her experience at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and how a Supreme Court decision almost derailed the movie.
COLIN McCORMACK: Tell us a little about the writing process in adapting Life Partners from a play into a feature.
SUSANNA FOGEL: Joni and I wrote a one-act play that [Life Partners producer] Jordana [Mollick] developed as part of this play series for frustrated writers who were employed but not seeing their work produced, to get a chance to put something up on its feet. So we had this play that went over really well and decided to expand it into a feature. With Jordana and her producing partner Brendan [Bragg]’s help, we developed it and sent it to the Sundance Lab, and then went through the Screenwriters Lab there. So through that process, we were able to take the script from play to film, but also a lot of the themes and plot of the movie evolved in an interesting way.
CM: I heard that a gay marriage plotline had to evolve?
SF: When DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] was overturned, yeah. So that was the most interesting thing that happened, which was that originally the play was based on this sort of little gimmicky concept of what happens when you make a promise not to get married until your lesbian friend has equal rights, and then your lesbian friend is not in a long-term relationship and you are. And you don’t want to break the promise, but also you’re not equally needing those marital rights at the time. So it’s more about friends growing up at different rates. Then as we developed the script and went through the Labs, they really encouraged us to bring out the emotional components of the friendship and the characters and de-emphasize the high-concept of that [plot], which then proved to be a really good thing when we had to lift that [gay marriage pact] out of the movie after shooting it. Actually, while going through preproduction we started hearing rumblings about DOMA getting overturned, and every meeting I had with crew or cast, that was the first question they asked, “What happens when this movie becomes irrelevant?” “Is it going to be a period piece?” On top of all the other nerves I had as a director trying to prep her first feature, I had to then also answer to all these people who were basically forecasting the irrelevance of the movie that I was about to make.
So we dealt with possibly changing the plot before shooting, but we were basically on the eve of shooting the movie at that point. So we decided to shoot it and kind of deal with it later, and sure enough DOMA was overturned. The day we screened the rough cut for our financiers, DOMA had been overturned. So it was a very emotional day, both because my writing partner could finally marry her wife, and because we had so many lesbians and women involved in the team and everyone was really excited, obviously. But then on the most narcissistic filmmaker level, we were all kind of sitting there like, “Does this render our movie completely irrelevant and [a] terrible investment for everyone?” So we then had to add a couple extra months of editing on, and try to figure out how to extract that part of the plot but keep the story what it was supposed to be. And then we had one re-shoot day where we were able to fill some of the gaps that had been created by changing the plot.
CM: When you submitted to the Sundance Lab, was it still in play form or had you started the adaptation process?
SF: We had the [screenplay] done. We had adapted it and gone through a few rounds of notes with Jordana and different people we’d asked for feedback. So it was in a good place. It’s interesting in the context of how the script had to evolve and what we changed about it, because I think that Sundance’s brand has not traditionally been comedies, and without the gay marriage political component I don’t know that it would have been on-brand enough for them to accept it into the Lab. I like to think that it would be, but I think for them it was kind of what made it enough of a Sundance Lab project to put it in this wonderful lab and give us access to those types of resources. So I feel like we sort of snuck in the back door in that way, because what the movie became was much more of a universal, relatable, not traditionally “indie movie” type of story, but we were able to benefit from the Lab in the process, which was really great.
CM: What was the Lab like? Tell us about what you learned; who some of your mentors were.
SF: The one request we had going in – they let you sort of pick and choose, or make requests [for advisors] – and the one request we had was Nicole Holofcener, because we’ve been obsessed with her for years. We had talked about her so much in the process of applying to the lab that it was almost a creepy fangirl situation. And then we requested her and we got her, and we were really overeager.
But basically it’s five days on this beautiful mountaintop in the middle of winter and they pair you with five or six advisor meetings. And so you get the benefit of two-hour notes sessions with screenwriters that you admire, and what they really try to do is give you a range. We assumed we would get [The Kids Are All Right writer/director] Lisa Cholodenko because she creates content [featuring] women and lesbians, but actually they sort of thought outside the box and they gave us John Gatins, who wrote Flight. We had really interesting, great craftsmen and craftswomen who are not super on-point for what this movie was, and some of the best notes we got were from those people. So it was a good lesson in that kind of perspective. We had Nicole Holofcener, we had John, Dana Stevens– we had wonderful advisors. And then in between when you weren’t in these notes sessions, they were hosting seminars where we’d watch a clip reel of the greatest introductions to characters in movies. Scott Frank, who was one of the advisors there, showed his favorites, which were the introduction to Annie Hall, the introduction to Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network– giving us sort of global lessons on screenwriting and how to craft and create a memorable script. So there’s general talk and then super specific talk at the same time.
CM: And then how much time passed before you went for the [Sundance] Producers Lab?
JORDANA MOLLICK: The Producers Lab was in August, and [Susanna and Joni] were in January.
SF: Yeah, in late summer Jordana did the Producers Lab. And then with Sundance’s help, we got into the IFP No Borders Program and we went to New York and did this professional speed-dating round of awkward meetings with executives. And then at that time had a really great meeting with Red Crown, who ended up putting money in for the movie. It all moved pretty quickly compared to the glacial pace of other movies we’ve been trying to make.
CM: I was going to say, you’ve worked in the studio world and I’m sure things took a lot longer.
SF: Yeah, I mean the play itself came out of the fact that Joni and I have at this point been writing professionally for eight years, and this is the first movie we’ve had [produced]. And we’ve written countless movies for studios that are just never going to get made, and it becomes depressing after a while. So Jordana’s idea with the plays was to get a few screenwriters in that position – all of whom have since gone on to do really wonderful things; we had Emily Halpern, who created Trophy Wife; Leslye Headland, who made Bachelorette – all these people were our equally-frustrated friends and we’d go for hikes and bitch about how we never got to see our work out there. So that’s where we all formed a little community, too. It was all in a year, and from the play to now is three years.
CM: Wow, that’s so quick.
SF: I know. Isn’t it sad to say that? So fast!
CM: What was the main thing going through your mind on your first day of production of your feature debut?
SF: I was really excited. It was interesting because this dive bar that I’ve been going to as long as I’ve lived in LA – The Roost – the very first script that Joni and I wrote when we were 22 or 23, I had saved up money at my horribly-demeaning receptionist job to finance a four-minute trailer to this movie that we wanted to make, and we shot a scene at The Roost, and it cost $400 to shoot at The Roost for the whole day. And then the first day of Life Partners’ production we were also shooting at The Roost and it was $400 for the day, same thing. I think it’s like a time warp where they don’t know about inflation or the economic collapse or anything. So in a weird way it was incredibly emotional, not just because it was the first day of production, but because it sort of felt like– there’s something familiar about it in a really nice way. So that was the first scene at 6 a.m. showing up at The Roost with all the gear, just like when I was 22 or 23, which was really wonderful.
And then I think there’s also that moment where– we didn’t have an extensive rehearsal process; we didn’t really have a lot of time with the actors. We had had a table read, but there’s that moment when you don’t really know if it’s going to work until you see the actors doing their thing. And we shot first a scene that was really comedic and also really emotional, where Paige tells Sasha she’s getting married, and Sasha’s bitching about her job, and that was the first scene we shot at 7:30 in the morning, and they were so great that it was this great relief. A moment of, Okay, this movie’s going to be fine. It’s all good.
CM: With the characters, were there specific stereotypes that you wanted to avoid, or tropes you wanted to sort of flip on their head? Because it does a good job of subverting the sidekick rom-com character or stereotypical lesbian character, did you go into it with that purpose?
SF: Yeah, I think for us – Joni’s gay and I’m straight – it’s always been very much in the backdrop of our twelve-year friendship, where we don’t think about [it]. We would go through these universal twentysomething struggling experiences, and it wasn’t super specific to her being gay and me not being gay. But it seemed like when we’d watch movies, that was always a stratified, weird thing, like the gay character was always really extreme, that sort of over-the-top Jane Lynch version. Or there were these small, LGBT niche arthouse movies that no “normal” indie moviegoer would know to watch necessarily, because they’re just [targeted] for that niche. So for us it’s always been really important to bridge that gap and [be] sexuality-blind in our writing, and we end up having a lot of gay and lesbian characters in our work. So this was a good opportunity for us to just tell this story of these two friends, one who happens to be gay and one who happens to be straight. But I think also for Joni especially – who’s now embarking on writing a lot of other comedies that are relatable and universal that involve lesbian characters, because she feels like it’s an underserved market – it’s just been important to show gay and lesbian characters being real, multidimensional characters who are not defined by their sexualities. [The] one nice offshoot of taking the gay marriage pact out of the movie was that it just becomes less political, and in doing so is like a post-coming-out type of movie. Which ultimately to us feels like a progressive statement just by default. So I guess we did want to subvert the conventional portrayal of a lesbian character in a heteronormative movie, [and] hopefully we’ve done that.
CM: And did you ever feel any pressure, since it is an underserved audience, that your film would have to speak for every LGBT person?
SF: Yeah, I was actually afraid of being a straight filmmaker telling a story where– just because Sasha is a lesbian and she’s the single one, there are so many more [instances] of [a] revolving door of crazy dating stories. There are more lampooned lesbians in this movie than there are straight people, just because she’s the one who’s on the scene dating. So yeah, I was a little bit afraid of the scrutiny of an LGBT audience, who would be asking me who I thought I was making this movie. Although I did have partial immunity because Joni’s gay and half of our crew is gay and lesbian. But yeah, it does feel like there’s lots of pressure, but we tried to ignore it because when you start getting hung up on what kind of story you’re “supposed” to tell, you’re playing into this idea that you can’t just express yourself. We want to live in a world where it’s not that big of a deal, so we just went forward and we figured if you can make people laugh, then there’s only so much they can be offended. We hoped.
CM: How much room did you leave for improvisation? When you have someone like Kate McKinnon [who plays one of Sasha’s dates, a woman who works as a decoy on To Catch a Predator], I’m sure it’s tempting to let her run wild, but you have to keep the character in mind, and the story.
SF: We did let her run wild. The character that Kate plays is based on somebody that Joni went on some dates with, who also happens to be a girl who actually worked for [a] To Catch a Predator-type of organization. She was featured on The Today Show or The View, and we had a YouTube video of the actual girl that the character is based on. So we sent it to Kate and we emailed with her a little bit. We met her the day we were shooting, but she showed up with this idea of who this person was, so she was improvising in-character and a lot of what’s there– it’s a relatively short scene, but I think it’s about half improvised just because she was cracking us up so much on the set. But I think in general, the level of improv really varied. I think that for some comedic actors, when they improvise they break character, and to the extent that that was happening, we didn’t end up using that. But we had worked on the script so much and it had been through Labs and we wanted it to feel like it was a well-crafted, deliberate script.
Having said that, we always let the actors do a take at the end of every setup that was their own thing, and sometimes those moments made it into the movie. So there was some improv, but it wasn’t improv-heavy compared to a legitimately improvised movie. But I think for some of the actors like Leighton, who have worked on television shows where there is no improv at all, it felt like a really liberating experience, so she felt like she could be herself and add a lot. Whereas for Gillian, who has done a lot of improv-based movies, it didn’t feel [that] way. So I think it just varied from actor to actor– their perception of it and how much they felt comfortable doing it.
CM: With your background mainly being in writing, how technical did you have to become when you took on directing? Did you have to do a crash course, or is a lot of that in hiring the right crew?
SF: I had actually directed a lot of shorter-form stuff. I had made a few shorts in high school and college that we’d shot some on video and some on film, and so I had some experience with that. And then I did that short in my twenties, and then in 2007 Joni and I actually made a web series– Warner Brothers had a short-lived web series initiative that Childrens Hospital came out of, and our show – and we starred in it, but I also directed those too. So I did have some on-set experience, albeit a lower-fi version. And I felt very ready to do it. It got pretty technical, but I think at the end of the day– there are directors who can do any of the crew’s jobs; somebody like Steven Soderbergh could operate the camera and edit his own movies, and does those things. But I also think that if you’re not that specialized in that way or trained in that way, a big part of directing is just assembling really talented people and communicating with them enough so they have their marching orders. So it was that. It was making deliberate choices and trying to be really specific. At the same time, I couldn’t operate a RED Epic [camera] myself or anything like that, but I talked to the DP for weeks about storyboarding and everything. I think I had built it up as a scarier thing than it ended up becoming. When we were actually in those talks, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t equipped to answer those questions, which felt good.
CM: I almost cringe to ask the “women in film” question, because part of me feels like it might not be an issue if people like me didn’t keep asking questions about it. But the DGA released some reports about the number of female directors-
SF: There’s like three of them, yeah.
CM: It’s absolutely dismal. Have you noticed from the inside whether there’s resistance to hire you on a project as a director? Or do you see those numbers and just try to power through?
SF: I have a very complicated answer to this question, because I do feel like now that I’ve made a film I have a lot of institutional support, and I do feel like I have opportunities to try to get jobs. Whether me calling the bluff of people saying they want to hire women works or not, it does feel like there is this initiative to hire women even on the parts of studios, and they really do feel like they’re getting flogged a bit for that statistic. At the same time, I definitely feel like compared to a lot of the male screenwriters that I came up with and was friends with, they were always encouraged to make that leap to directing their own work and [were] being supported in that way years before I was, even though I’d been the one making shorts and actually the one who had always wanted to direct. So I did notice that, and I’m really hoping now that the tides are turning a bit because it felt like ten years ago when I was starting out, there just weren’t reference points for that. And I think there are so many reasons it’s true. There’s a culture of mentorship with guys because there are a lot of older male filmmakers who will take a young male filmmaker under their wing and shepherd them through, and we don’t have a lot of women to do that for us. And I also think that older men don’t feel comfortable taking on a young female protégé in the same way.
There are so many reasons, many of them are discussed in [the Sheryl Sandberg book] Lean In, not to be cliché: That women just don’t feel as comfortable making that leap; there isn’t the community support; we don’t have the precedent set so we have to make our own, which is tough. And in general I think we just care a lot about what other people think, and we care about people liking us more than we should and more than most men. And I think that prevents us from taking those leaps to be a boss that people might not like, which is what directors have to be. It’s all of those things and more, but I’m hoping that changes. I’m really interested in taking on projects– I do want to write and direct small indie movies, but I also want to be open to any and all types of directing, just because I feel like more women need to be doing that. It’s liberating to tell small, personal stories as a director, but also the idea of directing a family movie for Disney or an action movie and adding that to the repertoire feels really important. There are like no women doing that, and I’d really like to be one of them– I’m hoping that starts to change. It’s not changing as fast as it should be, but hopefully [will].
What’s the first movie you remember seeing in theaters? Uncle Buck
What’s your go-to drink order at a bar?
Gin and tonic
Recommend a movie you love that most people haven’t heard of. The Spanish Apartment (or L’Auberge Espagnole is the French title)
What’s an interview question you never want to hear again?
From this interview or others? [Laughs] Um… I haven’t had any really traumatizing interviews. Let me think… [Pauses] I recently had to answer a question about what my movie was saying about the human condition and how that resonated with what’s been happening since the dawn of man, and that was mildly awkward.
Finally, where and when can people see Life Partners?
It’s now available on Ultra VOD, which includes iTunes, Amazon… and December 5 we start our theatrical rollout. But you can watch it now by downloading it!
Snow and sleet are blowing through much of the country, and the Santa Ana winds have rendered Los Angeles borderline uncomfortable, with temps dipping way down into the sixties [all hate mail can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]. So if you’re planning on staying inside for much of the weekend, under a blanket or next to a fireplace, we’ve compiled some of the best film industry-related articles from this past week. Stay warm, and read on.
Good Reads for the week of November 17, 2014
Hollywood’s “female stuff” problem (via Genevieve Koski for The Dissolve)
There’s been a push to include more females in front of and behind the camera. Is it true progress or a new form of tokenism?
Not For Mature Audiences (via Colin Biggs for Badass Digest)
How the small-scale films find an audience amongst the superheroes and action tent-poles.
Let’s be honest, Mike Nichols was about as accomplished as a filmmaker can get. The director/writer/producer/comedian, who died yesterday at age 83, was one of the few, the proud, the EGOT winners: That’s right, he won Emmys (for Wit and Angels in America), a Grammy (for his comedy album An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), an Oscar (for The Graduate), and a whole bunch of Tonys (for Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Annie, Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Death of a Salesman, among others). But there are a bunch of other reasons why Mike Nichols was a maverick filmmaker and a huge influence on modern movies. Here are just a few…
One hell of a debut
Talk about coming out swinging. Nichols’ first film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) brought two of Hollywood’s biggest stars (and real-life tabloid fodder/married couple) Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to the screen in one of the most memorable films about marriage ever made. If you don’t want to wait for Thanksgiving to see drunk family members trying to kill each other, watch this movie ASAP.
An early, groundbreaking indie
The studio system was starting to crack by the 1960′s, and Nichols’ 1967 hit The Graduate is usually credited with Bonnie and Clyde for ushering in “new Hollywood” – an era that produced auteur filmmakers and out-of-the-box ideas. Often overlooked is the fact that The Graduate (which, adjusted for inflation, is the 21st highest-grossing movie of all time in the U.S.) was produced and distributed by indie company Embassy Pictures. So give Richard Linklater or Larry Clark the credit, but Mike Nichols did the indie-film-about-disaffected-youth before it was cool.
Big stars doing dirty things
Nichols’ 1971 relationship dramedy Carnal Knowledge followed the sex lives of a group of twentysomethings (Jack Nicholson, Art Garfunkel, Ann-Margret, and Candice Bergen), and didn’t shy away from the embarrassing or disturbing details. The film was so scandalous upon release that the Georgia Supreme Court labeled it obscene and actually prosecuted a theater manager for screening the film. Nichols would return to the world of sexual politics (and got America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts to say very naughty words) in 2004′s Closer.
Perfecting the biopic
With 1983′s Silkwood, Nichols brought the true-life story of nuclear power plant whistleblower Karen Silkwood to the screen, combining biographical elements into a thriller narrative. It gave Meryl Streep one of her best roles, and helped set the template for social justice biopics like Erin Brockovich and Fruitvale Station.
Women? In Movies?!
While the film world still seems shocked when a movie starring a lady is successful, back in 1988 Nichols had one of the biggest hits of the year with Working Girl, a movie that had not one but TWO female lead roles (for Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver), plus a supporting turn by Joan Cusack. (Some dude named Harrison Ford was also around as the eye candy – though of course he gets top-billing in the trailer. Never underestimate the patriarchy of a movie studio’s marketing department.)
Directing a good remake
Who knew that was possible, right? They are few and far between, but Nichols adapted the French-Italian film La Cage aux Folles into 1996′s The Birdcage, which has gone on to become just as well known (if not more) than its predecessor.
RIP Mike Nichols. Which is your favorite Nichols film?
If you’re an independent filmmaker or know of an independent film-related topic we should write about, email email@example.com for consideration.
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN knows how to multitask. He started writing screenplays while simultaneously fronting the successful indie rock band stellarstarr*. That move into screenwriting landed Shawn a number of studio writing jobs and eventually a place on The Black List for his thriller Abduction (later rewritten into the Taylor Lautner action flick. More on that experience below). Left a bit scarred by his studio screenwriting experience, Christensen turned to directing in an effort to gain more creative control of his work. His short film Curfew racked up awards at film festivals in Stockholm, Cleveland, Nashville and beyond, ultimately winning the 2013 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film.
Now Christensen has adapted Curfew into the feature-length BEFORE I DISAPPEAR, which follows suicidal New Yorker Richie (Christensen) unexpectedly tasked with babysitting his 11-year-old niece Sophia (Fatima Ptacek, also reprising her role from the short). After winning this year’s SXSW Audience Award, Before I Disappear was picked up by IFC Films and will release in select theaters and on VOD on November 28. The film co-stars Emmy Rossum, Ron Perlman, and Paul Wesley.
Shawn was nice enough to tell us a little about the difference between short and feature filmmaking, why he contemplated quitting the movie business, and the weirdness of being referred to as “Academy Award-winner Shawn Christensen.”
COLIN McCORMACK: Sometimes screenwriters get burnt out on a story after multiple drafts or incarnations. What kept you interested and invested in Curfew that made you want to expand it from short to feature? Was there ever a moment where you wanted to take a break from those characters or that story?
SHAWN CHRISTENSEN: Oh yeah, I definitely have needed a break at times. A lot of second-guessing occurred during the writing process. But what kept me interested were a couple of things; 1) The chemistry and relationship between Richie and Sophia made the possibilities endless, and 2) The opportunity to explore more surreal aspects throughout the film. The setup inherently provided me with some cinematic leniency to try things out that wouldn’t occur in a more straight-laced tale.
CM: What prompted the title change from Curfew to Before I Disappear?
SC: Simply put, I wanted each film to have its own life, with no confusion. Feature films get more exposure than short films, and if I kept the same title, it would have buried the short film. For example, if I asked you how you liked Short Term 12, you would assume I was referring to the feature film – but it was also a short film that was quite good and was even shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
CM: What was the storyline or subplot you were most looking forward to adding in the feature version that you had to cut from the short for either timing, budget, or scheduling reasons?
SC: When Richie goes to the music store to awkwardly confront Sophia’s father. It ultimately wasn’t needed in the short, but in the feature, it’s basically the first proactive measure that Richie takes, which was important to his arc.
CM: Curfew had about the most ideal path a short film can take – film festival accolades and an Academy Award – what do you think of the short film world as a whole? Do you think you could have made the jump to feature directing if you hadn’t gotten experience making shorts?
SC: There are more avenues for short films to be seen than ever before, and more filmmakers are having their voices heard in the expanding landscape. There’s just something pure and true about the short film format – you take a single, simple idea, and run with it – no filler. I definitely needed to cut my teeth on short films. There’s really nothing better in terms of learning about narrative, running a set, working with actors, and gauging audience reactions. I needed that confidence. The encouragement from people who watched those films helped me quantify taking the next logical step.
CM: Just to get it out in the open, you won an Oscar. Is it hard to wrap your head around the fact that from here on out, you get the phrase “Academy Award-winner” tagged to your name?
SC: A little bit, yes. It’s especially uncomfortable when it comes to advertising. I understand it from a marketing perspective, but it’s always surreal to see your name next to the word Oscar on a poster.
CM: Regarding the difference between feature filmmaking and short filmmaking, were there any elements of the feature world that were actually easier than making a short?
SC: No. There was absolutely nothing easier about making the feature. I shot 6 pages a day on the feature, and it wasn’t a lot of money, and it wasn’t my money. On the short film, I shot 2 pages a day with my own money and no restrictions.
CM: Tell us a little about directing yourself as an actor. What were the most difficult or awkward parts of wearing both hats?
SC: The acting is kind of the cathartic ‘relaxing time’ for me during the shoot. I spend about 2% of time in front of the camera, and 98% of time rolling with the punches as the Director. Sometimes I’ll only do one take because there isn’t enough time. The awkward thing is when I’m in the editing room and referring to myself in third person – like “He’s not very good in that take, do we have anything else?” Many times the answer is “No.”
CM: W.C. Fields warned filmmakers against working with children. On a low-budget film with a tight schedule, how difficult was it to navigate the waters of having a minor on-set (especially since she is the co-lead of the movie)?
SC: In this case, I stumbled upon an incredible talent in Fatima Ptacek. As a result, I believe that the entire crew kept their game up because of her professionalism. There weren’t too many issues with the limited hours, honestly – the Line Producer did a good job of sparsing her days out. Also, it should be mentioned that she has great parents and they’re very easy to work with and accommodating. I think one of the bigger concerns with working with children stems from dealing with their parents, not so much the kids. We didn’t have those issues [with] Curfew or Before I Disappear.
CM: You were working on expanding Curfew into Before I Disappear before the Oscar nominations came out, correct? Once you were nominated and won, did that raise the stakes with your financiers? Like, “Oh we’re working with an Oscar-winner now, let’s throw in a few more bucks!” Did you personally feel any more pressure to deliver the goods?
SC: I guess there was some pressure. But I couldn’t come at it like I’m trying to compete or ‘top’ the short film. My only mandate was to direct the film and do it to the best of my ability.
CM: Was there a noticeable shift in how you were viewed or treated in the industry following the win? Or does the excitement wear off once the Vanity Fair After-Party is over?
SC: Yes. If only because I felt my career was over after my spec [scripts] were shelved or made into bad movies. In fact, if people didn’t respond to Curfew, I would’ve probably left the film industry altogether – it was really kind of my last ‘hurrah.’ But today, I get meetings now that I never would’ve gotten before.
CM: Do you see yourself as a “New York filmmaker” – would you like it to be part of your filmmaker identity, like Spike Lee or Woody Allen?
SC: I’m not quite sure. I am definitely a proud New Yorker, and I have a romantic notion of my hometown, but I sense that my backdrops will not always be in NYC.
CM: How involved were you in the negotiation process in acquiring a distributor (IFC Films)? Any pointers filmmakers should keep in mind when signing a distribution deal?
SC: I discussed our options, at length, with the other Producers. We were interested in IFC and decided it was the way to go. I can’t really give pointers to other filmmakers, at this stage. It’s definitely new territory for me, and I have limited experience with it, at this time.
CM: The film hits theaters, iTunes, and VOD on the same day. Have you learned anything about VOD or the day-and-date release strategy that you found enlightening or unexpected?
SC: The day-and-date approach is new to me and I don’t know yet what to expect. Some people have told me that the theater audience and the VOD audience are somewhat separate, and that the theater expansion doesn’t conflict with people who will watch the film at home. I know other films have gone this route very successfully and I hope we’ll be one of them.
CM: So you’ve been a graphic designer, a musician, a screenwriter, an actor, and a director. Any other extremely difficult creative endeavors you’ve been looking to try? Pastry chef, maybe?
SC: Perhaps I’m a Jack of all Trades, but Master of Nothing. In that context, I would wager that a pastry chef is most certainly something I could fail at like a champ.
CM: Was traveling on the film festival circuit at all similar to touring with your band?
SC: Interesting question. Yes, I suppose it is a bit similar. I get the same nervousness when my film is about to be screened, as I did when I was about to go out on stage. The main difference is, when they start the film, I can go out and get a whiskey while it’s playing. Whereas in the band, I most certainly would have to be up on that stage for the full 90 minutes.
CM: You’ve written some studio films and have been pretty open about the lengths the execs went to cut you out of the process [during Abduction]. It reminded me of a recent Twitter rant screenwriter Craig Mazin went on against the “wrong” type of development executives, who focus mainly on controlling the writer instead of trusting them. While your experience on Abduction wasn’t great, have you since worked with any “good” studio execs?
SC: There are definitely smart execs out there that I have developed relationships with and would like to work with down the road. The issue for me was, when I was only a screenwriter, the treatment was appalling. When you’re a Director, the attitude changes. I felt that I better start controlling my writing a bit more, or I’ll never have pride in my work.
What’s an interview question you never want to hear again?
I used to be in a band with an asterisk at the end of our name. I wasn’t quite on board with that decision, but we went with it, and many a day I’d get asked “Why is there an asterisk at the end of your name?” I never had a proper answer.
Finally, where and when can people see Before I Disappear?
It will be at the IFC Center in NYC starting November 28th, and then in LA on December 5th at NoHo7. I think it expands to New Orleans and Miami after that, and a few other cities. Otherwise, it may just be on your cable provider on November 28th!
A busy week here at SAGindie. Not only were we on-hand at AFI Fest to co-host a filmmaker party and sponsor the first-look screening of Selma, but we also hit the road for the Napa Valley and Cucalorus Film Fests. Add to that an appearance at the AFMProducers Forum, a film festival panel with the SAG Foundation, and one of our Low-Budget Contract workshops, and it’s safe to say we’ve touched hearts and minds all over the country this week. Now that the weekend’s here, these are the articles we’ll be making time to read.
In case you’re not in Los Angeles or couldn’t attend last night’s film fest panel at the SAG Foundation Actors Center, you can watch a video of the full panel live-stream above. Let’s hear it for technology!
Abby Dylan, SAG-AFTRA National Board member/SAGindie Committee Chair
Sheldon Candis (producer, writer, director)
Megan Griffiths (producer, director)
Meg Morman (casting director)
Rene Ridinger (VP of Entertainment, MPRM)
Peter Trinh (agent, ICM)
SAGindie, SAG-AFTRA, and the Screen Actors Guild Foundation are excited to present the educational panel Work It! The Festival Scoop from Pros in the Know. Join producers, directors, casting directors and other industry experts as they discuss how to best make use of the tools and tips you learn through attending film festivals. Anyone can get you into a party, let this team of pros guide you on festival attendance for career advancement. Discover how to take advantage of a captive audience for your film and how to best make every festival you attend a learning experience.