If I kept a list of filmmakers primed for a breakout, it’s very possible Shawn Christensen would be near the top of that list. Of course, it helps when you have an Oscar already – Shawn does, after his short Curfew won in 2012 – but it was the feature adaptation of that film that really drew my notice. I first saw Before I Disappear at SXSW earlier this year, but it wasn’t until last week that general audiences had the chance as well…provided you live near one of the couple of theaters nationwide that’s currently showing it.
As I noted in my review back in March, one of the most striking things about Before I Disappear is the lighting in the film, so I kicked off our conversation asking about what went into the lighting and photography for the feature. “Naturally colored in a way that was unearthly,” was how Shawn described the at times almost overbearing hues of New York nightlife. Before I Disappear is very much about the interplay between the gritty realities of a hard world and the phantasmagorical hallucinations of a main character that frequently flirts with the line not only between consciousness and unconsciousness, but between life and death (thus the title). To hear Shawn tell it, the cinematography had to be the grounding element to the whole production. Before I Disappear was shot anamorphically, but Shawn said he was conscious about maintaining a gritty look to the film instead of the more polished, almost hyperreal images shooting anamorphically can sometimes produce. And although the movie has some editing gimmicks, the actual photography is “just played straight because that’s how you’d see it as a person.” “He’s [main character Richie] naked in a way, doesn’t know what the hell is going on,” Shawn said. “The actions are outrageous, not the cinematography.”
And outrageous they are, with Richie regularly hallucinating about the grim reaper, alternatively attacking a telephone and his niece’s deadbeat father, and imagining a bowling alley dance sequence not all that different from the one in decidedly more hallucinogenic Across the Universe. Which, through much of the movie, was exactly the point. There’s a black comic tone to much of Before I Disappear, and the goal through much of the shoot was to “draw a little bit more absurdity.” The first scene of the movie finds Richie in a bath stained by his own blood, only to be interrupted by a ringing phone he must drag to himself by its cord. “To me, that’s the first scene that gets cut from a studio film. That’s the first I put in,” says Shawn. “[There’s] no fun in saying he’s lost blood, he’s on meds.” The joie de vivre in what is by its subject matter a rather bleak film, is in “find[ing] other absurdities throughout the evening.”
Among the absurdities to be found in Before I Disappear is that, as a feature adaptation of Curfew starring the same principle cast (Shawn plays Richie in both, with Fatima Ptacek as his strong willed niece Sophia each time), it was occasionally necessary to re-shoot scenes from Curfew almost verbatim. Shawn said that he hadn’t originally planned to reprise his role in Before I Disappear, but had written the feature for Ptacek. One of the things he had to take into account was her aging up from a 9-year-old in Curfew to an 11-year-old in Before I Disappear. This came up when I asked him about some subtle changes to a scene where Sophia grills Richie about his life as the two eat dinner. In Curfew, the exchange is noticeably faster, with Sophia firing questions at Richie as quick as he can answer. “What’s interesting is she’s younger, and when you’re that that age you don’t care about the answer.” “11-year-olds are different than 9-year-olds, you want to hear the answer. You can’t do it quite as quickly.” Shawn’s said previously that these repeat scenes were the most difficult of the entire shoot. But which version did he prefer? “I liked it best the first time around.”
In an effort not to spend the entire time I had with Shawn diving into Before I Disappear minutiae, we squeezed in a short look at a couple other projects, namely his short film Brink.
Shawn actually made Brink before Curfew, but perhaps because he says he’s never seen it as something that would adapt well to the feature film space, Curfew and Before I Disappear have of course become the more known of his works to this point. Still, you can see similar influences, both in terms of subject and of style.
A key feature of Brink that separates it from Before I Disappear, however, is the sci-fi spin on its premise. Because the film was shot on a shoestring budget, Shawn says he made a conscious effort to do as many of the special effects as he could in-camera (he estimated 90% of all the special effects in Brink), rather than relying on compositing, CGI, and other kinds of costly postproduction solutions. The remote control that floats off the arm of the couch? Plexiglass held over the camera. Shawn says he studied 2001: A Space Odyssey for inspiration before making Brink.
As we wrapped up, the conversation turned to what might be next for Shawn. When he was first breaking into the industry, he sold a number of screenplays, including projects which are still owned by Warner Bros. and Weinstein’s Dimension Films. But the first screenplay he sold, his “baby” by the name of Sydney Hall, has just reverted back to him from Fox. He wasn’t ready to talk about when we might get to see Sydney Hall, as the rights buyout is still wrapping up and any production plans are still in their incubator state. He certainly sounded excited about it, though, and we here at mxdwn Movies (and perhaps yours truly, especially) can’t wait to see what comes from Shawn’s sophomore feature effort.