Only 19 minutes long, Curfew, a short film by writer/director/actor Shawn Christensen, is a dark and redemptive tale about a junkie guy (Christensen) charged with babysitting his 11-year-old niece (Fatima Ptacek) over the course of one long chaotic evening. I reviewed Curfew for Capital New York, when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012 and also interviewed Christensen about the film. Curfew went on to play the festival circuit over the following year, garnering praise and affection as well as awards, before going on to win the Oscar for Best Short Film in 2013. Before I Disappear, which opens on November 28, is Curfew expanded into a feature-length film, and it is a beautiful, often extremely funny, look at one man’s descent into the underworld in which he already lives, a bleak world of drugs and terrible jobs and desperate loneliness, where he owes everyone money, and is haunted (literally) by a woman he once loved and lost. But he’s lost more than that. Richie has a sister (Emmy Rossum), who has cut Richie out of her life long ago. She’s a hard-working single mother with a serious young daughter named Sophia (Fatima Ptacek) and in a desperate moment, with no one else to turn to, she calls Richie to come watch Sophia for the night. Richie, who has just opened his veins and crawled into a bathtub, listens to his sister berate him on the phone as she demands he come over right now, thinks for a second, and then says calmly, “Okay.” Because when your sister calls, you answer.
Richie is not an appropriate babysitter, in any way, shape or form, and little Sophia sizes him up instantly, telling him that if she doesn’t get all her studying done, “there will be hell to pay.” He drags her around the city, and over the course of the night, little tendrils of feeling start to open up between them. Their relationship is in stark contrast to the nocturnal New York world he brings her into. The film ends up packing a huge punch, but it does so by stealth. Sentiment is not underlined or manipulated. It is fully earned.
Christensen is an excellent writer and actor, wonderful in the role of Richie, and he is also a very strong director, with a poetic and intuitive visual style. He uses the camera wisely and well, cracking open the tender heart of moments simply and yet evocatively. Before I Disappear takes place in a terribly corrupt world but the moments of connection are poignant and resonant with an innocence many of the characters thought was no longer possible. He’s a major talent, and I was happy to speak with him again about Before I Disappear.
What was winning the Oscar like?
It was very exciting and it was very humbling. I didn’t think we were going to win. I didn’t want to go up onstage in front of millions of people, but it was nice to be recognized. But it was also fun, that whole year beforehand, the festival circuit, watching Curfew develop an audience.
When you wrote Curfew did you have that larger story in your mind that then became Before I Disappear? Or did you decide to expand it after Curfew became so successful?
It happened more during the year on the festival circuit. For the short film, it was really just about seeing if I could do this. I had some ideas I wanted to put forth, and having one person like the film would have been fine by me. I was trying to put forth the best possible short film.
Looking at Curfew, you feel around Richie and his sister this much larger world, quite dark and threatening. You filled in those blanks in a way that was really mysterious. It was almost like a nightmare, an extended hallucination.
The hallucinations, exactly, were one of the reasons we felt it would be nice to expand Curfew into a feature, because there’s an open forum there to do things that are a little bit risky. The viewer may not be able to discern fact from fiction and those are the kinds of things that excited [producer] Damon Russell and I when we talked about moving forward. We’ve got a character who’s lost some blood, he’s in a bad place, and there’s some potentially good cinema around that. Like what if the Grim Reaper sat down next to Richie, reading the New York Times, drinking from a sippy cup?
And then when the Reaper speaks, his subtitle font was that Gothic Dracula font. It was so vaudeville.
I have to give credit to Jim Kamoosi who did the titles for the short film and the feature. I had all that dialogue subtitled, and he threw in that font for the Reaper’s line, and I laughed out loud when I first saw it, and then said, “Okay, that’s funny, now let’s change it back.” And someone turned to me and said, “But you laughed out loud.” You should never dismiss those guttural first reactions. That was one of those great collaborative moments.
Is it difficult to act in your own film?
In the feature, it was. Not as much in the short film. In the short film we shot 2 pages a day, so there was time to figure out what I was going to do, figure out what adjustments I needed to make in between takes. In the feature, we shot 6 or 7 pages a day. It was one of those situations where you’re lacking the most important resource of all, which is having time. Often I would only be able to do 1 or 2 takes, and then we would have to move on because we had no more time. In those situations the acting became very difficult. Also, repeating some of those scenes from the short film verbatim was also very difficult. You’re almost setting yourself up to fail when you’re trying to re-capture something that worked out well the first time around.
One of the things that really struck me about Before I Disappear, is that there is a feeling and a mood of corruption and innocence at the same time in almost every scene. You seem to cherish innocence and you seem to accept corruption. For example, Paul Wesley’s character is so corrupt but is also so in love with his girlfriend, almost freaked out by what love actually feels like. In a lesser actor’s hands, he might have just seemed like a total scumbag and he was a scumbag, but there was that whole other side.
What I’m looking for are those nice arcs, and those flaws, and the redeeming features, and I’m looking to see how far you can push those flaws, and bring them back with some redeeming moment that an audience can associate with. Of course love is always going to be something that an audience can understand. There’s the scene later in the movie with Paul’s character Gideon, which is 100% subtext. He’s giving Richie advice about going to talk to his sister, but really he’s talking about his own revelations but he never once mentions anything specifically about himself. To me, that was really beautiful. Some of that came from Paul when we were discussing the character. I like the idea of introducing someone who you associate right out of the gate as a coke-head, a jerk, but then to turn it on its head. That’s interesting to me.
Emmy Rossum was wonderful, too.
I love her on Shameless. She came to the table read. I had never met her and we read it and the chemistry of the brother and sister thing is so important, especially when they haven’t spoken in a while, but when they do speak with each other, they pick up exactly where they left off. And she nailed it. Her feeling about it, though, was, “I love it, I wish I was a few years older.” So I started thinking about it, and I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if she got knocked up when she was in high school and that event changed her path. Maybe she was going to go on the same path as Richie, but that incident changed everything. She took classes at night and made something of herself. That way, her age wouldn’t be an issue anymore. It also made it more interesting. And she loved it, and that was it.
Did you rehearse the film?
I did extensive rehearsals with Fatima and with Paul. With Ron Perlman and Emmy, they came in the day before, and we did two quick run-throughs, had a lot of conversation. The pre-production was really fast, it was less than four weeks.
I know I said this when we were talking about Curfew : the amount of New York that you are able to show in the film is just so great, all of these different sides of New York, Chinatown, the East Village, the court house. It’s a real New York movie.
What happens is the film gets longer or bloated or feels slow and you end up taking out these beautiful second-unit shots. So then we would try to find ways to have those shots be the backdrops for scenes, as much as possible. Or little things like when they’re in the cab with each other and you get to see the streets pass by. I love the different sides of New York. I love the Scorsese side, the Woody Allen side. I mean, Manhattan – Woody Allen is romanticizing every aspect of Manhattan in those shots of the city. He had a very specific Manhattan that he adores.
There’s the scene where Richie goes to get the flip-books and they have the confrontation in the street, and it’s such a beautiful street. Is that in Chinatown?
Yeah, that’s on Doyers Street in Chinatown. It’s just a street but it really does look like that, it looks like a Paramount backlot.
A lot of the editing choices were really emotional and mysterious, like when Richie sees the guy taking the drugs out of the bowling ball, and there’s this slo-mo moment, and then the next thing Richie does is goes to get the flip-books. Could you talk a little bit about your editing choices?
The editor was Andrew Napier who was one of the producers on the short film. You see the rough assembly and you just want to dive off a bridge, and then then you start whittling it down. For me, though, what you’re talking about has a lot to do with music, which has something to do with Darren Morze who scored it, and also the band choices. Because, ultimately, what’s the vision for the final film? For me the vision was: forget looking at it like a movie, where there’s three acts or whatever. Let’s look at it in terms of atmosphere, and let’s make it an experience, and let’s make it so when the sun comes up, you’re in the theatre and you feel like you’ve been out all night long with the characters. So then the editing becomes less of a clinical feeling and more How do we build this atmosphere? We try out lots of songs and music as we edit. You put out a lot of fires in editing. It’s an interesting process. It’s probably the most fun of any of the stages.
There’s that one sequence with “House of the Rising Sun” playing, and you see every character separately, and the music is the thread that keeps it all together.
Early on in the shoot, I went and got these slo-mo dolly shots of all of the characters, just to have. There was no purpose behind the shots, but I just wanted to have them because I had a feeling I might be able to get to them when I edit.
I have a bunch of siblings, and there are so few films that get siblings right. You knew each other when you were in feetie pajamas and eating Cheerios. Even though Richie and his sister are onscreen together only for that one scene, it feels totally real. Something went wrong back there in their childhood, but they’ve lost so much by not being in touch with each other.
Recently, a friend of mine I grew up with passed away. I was talking to his sister and his brother, and they’re young, in their 30s, and they were saying, “God, I remember being there when he learned how to walk and when he said his first word, and now he’s gone? It doesn’t make any sense.” I’m an only child, so to listen to siblings who watched their brother come into the world and also observed his death was … heart-crushing.
You can certainly see from Richie what he has lost by not being in touch with her. But then there’s that look on her face, her reaction to his monologue at the end – that’s it right there, what she has lost.
Yes. Her character is a very tough woman. The best thing is when actors are really trying not to cry but they can no longer hold it back and the dam breaks, and Emmy had this one take like that and I just had to put it in the film. She couldn’t hold it back any longer, she has to admit that they were close and they have history and that she also never really knew how much she meant to him because Richie is not the best at expressing himself. That take from her was beautiful.
You made those flip-books, right?
I made those. Yup. They’re identical to the ones I made as a kid except the ones I made when I was a kid it was a male character – just like the Sophia character – who gets killed over and over again but keeps popping up again.
How do you work in collaboration with Daniel Katz, your cinematographer?
For me, it’s location location location. You try and find the best location that is already production-designed. Daniel and I will go to these locations and look at them beforehand and the location will inspire us, will say to us, “Here is the best way to use this location.” As opposed to starting with a blank page and dream up what I want to see. If I had 100 million dollars, that would be great and fun, but when I have two cents, what I need to do is find a location where I can look at it and say – what’s the best most organic way to use this location to the best of our ability? We also watch a lot of movies, particularly anamorphic films that have a little bit of a gritty vibe. A lot of anamorphic films are bold and beautiful and crisp, and this is a movie where different sides of New York have to be shown and we needed to figure that out. Sometimes you feel like you’re going to need movement, and sometimes it’s best to just be still. That comes certainly from how I’m trying to think about where we are in the film’s story, it’s having that in the back of my head a bit as I’m making the film.
Speaking of amazing locations, where is that bowling alley?
The Brooklyn Bowl. It’s in Williamsburg and it is a perfect example of a place that needs no production design, so our production designer, Scott Kuzio – who did a phenomenal job in this film – he was out building the hallway for the scene where everyone’s wearing masks, and I don’t even think he showed up on set when we filmed at Brooklyn Bowl. The location said it all.
Fatima Ptacek is so great. How old is she now?
She’s 13 or 14. I wrote the script based around her and who she is, she does gymnastics, she speaks Mandarin, putting all that in was just me writing for her. I also felt like, I’m not gonna make this movie if she’s not in it. It’s for her. We had to age her dialogue up from Curfew a little bit. That was one major thing that changed. I thought it might be problematic but what it did was it opened a lot of doors for her character. In the short film she’s oblivious. She’s pure innocence, completely oblivious to anything that Richie is going through. In this film, she’s not that naive anymore, and so that opens the door for her to do some things that are more heroic, or pro-active.
She has a very small moment after they eat the Chinese food around the table, and she says quietly to Richie, “Okay, it’s time to go.”
I’m so glad you noticed that! What you’re talking about is a shot that is 2 or 3 seconds long, but it’s just her maturity in that moment, it’s incredible. Her voice was so soft in that take that everyone was saying later, when we were editing, “We can’t use it.” And I was like, Whatever we do, we have to figure it out. And we did. That 3 seconds, what she’s doing there in that moment … it just speaks to the power of actors sometimes. The power that they have. You don’t realize sometimes what you can achieve in a short amount of time. You don’t need 50 scenes to be amazing.
The film is book-ended with Richie saying “Okay.” I showed Curfew to a friend of mine and he was blown away by those two “Okay”s. He sent me a huge email about it. It feels like Richie was letting go of the Reaper and accepting life.
Yes. Exactly. It’s a little bit more compact in the short film because of the short film format. For the feature, we discussed at length how those “Okay”s were going to work. I also had the advantage of having the knowledge of how the “Okay”s affected people in the short film, so I knew I could do a few takes to really nail the moment. There’s just no way that I would be able to end the film any other way than how it ends. The ending needs to be in tune with the rest of the film. You need to end the film on a note that will make people satisfied, that won’t feel like it’s manipulative in any way. It has to feel natural. And the “Okay” is part of that.