Leading the pack in the race for the best live-action short Oscar is Hollywood screenwriter Shawn Christensen's gritty 19-minute "Curfew," which stars the multi-hyphenate as suicidal New Yorker Richie who babysits for his nine-year-old neice Sophia. Safe to say we will be hearing from this actor-writer-filmmaker again: he's currently expanding "Curfew" into a full-length feature. (See the short on iTunes.)
The film's knockout centerpiece is a dance break in a bowling alley: Sophia (the excellent Fatima Ptacek) jaunts down a lane as a line of people holding bowling balls shake their shoulders in unison. "Curfew" pulses with energy and dark humor. It starts with Richie bleeding out in a tub, but his suicide attempt is derailed by a phone call from his estranged sister, begging him to care for her daughter for a few hours. As pale Richie spends an evening with prickly Sophia, they eventually bond.
After studying graphic design, Christensen was a member of the band Stellastarr before turning to screenwriting. His Hitchcockian 2010 Blacklist screenplay "Abduction," which starred Taylor Lautner, flopped at the box office. Christensen has said that it was mangled beyond recognition. And so he turned to short films like "Brink," which also premiered at Tribeca, over which he has some control. (He's been signed to write "The Man from Nowhere" for Dimension.) Below, Christensen talks about the strictures and rewards of making shorts.
Maggie Lange: Talk about your settings, from the opening decrepit apartment to Chinatown and the bowling alley.
Shawn Christensen: We had half location-scouting, half rolling with the punches. For the bathroom scene, we couldn't fit cameras, because of the shots we wanted, so we built one. I thought, "let's get it to look like the 'Trainspotting' bathroom" -- this way he looks like a glorified squatter. With Brooklyn Bowl, it directs itself. We didn't do anything to it. It already has these screens above the alleys with these strange visuals. The scene when Sophia is schooling Richie, there are those dolls in the background-- they happened to be there. I didn't have a production design budget, so it came down to finding places that directed themselves.
ML: Do you act in all your shorts?
SC: I did a film called "Walter King" in 2006 and had a role in it, not the main role, and I remember thinking I'll never direct and act at the same time. I don't know why I regained confidence for "Curfew" because I had very low confidence going into it.
ML: There was something perfect about the length of "Curfew," which is long for a short film. Was this time frame planned out ahead of time?
SC: We didn't think it was a perfect length. In short films over fourteen minutes, every minute gets you into trouble because distributors have a harder time scheduling you. For Cannes you can't submit anything over fifteen minutes. I sat with my producer, Damon Russell, and we looked at it to see what we would cut and there wasn't anything self-indulgent. There wasn't a guy staring into a field for two minutes. We thought, "okay it's a 19-minute long film." But I think that's why we didn't get into some festivals. We thought it would be shorter. We were working with a fourteen page script, so we thought it would be fourteen minutes. And the dance sequence was only a couple of paragraphs, but it ended up being a couple of minutes.