As a director, you get a little more control: Shawn Christensen
The negotiations with production houses or studios to tell your stories through films is easier when you are donning the director’s cap, says Oscar-winning writer-director Shawn Christensen.
Shawn Christensen has worn multiple hats including that of a graphic designer, lead vocalist, screenplay writer and director. While his short films such as Walter King (2006) and Brink (2010) have received much acclaim, his film Curfew (2012) earned him an Academy Award. With his most recent feature film release, The Vanishing Of Sidney Hall, earning quite some positive responses, Christensen talks about what influences him as a writer-director, how he copes with money and time constraints and how winning an award changes perception in the entertainment industry.
Growing up, which film-makers influenced you the most?
Well, that’s changed a lot. When I was younger, I was influenced by more mainstream movies - a lot of Steven Spielberg movies and John Hughes films and then when I went into college, I was more inspired by European films- early stuff, (Roman) Polanski or (Bernardo) Bertolucci. I saw Blow- Up (1966) and that’s what got me into (Michelangelo) Antonioni. Then I just morphed into many things but basically when I saw Chinatown (1974), it got me into screen writing.
Reportedly at some point, you were disillusioned with big studios for reworking your creativity. Is there a culture of big studios gentrifying movie scripts for mass profits?
They have, for me, a few years ago. However, that was at a time when I really was just a screenwriter and I hadn’t directed anything yet. You see, in Hollywood, the screenwriter not being a director is a very dangerous hat in the feature film world. In fact, when they buy the script, they own the copyright so they can do whatever they want to. Once you start putting yourself as a director you just get a little more control. I have never worked within the studio system as a director, only the screenwriter and in that fashion, I was screwed.
And do you think that’s bound to happen with the online platform too?
I mean, not really, to that degree, no. They don’t mess around or intervene, quite as much as certain studios. So I imagine they are sort of depending on the film-makers themselves. And there’s indoor studios as well but I wouldn’t really classify them as the normal studios but you know everyone’s stance is different and every studio is different.
Do you feel a story should not be restricted by time or monetary constraints or is it a part and parcel of film-making?
Well, that’s a good question that I have been asking myself. I felt like I didn’t have enough money to make my own features but then at the same time, I blame myself because I wrote long screenplays for the budgets that I ultimately had gotten. If anyone was to tell me tomorrow that ‘hey you have a million dollars to make the film’ probably I would take one of the stories or the ideas that I have, make it a little simpler and smaller, apply it to that and just turn in a 60-page script. In that way, I have the days and the time and it would probably end up around 90 minutes anyway. So, it’s a yin and a yang in that respect.
Where do you find inspiration for script writing from?
It depends, I guess on what the format is. If it’s a short film like Curfew (that will be as part of the Select Short Stories festival on Star Movies Select HD all this month), my inspiration comes from some sort of personal thing that I am going through and so most of my short films are very, very loose extensions of my own life — farfetched; of what I am going through and that’s a little easier because this is shorter. So I don’t need to centre on one aspect. For feature films, it comes from having a good concept that is there, you know, a two hour period and just developing that story over a period usually under a year
Did winning an Academy Award for Curfew change your standing in the industry?
Yes, it changed me from being looked at as a screenwriter to being looked as a director. That’s the major change that happened there.
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The author tweets @iamsusanjose