Becoming consumed by endless self-pity can often lead people to become disconnected from the world that they fail to fully recognize the extreme emotional effects the self-imposed isolation begins to have on them. It isn’t until they’re forced into a dire situation with their estranged relatives that they finally grasp that they miss the once close relationships they used to have, and how irrational their recent decisions have become. Filmmaker Shawn Christensen powerfully emphasized the significance of people truly embracing and appreciating the opportunity to rekindle those close bonds to help them overcome their internal struggles in his new drama, ‘Before I Disappear.’ The movie, which marks the screenwriter’s feature film directorial debut, and is based on his short film, ‘Curfew,’ for which he won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2013, powerfully presents that captivating theme through an intriguing mix of dark humor and insightful intelligence.
‘Before I Disappear,’ which unfolds over one emotionally turbulent night in New York City, follows Richie (Christensen), a seemingly hopeless introvert, who has decided he has had enough with his existence. He’s unable to cope with the fact that he has lost the love of his life, Vista (Isabelle McNally), and continuously tries to write her a letter, explaining the reasoning for his actions, but is unable to find the right words to express his feelings. As he attempts to end his life, he gets a phone call from his estranged sister, Maggie (Emmy Rossum), who he used to have a closer relationship with when they were younger. Although they haven’t spoken in years, Maggie has found herself in a complex situation, and needs Richie to pick up her 11-year-old daughter from school.
Feeling guilty over the way they ended their relationship, Richie reluctantly agrees to help his sister, and goes to pick up his intelligent niece, Sophia (Fátima Ptacek), and escort her home. However, hours after dropping her off at the apartment she lives in with Maggie, Sophia calls her uncle, informing him that her mother hasn’t returned home yet, or even called her to let her know what’s going on. So Richie heads back to the apartment to figure out what happened to his sister.
Despite Sophia’s insistence that they go back to his apartment so that she can study for a test she has scheduled for the next morning, Richie instead brings her to both the bar and bowling alley where he works part-time jobs. He finds himself caught in a troublesome battle between Bill (Ron Perlman), who runs the bar and has acted like a father to Richie over the years, and Gideon (Paul Wesley), the successful young businessman who owns the bowling alley and wants to protect him, despite the fact they don’t truly know each other. Along the way, Richie realizes that even though he doesn’t want to betray either of his bosses, in an effort to keep both his jobs, Sophia has taught him that family and doing the right thing are the most important aspects in life.
Christensen generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Before I Disappear’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the actor-writer-director, who also produced the drama, discussed how the chemistry between Richie and Sophia in ‘Curfew’ encouraged audiences to ask him to expand the short into a feature; how Ptacek’s powerfully emotional growth between the filming of the short and the feature allowed the filmmaker to emotionally mature the relationship between Richie and Sophia; and how he encouraged his co-stars to add or omit dialogue they felt would help improve their character after they rehearsed and discussed their on-screen relationships together.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film directorial debut with the new drama, ‘Before I Disappear,’ which is based on your Academy Award-winning 2012 short film, ‘Curfew.’ Why did you decide to adapt the short for your first helming effort? Did having the source material to rely on make the transition into directing the feature easier?
Shawn Christensen (SC): Well, initially I was able to hang my hat on the chemistry between Richie and Sophia, which gave me the foundation to write the feature. As we were going through the short film circuit, Damon (Russell), my producer, and I got the feeling that there was more to say. People kept saying, “We’d love to see this as a feature.”
So we began developing it for about a year, and then some investors came forward. So it was the organic next step to turn the short into the feature. Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, it was a generous budget that allowed us to more fully develop the characters.
SY: Besides directing the feature, you also reprised your role of Richie from ‘Curfew’ in ‘Before I Disappear.’ What was the process of getting into Richie’s mindset again, and truly chronicling his evolution throughout the film? How did you balance portraying Richie with your directorial duties?
SC: It was much more difficult to balance the two jobs while making the feature film than the short film, because I was shooting about three times faster on the feature. With the short film, it was a fairly easy transition from directing to playing the character, because I was only shooting about two pages a day. So there was time for Fátima and I to get used to how we were going to handle the scenes. With the feature, I was shooting about six pages a day, so the acting part of it suddenly became more of a struggle, because I would only have the time to do one or two takes.
As far as putting myself into the character, it wasn’t much of a challenge. For me, it wasn’t too difficult to jump in front of the camera and show Richie’s depression. If anything, that’s one of the more cathartic parts of the process. On any feature, directors face many different challenges, but when I was in front of the camera, it was nice to relax.
SY: Speaking of Fátima, how did you recapture your on-screen bond with when you began working on ‘Before I Disappear?’ What was your rehearsal process like with her before you began shooting the drama?
SC: It was interesting, since she grew up so much in the couple of years between the two films. So I had to adjust her lines to age her character a little bit. At first I thought that might be an issue, but then I realized it opened the door to expand her character deeper than what we were able to show in the short film.
In the short, she was basically an oblivious nine-year-old girl, and in the feature, she’s not so oblivious. She’s now able to handle slightly more mature situations. In real life, Fátima is very mature for her age. I wrote the script with her in mind, and based the character around her. So it was fun to get back into it, and do the things we weren’t able to do the first time.
SY: Emmy Rossum stars as Maggie, Richie’s estranged sister, who reunite with each other after spending years apart as their lives headed in different directions. What was the casting process like for the character? How did you develop your working relationship with Emmy to showcase the importance of the siblings’ reunion and bond?
SC: I needed someone for Maggie who had a chemistry with me that would allude to this brother and sister having a love-hate relationship. Emmy came in for a table read, and right out of the gate, she was fantastic. I immediately felt that people would be able to guess we were brother and sister.
But I think Emmy was concerned about the character’s age, because she’s young in real life, and Fátima was about 11. So I reworked the part of Maggie for her, so that she would have had Sophia in high school. That way she could not only play the part, but it also deepened the role, and made it more interesting and complex. It gave me the freedom to open up the role a little bit more, and explore the life path that she’s taking. She might have been on the same path as Richie, if she hadn’t had Sophia. So I rewrote a couple of scenes, and she was on board. She thankfully didn’t need a lot of takes to nail her scenes, since we weren’t able to do a lot of takes.
SY: Were you able to rehearse with the rest of the cast, as both their co-star and director, before and during the film’s shoot, to help further develop the characters’ backstories and history together?
SC: I rehearsed with Fátima and Paul Wesley. But I didn’t have as much time with Emmy or Ron Perlman, as they only came in for three days to shoot their roles. But I definitely ran through the story with them a couple of times.
Ideally, I would have liked to rehearse for a couple of weeks, if I had the budget and time. If I had more resources, I would insist on the actors rehearsing for a couple of weeks. That way we could go in front of the camera and eliminate some of the dialogue I had written, and the actors could find better ways to say things.
With Paul, for example, I had him re-write a couple of his own lines, in the way that he would say it. As long as the end result is there, I don’t care how we get there, just as long as we get there in the most natural way. For his second scene in the film, during the climax scene with him, we wrote some of the dialogue together, through rehearsing and improvising.
SY: Speaking of Paul, who both produced, and portrayed Gideon in, ‘Before I Disappear,’ you were friends before you made the drama. Did having that friendship with him before you began working together help your onscreen connection?
SC: It most certainly did. To that point, there’s one point in the film where Paul’s saying a bunch of things in front of a bar at a late-night party, and I had some specifics in there about what he’s talking about. He’s alluding to Richie’s lost girl, and he’s also talking about his own girl, who he’s optimistic he will find. Paul actually took out everything that was actually saying something specific, and the scene became 100 percent subtext. That was a decision he made as we were rehearsing, and I thought it was a good idea.
He was also a producer on the film, so he was developing the script with Damon and me for a few months by the time we shot that scene. So to go down that road of only pure subtext, and to see everything that Richie and Gideon really say to each other in that particular scene, had nothing to do with what they were actually saying. I thought that was a smart move on his part.
SY: What was the experience of shooting both ‘Curfew’ and ‘Before I Disappear’ on location in New York City, where the stories are set like overall? How did filming in different areas of the city influence the different emotions and visuals elements of the films?
SC: Half of the location scouting happened on the short film, so we went back to those same areas. The other half of the scouting for the feature was a struggle, particularly with Maggie’s apartment. I insisted that she live in the high-rise, so that you could see the city, as well as the dynamic between where Richie and his sister live. I think we secured Maggie’s apartment about two or three days before we had to film there. While the location scouting on the feature was more difficult, there were some easy aspects, as we were able to use some of the same locations from the short film.
I also wanted to give the production designer (Scott Kuzio) as much latitude as possible. So the more locations that we could find that could just play on their own, without much treatment, the better. Then the production designer could mainly focus on more high-key places. He had to build a couple sets, and having a lot of the locations already prepared allowed him to do that. For example, if you go into Brooklyn Bowl and shoot there for three days, you don’t really need the production designer there; that place sells itself. So for indie filmmaking, it’s all about location, location, location.
SY: In the beginning of the drama, Richie contends with attempting suicide, as he feels like his life doesn’t have any value left. But as he reconnects with his niece, he begins to see the value of his life, and becomes driven to survive. How did you balance showcasing the lighter and darker tones throughout the film?
SC: Well, the goal is to allude to the darkness, but embrace the dark humor. That’s really the key, because if it’s all too dark and depressing, then it doesn’t work. There has to be an element of real life going on. In real life, no matter how depressed you are, and you think things can’t get worse, things do get worse. You then have to almost just laugh at it because it’s so ridiculous. I wanted to keep that throughout the film, and have the characters find the humor and more specifically, the hope, along the way. That was an important aspect for me to have, because to me, that’s real life.
SY: IFC Films has released the drama in theaters and On Demand. Do you think the VOD platform is beneficial for smaller, independent films like this one?
SC: I don’t know yet, because I’m new to this. I think any filmmaker would prefer having a theatrical window first, and then have their movie be released on VOD. However, it is nice to have people be able to access the film in their living rooms. Obviously, if this was a bigger movie, or even a larger independent production, I would certainly appreciate a theatrical window first, and then the VOD release. But for a smaller movie like this, releasing it in theaters and on VOD at the same time does make sense.
SY: ‘Before I Disappear’ played at this year’s SXSW. What was the experience of bringing the movie to the festival? How have audiences reacted to the movie, both during its festival run and since it was officially released last month?
SC: Well, I love the festival experience. I’m a big advocate of festivals and what they do, and the way they hold up the spirit of films and independent filmmaking. So I’m always going to submit my films to festivals, and urge studios I work with to put movies in festivals. People who really love cinema, and want to see something that’s new and unique, are going to go to the festivals.
With this film, we always planned to start at the festivals. The first festival we submitted to was SXSW, and they happened to accept us. It’s a great festival, and I actually used to play there with a band (Stellastarr). It’s a very satisfying thing to have your films play at festivals to audiences who are really excited to see new projects.
SY: After working on ‘Before I Disappear’ and ‘Curfew,’ have they given you inspiration for your next film? Do you have any projects lined up that you can discuss?
SC: That’s a very timely question. Now that ‘Before I Disappear’ has been released, I really find myself inspired to write a lot each day. After I finished shooting the movie, I was doing things like editing the film, working the festival circuit and approving trailers and key art, I wasn’t able to write very much. But recently I have been able to write more than I have in the past year. So it’s interesting how I allow my mind to get blocked that much.
I have a script that I’m trying to reacquire from Fox, called ‘Sidney Hall.’ I’m currently quietly putting around town to attach some people who I think will help that project see the light of day. I’m also writing three spec screenplays back and forth, depending on my mood and inspiration. So it will be an interesting winter.
Written by: Karen Benardello