Enduring a dramatically intense and drastic situation with someone who has played a major part in the shaping of your past, present and future can not only strengthen your bond and make you better understand each other, but can also help you embrace your life goals. But during that enlightening experience, your realization of your full potential can also unfortunately alter your connection with someone else, who may not necessarily want to see you change your life plans. That striking realization and evolution is powerfully presented in the new independent drama, ‘Before I Disappear.’
Paul Wesley, one of the film’s actors and producers, developed a strong personal and professional bond with the movie’s writer-director-editor, Shawn Christensen, who also starred in and produced the feature, when he was just a teenager. Their friendship led to an emotional and collaboration on the relatable story, which focuses on the filmmaker’s struggling protagonist’s newfound determination to improve his life, in an effort to repair his estranged relationships with his sister and niece. But in the process, he inadvertently damaged his bond with Wesley’s character, who’s one of his bosses, which gravely impacted their future connection.
‘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 (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.
Wesley generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Before I Disappear’ over the phone during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the actor and producer discussed how he became involved in the feature after Christensen decided to adapt his Academy Award-winning 2012 short film, ‘Curfew,’ into ‘Before I Disappear,’ and showcase how Richie’s improving relationships with Maggie and Sophia altered the bond he had with Gideon; how it was important to actually shoot the film on location in New York, as the city played a major part in the ever-changing relationships between Richie and his family and friends, but how filming independently on a short schedule at times provided obstacles in getting the full coverage they needed; and how Wesley supporting Christensen’s writing efforts throughout his career helped him realize what a talented and genuine person the filmmaker is to not only work with, but also have as a friend.
ShockYa (SY): You play Gideon in the new drama, ‘Before I Disappear.’ What was it about the character and the film’s story that convinced you to take on the role?
Paul Wesley (PW): Well, the story was created organically. The film’s director and screenwriter (Christensen) is a really good friend of mine. Gideon wasn’t really conceived until much later on, when Shawn essentially wanted to expand the short into a feature. He wanted to create intersecting storylines, so Gideon was a creation that occurred much later on in the screenplay process.
I was drawn to Gideon because he’s incredibly layered in the sense that he’s the “bad guy” in the story. But he has a really big heart, and is a hopeless romantic. I really related to the idea of a character who’s a hopeless romantic.
SY: Speaking of relating to Gideon, in the sense of being a hopeless romantic, what was the process of relating to Gideon and his overall motivations, since you’re both from New York City and in your early 30s? How did you get into his mindset as you began filming?
PW: It was pretty intense. For me, as I was preparing to play this particular role, I was going through some difficult things in my own personal life, so I was able to use that as inspiration. I don’t always do that, as I don’t have a consistent method for my acting. But I just happened to have that as a resource for this role.
I grew up in (New) Jersey, but went to clubs and bars at a really young age. I had a fake ID when I was 15, and would use it around Manhattan, where I had an apartment. I can still relate to his mentality, as a lot of my friends come from that world, and are still a part of it.
But more than anything, I wanted this guy to be someone who’s in love, even though he has a tough demeanor. The key I wanted to give to Gideon is that he has a lot of heart. His ultimate purpose in the movie is to find the love his life, which I find to be a really noble reason for a character to exist.
SY: What was the experience of shooting ‘Before I Disappear’ on location in New York, especially since it’s your hometown? Do you prefer filming on location?
PW: It depends on the project, but for this movie, it was definitely important. Sometimes you make these New York-based stories, Toronto really stands in for New York, and you use stages. But with this film, Shawn always said that New York is one of the main characters in the story. When you watch a lot of Woody Allen films, you think, that couldn’t have happened anywhere else, other than in New York.
We shot this film without a lot of money. Considering the quality of how it came out, it was a miracle, since we didn’t have a big budget. We shot in the middle of summer, so it felt like it was 120 degrees, and we were boiling. We were mainly shooting in Brooklyn, and the whole experience really added tot he final film. I can’t imagine shooting it anywhere else. It created a lot of obstacles, but for me, it made it that much more realistic. I had to work much less, in terms of using my imagination.
SY: Speaking of filming ‘Before I Disappear’ independently, what was that experience like, from both an actor and producer’s perspective? Did it create any challenges on the set while you were filming?
PW: Oh, it created a lot of challenges. We shot the film in about 19 days, and Shawn said he’ll never make a movie like that again. (laughs) Since I didn’t direct the film, it’s not as hard for me to say.
When you have financiers in a way pressuring you to get a movie done within a certain amount of days, and then getting it cut within a certain number of days, and then get it into different festivals, it’s much different than going off with your friends to shoot. During that process, you can sit in the editing room, and then go to do reshoots. It’s a completely different thing than if you have a bunch of people to satisfy. In that sense, you may as well just wait until you can make a big budget film, which is almost impossible.
I think Shawn took the brunt of it. I don’t know if he’s a masochist, but he decided to write, direct, star in and produce the feature, and he also edited some of the scenes. I was like, “Man, you’re crazy.” (laughs) I was actually filming my TV series (‘The Vampire Diaries’) simultaneously, so I wasn’t on the film’s set as much. But an extra 20 days (of principal photography), and an extra three months of pre-production, would have been nice.
When it comes to movies, you can have $100 million, and still not make the film you really want. At the end of the day, it’s about whether there’s a spontaneous energy and creativity on the set. That determines if it does or doesn’t work.
SY: You’ve been friends with Shawn since you were a teenager. Were you two always looking for a project to work on together? During what part of the film’s development did you sign on to produce and act in it?
PW: Well, the first film Shawn ever sold was a screenplay back in the day, and I think I was about 18-years-old at the time. He wrote the screenplay when he was on tour with his band (Stellastarr). The movie’s a beautiful story called ‘Sidney Hall.’ When I read it, I was like, “This is amazing.” I immediately gave it to my manager, who then sent it around town, which helped get him his break as a writer. He’s done well for himself as a writer ever since. Since then, I’ve always been a fan of his writing. I don’t know if Shawn always then felt indebted to me, or what. (laughs)
We always talk about films, and I’m a big fan of his work. I always read Shawn’s screenplays before he releases them, and I give him my thoughts. We’re working on another project together right now, and it’s really exciting, but I can’t talk about it that much yet.
There are very few genuine people in this world who are not only truly talented, but also nice people you really want to be around. Shawn’s a great friend and a good guy. For me, life’s too short to work with people you dislike, or who feel won’t really challenge you. That, for me, is really what was interesting about the project.
SY: Since your scenes showcased Gideon’s interactions with Richie, what was your working relationship with Shawn like once you began filming? What was the experience of rehearsing with Shawn before you began filming?
PW: There wasn’t a lot of rehearsal, but there was a little bit. We would get together and workshop the scenes. There was also a bit of rewriting after we workshopped the scenes.
For me, the biggest challenge was that I’ve known Shawn since I was about 16, and he’s older than me. I’ve always looked up to him, and I’ve been the kid while he was the adult. I met him in acting class, and he was going to (the) Pratt (Institute) and still living in Brooklyn. I was still living in Jersey with my parents, so I always looked up to Shawn as an older figure, in terms of wisdom.
So in the film, it was a reversal of our real-life relationship, as Richie works for Gideon. While Gideon likes Richie, my character’s the boss. So that was the main area I had to mentally shift for, and make myself feel as though I was his employer. So that was the biggest challenge for me.
SY: IFC Films has released the drama in theaters and On Demand. Do you think the On Demand platform is beneficial for smaller, independent films like this one?
PW: Yes, but it’s a mixed bag; a part of me loves it, and a part of me hates it. Ultimately, you want the theatrical experience. But if you can sit down to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home on your computer screen, what’s the point of having the theatrical release? That’s a drawback, in the sense that you want the movie to be seen theatrically, but at the same time, you know more people are going to see it On Demand. So it’s a catch 22 in a weird way; not as many people will see it in theaters, but they’ll see it the right way if they do.
Written by: Karen Benardello