EXCLUSIVE Interview With BEFORE I DISAPPEAR Actor/Director Shawn Christensen

before_i_disappearOnce in a great while, you come across a film that not only entertains you, but one that really resonates with you on a very personal level. When these films come along, it’s important as cinephiles and also just as admirers of personal storytelling, to embrace those films and champion them as much as you can. Last year, while going through what could be easily described as a hellish time in my life, I was skimming through Netflix and I was caught by the title BEFORE I DISAPPEAR. Not knowing that it was spawned from the Oscar-winning short film CURFEW, or that it was written/directed and starred Shawn Christensen, the vocalist for a band I was quite fond of for quite some time (Stellastarr*), I watched it. Experiencing the film was like those special experiences I wrote about above, ones that touch your soul in very profound ways.

As humans, we all go through some form of darkness and either find inspiration to challenge that darkness or be consumed by it and BEFORE I DISAPPEAR was a film that for the first time in years, made me feel like I wasn’t weird for having certain thoughts about life, death and my choices in life. It’s a film that i rushed out and purchased the second it was over, and it was a film that made me want to reach out to Christensen to chat about the film, the process and the story behind it. I hope you enjoy reading this one, because I enjoyed our chat. Read on! (and ps- check out BEFORE I DISAPPEAR on Netflix now) 

It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Shawn. BEFORE I DISAPPEAR was a very important film to me. What led to you wanting to become a filmmaker?


I feel like if the wind is blowing in a certain direction, I try to let it guide me a little bit. In that situation, I had been writing for a while, for a couple of years in the film industry, screen writing and such. Not really finding much fulfillment in the the destination of the screenplays that are always being put in turnaround.  When they were getting made, I love the writing aspect of film.  I wanted to sort of start taking control of my own work, my own words and find out if it was me or if it was them, if it was my writing just wasn’t good or if maybe I directed something myself, maybe I could kind of at least learn how to do it, how to direct or how to get my feet wet. So there was that part, and I started making these short films as a testing ground, starting with a student film called Walter King, but then on the other side of that coin, I made CURFEW, which was this idea I always had about this relationship between this uncle and this little girl and it started out as just someone she shouldn’t be around but sort of finds common ground with, but the idea of this suicide being the opening was sort of this thing that brought it together. Originally, it was just going to be a little character piece between these two people, the idea of opening it up of him being at that absolute low point, having sort of the absurdity of it I guess and to me at a point in time when I really WAS depressed, I was sort of looking for signs of hope or before-i-disappear (1)the light at the end of the tunnel and that was when I was really was able to move forward and just sort of make it and I made it rather quickly, the short film I should say.


Yeah, I mean making a short film is always scary, I just shot one..


 Oh yeah? That’s great.


Yeah, it was pretty terrifying.  When you made CURFEW, I mean you have that idea of bringing it festivals and all that stuff, but after your short’s whole festival run, when you found out you were nominated and then actually WON an Oscar,  how did that feel?  that must have been absolutely insane.


That was really insane and the other thing about it too is that no one calls you to tell you anything, you find out on the web along with everybody else, which is another kind of crazy thing about it.  That wasn’t what I was aiming for, which I kind of strongly believe is part of  why maybe that might have something to do with why it was short listed just at first, and then nominated, I think part of it  was that it just wasn’t my aim.  My aim was to make a calling card, and just to honestly see if my writing was any good and to direct my own words the way I think they should be said and done. That was literally the only objective of that project, because you know when you think of things that win Oscars, you think of movies that are social or topical or political or have some sort of social context that is happening today, or the subject matter is pretty and dangerous and real and true and there’s some of that in CURFEW but you know it has a sense of humor to it, so I wasn’t really expecting that.


before_i_disappear_1Did you uh have the feature in mind when you did the short or did the idea come later?


No I did not, I had the feature in mind when we were going through the festival circuit, and  I just started thinking of things that we didn’t get to put in the short film, things that we would’ve really liked to have done, explore that world a little bit more and people would often come up to us and say you should make a feature on that, so we started writing a feature throughout that year and then someone came to us and said they would put up the money to make the feature, it wasn’t a lot of money, but we felt, I felt anyway, I had never directed a feature, I felt this would be a good opportunity to take the money that was on the table and try my hand at the feature version of it.


 I love that you have Fatima (Ptacek) in both CURFEW and BEFORE I DISAPPEAR.  She’s such a talent. How did you find her?


Well I just got lucky on that, there’s not a lot of kids that age that are represented yet, you know?  I don’t know what the math is, but if there is a 23 year old girl actress, there’s like hundreds of thousands of millions of them, but if there’s a 10 year old actress with representation that you can get into an audition space, you know there’s just a handful really, so I just sort of looked at everyone available in NYC and there weren’t a lot. Maybe 12 or 15 girls and some parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to audition for this film because of its content so that narrowed down the pool.  Fatima just came into the room and we immediatelybefore2 knew that she had something different and she has a lot of presence about her and she just came in and she was great and she had a darker portrayal.  The odd thing about Fatima actually in the whole thing is she plays the purity you know the pure undiluted female foil —– but in real life Fatima is more of a Christina Ricci type, she has a darker thing about her.  I think that’s why I kind of responded to her and then for the feature it’s just absolute must, it actually works backwards in the feature, in the feature I was going to go get someone else to be in the movie to be the Richie character and have her be in it and but she insisted that it be me and her again.  And so I also didn’t have any, at that point no one knew who I was so I didn’t have any access to get anyone worth of note into that role at that point in time so she was always going to play the role and I just wasn’t always going to play the role.


I feel like there’s such a broad world in the feature and I love that about it, it takes you inside this kind of story, the Ron Perlman club, the other club, like it’s great to go on this journey with the characters.  When coming up with the idea of all this stuff, I’m curious what brought that whole thing on, those additions and the feuding clubs?


Well part of it was that I was in a band, and that I was hanging out in clubs in all of my early 20’s, so I kind of just felt like I wanted to explore that universe a little bit and at the time I was creating the movie, CBGB had closed and I forget what’s there now, but with CBGB being closed down and Luna Lounge having closed down, those were the places where we would have played, those and Baby Jupiter and all of those places that were closed down in favor of condos in the east village. Brooklyn Bowl had opened, which I love, but Brooklyn Bowl is a little bit kind of like the Walmart of clubs in a way, it has bowling and it has bands. In a weird way, it was a new kind of rock club, it’s not the dirty dingy one that the Ramones played in anymore, rock kind of in a way softened, so I kind of wanted to explore that a little bit too, the new way New York was changing.


Speaking on music and stuff, you having been in Stellastarr and other music projects, uh you did the song for Sophia’s dance, right? 


Yeah, yeah.


 Was it kind of cool to get kind of back into the music thing for that?


It was weird, because that song I made on my computer on logic and I had never done that before. I was always the guy playing the guitar and someone else was recording so to make a song without jamming with people was a little weird for me, but I had to do it out of necessity because the band that I wanted there bailed on me and wouldn’t let me use their song in the film so I had to come up with a song in the same tempo and in order to do that I had to be locked into a beat so I started in logic and I just started to build a song that this little girl would dance to, which is not normally the kind of music I would make you know, I don’t make pop songs or anything, so it was sort of a weird task but it was enjoyable ultimately to be able to build a song from the ground up and my computer was kind of fun after it started to sound good, but man, the first few weeks it was a bit of a nightmare.


The topic of suicide in the film, a lot of films use it in kind of comedic way and it always feels very weird to me, but I felt like the use of it intumblr_ng6d9efXQ81tv38cwo1_1280 your film it kind of tiptoed on that line of not making light of it but at the same time, making it an important element.


I know, it’s definitely like you said,  suicide is often used a some sort of device for humor or a gimmick. Even on the other side of that coin, it can be so extraordinarily serious to the point where you feel maybe like you’ve been manipulated. It’s a tough one, and it’s a common theme in movies and television, suicides constantly seem to be a thing.  I think for me it had to come from a point, like kind of a place of early Buster Keaton or Chekhov, you know? It had to come from a place where this guy, this character has it is in his head that this is what he’s going to do and that’s all there is to it and he’s kind of getting derailed from being able to do it, because it does feel like when this stuff kind of happened it’s very real and it takes a lot more than just you know a night out with a person to change your mind about things, it’s like a built up thing and it’s also unidentifiable very often what causes someone to feel that way, so I guess that to answer the questions, I had to come from the angle of what he was going to do, that was his mission and the movie is sort of about the odd things and sometimes absurd things that kind of derail him from his mission of ending his life.


I really think it shows a light at the end of the tunnel by the end of the film, but without you know,  skipping through roses and such.  It’s a good journey I think, and I think it’s a really great film.  


Thanks man.


Shawn I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.  Like I said, I absolutely love the film, I think it’s a really unique film and I try to recommend it to anybody that I talk film with.


Thanks a lot Jerry, best of luck with your short.


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