Shawn Christensen on the inspiration and luck that led him to Fatima Ptacek, and ‘Curfew’

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Christensen in Curfew. ()
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Established by Robert DeNiro, the Tribeca Film Festival has screened more than 1,200 films from over 80 countries since its first iteration in 2002. The 2012 festival goes from April 18-29. See the schedule of public screenings and purchase tickets here.

Curfew, which premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, is director/writer Shawn Christensen's third short film.

He attended the Pratt Institute, receiving a degree in illustration and graphic design. He was also an actor, as well as a member of a band, Stellastarr, that signed with RCA. In recent years, he has directed other short films, and also wrote the screenplay for Abduction (2011), the Taylor Lautner vehicle.

Curfew is a dark and insightful New York movie, perfect for the Tribeca Film Festival, and features a beautiful performance by Christensen as Richie, as well as his two co-stars, Kim Allen (who plays Richie's sister Maggie) and Fatima Ptacek (who plays Sophia, his niece). Only 19 minutes long, and shot in 7 days, it is a perfectly realized and beautifully imagined story of a drug addict uncle trying to connect to his 9-year-old niece. I was happy to get the chance to speak with Christensen about the making of Curfew.

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Christensen wrote the screenplay quickly, and shot it a couple of months after finishing it. He had a sense of urgency and purpose in making his own film.

"I wasn't feeling very good about what was happening with the screenplays that I had written and I decided to make Curfew on my own terms so that I could control the vision 100 percent," he said. "I used the crew from Brink, the short film I did the year before, so it wasn't too hard to assemble everybody and shoot it fairly quickly."

Finding child actress Fatima Ptacek was a lucky break, since her role is so crucial to the success of the film. She is a serious-eyed and adorable young lady who manages to suggest a wisdom beyond her years, while remaining a kid lost in the swirl of adult catastrophe around her.

Christensen said, "We auditioned a few actresses in that age range, 9, 10-year-olds. I had seen some of Fatima's reel before the auditions and I really liked her. She's very disciplined ... She happens to live down the street from me in Queens so we had three or four rehearsals before shooting and she was great."

Christensen added, "I got lucky with her because she really takes direction well and also is just naturally smarter than me. She's smarter than most people around her. To play that role was not too far of a stretch for her."

There's one great scene in which the two sit at a counter and she eats French fries while he smokes, and she grills him for information in a machine-gun rat-a-tat of questions.

"What's your favorite number ... What's your favorite color ... Do you have a girlfriend ... Do you know that smoking is the main cause of lung cancer..." Christensen, as Richie, submits to her questioning, but finds himself feeling harassed by it ("You're givin' me a migraine headache right now ..."). But it is really the first moment when the two estranged characters, uncle and niece, connect.

Sophia bossily informs Richie that he obviously "needs a girlfriend to take care of him" because "you clearly can't take care of yourself."

This entire scene is shot in one take, which allows both actors to live and breathe in the moment of the conversation.

Christensen said, "You say 'one take' to your producers and they go crazy trying to convince me to do some coverage. But I wanted to do just one long take. I think we did four takes of that scene. Neither of us screwed up or anything so it was a matter of choosing which one was the best take."

Shot all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, Curfew beautifully portrays the many sides of New York City, and finding the locations was both a challenge and a joy. The cinematographer was Daniel Katz, and Katz makes the city look both dreamy and seedy, sometimes in the same moment. Katz had worked on Brink, Christensen's short film the year before, and finding the right guy to shoot Curfew was paramount.

Christensen said, "Daniel was doing some really great stuff with some other films. He actually has two films in Tribeca (Revenge for Jolly). Cinematography is a very important dimension. We definitely were trying to romanticize aspects of New York. There's different New Yorks obviously. There's the Woody Allen New York, the Martin Scorsese New York. We tried to show both. There's something beautiful cinematically about the real guts of Chinatown or Hell's Kitchen or Harlem."

Christensen said, "My favorite films are mostly from the 70s. Network, Chinatown, Manhattan, Taxi Driver, Nashville. That whole era of time for some reason really resonates with me. I grew up on Hitchcock so I am a huge fan of everything Hitchcock was doing and then I got into Kubrick and from there that's when I found Bergman. When I saw Seventh Seal, that's when things really started clicking for me about how I will be able to use film and screenwriting in a different way, using film to convey other things. That's what I started learning when I started getting into Kubrick and Bergman."

The shots in Curfew are elegant and evocative, with a couple moments of slo-mo that bring the story into a subjective and emotional world. It's classical filmmaking.

Christensen said, "The camera work can be emotional but not in this sort of Hollywood crane-shot way. The camera can be emotional without moving at all. You can convey a feeling with the camera that doesn't use any conventions. Michel Gondry does that a lot in his films and music videos. The camera conveys a lot of the emotion in Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Sometimes when I feel Eternal Sunshine really really works it's because of the way the shot is working for me, in combination with the performances."

In Curfew, there are scenes in a Park Avenue penthouse as well as scenes shot on a gritty Chinatown street, and Christensen said, "That was a fun thing to do, just being a New Yorker, it was nice to shoot all these different sides of New York."

A standout scene takes place in a bowling alley, where Richie has taken Sophia to hang out on his night babysitting her. A song starts playing (which was actually written by Christensen), and Sophia cries out happily, "I love this song!" and launches off to dance by herself down the bowling lane.

As the song builds in power, Richie starts looking around him, and notices that everyone's feet are tapping, people are snapping in unison before they roll their bowling balls down the lane, the people at the bar are swaying back and forth together. Richie is so separate from the joy around him, and yet in that moment it seems as though the joy is reaching out to pull him into its warm embrace.

I asked Christensen about his conception of that scene.

He said, "I threw that in the script and I gave it to my producers, thinking they would think I was completely nuts. But then they told me it was their favorite part of the script. What I was going for there was: When you get to a point where you're so low in life, where you feel low about yourself, it gets to this point where you look around you and you feel like everyone around you everywhere is having a great life. They're healthy, everything's going well for everyone else except for you, which of course isn't true. I wanted to get that across for Richie, and that was how I felt to do it with that dance scene. Everyone is moving to the music, and he can't."

A masterpiece of tone, style, and look, Curfew is one of the small gems of this year's Tribeca Film Festival.