B.F.A. Communications Design '97
Shawn Christensen recently won the Short Film (Live Action) Oscar for Curfew, which he wrote, directed, and starred in. He plays a depressed New Yorker whose life changes after he spends a few hours babysitting his 9-year-old niece. Already a commercially successful musician, Christensen may now be on the same trajectory as that other Pratt student-turned-film star, Robert Redford.
You studied communications design at Pratt. How did you make your way into film?
At Pratt, I acted in student films. I also took acting and improv classes while I was a student. After I graduated, I focused on my band, Stellastarr, and sold my artwork to make some income before I got a record deal with RCA, but I didn’t do much acting.
I did continue to write screenplays, but watching my scripts be rewritten, not made, or just badly produced made me want to control my own material by writing and directing. It was a slow revolution.
Did you act in your previous films?
Curfew is my third short film. I had acted in a smaller role in my first film, Walter King, and acted in friends’ short films. I like doing it with friends, where I can be creative and explore and make mistakes. Before, when I was an actor, I felt like a sheep who had no control. I just went to audition after audition and never sharpened my skills.
Is your band still together?
The band is on hiatus, although I did write and perform “Sophia So Far” for a scene in Curfew.
Your scenes are quintessentially New York. Do you think you could have shot Curfew in another city—or was it intrinsically a New York story?
I only could have shot it in another city if I had a personal relationship with that other city. I have lived in New York City half my life. People are screwed up everywhere—I don’t know that that is particular to New York.
Woody Allen has his New York, and Martin Scorsese has his New York, and both are completely different New Yorks that do exist. Maybe New York has more facets than other cities.
How does your Pratt education inform your work?
Although I did not major in film or music, my Pratt experience inherently translates into all of my work. The compositions of how I like to frame shots, for example, is in direct association with the illustration and painting classes I took in college. I spent a lot of time on film sets at Pratt, and although I was only a participant as an actor, there was a lot I learned about how the other students were running their sets.
Curfew had won awards at so many festivals—were you surprised to win the Oscar?
Before we were nominated, we were shortlisted. They tell you the top 11 films in November. We were on that list, so we knew we had a chance.
Then when we were nominated, it was a big deal—bigger than winning. Before that, it was six weeks of not sleeping. I wasn’t surprised, but humbled and shocked because we were the cheapest film of the bunch. Our hard cost was around $25,000 before post-production. Then there was another $25,000 for music rights and festival submissions. The film cost a lot more than the $4,000 cost of other films at festivals, so I didn’t like to talk about our cost at the time. Then Curfew was nominated for the Oscar, and it was the cheapest in the Live Action category by far. The other nominees were mostly in the $150,000 to $200,000 range.
And the film wasn’t about any social, topical, or world issues that felt bigger. I also thought that because of the graphic moments—slitting wrists—that it never would make it to the Academy Awards. But it wasn’t an issue.
What was it like getting the Oscar?
A blur. Before they read the names, I saw the whole thing as kind of a win-win: If we don’t win, then I don’t have to go on stage—if we do win, well, we won.
Interview: Bay Brown
Images: Courtesy of artist; Getty Images.