From writer/director Shawn Christensen, the indie drama Before I Disappear (playing at the SXSW Film Festival) tells the story of Richie (Christensen), a man at the lowest point of his life who gets a call from his estranged sister (Emmy Rossum), asking him to look after his eleven-year old niece (Fatima Ptacek) for a few hours. As the night progresses, Richie finds himself caught in a battle between his two bosses, Bill (Ron Perlman) and Gideon (Paul Wesley), and soon figures out that maybe there is something else to live for.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, actor Paul Wesley, who also served as a first-time producer on the film, talked about how he came to sign on for this project, how gratified he feels about the positive response the film is already getting, how involved he was in stretching the story from a short film (which won an Oscar) and shaping it into a full-length feature, how he also came to be acting in the movie, how different this character is from what he’s known for, how collaborative Shawn Christensen is, as a filmmaker, and how involved he was in the post-production process. He also talked about trying his hand at directing, for the first time, with an episode of his CW series The Vampire Diaries, the experience of directing himself, that he’d like to direct a feature once his time on the show is done, and the type of projects he’s looking for. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
PAUL WESLEY: Yeah. The director, Shawn Christensen, is one of my closest friends. I’ve known him since I was 16. I’ve always been a fan of his, and he’s always been a fan of mine. I’ve always supported his writing and found it to be incredible. We’ve always talked, over the years, as friends and collaborators. He shot Curfew, the short film, and prior to it winning the Oscar or getting any acclaim, we started talking about adapting it. I had seen it and thought it would make a great full-length feature. And then, it very fortuitously became this big thing and won an Oscar, which allowed us to get financing. All the chips just fell in the right place.
When you’re making a smaller character piece like this, it must have really helped that the short won the Oscar.
WESLEY: Yeah. It’s just hard, these days, from what I’m told. This is really my first credit as a producer. It’s really difficult to get financing on a movie unless you’re an A-list star, or it’s a horror movie. You’re either a blockbuster or you’re some sort of genre film that you can make $100 million off of. Making a movie like this, our budget was tiny, but the success of the short was obviously the reason we were able to do all of this.
Had you been actively looking for projects to produce, or did this come up because your friend came to you?
WESLEY: Well, it was a combination. I’ve always been interested behind the camera. With all due respect to The Vampire Diaries, doing the same thing, over and over again, for essentially five years straight, it really becomes laborious and tedious, and it becomes a job. You obviously find gratification in acting, but you’re playing the same character. No matter how compelling it is, it starts feeling pretty monotonous. I’ve always been trying to develop things, my whole career. This was just something that came into place.
Getting a film made is a huge hurdle, in itself, and then you get into a great festival like SXSW, and it’s already getting positive press, as one of the most anticipated movies there. What does that feel like, for your first producer credit?
WESLEY: It’s amazing. We’ve been working on this for about two years now. Damon Russell, Shawn Christensen and myself were sitting there close to two years ago, developing this thing that started from an idea. We hung out and had drinks and dinner, making each other laugh and telling each other different stories. It evolved into a screenplay, and now, two years later, everyone is going to see it. There’s an enormous sense of gratification. I feel very fortunate that our movie isn’t just falling into obscurity, like many other films.
Were you actively involved in the shaping of the story, stretching it from a short to a full-length feature?
WESLEY: Yeah. Make no mistake about it, and this needs to definitely be said, and this is just my subjective opinion, but Shawn Christensen’s writing is so poetic, and he is the guy who created this. But when we were structuring the screenplay, Damon and myself were a part of putting together the structure of the screenplay. We had A-storyline, B-storyline and C-storyline. Shawn had written a couple hundred pages of Curfew before we finally settled on the story, and Damon and I were very involved in that. We’d throw a bunch of information at Shawn and he’d go into his bunker, so to speak, and then he’d come out with something. We’d just keep our fingers crossed and hope it was good. And then, eventually, the screenplay came about and I was so impressed with what he was able to do with it.
That must have been a huge relief that, on your first job on a producer, you weren’t getting script pages back that made you wonder, “What did I get myself into”?
WESLEY: Yeah. We tried to produce a million other things, and I’m attempting to produce five other things right now. It’s so challenging. I know what Shawn’s capabilities are, so I knew it was going to be special. When I was 19 or 20 years old, Shawn was touring in Asia with his band Stellastarr*. He had never sold a screenplay in his life, and he would send me these seven or eight page stories, that were these little scenes. I thought they were so beautiful and I kept telling him, “Man, this is amazing!” He was just a musician at the time, and a painter. He had never written anything. Eventually, he took all these little stories and compiled them and put them into one screenplay, called Sidney Hall, that was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read in my life. He didn’t know anything about the business, so I gave it to my manager. That’s how Shawn got started. She was able to then sell the movie for him, to some big studio. Shawn was always a writer, but that’s how he sold his first screenplay. So, I’ve been involved with him, for many years.
It must be nice to have that creative support system in such an unpredictable business.
WESLEY: Yeah. People always ask you for favors. For example, with The Vampire Diaries, people ask me to get someone an audition, and I can probably get someone an audition. But you really want to support people you believe in, and it’s good if they’re your friends. And I think Shawn is doing that for me now, to be honest with you. He put me in the movie and he wrote a role for me that was different than the role the public knows me as. It was an opportunity for me to do something different, and he did that to help me out. That’s the circle, I guess.
Did you want to act in the film, so he created the role for you, or did he write you the role and surprise you with it?
WESLEY: It was very organic. It started off as me just wanting to help him develop it and produce it with him. And then, as the story evolved, he created this character, Gideon. He was a 30-year-old hot-shot guy in New York City, and I’m from New York. Shawn just said, “You’d be great for this,” and I said, “Okay.” It just organically happened. It really wasn’t something that was discussed heavily.
Was it fun to get to do so much with the character, in just a couple of scenes?
WESLEY: Yeah. For the most part, Gideon only has two eight or nine page scenes in the film, which is interesting. Usually, when you have a supporting role, the character appears intermittently, throughout the film. But Gideon really makes one entrance and one exit, which is cool. It was helpful because I didn’t have a lot of time to shoot this movie and it allowed me to shoot this role in four days.
With a character that’s all over the place, with his emotions and intensity, did you experiment with different levels until you found what worked best?
WESLEY: Yeah, absolutely! I definitely pulled some things from my personal life, that were happening during filming. Some of the things Gideon was doing, I was able to pull some things from my personal life for. It was actually an interesting time for me to be playing this character. The cool thing about shooting on digital – and I think we shot this on an Alexa camera, even though it looks pretty filmic – is that we were able to do a bunch of takes and experiment. We took Gideon to many different levels. We did some of it a little more somber, and we did some of it a little more intimidating, and we did some of it a little more spontaneously wild. We just played with it until we found it. We rehearsed, too. We shot in New York City, and we spent a good couple of weeks just rehearsing the scenes, which was a really amazing experience. I don’t get that turn-around on television. We don’t do that. You do eight pages a day, five days a week. It’s a completely different experience. And don’t get me wrong, this was guerilla filmmaking. We did this film in 20 days. But nonetheless, it was definitely a different type of experience.
WESLEY: I really look up to Shawn, and I was thinking about, “What is it about Shawn that everybody seems to respect?” And I realized that Shawn sees the best in every person, and he never discourages input. When he was directing the film, everybody would offer their opinions, and he was always able to take something from that opinion and make that person feel good. Everybody wants to be their best on set because he encourages that behavior, whereas sometimes directors that I’ve worked with in the past will basically give you their opinion and it’s their way or the highway. But it was different, working with Shawn.
At what point, along the way, did you see the finished product, and how close was it to the original script?
WESLEY: It’s not like I shot the movie, and then I left town and, all of a sudden, a DVD showed up. As a producer, one of my duties is to help in the post-production process. I would fly to New York. During the first few months, we had a little editing bay in Manhattan, and I would fly there on the weekends. It was Shawn, Damon [Russell] and Andrew Napier who edited the film, and I would fly in on the weekends to see variations of the film. It’s amazing how a film can change in the post-production process. The first assembly I saw was like the different between watching a romantic comedy and Requiem for a Dream. We just found a balance of humor. The movie is very funny, but it’s also very dramatic. This movie is really sensitive, in the sense that it has a lot of dark humor, and it has to be balanced very carefully and treaded very lightly. And we didn’t have a lot of time to edit it. We had a couple of months. But slowly, we found it. We did test screenings with friends. I would come home and show it to friends. There were a very, very few people that I trusted. It was just a process.
Because of your involvement with The Vampire Diaries, you got to try your hand at directing, by doing an upcoming episode. Was it nerve-wracking to be the boss on set, or did it give you confidence to know that you’d have everybody watching your back?
WESLEY: I was definitely nervous and I didn’t know how I would be received, but it was really a heart-warming thing to see my cast wanting me to do well. They all came in and knew their lines. They wanted me to do well, and I wanted them to do well. I wanted to make them look good, and they wanted to make me look good. It was a really wonderful experience. I was so appreciative of everyone. The crew and the cast all really wanted me to have a good experience, and it was very touching.
Is that something you were looking to do, as a stepping stone towards directing a feature?
WESLEY: Yes. TV is a whole other beast, and I want to continue directing television. But definitely, once my show wraps up, which will be relatively soon, I’m going to direct a feature, for sure. I just need to organically be able to create it, and have the time to do it. And I’m learning.
Was this an episode that you weren’t in as much, so that you didn’t have to direct yourself while you were acting?
WESLEY: Let’s put it this way, if I were to direct a feature film, I would not be in it. I don’t know how the hell Shawn did it. It’s crazy! Don’t get me wrong, I did it. I had a bunch of scenes in my episode, so I did have to direct myself. I knew what I wanted to do, emotionally, with my character, so it was a matter of whether the shot was framed up the right away. I had playback, and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t watch the take and go again, if it was anything other than a really important reason. If it was a vain decision because I didn’t like an angle on my face or my hair was out of whack, I literally threw that out the door. I never watched my entire scenes, from beginning to end. I only watching the first couple of seconds, and if it looked good, I’d move on. You have to trust your D.P. You have to say, “All right, you’re my eyes and ears. How was that?” And then, he’d yell, “Give me another,” and that would be t. My D.P. was my right-hand man.
WESLEY: I don’t think you ever know what you’re doing. I just think it’s about whether you can make the process easier for yourself. When you make a movie, everyone has the best intentions and wants to make it good. But at the end of the day, you really don’t know what it’s going to turn out like. I don’t think that there’s any way that I can say, “Oh, yeah, now I know what I’m doing.” I’m not going to have the same crew. A film crew is like a giant moving organism, and it’s constantly shifting. Every single aspect is important, and I just think it’s a matter of trying to understand how to make it work, in a constructive way. The more I work in television and film, the more I figure out a way to have the potential to make it good.
Do you want to stick with smaller character pieces for awhile, before trying to produce something bigger?
WESLEY: I think it’s about getting in early. You find a young filmmaker, a script, a book, a short story, or a play and you’re like, “Okay, this is interesting. This really has some potential.” And then, you invest all of your energy and time into shaping it. That’s what a producer does. You plant that flower, and then you let it grow. That’s what it comes down to. So, I’m constantly looking for material. I’ve partnered up with a guy who is a veteran in the TV industry, and we are trying to create television series. And then, I’m always looking out for movies. Filmmaking is something that I’m really passionate about. Film, in general, is something that I’m passionate about. But, I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Something has to be serendipitous, and then it works out. That’s how unstable the film industry is.