Shawn Essler: The hardest working filmmaker under the Turd...
FAME: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your film experience.|
Shawn : The first film I did was over thirty years ago. I started as a child actor, and on my first project, I was on location for eight hours, worked for all of forty-five minutes, and ultimately got cut from the finished film. But it was on my first shoot where I started studying everything that was going on behind the scenes, how a story was being told.
Basically, young Shawn saw all the pretty people that were in front of the camera, and all of the ugly people that were behind it. And I realized how much I wanted to do that, telling cinematic stories. When I grew up, I wanted to be an ugly person.
And that was God’s plan for me as well.
I was a kid who wanted to make films. Where to start? Writing. To this day, most of the film community knows me primarily as a writer. That, or the guy who plays “Creepy Man #2” in someone else’s film. But, that’s why I became a writer. I wanted to make films, and the script comes first.
Coming into “Sociopathy,” the on-set experience was a joy. We shot it one day, at the home of my lead actors, Danielle Smith and her son Jordan. I had a solid and established crew, and everyone seemed happy to be a part of the project. It was a fun set.
FAME: What was your inspiration for your short film "Sociopathy"?
Shawn : What’s the inspiration behind making any film? Cocaine and hookers! No, wait. Don’t print that.
The inspiration behind this has to do with the story of why we made the film. I had worked with Danielle Smith on several projects last summer. Her son Jordan had just finished his first acting role in a short, and caught the bug. Danielle wasn’t sure what to do with him, since roles for kids his age are limited.
I told her that I could write him a role. It was a small idea: a five-minute short that we could shoot right at the Smith residence. At first, I was just going to write a stupid comedy sketch for Jordan and Danielle to perform. But, cheap comedy sketches are a dime a dozen. The whole point of this was to be a vehicle for people to notice Jordan.
That, and… I’m not in the business of writing easy material. So, I looked at what Jordan could do; he was inexperienced, but could take direction well. So, that influenced me to write him a “creepy kid” role. That way, he didn’t have to worry about too much all at the same time. He could talk flat and keep the performance all in his eyes.
I took the story idea from TAXI DRIVER. Specifically, that moment of Travis Bickle’s sociopathy: he leads us to believe that he’s trying to save Iris, but the audience realizes that he is only concerned with himself. He acts without remorse, empathy or fear.
As a writer, I usually don’t deal with twists. I don’t tell my audience what the secrets are. It makes it tougher for me as a director, because I don’t have a dramatic tell-all line, like “I see dead people.” I have to find the proper characterization and visual cues to let the audience realize something, rather than telling them something outright.
I find that it adds replay value. My audience can go through a second and third time, and spot things in “Sociopathy,” like how Elliot never looks at his mother, or how Natalie continually lowers herself down to his level in every scene, until she’s finally lower than he is.
That’s the stuff I love in film: when you can get something new out a movie even when it’s your third or fourth time watching it.
FAME: What was the biggest challeges you faced and most rewarding experiences in creating your film?
Shawn :There weren’t really many challenges to making it. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to land a crew without a budget to pay them. When the script was set, I sent it to cinematographer Jason Berardi and asked him if he would be my DP. He loved the script, and was influential in helping me land the rest of the crew.
During the shoot, we lost about an hour because the Sun was being a jerk. During the upstairs living room scene, that big window… Once we had everything set, the Sun, which was on the other side of the house, mind you, by my own scheduling, dipped behind a cloud, dimming the light. Toss in reflectors off the lamps, then the Sun wants to come out again.
Seriously, the Sun’s a turd. But, outside of that, it was a smooth shoot.
As for being rewarding: well, yeah, the whole process, from inception to screening is rewarding to me. I’ve loved the process of filmmaking from the get-go. Any day one is on set, any time spent hovering over a script or an edit bay… that will never be wasted time..
FAME: What do you want people do take away from watching 'Sociopathy'
Shawn :Well, if they didn’t finish off their popcorn, they could probably bring it home and give it to Grandma or something.
What are you looking at me like that for?
I mean, the film itself is about manipulation. I’m hoping everyone that watches it notices how the characters all have manipulated Natalie, each in their own fashion. And, when it’s over, I hope the audiences realizes that the film has manipulated them in the same way that the heroine got manipulated.
As a filmmaker, especially as a writer, I know the techniques used in telling a story. The structure, the pacing, the characterization. It is something that is highly manufactured and tuned.
So, when I see it in the real world: news stories, press reports, tweets, posts, gossip reports… When I see a three-act structure with a clear cut hero and village, told in a manner that has an evenly-paced beginning, middle and end, I know that it’s junk. It’s fiction.
My job as an author is to take an opinion I have, and set that within a story that proves me right. See, it doesn’t matter if Shawn Essler is actually right or not. But, you tell a good story, people will believe your opinion… even if it is friggin’ bonkers, as my opinions usually are.
I’m allowed to do that because my work is fiction.
But I’m starting to see my storytelling tools being used in stuff that is supposed to be non-fiction. The real world is sloppy; there are no clear-cut heroes and villains. Nothing begins or ends, it just continues and changes.
When someone tells you a real world story that is just too clean, and hits a thesis of opinion without flaw, that is not something that happened. That’s a version of something that got manufactured in order to manipulate you to having the same opinion as the person who wrote it.
That’s what I’m presenting with “Sociopathy.”
FAME:What have you learned from making "Sociopathy" that might be of value to aspiring filmmakers?
Shawn: Yeah, the Sun is a turd.
And… Preproduction, preproduction, preproduction!
I mean, I’ve always spent a lot of effort in pre-production on my projects. It’s something I don’t see enough of in lower-budgeted films like mine. For “Sociopathy,” I had two preproduction meetings and three rehearsals before the day of the shoot. That, and a butt ton of online correspondence going on every day.
Why would I do that for a five-minute, zero-budget film? For the same reason you do it for a $200 million tentpole feature. It lets everyone know what they’re doing and how they’re going to do it. I don’t want my talent having to “discover” their characters while the camera is rolling. I don’t want my cinematographer wondering if he’s using a dolly or going handheld for Shot 3B.
The best thing a director or producer can practice is making sure everybody knows what they are doing, and fix every conceivable problem, before the cameras start rolling. It’s easier to take an hour to figure out how to jury rig a door so it slams properly when you’re doing it two weeks before you shoot that scene. What’s not easy is when your production stops and you have to waste an hour to fix the door.
Preproduction. Better than having to wing it on set.
FAME: Any other films of yours our readers can check out? What about upcoming projects?
Shawn : I just got hired to help with locations and casting for a feature-length film. One from out of town, with name actors. As of this is interview, it is still a couple of weeks from shooting. And, I might even pop up in the movie itself in a small part.
I’m always busy being on the executive board of the Rochester Association of Film Arts & Sciences (RAFAS). I recently developed the Networking Workshop, which is a monthly get together of Rochester filmmakers. We go around, introduce ourselves, what we do, and what we’re working on. Eventually, we break for “free range” networking, so if you saw someone that interested you, you could approach and talk shop. And, vice versa, for people that are interested in your projects.
It’s been pretty successful so far. Check the RAFAS Facebook page for more information for dates and locations.
And, as always, I write. Every day.