Filmmaker started writing ‘Sidney Hall’ script with his best friend 10 years ago
Christensen enjoyed working with his cast
The story in Shawn Christensen’s Sundance Film Festival feature premiere “Sidney Hall” has a familiar ring.
A writer’s first novel takes the country by storm, but the book inspires tragic outcomes — especially when it comes to younger readers.
The author, Sidney Hall, is salted with scandal and he eventually becomes a recluse only to have a detective attempt to pry open his life and other secrets.
Christensen said he and his best friend, screenwriter Jason Dolan, began writing the script a decade ago, when they were in their early 20s.
“We were rooming together and thought about how different we had become from when we were 18,” Christensen said during a phone call from Brooklyn, New York. “We wondered what it would be like when we turned 30 and if we would change that much, so we started writing a screenplay that kind of examined the differences of ourselves and those ages and just made things up as we went along.”
The screenwriters tossed around the idea of making Sidney a rock musician, because Christensen was in the band Stellastarr at the time.
“It’s very hard to write a screenplay in general and a good script is hard to come by, never mind us having to write fake hits for a make-believe band,” Christensen said with a laugh. “So, we erred on the side of writing about someone who is not a musician.”
At the time the two began writing the script, they thought of actors they wanted to cast.
“We thought about Alfred Molina and John Turturo and people who were young and in their 20s and 30s back then,” Christensen said. “We wanted to make a good script and learn about writing and putting together a screenplay that would ultimately become a character study.”
When it came time to really cast the film, Christensen found a great pool of actors that include Logan Lerman (who plays Sidney), Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Michelle Monaghan, Nathan Lane and Margaret Qualley.
“The actors we have in the movie were such a joy to work with, because they all use different processes and brought something different to the table,” Christensen said.
During the filming, Christensen would tell the actors to throw out the script and do what was natural.
“Some of them wouldn’t do that, but Nathan Lane (who plays the character Harold) would,” Christensen said. “He would say my dialogue and then add his on top of that. That was fun because it gave me a lot of choices and it gave me different takes on the character.”
As with all films, there were challenges. But the biggest one was dealing with the logistics of the cast size and schedule.
“Every weekend I would have to sit down with a whole new group who was coming into the movie and rehearse as much as I could before we started filming,” Christensen said. “One week I would would be working with Logan and Elle and the next I would be working with Michelle and then next I would be working with Nathan Lane.
“It was almost like we were shooting a different movie every week. There was never any sleeping, but there was a revolving door of incredible actors who were cordial and open to anything.”
The other daunting task was editing because the story is told through flashbacks and flashforwards.
“To say that editing was tricky is the understatement of the year, my friend,” Christensen said with another laugh. “While It was fun, there were so many ways we could have gone with the film, because we opened the door to have too many options, sometimes without solid placements.
“That meant we had to buckle down and concentrate on how things needed to flow. The last thing we wanted was for the film to be too jarring for the audience.”
While Christensen enjoyed watching the film come together, he couldn’t wait to screen it at Sundance.
“The crew did such a great job, but to be honest, it never really comes together until it’s seen by an audience,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“Sidney Hall” screenings continue 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 25, at the Eccles Theatre and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 28, at the Rose Wagner Center in Salt Lake City. For information and tickets, visit http://www.sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/program.
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