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SXSW Q&A: 'Crystal' director Chell Stephen

Cursed with a real crumby attitude and a boring-ass hometown, 17-year-old Crystal relies on her passion for dance to escape the mundane life of rural Ontario and pursue her outsized dream of being a pop superstar in director Chell Stephen's short film "Crystal" which premiered at SXSW last weekend.

Still image from Crystal
Still image from Crystal
Think/Feel
Crystal poster artwork
Crystal poster artwork
Poster Design by Alice Tang

Chell recently answered a few questions about her film.

What inspired you to create Crystal?

We hear so much about "anti-heroes" on television and elsewhere these days... I thought it would be fun to play around with that idea but specifically from a female, teenage perspective. The Crystal character is risen from the toxic waste of teenage insecurities - ones that don't turn a person inside themselves, but instead inspire outsized confidence and rage-filled dance moves.

That's the character - but the film itself is really and truly what it looks like inside my brain. I grew up loving teen movies - classics like Can't Buy Me Love and Dirty Dancing - but also the rash of ones that came out while I was in high school - 10 Things I Hate About You and Whatever It Takes - featuring a young Aaron Paul and James Franco. That one is super weird, stranger than your average teen movie. I love dark sort of campy stuff like Solondz' Welcome to the Dollhouse and Waters' Cry-Baby - because they're weird but ultimately with a sweetness at the center. I think a certain sweetness goes well with the dark ... a thought that extends to my pop star/music video preferences as well: Britney Spears and Rihanna - both embody the light plus the dark. That was a tangent but - all of these things inspired me to create this short dark comedy called Crystal.

Tell us about your music video and production experience. How did that influence your approach to Crystal?

I've been directing music videos with my Think/Feel squad in Brooklyn for about 6 years. I've always loved the form - creating a whole unique insular world based on great looks, killer art direction - it's so fun and very freeing. You don't necessarily have the narrative constraints you might encounter in other filmic adventures. My experience with music videos influenced our approach to Crystal most specifically in the "music video" sequences - where we are taken inside the media-saturated head of Crystal. I've done more indie rock music videos than pop ones - so the glam looks and dance capturing were a bit new for me, which also made it super fun!

But in the true narrative sections of the film, there are a ton of these steadicam shots that I know if someone were to look back on my music videos - i.e. The Gay Blades "O Shot" - they'd recognize how that early stuff translated into this. There's one Crystal shot in particular where the camera swings into a dutch angle as a pick-up truck drives off, and since finishing the film I realized there's sort of an early incarnation of that shot, on a Brooklyn roof, in the Gay Blades vid. I still love what I love! I love how the movement of shots like that bring an audience's stomach into the action - they can feel as well as see it. Luckily at this point my squad and I really get each other. Crystal's director of photography Gregg Conde has shot most of the music videos I've directed (including that Gay Blades one.) He knows what I like and how to achieve it, so we work super well - and quickly- together.

Tell us about the production. How did you finance it? How long did it take? What were some challenges you faced on location?

Production took place over 10 days up in rural Ontario, Canada. We shot for 5.5 days, with a luxurious 3 days of pre-pro, one day celebration, and then travel for the team to and from New York and Toronto respectively. The film was funded by myself with a portion donated by my sister Jennifer Stephen. The budget was small, but the donations of time & energy were enormous. Essentially the liquid budget covered: travel, food, gas and location rentals. All the time from our crew was donated - my Think/Feel squad are incredibly talented and they took 10 potentially paid days away from their various other gigs do do this.

I'd have to say things on location were super smooth. The towns of Seeley's Bay and Lyndhurst, Ontario were very accommodating to us - we had tons of help from locals who were excited about something new and different happening in town. The biggest challenge was probably the light! We shot out the light every day - it was an ambitious shoot: lots of looks, extras, locations, variables etc - so we needed to squeeze everything possible out of every day. Not a lot of sleep but it's nice to know when the sun goes down - you are in fact done for the day. We marathon-ed towards the sunset each shooting day.

Tell us about your cast. What was it like to work with your sister? What was your process like working together?

Well the lead of the film is my sister Kate Stephen - I wrote the film with her in mind to star. Let's just say as sisters I've seen all her sides before, so I knew this role of aspiring-dancer-slash-asshole would be in good hands with her. We also both love to dance and play dress up - have been doing so since an early age - so I had confidence in her ability to dive into those parts of the role as well. She's studied acting for years. I wanted to show her my vision for the character but still respect her process as an artist. I sent her character references, and we did some test shoots of stills in April and May which I think helped - being able to play around just the two of us, without the whole crew there yet.

Lars Classington plays Matt - an "everyman" who comes across Crystal by the side of the road. He's been doing stand-up in Toronto for the past few years and this was his first dramatic role. He brought a great physicality to the character, while keeping things appropriately ambiguous. He's 6'3 - so big enough to be physically imposing, but with a nice, friendly smile so you're not sure if Crystal should be afraid of him or not!

Jonathan Brent plays the character Bruno who is "like" to Crystal - a weirdo/outcast. I found him through craigslist when seeking a local production intern: shoot day one he was pulling focus on the camera, day 5 he was in a leather vest dancing by the side of the road.

Sandi Globerman from Toronto plays Mrs.D and Melissa Hazel also from Toronto plays Crystal's Aunt Terry. Melissa is the mother of one of our make-up artists Caitlin Allen, and I've known her almost all my life. She did us a huge solid jumping into play this role.

Tell us about your SXSW experience. What did you most enjoy? Were there any unexpected moments that left a lasting impression on you at the festival?

Oh wow, SXSW was incredible - it was my first festival experience, and so so so fun. Everyone down there was so kind and sweet - the staff and volunteers who were incredibly helpful around every turn - to the filmmakers themselves, who were all so gracious, kind and funny. It was such a delight to be around folks who felt/feel exactly like I did/do - excited, a little anxious, and honored to see their hard work pay off in such a way! I've heard a few people say SX is a "filmmaker's festival" - and after our time down there I'd have to agree. The opportunity to chat with people, "how'd you do that shot? how'd you license that song? what are you doing next? when are we hanging out in Brooklyn next?!" was.. awesome. I believe some of these new friends will be in my life for a long time now, which is just the most fun.

What's next for Crystal? Where can audiences see it?

Next up we head to Atlanta! So excited to be playing that fest, everything I've heard about it so far speaks to how locally-loved and fun the whole thing is. We're playing on the evening of March 31st in a New Mavericks block of shorts - films by female directors featuring strong female protagonists - so badass!! After that we have two other fests on the books but are respectfully waiting for their press releases to come out before sharing - suffice to say WE'RE PUMPED! We are hoping to bring the film online, after a long healthy festival run if we are very lucky... There are such great sites that help promote shorts these days - Shortoftheweek.com of course and Ain't It Cool News does a feature every week - to state my wishes out loud maybe makes them want to come true?! So let me just say we'd be honored to find a home on one of those sites - but it probably wouldn't be for at least several months. As a Canadian short we've got our eyes on Toronto International Film Fest in the fall, long term goal-style.

Are you working on any new projects you can share with us?

I'm developing some episodic scripts featuring the character and world of Crystal - I think there's definitely still fun to be had with her energy and ability to make every situation a weird kind of nightmare. I'm currently outlining a feature script idea - and a music video I directed for my husband Elijah Ocean (who also did 3 original songs for Crystal) will be coming out in the next month or so.