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I first stumbled upon Shane Atkinson’s Penny Dreadful just over a month ago in the catalogue for the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Out of the hundreds of films in competition, the title and still image jumped out at me. It didn’t hurt that it was also the winner of the Audience Award, a huge honour when you consider that Clermont-Ferrand is really the top destination festival in the world for short filmmakers. When I sat down to watch it for the first time, I knew immediately that not only would it soon be charming audiences all over the world, but that it would be perfect for our passionate tribe of short film lovers here in Toronto.
I sent writer/director Shane Atkinson and producer Rob Cristiano a few questions by email and here’s what they had to say.
James McNally (JM): I understand that there’s a feature-length version of the script that actually made the coveted Black List last year? Can you tell me how it’s different and if there are now any plans to shoot a feature version of the story?
Shane: The feature was written first, but I needed to make a short film for my thesis. I decided to make the short as a sort of proof of concept for the feature. The opening and closing scenes are very similar, but the feature is more populated and the plot had more twists and turns. Dennis and Holly are trying to steal the ransom for themselves. Hyrum is the head of a polygamist family, and he’s blackmailing a local politician. And the Little Girl, of course, is even more of a nightmare for Dennis. More blood. More yelling. The feature is in development and we’re trying to shoot this fall.
JM: Oona Laurence (who plays the Little Girl) was an incredible find. How did you discover her and what is she doing next?
Shane: Our casting director, Heather Hurley, brought Oona in. We auditioned actresses in NY and LA, and we received audition tapes from across the country. She was an amazing find — talented, but also so professional and easy to work with. It was actually Rob who first saw her potential. Right now she’s starring in Matilda on Broadway.
Rob: We knew that a lot of the film would hinge on the Little Girl’s performance and her chemistry with Dennis. We spent a ton of time scouring the country for the perfect actor, and we feel so lucky to have had Oona on-board. She did an incredible job in her first real film role, and her family was a pleasure to work with. I’ve made it a not-so-secret mission to try to cast her in all of my future projects, one of which is a comedy short called The Kaminskys (currently in post-production) where she plays an old lady who has taken a pill and turned back into a child. We’re also very excited that Oona has also just started to get some feature work.
Rob Cristiano and Shane Atkinson (with the Prix du Public) at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival
JM: The film was not only invited to the prestigious Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, but it won the Audience Award. What was your festival experience like in France?
Shane: Clermont-Ferrand was amazing. We weren’t sure how the film was going to play in another language. But the French audiences were so responsive. It was a huge surprise to see just how well it played. Everyone was great there. They really took us in and made us feel at home.
Rob: Clermont-Ferrand is a world-class film festival. We were really blown away by the response the film got there. It’s an incredible experience to hear people leave the theatre quoting a character that you helped create.
JM: Shane, I definitely feel a bit of a Coen Brothers influence on the film. What other influences have shaped your writing and filmmaking style?
Shane: Edward Gorey for one. I discovered one of his books as a kid, and I immediately tracked down everything of his I could get my hands on. My first filmmaking attempt was this little Edward Gorey-style short. All silent and in black and white. My brothers and sisters played all the roles. I’m a big fan of Martin McDonagh. I loved In Bruges, so my wife introduced me to his plays.
JM: Rob, this one’s for you. As a producer on a short film, what were your main responsibilities before, during, and after the shoot? Since you’re also a filmmaker, what has producing taught you when it comes to writing and directing your own work?
Rob: I generally like to be involved from the inception of the story, but when I came on-board this project, the script was pretty much already locked (and I loved it). It was really my job to help cast the roles, file the necessary production/insurance paperwork, create the schedule, and get all of our actors out to Utah (and back!). During pre-production, we had a support team out west that was scouting locations and putting together the key crew. This was a really ambitious shoot especially from a logistics standpoint, so during the shoot, my job was really to make sure everything was where it needed to be when it needed to be there, everyone was getting enough food/rest, and generally making sure things stayed on schedule, which is always the biggest challenge. It’s always hard on the student/low budget level to do these things, but as a producer my goal was to handle them so that Shane could focus on directing. In post, again it was all about scheduling the edit, mix, vfx, color sessions and layoff. I would review each cut with Shane, and we would also test the cuts in front of audiences at school to improve the pacing and maximize the funny. I think the biggest thing that I learned from Shane was really to spend time developing and workshopping the script. It’s easy to get excited about a concept and want to run and shoot it, but I’ve really pushed myself (and my collaborators) to make sure the story is truly ready before going into production. From a directorial standpoint, I think Shane was really successful in keeping tension throughout the story, and I think that’s really one of the secrets to making an an effective film. It also happens to be the thing that makes the dark comedy such a fun and satisfying genre.
JM: I hope the film is opening doors for both of you. Can you tell us what each of you is working on next? Do you have plans to work together again soon?
Shane: I’m writing a new script and also trying to get the feature made. It’s in the early stages, but I hope Rob can be a part of it.
Rob: I’m finishing up post-production on a short that is a fictional take on the conspiracy theories surrounding IBM’s defeat of world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. I’m also developing and pitching a few great feature scripts that I would like to make in the very near future.
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