SXSW Interview: Chell Stephen (Writer/Director – ‘Crystal’)

Crystal’ is 17 with a bad attitude. She’s seen every Britney Spears video 100 times and knows the dances by heart. Unfortunately her small town life lacks the sparkle of a music video and her only escape is the dance-filled dreamscape in her head. When one of these reality-dips results in disaster on the job, she is fired and heads out of town on foot – curses and dances abounding.

After a run-in with local mean girls, she accepts a ride from an average white man whose intentions remain unclear to our heroine. Crystal keeps her hard exterior up and as their journey takes a turn from light-hearted to less so, the real and surreal worlds blend together in a way she is ill-equipped to handle.

Anticipating ‘Crystal‘ screenings as part of the 2014 SXSW Music, Film & Interactive Conference Narrative Shorts Competition, we spoke with the film’s Director Chell Stephen.  ‘Crystal’ plays SXSW for one last time on Friday, March 14, 2014 at The Vimeo Theatre in Austin, Texas.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Crystal’ at SXSW & BeyondHERE

How did you first get the idea for this film?
My family has a cottage where we shot (Ontario, Canada) and I have always liked the greens and blues created by that space.  It is oddly & surreally beautiful.  I pictured this girl in a spandex outfit chewing out everyone who has pissed her off.  I liked the idea of an asshole shadowboxing and dancing on the road who is kind of awkward.  I thought it would be a fun character to play with.

As for the name, I have always met Crystal’s I don’t particularly like so I thought it was a perfect name.  From there, I filled out the idea on either side of that.  I love and grew up on music videos so I liked the idea of going into that surreal world and really getting into the head of a 17 year old girl.  I know first hand it is a weird-ass place to be.

Crystal_Fire_CloseUpWith a background in directing music videos, how does the approach to music video and short form narrative equate?
Personally, I knew it would have its new challenges which is why I wanted to do it. If it feels a little scary I knew it was the right thing to do, but also since we had these music video breaks I thought it was a natural middle ground.

As far as the actual narrative goes, you can do anything in music videos.  It does not have to have continuity or a character arc.  I am a fan of a lot of films I had those kind of itches I wanted to scratch.  Luckily my team Think/Feel gave me a lot of support.  They helped my early drafts by aiding with a beginning, middle and end to the story.

Were there any particular music videos you were influenced by?
I love classic, big pop videos.  The kind no one can afford to make anymore.  There is a scene in a diner which is a homage to that era of Britney Spears, from the outfit to the high pony tail and makeup.  The chair dance is classic.  Janet Jackson has done one; Madonna has done one….

…there is a Britney Spears video that is just that.
For sure.  Her look in that one was meant to be a little more urban; a little more Rihanna.

Then the running in the quarry scene has a fashion feel to it.  There is an awesome Selena Gomez video that came out last year like that. Also, Rihanna’s “Only Girl in the World” where they played with the colors was fun.  We had a canvas of the sky that we could literally paint any color we wanted and that was super fun.

Crystal_WideShot_FieldWhat was the most difficult aspect of this production?
Making it was the most fun of all time!  I would do it again tomorrow if we could. My team is so tight; My sister is the star; My older sister did the hair and makeup, as well as helped as an Executive Producer.  My team from Think/Feel is also a family so this production was like combining them all, which was amazing.

It was challenging because there were so many looks, for production especially.  One day we did the chair dance and ended in the quarry so we had three looks total.  Timing wise, this was done on a small budget so I had to respect everyone’s time and stay within our constraints.  There were times along the way we wondered if we were cramming too many elements for a time that may not necessarily allow for them.

How long did you shoot?
We shot for 5.5 days.  Luckily my DP Greg has shot most of my music videos so we have this shorthand which helped move things along.

How did operating out of NYC help get this production done?
People are a little less exhausted about it.  In the town we shot in, these kind of things do not happen very often so everyone was accommodating and sweet.  In NYC people may be a little fatigued by it all.  This could mean they will leave you alone allowing a more run & gun approach, which we do all the time too.  For this time, it was nice to play with a different landscape.  We took some of our gear from NYC but also rented from Toronto.

Crystal_CarHow did you find the accessibility to equipment outside of NYC?
It takes time familiarizing yourself with the places to go.  In NYC you know to just go down to AbleCine, while in Toronto we had to do the research.  We used William F White which is a huge company very supportive of indie film.  They hooked us up because they really liked the project.

After SXSW, where does the film go from here?
This is our world premiere so we are excited to put all we have into this.  We are playing Atlanta at the end of the month and another festival, which I cannot tell you right now (laughs), after that.  We are trying to get this film out to as many eyeballs as we can and keep talking about it.  In some ways I feel like we are not done telling the ‘Crystal’ story.  I wonder what would happen if Crystal and the Showtime kids got into a dance battle on the Q train.  I like thinking of those kinds of scenarios.  I think this lends itself to something episodic.

How has your SXSW experience been?
It has been so fun! We are so honored to be here.  The films in our program are so strong.  This is a filmmakers fest and it really connects people.  It is a nice community to be a part of.

Crystal_Official_PosterAbout Chell Stephens
Chell Stephen grew up feasting on music videos and teen dance movies in Toronto, Canada. Today she resides in Brooklyn, directing music videos as part of the filmmaking collective Think/Feel. Crystal is Chell’s first narrative film.
Twitter: @crystalthefilm



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