Your Shorts Do Matter: How ‘The Strange Ones’ Directors Turned Theirs into an Award-Winning Feature
Art and Experience: Here’s how Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff actually did the thing that we all want to do: turned their short into a feature. If we had a dollar for every time a young filmmaker told us that they were hoping to make a feature out of their current short, we’d be able to fund our own next movies. But Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff actually did it—their short filmThe Strange Ones became a feature of the same name that debuted at SXSW 2017.
The Strange Ones is an atmospheric road trip movie with subtle dramatic twists, revolving around two brothers, Nick (Alex Pettyfer) and Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) who appear to be running away from some trouble (specifics are revealed late in the narrative). Freedson-Jackson’s mature performance landed him the Special Jury Recognition for Breakthrough Performance award at SXSW.
In terms of the film’s trajectory, it didn’t hurt that the original short played at Sundance—but that was back in 2011. We spoke with the directors in Austin after the film’s world premiere about this six-year road to feature production, their ongoing collaborative process, how to present taboo subjects on screen, and more.
“At film school, you get told that your shorts don’t really matter, but they really do.”
No Film School: Many filmmakers start with shorts and have the dream of it to the next level. You guys did it. Can you talk about the process?
Christopher Radcliff: The long process.
Lauren Wolkstein: Yeah. We made the short in 2010.
Radcliff: We premiered in Sundance in 2011, and it played around festivals for the next couple of years.
Wolkstein: While we were trying to get a feature made, we continued to make short films, so that we were continuing to hone our craft as directors while we were developing a story.
NFS: Together or individually?
Radcliff: After we made The Strange Ones [short], we each directed our own shorts individually. Lauren made Social Butterfly. I helped her on that by editing.
Wolkstein: And Chris made Jonathan’s Chest, which I produced.
Radcliff: We always collaborate in different forms, but we were writing the feature script all during those years. We’re not independently wealthy or anything, so we’re working and trying to pay our rent and stuff. It’s a difficult thing to do especially in the independent film world. There’s not a lot of money to be made.
Wolkstein: So when we’re not making our films, Chris is an editor by trade and I teach film at Temple University.
“Maintaining the same appeal and vibe the short had was a very challenging process.”
NFS: What are the actual steps you took to go from short to feature film?
Radcliff: Nuts-and-bolts-wise, we made the short. The fact that the short did relatively well in film festivals opened the door to make the feature. At film school you get told that your shorts don’t really matter, but they really do.
Wolkstein: They really matter. A lot of my students just want to go right into making features with very, very, very low budgets—the same amount you would make your short with. We’re just like, “No, shorts are such a better avenue.”
Radcliff: And they’re very fun to make. So we made the short. We had an idea what the feature would be, but fleshing it out and writing the script and maintaining the same appeal and vibe the short had was a very challenging process. That took a couple of years. We had a first draft probably within a year after the short was finished, but then we were rewriting it and rewriting it. Years of rewriting.
Wolkstein: But through that time we had submitted the feature script to a bunch of opportunities, like IFP. We submitted to IFP early on once we had the first draft of the script.
Radcliff: IFP was super supportive from a very early stage. We weren’t into showing a lot of people the script before we thought it was good, so you can kind of get stuck in a rut with that. I never want to show writing to anybody before I think it’s totally perfect. But you have to [in order] to get these movies made.
Then, we continued to rewrite for several more years. We ended up meeting our executive producer Anne Carey at Archer Gray. She’s very experienced. She’s our producer, but also a mentor figure to us, because she’s made so many amazing movies.
Wolkstein: She made 20th Century Women, Adventureland, Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Radcliff: So, she came on board with Shani Geva, who she works with at Archer Gray.
They really helped the creative development of the script, and them being involved kind of elevated the whole project. From there, we met our producer Eric Schultz at Relic Pictures, who had just produced James White. I think he really liked the script, and then our other producer Mike Prall came on board, and then we all settled on what the script would be and wrapped up the writing phase of it.
Wolkstein: Then, we started sending it out and met with Stay Gold Features, who really responded to this final polished script that we had, and they came on board.
Radcliff: And Gamechanger and Storyboard Entertainment.
Wolkstein: All these amazing people came on and we started building our team.
Radcliff: So it was a really long creative development and then once the ball started rolling, it started rolling really fast, which I think is the case a lot of the times with movies like this.
NFS: How did you keep yourselves motivated to persist over a four- or five-year process?
Radcliff: It’s arduous in certain ways, but the process is constantly evolving so you don’t necessarily feel like you’re doing the same thing all the time.
Wolkstein: I think the very first draft is completely different than what we ended up with.
Radcliff: Oh my god, it’s insanely different. The script was rewritten from page one probably several times, We were just trying to find exactly the right beginning, middle, and end of the story.
“It was a really long creative development and then once the ball started rolling, it started rolling really fast.”
Wolkstein: But that story is very unconventional and told sometimes in a non-linear way, so how to reveal certain information at certain moments was a challenge in telling the story.
Radcliff: The ultimate goal is always to make the film. You have that as your goal and then new challenges present themselves to you in order to achieve that goal, so it’s not so much like you’re on this really long journey and it’s so hard to make it, but it’s more like you take that as a given and that’s your life. The film is the ultimate goal but then there are micro-goals of, “Okay, we gotta get this next draft done, okay gotta get it to this person.”
Wolkstein: It’s really good to have the smaller, short-term deadlines.
Radcliff: Yeah. It’s all a step-by-step process.
NFS: What about your collaborations? You’ve collaborated several times. How do you set up an ongoing collaboration and deal with disagreements when they arise?
Radcliff: First off we collaborate really, really smoothly. We don’t really fight or disagree that much, but I think that’s just because we went to film school together—
Wolkstein: We have the same language of cinema.
Radcliff: Yeah, we have a common language. We literally come from the same school so I think the reason we sort of gravitated toward each other is because we had similar tastes creatively.
Wolkstein: We get excited about the same types of films and the same approaches to filmmaking.
Radcliff: I think by virtue of collaborating, we allow each other to be bolder than we might be on our own.
Wolkstein: Yeah, that’s very true.
Radcliff: If I have an idea, but I’m a little hesitant if it’s going to work, Lauren’s like, “No, it’s so cool, we should do it.” Maybe would have been too afraid to do that on my own. The fact that Lauren’s excited about it encourages me to do it.
Wolkstein: Yeah, we balance each other out pretty well.
“We have a very solid, common understanding of the movie and then, when we’re on set, we give each other the freedom to give a direction without talking to each other.”
Radcliff: At the very beginning, when we first were making the short and working out how are we going to logistically do this together, we set a few rules or bullet points for when we were on set. Our big concern was that we’d be discussing stuff with each other all the time in between takes and it was just gonna take forever and we’d never finish the movie. So, we basically decided that we’re just going to prep the shit out of this movie.
Wolkstein: That’s how we work. We visualize every single shot. We have a really detailed shot list, we storyboard, we have a really detailed floor plan.
Radcliff: We just go through what we want before we get on set—what every scene is about, dramatically and emotionally and everything. We have a very solid, common understanding of the movie and then, when we’re on set, we give each other the freedom to give a direction without talking to each other. Only if we disagree with that direction, will we then step aside and talk it through and then do another take.
This approach allowed us to be free to direct as we would have individually, but it also created this common ground so we could move quickly, and we found that that worked really well because we didn’t really disagree about much.
Wolkstein: Yeah, and it’s such a great way to work to be so prepared. We spent so much time in prep that it felt like actually shooting it was freeing and liberating because we really just had to focus on our actors, where everything else was planned.
Radcliff: We edited the movie together, too, so we would just be in the room together all day every day. So there we had a little bit more time to talk through why I liked this or that certain take.
NFS: You approached some taboo subjects in the film. I won’t spoil anything, but I do wonder how you decided where to draw the line in the script in terms of pushing an audience’s comfort level.
Wolkstein: That was a constant challenge.
Radcliff: The characters in The Strange Ones are so much more intriguing to us because there’s a mystery to them and because we don’t exactly know what their relationship is. That intrigue is really what we wanted to draw out and play with with the story. If we ever felt like we were pushing it too far or making it too blatant—
Wolkstein: If there [are] too many answers about what’s happening, what’s really going on, then that detracts from the intrigue and the mystery of watching the film.
Radcliff: If it instinctually felt wrong to us, we would always sort of try to pull back and find this balance of: are we going too far? Are we right on track? Do we need to a little less or a little more of this or that?
Wolkstein: The core concept of the film is that the truth is very elusive and what actually is true is a constant mystery, especially for Sam. He’s going through a very confusing time in his life as a 14-year-old, coming into his own, so we wanted to portray that.
Radcliff: In terms of the heaviness of the subject matter, we think it’s more intriguing to leave it more up to the imagination than to be too prescriptive or clear. Our goal was never to psychologize or to do a detailed analysis.
Wolkstein: It was more about the perception of reality.
Radcliff: It was about the relationship of the viewer to the movie. We, as viewers, get more out of having a question posed to us about is this really true or is it not, than having a more simple takeaway.
Wolkstein: Because those are the type of movies that we really love and we keep watching over and over. Usually the puzzling movies are the ones that are fascinating.
“We, as viewers, get more out of having a question posed to us about is this really true or is it not, than having a more simple takeaway.”
NFS: Speaking of Sam, you had to cast a young person, and the whole movie really depends on the performances of two actors. How did you find them?
Wolkstein: James Freedson-Jackson was somebody who came in through our casting director, Jessica Daniels, and he really showed a level of maturity that blew us away for his age. We thought we would have to give him disclaimers and tell him, “Oh, this is such sensitive material, I’m not sure if you’re ready to do it.” But he came in and knew how sensitive the material was, and had no issues.
Radcliff: He said this great thing. We’re in one of our call backs with him, and we were like, “We just want to make sure you’re comfortable with all of this because it’s a really intense and dark role.” And he was like, “It’s pretty dark, but you know what’s really dark? Eighth grade.”
Wolkstein: That blew us away. We were just like, “Okay, you’re the kid for us.” He also displayed this raw talent that for his age; he just came in and he was who he was.
Radcliff: You know what the difference between him and a lot of other kid actors in general we see is? He’s really good at not doing much. You know what I mean?
NFS: I was going to say that it’s an understated performance, in the right way.
Radcliff: Yeah and that’s what we were really looking for. We were looking for like a kid who could sit there and just think about something and you’d want to sort of watch his face while he does that.
Wolkstein: With Alex Pettyfer, once he met James, he was really taken by him and their chemistry together was really terrific.
Radcliff: Alex was really cool about helping us find the right guy because he knew that it was chemistry-dependent, so he came in and did the readings and callbacks and stuff with us and that was tremendously helpful.
Casting Alex actually was really an interesting process, too, because that character has to be so many different things that you perceive through the kid’s subjectivity. He had be really handsome and kind of this object of desire, but he also had to be—
Wolkstein: —Kind of dangerous and creepy.
Radcliff: And a potential kidnapper.
Wolkstein: And then he also had to be charming.
Radcliff: And caring. Like a father figure or brother figure, too. Alex was the perfect combination. He’s got such a tremendous range.
“While you have to compromise and make decisions on the fly, make sure you always remember your original intention.”
NFS: As this was your first feature, what do you know now that you didn’t know before you started that you would pass on to other first-time feature directors?
Wolkstein: Patience. Have patience with getting the film going. Don’t give up trying to get it made. There will be a lot of times in the process that you’re like “Oh my god, why isn’t this happening? Why haven’t we gotten this or that to get the film moving?” But just keep at it, and just keep pushing to get it going. Keep submitting to as many labs and as many markets as you can. They’ve been so helpful to us.
Radcliff: Yeah. One thing that I learned is that, as a director, you have to have a strong understanding of your original vision for the movie. It’s really easy to be swayed by all the little things that come up during production and post-production—
Wolkstein: All the other voices.
Radcliff: Yeah, all the other voices, and even things like the weather, or some prop doesn’t work. All the things that present themselves as challenges. It’s really easy to be like, “Well, it’s raining outside, so let’s just shoot it inside.” But you had a reason why it was really important for this thing to be shot outside.
So, while you have to compromise and make decisions on the fly, make sure you always remember your original intention. Make sure that the compromises you’re making still satisfy them. That’s something that is easy to do on a short because they’re shorter, but when you’re going through a much longer process, it’s easy to lose track of that. If you go into it knowing that you have to know exactly what you want all the time and don’t stray from that too much, you’ll be fine.
Wolkstein: And also, there [are] so many things to prioritize. You should prioritize things because everything’s gonna be thrown at you. All these small decisions like: What color should that ax be? Or what should the car look like? Every single decision you make, prioritize it.
There are some things that different department heads will ask you that you should just say, “Oh, this is what I think,” and move on from it, rather than trying to stay on that decision for too long. Really know what decisions are most important to you.