By Chelsea Fung
In a single shot, a nine-year-old girl activates her boiling imagination to fend off a cloaked monster created by her parent’s underlying feud, which can only be conquered by the resolution of family love in Monster in a House by Christiano Dias.
Brazilian born, Texas raised writer and director, Christiano Dias brings his endless imagination and creativity to every film he creates, especially when it is in a single shot. In Dias’ recent short, Monster, he brings back some familiar faces from his eminently creative short King Eternal, which also revels in the elusive imagination of an adolescent to escape a difficult reality. Dias’ talks with us about building his dream cast, keys to crowd funding, writing through the blocks and what is in store next.
Where did you get your start in the industry?
Texas. I was a 19 years old when I started an internship with The Studios at Las Colinas in Irving, TX. Everyday I would drive about an hour round trip to the studios to help with famed Film Coach, Dr. Don Jackson’s acting workshops. I would film the classes, edit them, and over time - occasionally - lead some of the workshops with the younger actors. I later befriended the Studio Chief, Justin K. Muller who managed the company that ran the studios at the time - Muller Entertainment. That was when I got to work on some commercials there as a PA and also Studio Grip on shows like Prison Break and America’s Got Talent. I ended up interning there for four years and just two months after I started, Justin Muller was already helping produce one of my short films. In those years, Justin ended up producing a handful of other short films of mine and an indie feature that I also DP’ed. In 2012, I moved to Los Angeles to get my Masters in Filmmaking at New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. I’m currently writing a feature, have two films in the festival circuit, and am in post on a third episode of comedic web series.
Tell me about your short, King Eternal, that brought you to HollyShorts.
My short film, King Eternal is about a young boy that uses his hyper-active imagination to cope with his parents’ divorce. It’s told in a magical realism style, blending reality with childhood imagination. It’s a film that is very dear to my heart, as I dealt with some of the same themes growing up. It also stars Golden Globe winner Joseph Bottoms and actress Lisa Roumain (Jersey Girl, Avatar) and I’m grateful to say that I’ve made a lifetime friendship with both of them. So much, that my most recent short film also stars both of them and another very wonderfully talented young actress, Kitana Turnbull. It’s called Monster in a House and is 14 minute single moving shot and, I’m obviously biased but, I think it’s a doozy! I’m just fortunate to have worked with such immensely talented people from Composer - Daniel James Chan and Director of Photography - Michael Helenek. To me, it’s all about building a family that you work well with, believe in, and are “sharp as a knife” focused on telling a story.
Who has been an inspiration to you in the industry?
Well, every filmmaker has their favorite filmmaker. Or at least I would hope. But no one beats Kubrick in my mind; he’s totally untouchable. Of course, I admire many others, but every filmmaker is influenced by him in one way or another, that Kubrick is sort of the all-encompassing person for me. I also think the way Austinites, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater got started are powerfully inspirational. It tends to give us newcomers a fighting chance!
You write and direct and edit, how do you fuel all of these contributions that go into your films? How does the story change from page to screen? Which is your favorite to do?
I would say that I take them one at a time, so my head doesn’t explode. Writing is inherently insulated, safe (generally), and something that can be changed, even on set. I mostly encourage the actors to bring their ideas and I’ve been privileged to work with some masterful ones, so they’re my safety net as much as I’m theirs. Directing is an organized chaos. No other way to put it for me, we change things on the spot and adapt and take some losses and some wins and in the end it’s getting as close to the script as we can. The story will always be there as long as we don’t veer into oblivion, so it’s just keeping in mind the things that keep your story grounded and not forgetting it; we can have fun and be chaotic and try things as long as we have at least one foot on the ground to bring us home, if that makes sense. And, editing is just scary. It’s sort of like completing the circle and you’re writing all over again - in that cave that no one enters until you have something. And not really knowing what you have until you can sit down and look more closely, and knowing you can totally screw it all up too. This sounds awful, but editing is not all that bad, it is equally as fun as it is scary. Maybe that’s all of filmmaking…
If you could tell your younger self something, what would you say?
Hearing and listening are two very different things. Don’t forget to listen.
Tell me about your recent short, Monster in a House:
I’m very proud to say that I just finished my latest short film. It’s a story about a husband and wife’s broken relationship that manifests itself as a monster that only their daughter can see, and only they can defeat. It’s the most challenging film I’ve ever made. We shot it all to feel like a single shot and I think we wildly succeeded at that, it was just a technical whirlwind of a film that really reflected the theme. Which is about not running away from your problems or “monsters” and facing them head on, so cutting felt like running away. I’m also happy to say we completely crowd funded it on Indiegogo, so it’s good to know we have some fans right out of the gate. I’m dying to show it! Right now, I’m currently writing my first feature and having a blast doing so.
What fuels your writing? How do you get past any blocks or troughs while writing?
I try to write something every day. Even if it’s just a sentence or anything. I open the Notes app on my iPhone daily and write something that comes to mind: a character’s name, a situation that happens at lunch that’s funny, a daydream, whatever it is. It’s amazing because it’s all saved there. I have notes from 2009 that I sometimes dig up and see if it’s usable or if it just plain sucked, unfortunately it’s sometimes the latter. Then there’s the blocks. I like to write from the heart, picking stories and things that happened to me or that I’m afraid of or love to do, or always wanted to do. I feel like you really have to love it if you’re going to write it and spend so much time with it. So “write what you know” has sort of been my mantra. I like to think I get over the writing blocks by hitting them over the head with an 800 pound bowling ball; you sometimes have to just battle yourself! I heard the Coens like to write themselves into a corner, then write themselves out. I think I’d like to try that someday.
How did you go about casting your shorts?
I’ve always cast all my films myself with a trusted fellow filmmaker and another to run the camera. That’s really been the whole process. Then you take the footage and sit down with a few more filmmakers and get their opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s really how that audition made you feel. I remember when Joseph Bottoms came into the audition for King Eternal and it was towards the end of the day and I hadn’t done much research, but knew he looked the part and by the time he showed up, we ended up talking for about 20 minutes before he even did any sides. Thinking about it now, I feel like I cast him before he even sat down and before you go screaming bloody murder about it, it is a huge thing to really get along with your actors and have a relationship. I cherish my relationships with every single actor I’ve worked with greatly. A good vibe’s a good vibe. I suppose that’s been my biggest lesson about casting and making films, “go with your gut.”
What advice do you have to fellow crowd funders?
My humble opinion for crowd funding is to tell your story as simply as you can, explain why it needs to be made or what makes it important - and it helps if you have others attached already that can speak on your behalf too, and then give some decent perks; do it all in a well made three to four minute video and you’re halfway there. With films, the perks that really matter are the big dollar Producer credits. I was lucky enough to successfully crowd fund two of my shorts in two years and our backers are scattered literally all over the world. What helped us was that Joseph Bottoms happened to have some very enthusiastic and generous fans from Russia that massively funded each of our films together and I’ll forever grateful to them. Lisa Roumain and Joseph both really helped me promote the story in the campaign video and we’re just over the moon with how supportive people were. Make phone calls, write letters, email until your fingers bleed, and do anything you can to get the word out!
What advice do you have to your fellow filmmakers?
I’m not sure what I’d say, I mean, I’m still learning myself. I don’t think we ever really stop. But maybe I’d say the same thing I would to the younger self question, “Don’t forget to listen.” And by that I mean that filmmaking is collaborative and not just one person’s film; listen to your actors and collaborators, but only take the ones that will help you tell a better story. Because at the end of the day, the story is king. But if they’re filmmakers, then they don’t need my advice, they’re already making films - that’s the best thing there is.
Read more about Monster in a House in the reviews below:
Forest City Short Film Review: Monster in a House