Co-chairing the Chicago Film Critics Association’s festival of student-made short films has been a nostalgic experience for me, since the submissions all come from my alma mater, Columbia College. It’s thrilling to observe the early work of budding auteurs who display a mastery of craft as well as a fearlessness in subverting expectations. One particular finalist in this year’s festival–screening February 8th (see details below)–managed to surprise me at every turn while creating dazzling imagery on a limited budget.
Produced by Sam Shapson and A.J. Sheeran, “The Treehouse” explores an unlikely bond that forms between a brooding young boy, Matt (Joshua Hunter Magers), and a beguilingly imaginative girl, Angela (Jacqueline Scislowski). Both kids have experienced loss in their lives and fantasy provides them with a vital escape, but will it be enough to erase scars of the past? Chicago effects artist Ben Christie is credited with the film’s spectacularly effective visuals, while composer Kevin Cronin supplies the haunting score.
It is films like “The Treehouse” that make me extraordinarily honored and excited to host an event celebrating new voices in cinema. In this exclusive interview, Shapson and Sheeran chat with Indie Outlook about their amazing picture, which was an official selection at the Austin Film Festival.
Q: How did this film come about?
Sheeran: In one of my last semesters at Columbia, I wrote the synopsis for “The Treehouse” for my Advanced Practicum class. I wrote it in one night basically to complete the assignment and realized that it was one of the best stories that I had ever written. And once I realized that, I decided that I wasn’t going to use it for that class anymore. [laughs] I would’ve been giving it over to a program that I wouldn’t have had control over. I was working on the set of one of Sam’s previous films, “Harvest,” and I told him about the story. I gave him the pitch and he was like “Oh man, do I want to direct that!” I kind of wanted to direct it too, but I had not taken Directing 1. I was more of a writer, and I ended up working in a very close producer role with Sam. We consider ourselves both directors, but not in an official capacity.
Shapson: I would definitely agree that the film went through a lot of different phases of development. Our collaboration and the way that we work together evolved as the project evolved. We made a very conscious decision to adjust our concepts of what a writer, a director and a producer has to be and can be in a way that would utilize what each of us were most interested in bringing to the table and what we recognized in each other. What resulted from that was a lot of decisions that I don’t think I would’ve made on my own or that A.J. would’ve made on his own. We can only really apply them to the manner in which we collaborated, and I would say that’s the thing I’m most proud of with the project.
Q: Were these characters based on your own childhood experiences? Did you have a treehouse?
Sheeran: I didn’t have a treehouse, but I would definitely say that there are bits of myself in both Matt and Angela. I think they are two different aspects of who I was at a younger age. Angela is the kind of kid who walks around and daydreams in the same way that I would imagine the movies that I would hopefully make one day. I was at both ends of the spectrum–I was a bit of an outsider, but at the same time, I wasn’t a total leper or anything. [laughs] Matt learns to connect with another person who is different from himself, and that was a big theme of my life in the past.
Q: Your striking use of multiple flashbacks in this film somehow manages to connect the narrative dots without losing the audience.
Shapson: I’m so glad you feel that way. The use of the flashbacks is one of the biggest things that changed in the new edit that will be screened at the upcoming competition. The previous version was 14 minutes, and we had been submitting it to festivals all the way up until we found out about this competition with the 10-minute limit. Our original cut used flashbacks in a very similar way, but the degree to which we approached the sense of revealing information late in the narrative for emotional impact as well as building suspense in the first half of the film was one of the ways that we were able to change the length and condense the whole piece into something that A.J. and I now feel so glad we were challenged to do. It was a great learning experience.
Q: I thought it was fitting that your leading lady landed a role in “Man of Steel,” since both films deal, in one way or another, with otherworldly life.
Sheeran: Isn’t that funny? I remember when we were first talking about the casting process, which was one of the first conversations we had. Because of the subject matter and the age bracket, we knew that it would be a challenge. Jacqueline was, without question, the first name that we mentioned. We had seen her in a couple other Columbia shorts, and she had always struck us, as well as other filmmakers she had worked with, as the kind of person who would get a break. When we decided that she was the one we wanted, there was this little notion in back of my head that wondered, “Wouldn’t it be funny if something happened in the time between us casting her and this film getting finished and going through the festival circuit?” Sure enough, not only is she going to be featured in “Man of Steel,” she’s also featured in the series “Touch” with Kiefer Sutherland.
The Chicago Film Critics Association Emerging Filmmakers Scholarship Fund will hold its Columbia Student Film Screening & Party at 7:30pm Friday, February 8th at Muvico Theaters Rosemont 18, 9701 Bryn Mawr, Rosemont, IL. Tickets are $8. For more information, call 847-447-1040 or visit the official Muvico site.
Here’s a sneak peek at the original cut of “The Treehouse”…