This article previously appeared on Crossfader
The 2017 Student Academy Awards feature a batch of outstandingly diverse directors and stories. With three thesis films shot outside of the United States (from Croatia to Taiwan), and the rest dealing with issues of serious political and personal weight, the nominated films continue to prove themselves as a beacon of unheard voices in a rapidly changing industry. With this series, Crossfader will be highlighting all seven filmmakers from the Live Action – Domestic section.
Of the sum total 38 nominated films, Shane Watson’s I LIVE HERE is the sole nominee from California College of the Arts. And that’s no small feat. For those in the know, the Student Academy Awards have a tendency of relegating their selective awards to the film school elite (With Columbia, USC, AFI, NYU, and UCLA usually sweeping come awards season, and Chapman University and CalArts trailing close behind). Watson’s nomination not only indicates talent rising above against all odds, but an exciting shift in the Academy’s growing search for diversity. Tracking the life of a gay, African-American man who has recently moved to San Francisco, Watson’s film is unafraid, topical, blunt, and refreshing short-form filmmaking. Daring itself to tackle homophobia, police brutality, and racial profiling all in one film, I LIVE HERE stands proud as a daring feat from a young artist.
I want to start off by talking about a specific scene in the film: The Barbershop. It’s an essential character beat in the story, one where our protagonist gets a moment to sink into his world, appreciate life, and get his first-ever haircut. Can you elaborate on that?
The way the scene came about, myself and two of the lead actors started talking about barbershops. I was filming with some friends a year prior and it led to me interviewing a guy in a barbershop in Oakland. My dad was in the military, so I really had only been to a military barbershop, never a Black barbershop like you’d see in LUKE CAGE or BARBERSHOP. And I’m bald, so I don’t actually have a reason to go to barberhops anymore. So I started asking myself like, “is it a problem that I’m gay? What would happen if they knew I’m gay.” Originally I wrote the scene so that the Barbers were homophobic, but I read an article about Michael Sam and it made me think, “I’ve never experienced homophobia in a barbershop and wouldn’t it be good to show homosexuality being accepted in the Black community rather than running with the negative stereotype?” So I just asked the barbers to be themselves, and it was a very relaxed shoot. The one character who’s making all the jokes was just throwing them out the entire day. And my DP, Cyrus Yoshi Tabar, is extremely talented. I would tell him, “Do you,” because he’s really good at what he does and the visual looks amazing.
I think that scene works so well because it’s about internalized tension, what your character is thinking and worried about.
Which brings me to the actual climax of your film. Police brutality is such a hot-button issue right now, so I was wondering if that was something you wanted to make a movie about from the get-go, or did you just want to capture a more personal experience first and foremost?
It was intended to be about that. When I started my semester in early September, there were two police killings that happened. I thought, “this shit just keeps happening.” And that’s when I remembered this is what I came to film school for. So I immediately knew I wanted to make a film about that. The two black actors and myself sat down and shared our personal stories dealing with the police and made a story out of them. I don’t know about your social media timeline, but on mine a lot of people discredit an activist because they’re gay. Which is absurd because they’re the ones on the front lines, fighting for us. So I wanted to make a film about how even though you’re gay, the first thing people see is that you’re black. You can’t raise your hands and say “don’t shoot, I’m gay.” It won’t work. So I wanted this film to be about someone who is gay and is trying to find themselves, but also has to deal with the weight of racial profiling. At the end of the day, it’s something we worry about every day, regardless of our sexuality. And it shouldn’t matter what our sexuality is, but to some people it does. So I realized those were two things I needed to combine.
That’s very powerful. How did your background influence all of this? I noticed you were listed under the school’s faculty as well.
Well, I taught a weeklong film class for junior high students this past summer. The students got a chance to work as a team and make a short film. Before this position I worked at an after-school program for two years teaching film skills to high school students in Oakland. So it was a bit hectic because junior high students are so sporadic and hyper, and also on their cellphones. But honestly it worked out really well, they made some great films. I definitely like the idea of teaching film to students so I could see myself doing that at some point in the future. Part of the reason why I think the film turned out the way it did is because this film was basically my “coming out.” Outside of my immediate family, a few friends, and people I’ve met in California, no one knew that I was gay before this film/Indiegogo campaign. The mind state I was in while making this film was kind of like, if I’m going to risk losing family and friends for a movie, I have to put my all into it. So It’s weird to think of how much I thought this would end relationships when it actually didn’t. Kind of made them stronger. Two of my best friends [Eric and Tre] from middle school came all the way from Illinois and Texas to the graduation screening.
That’s amazing. And you’re still early in your festival run, you said?
That’s correct, it hasn’t played at any festivals yet!
I’m really impressed by the film. It’s awesome to see how honest and personal a student film can be if it tries. I think a lot of film school projects get so bogged down by the excitement of gear and tech that they forget to be raw with their emotions. That’s an authenticity that doesn’t come everyday.
I appreciate it. Take care!
Catch I LIVE HERE on the festival circuit later this year, and keep your eyes peeled for more of Shane’s work down the line!