Londoners and Time Travelers and Banshees, Oh My! Writing Modern ‘Folklore’

Secrets and Lies. The Remains of the Day. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This is Spinal Tap. Minority Report. Ask a film buff to list some favorite films, and these likely will turn up on more than one person’s Top 10. Ask screenwriter/director, Justin Calen Chenn why these films are significant, and he can explain how each one is part of a filmmaker’s curriculum.

Secrets and Lies taught Chenn how to open up and “release all the troubled emotions I had inside.” British director Mike Leigh’s other films, including Career Girls and Naked, “really helped me to see that the keys to a good film lie in the depth of performance, which in turn comes from the words on the page.” Spinal Tap taught Chenn the nature of an effective mockumentary; in Holy Grail he “found a quirky humor that sort of matched mine.” And Minority Report? “I honestly have no idea on that one” as far as inspiration for his own films, but it’s one of his favorites nonetheless.

Unlike movie audiences that, at best, enjoy and remember a film long after they leave the theater or, at worst, just see it to kill some time at the cinema, Chenn mines the works of other filmmakers to learn how to make movies because, frankly, it was the only way he knew how to go about it. He admits that, although it “sounds a bit odd, when I discovered film in 2007… I didn’t know there were any other roles on a movie set except a director and a writer. Being that I was desperately in need of an emotional outlet at the time, writing and directing was the only way I thought I could save myself, so that’s what I decided to become. The producing just came as a byproduct of me needing to show people I could actually make films. I would like to do all three in varying capacities one day, but for now, writing and directing is where I would like to continue to make my name.”

In a very real way, film saved his life, and he strives to repay the favor by meshing his technical education with inspiration from his troubled past, which includes homelessness and self-harm. Scriptwriting initially met Chenn’s “need for salvation and catharsis. Presently, I still write as an emotional outlet, but moreso, I write because I have grown to love the medium of cinema and the power of storytelling. I see how beautiful, entertaining, cathartic, and educational movies can be to people when the words and image combine to create a great piece.”

Chenn could have become an angry young filmmaker exploring only the darker sides of humanity. Indeed, his first film, the semi-autobiographical The Way of Snow (2008), deals with self-mutilation. Encouraged by his nomination as best director at the International Film Festival of South Africa and awards for editing, production design, and make-up at the Los Angeles New Wave International Film Festival, Chenn has since made two more features—not bad considering he is 29 and discovered the healing power of film only five years ago.

His latest film, Folklore, explores the many iconic characters populating folk legends around the world and finds the humanity within each otherworldly being. The premise is simple: Every two years, the supernatural, extraterrestrial, or otherworldly residents on Earth are interviewed by the Quartz Agency, a firm that has been documenting these latter-day legends for more than a century. Folklore is the interviews recorded by Quartz. Unlike his previous works, this film gave Chenn a chance to “just lighten up. My first two films were very dark and serious… so I wanted to change it up and do a comedy next just to see if I could pull it off. I also came to a professional realization that I wanted to make films that were entertaining and accessible and could be enjoyed by a larger audience, so Folklore was a first step in that direction.”

The film’s international cast and Chenn’s different take on mythology are helping him win new fans as well as awards. “Since folklore is such a universal thing, I thought it would just be nice if I made a film that had a very international cast and crew to reflect that universal spirit. I’m Chinese, my composer was Dutch, my make-up artist was Japanese, and the actors came from England, Ireland, South Africa, France, Scotland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, China, USA, and Norway.” Folklore features a French-speaking android, London-based extraterrestrials, a Scottish vampire, a Chinese deity, and an Icelandic troll. After winning Chenn a best director award at the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and a Silver Palm Award at the Mexico International Film Festival, Folklore is scheduled for screenings in Washington, Chicago, Indianapolis, and even Roswell, New Mexico—quite appropriate for a film that references Area 51.

Today Chenn the writer, who dreams up fantastic ideas for the films he may also direct or produce, chooses to look forward to a sci-fi future rather than go back to a painful past. His most recent writing projects involve “emotionally relatable” stories, “ones that take you to another place. My style has, so far, been a sort of grounded sci-fi fantasy, but I try to make [my scripts] as emotional and grounded in humanity as possible” while taking audiences “to another place, which is where the sci-fi and fantasy comes in. It’s a combination of being relatable, while being entertained that is fascinating to me.” Not only does Folklore illustrate the evolution of Chenn’s storytelling; it clarifies the writer’s voice and gives his characters some interesting things to say.

Speaking for “Others”

Plenty of storytellers focus on one outsider whose “otherness” becomes a catalyst for “normal” characters’ changes. In Folklore, every character is “other”, whether he is the newest interviewer in a company documenting resident supernatural aliens, or she is a water nymph seeking a landlubber’s love. Providing a unique voice and offering surprising character studies are Chenn’s strengths as a writer. Because the Folklore characters are such wide-ranging mythic beings as a time traveler, banshee, dragon, shapeshifter, werewolf, and unicorn, “I thought that grounding them all and portraying them as outsiders would help audiences associate themselves with the characters. It was important to me that the audience identify with or, at the very least, understand all the characters’ plights. On a personal level, I know the feeling of being an outsider because, due to unavoidable circumstances, I have had to start over a couple of times and leave old lives behind.”

Making a “human” connection is the lynchpin to Chenn’s script. Several characters reaffirm old relationships or make new connections during the course of the film. The central character is Nairie Sleen, a water nymph who left behind an emotionally unfulfilling engagement to an undersea prince in order to find true love on land. Of all Folklore’s characters, she is Chenn’s favorite, as well as the easiest for him to write, because she inspires the “hopeless romantic” inside him. The most difficult to create was “Collins Jahn, the human male interviewer. It was hard because he was a regular man and a human so his dialogue was very grounded in normalcy. Maybe this will change in the future, but when it comes to writing, it’s a lot easier for me to write when words are more heightened or stylized or said with a British accent and/or a foreign accent! I think this is because I love studying different types of slang and cultural colloquialisms.”

Folklore is a hit with Chenn, as well as audiences, because of the acting ensemble, which also won an award in Boston. “When people say the actors are amazing, and the writing is top notch, that makes me happy, because acting and writing are the core of a film and, without them, a film can falter and struggle. I can’t thank the actors enough for being so believable and game to do anything I asked.” The production included many other creative collaborators, and Chenn makes a point of thanking them all. “I have also received many a compliment on the film’s music… Composer Sunna Wehrmeijer did a beautiful job. And many have highlighted the naturalistic, subtly beautiful cinematography as well, so thank you to director of photography Collier Landry for his work.”

The Genesis of a Story

Cast and crew brought Chenn’s script to life, but a writer first has to nurture a seed of a story long before it comes to fruition as film. Unlike writers welded to a laptop or smartphone, Chenn is surprisingly traditional with his brainstorming. “For the most part, I get a vague idea of what I might want to do, and then I start to write ideas in a notebook, old fashioned pen and paper.” Catching himself sounding like an “old timer”, Chenn had to comment on his word choice. “Did I really just say pen and paper were old fashioned? How sad.”

“Handwriting helps me think better, and being able to doodle and sketch helps me work through thoughts. After I get a general outline done, I start on the computer and get to typing out the structure. I make sure I know the beginning and end before I start typing. And yes, I have a huge file of random ideas I keep written and/or stored on the computer so whenever I reach a rut, aka writer’s block, on a new idea, I go back to an old idea and write/tweak some of that to get myself in the rhythm again.”

A good shooting script, in Chenn’s experience, relies on “depth and/or a strong sense of where the story is going and what it’s trying to do. Depth wise, you have to give the actors enough to latch onto so they can become engaged in the story and breathe life into it, whether it’s dramatic or comedic. For me, it all goes back to making sure you give the actors enough [so they can] do what they are meant to do.”

The Folklore script speeded up Chenn’s typical story-development process. The script “came together rather quickly and in a rare blitz of inspiration. After a bigger project I was working on sadly came to a halt, I started panicking. Since I still wasn’t known, I realized I needed to continue to make product so I could keep getting my name out there. Days went by, and no ideas came. But one fateful night, the idea came to me in a moment of surreal clarity. Cue singing angels. When I woke up, the idea for Folklore was in my mind. Two weeks later, the screenplay was done and ready to go out. Again, the process never happens like this for me, but I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

Although the story’s concept was well established in Chenn’s mind, the format evolved from a short film to a full-length feature with sixteen roles. The filmmaker “made a video and pitched it on Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website which is now the golden trend for a lot of indie filmmakers.” As the term suggests, crowd funding invites interested backers, who may be fans, family, or friends in addition to industry insiders or corporate sponsors, to donate cash or supplies so a film can be made. Creating an indie film thus becomes a group project, and donors often receive thanks ranging from a film credit line to special preview screenings to film-related merchandise (e.g., t-shirts or DVDs) to a small share of any future profits.

In his video to potential investors, Chenn “pitched the idea of mythic beings being interviewed, and that seemed to get a lot of people interested because it was a unique concept. Luckily, people liked my pitch and my personal backstory, so I got enough support to make my goal, thanks to all the film’s supporters, many of whom are in the film industry.”

With funding secured, Chenn could make his movie, and his focus necessarily had to shift from scriptwriter to director. The “writer” side of his personality didn’t become overly protective when actors wanted to change a bit of dialogue or expressed their opinion about their character. Chenn loves “when actors come up with their own ideas to make things better or funnier or exciting. In Folklore we had a day of rehearsals where the actors would give their ideas and suggest things that I would add to an already existing screenplay. And then on set, we would keep the lines that drove the narrative the same, [but] I would let them riff even more on the parts where we could have a little fun. I think it’s always good to have a screenplay set but then be open to great things that can come when you’re in the moment on set.”

Scripting a Success Story

Justin Calen Chenn

Folklore continues the thematic trend Chenn began with his previous film, sci-fi anthology Embers of the Sky (2010). After learning from Jean Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), the writer realized that he “could do sci-fi but also make it very human and grounded.” Sci-fi and fantasy appeal to him because they provide “heightened reality and the chance to create something wholly original.” As a result, the majority of Chenn’s as-yet-unproduced screenplays are in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, two of which he hopes to make as his next feature films soon.

Chenn’s outline for future success is quite simple. With films like Folklore, he just wants “to make people laugh, be touched, and be entertained.” Nevertheless, he also likes to write dramas that “have a lot more emotional and deeper things to say and explore about the human condition (sorry, had to use that pretentious term), so I hope when I do, people will be first entertained, then touched and provoked by what I have to say.”

This young writer (as well as director/producer) has come far in a few years, but his increasing success shows no sign of jading him to the business of telling stories. Chenn is sincere when he explains that he wants “to keep giving back to the medium that saved me, by being dedicated and becoming the best filmmaker I can be.” With such dedication to his art and determination to grow as a storyteller, Chenn is writing his own success story.