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

Still from Folklore (2012) -- all images courtesy of Justin Calen Chenn

Ever wonder what kind of pickup line a banshee would use with a troll? Why aliens settled in London? How a time traveler’s riddle might save the planet? Scriptwriter Justin Calen Chenn does—and he shares the answers in his latest film, Folklore.


Director: Justin Calen Chenn
Cast: Laura Waddell, Paulie Rojas, Maria Olsen
Year: 2012

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.

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

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