Russell & Christensen on "Cul De Sac" & Keeping American Short Film Alive

Somewhere a team of CGI creators are bunkered down, right clicking their way to carpal-tunneled glory, focused on bringing an alien invasion to life for a director they’ll never meet who just got off the phone with a movie studio panicking about the millions being hemorrhaged in pursuit of a summer blockbuster.

And then, somewhere else, there are Damon Russell and Shawn Christensen

I can’t believe you have this beautiful camera just sitting there, we need to do something with it.
— Damon Russell

Russell and Christensen reconnected at a time in their lives when disillusionment and boredom were the prevailing moods, with Christensen leaving the music industry and Russell filling his days working on reality TV shows, jobs that at least gave him the chance to shoot everyday but didn’t offer much in the way of fulfillment.

And then Russell spotted a vaunted Red camera collecting dust in Christensen’s room. That feeling of being a kid getting his first camera immediately echoed into adulthood and the duo began shooting with no grander ambitions than making something cool with our friends.

“There really was no end game,” said Russell. “It was refreshing not to have to worry about investors, or how we’re going to make our money back, but just make something that impresses ourselves.”

They impressed people anyway. In relatively short order that 'have fun with your friends' ethos resulted in an Oscar for their short film Curfew, but while that kind of success would serve as a portal to the world of big budget features for the opposite-minded, Russell and Christensen have remained stubbornly and brilliantly married to short film as a medium.

While the Academy recognizes short film, and the international audience and market for the format is booming internationally, in the U.S. it’s largely looked at as a stepchild to the feature film industry. That makes sense if your goal is mass audience, but doesn’t if your real, true goal is making amazing things while keeping your destiny firmly grasped in your own hands.

We came up with a short film in January, we wrote it, we shot it in March, and boom, we were done. It’s something we did, it allows you to be on the set, working, honing your craft, all these things you don’t do when you’re waiting to get jobs or get funding in the film industry. It’s really about not wanting to wait on other people to make your art.
— Shawn Christensen

And so now the world is looking at Cul de Sac, the latest result of that creative drive from the duo. After a move upstate, Christensen found himself both comforted and unsettled by the quiet beauty of his neighborhood. The suburban cul de sac at night is both cozy and eerie in its perfectness.


Hence the comforting teddy bear, hence the eerie video camera hidden inside it, and hence Cul de Sac’s exploration of that note without distraction. As Russell said, “Short film allows you to explore one note, one idea, without filler, if you do it right. We don’t get into anything, relationships before or after, we don’t make any overt statements about past, present or future.”

Damon Russell's Short Films You Should Watch
My Father's Truck - Mauricio Osaki
Oh Lucy! - Atsuko Hirayanagi
Baghdad Messi - Sahim Omar Kalifa
Thunder Road - Jim Cummings

That future is open and contains multitudes. The day may come when the pair move into feature film, when they have their own platoon CGI animators at their command, but I can’t see them ever giving up short film. For Russell and Christensen, it’s not an alternative but the work itself, a way to stay connected to the raw power of creativity and collaboration, a vital power source that is both the means and the end. 

So whatever the larger industry thinks of short film really doesn’t matter. For them it’s about those few months they get to spend with their friends making a movie, and for us it's about those few minutes we spend watching Cul de Sac transfixed. That’s enough. It’s more than enough.

By Nathan Slavik, aka @RefinedHype

1 Comment