After a successful showing at Cannes this year, Hollywood is talking about director Brent Roske’s “African Chelsea,” a gripping live action short film that’s now eligible for an Oscar nomination. “African Chelsea” follows a young woman working as an exotic dancer who is simultaneously dealing with the fallout from her mother. I spoke with Roske about the inspiration behind the film, the artistic interpretation of the story and the actors who brilliantly bring the film to life.
Q: Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell me where did the idea behind ‘African Chelsea’ came from?
A: I wanted to make something with Corinne Becker (the actress who plays the main character, Chelsea) but I didn’t know what it would be. Something about alienation in a big city and loneliness but I hadn’t put it together yet. I was at a bar in East LA and the group I was meeting hadn’t arrived yet. I started chatting with the bouncer and told him he should do some acting. That was Tosa Oghbagado (the African in ‘African Chelsea’) and when Academy Award Nominee Sally Kirkland said, “Yes” to the project, we shot it two weeks later.
Q: Everything from the way it was shot, to the sound, to the editing is very stylized. What was the inspiration behind these artistic choices?
A: The movie is supposed to live in that almost-dream state, so I used a lens that literally bends so you can decide what part of the frame is in focus. I wanted the viewer to know all the elements were being used to tell the story. As most people will be seeing it on their laptops I wanted the look to stand out so it’s not just another camcorder special. It’s amazing how so many people are saying, “Just grab a camera and shoot it.” It’s not that easy. Quality is still quality.
Q: I know you’ve directed and produced a number of different projects from commercials, to TV specials, to film. What made you decide to make a short? Do you have a lot of experience creating short films or is this a new endeavor?
A: Working in television is great and I enjoy the fast turnaround (Roske was a creative director at NBC Universal for nine years) but I like features as well. My feature ‘Playground Girls’ showed at MOCA and I’ve made a couple of shorts before. It’s similar to spot work as it’s just a couple days of shooting and you’re on to the next project.
Q: What are some of your favorite short films or filmmakers?
A: I’m a fan of a lot of different directors – from traditional to experimental. Paul Haggis is awesome, and of course, I’d love to direct a script written by Sorkin. I’m just happy to be in the game.
Q: I loved the ending of the film. Was it left intentionally vague in order to provoke a specific thought or emotion?
A: I wanted to keep it open-ended. I think the audience is more forgiving with a short in that they don’t need a perfect bow on the story. Corinne, Sally, Tosa and Jilon are excellent actors and brought a lot of magic to the film.
Q: What do you want viewers to take away from ‘African Chelsea?’
A: I hope viewers feel empathy for Corinne’s character and even for Sally’s. Everyone has a cross to bear. That’s easy to forget.
Q: What kind of feedback and responses have you been getting thus far? Has it surprised you?
A: People have really liked it and I’m grateful for that. The film goes straight at you and demands a lot from the audience, but maybe people appreciate that. It’s not slapstick. It’s a tough drama with great performances. The actors deserve a good reaction to it and I’m glad we’ve received that.