A entry into SBIFF Santa Barbara Filmmakers series, Shuffle is a thought-provoking mindbender of a film that explores memory, family, children, death, and more. It stars T.J. Thyne as a narcoleptic photographer whose age-jumping existence — one second he’s old, the next he’s a child, the next he’s middle-aged, etc. — turns out to be a mystery needing solving, and the answer will certainly surprise you.
Director Kurt Kuenne recently answered a few of my questions via email.
How’d you come up with this idea?
The idea came out of a brainstorming session with an development executive friend of mine who noticed from my other work that I liked to play with structure. When the idea of a man who lives his life out of order came up, I don’t think either of us knew what it meant, but the sentence really resonated with me, so I went home and played around with the idea.
After about a week, I came up with the basic story. I presented the outline to my exec friend, and while his company decided not to hire me to write it for them — they were looking for something more broad and comedic, whereas I was presenting something that was more Twilight Zone in tone — he really liked it and encouraged me to write the screenplay anyway and see what came of it, which I did. It sat around unmade for several years until T.J. Thyne read it, then he and I decided to shoot it on his hiatus from Bones a couple of summers ago.
Do you have or know anyone who has memory problems or narcolepsy?
I don’t know anyone who has memory problems, but there is narcolepsy in my family, so I do have a lot of firsthand experience with it. I certainly wasn’t seeking to write a story about narcolepsy when I wrote Shuffle. But while conceiving the story, I asked myself, “What’s the best obstacle you can give to a character who doesn’t know where or when he’s going to be every time he falls asleep?” And it seemed that being unable to control when you’re going to fall asleep was a great thing for the main character to have to fight against, particularly if he needed to stay awake on a particular day of his life to discover a piece of information. Since I had a lot of personal experience with it, I felt very comfortable melding it into the story.
Why did you decide to shoot it in black & white?
This story just seemed to play better in black & white, partly because of the Twilight Zone-esque subject matter, and partly because of the Capra-esque undertones the film has. We see the world in color, so black & white is a step removed from that, which automatically makes the experience more unreal and magical, which fits perfectly with the experience that the main character is having in this story. I lit the film in a very stylized, chiaroscuro fashion to capture the almost-dream state that the character is experiencing, and while in color that style looks a bit more arch, it fits like a glove in black and white.
What’s your SB connection?
T.J.’s brother, John J. Thyne, is a Santa Barbara resident (he’s a local attorney and broker) and he was very instrumental in putting this film together and making it happen from a business perspective. He’s continued to be an incredible support, not just through the shooting process but in everything that has followed. I’m tremendously grateful to him for everything he’s done and everything he continues to do on behalf of this film.
How was working with T.J. Thyne?
T.J. is a consummate professional. I’ve known him since college; we lived next door to each other at USC, and I used to cast him in small projects that I shot for school. We’d been wanting to work together in some significant way for awhile, so I wrote a short film called “Validation” for him several years ago, which we made a few years back and ended up becoming quite popular (it just passed 6 million views on YouTube over the holidays). We had a great time making that, so we decided to bite off something bigger with Shuffle.
The role of Lovell Milo is a very difficult one to play, as he’s not only playing one character across seven decades, but he’s also having an experience where he’s both an observer and a participant in his own life at the same time. Making that play for an audience while engaging them in the character is a very tricky thing, and he pulls it off beautifully. Add to that the fact that T.J. was producing the film with me as we were shooting, always treating the other cast and crew members with respect, and that he opened his home up to us a prime location. You can’t help but be impressed by his stamina and his ability to multi-task. Shooting a movie with him has been a marvelous experience both times I’ve done it.
Shuffle screens on Tuesday, January 31, 7 p.m., at the Metro 4.