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Give Me the Backstory: Get to Know Tom CJ Brown, the Filmmaker Behind “Christopher at Sea”

One of the most exciting things about the Sundance Film Festival is having a front-row seat for the bright future of independent filmmaking. While we can learn a lot about the filmmakers from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival through the art that these storytellers share with us, there’s always more we can learn about them as people. This year, we decided to get to the bottom of those artistic wells with our Backstory questionnaire!

When Tom CJ Brown heard about an artist residency aboard a cargo ship in 2015, he knew he’d found the perfect setting for a romance film. “But I felt the setting of a cargo ship was too predatory for a heteronormative love story and realized this all-male environment was the perfect place for a queer relationship.” And that’s not all he realized. “I realized the real reason I wanted to write a gay love story was probably that I was gay… which was news to me.”

That revelatory idea led to Christopher at Sea, a 21-minute short directed and co-written by Brown that screened as part of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival Animation Short Film Program. Brown took his inspiration seriously: “I embarked as a passenger on a cargo ship for 21 days as a research trip to gather reference imagery and add some realism to the melodrama of my fantasies.” In the short, reality and fantasy blur together amid vibrant animated sequences that illustrate Christopher’s infatuation with a male crew member on a cargo ship.

Below, discover the challenges that came with animating the film, how puppets prompted Brown’s decision to become a filmmaker, and why queer stories are crucially needed now.

Films are lasting artistic legacies; what do you want yours to say?

Christopher at Sea is a time capsule of my truth, both in terms of my personal experience and who I am as a filmmaker. This film is who I am.

Describe who you want this film to reach.

This film was made for the LGBTQ+ community, to share with them my version of our collective experience of self-discovery that every queer person must face. But I hope that the film resonates with all audiences to give an honest and emotive insight into our world.

Tom CJ Brown

Why does this story need to be told now?

Shootings at nightclubs, drag show alert systems, the “Don’t Say Gay” bills — the LGBTQ+ community is under increased attack around the world. There is no safe space for us to go and we aren’t going anywhere, so connecting with audiences and sharing our stories is one way we can reach out to the world and tell them we are human. The Gay Agenda is real, but it’s not about turning straight kids gay, it’s about making sure queer kids survive.

Tell us an anecdote about casting or working with your actors.

I found Jocelyn Si, who plays Christopher, through an article in the Gay Times. He’s literally the coolest person I’d ever seen, and after watching interviews of him, I knew that his bashful composure — complete with shy, tilting head — was perfect for Christopher. We were lucky enough to record the voice-over while his band, Walt Disco, were recording their debut album — so he had a full recording setup in his home for a classic pandemic Zoom recording session.

Your favorite part of making the film? Memories from the process?

The animation was all made at an animation residency at the Ciclic Animation studio in France, in the Loire Valley, so I got to spend 7 months out there. It was peak pandemic, but I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to location-scout the châteaux of the Loire Valley for another project I’ve been developing. I picked the perfect car for such an excursion — a 1979 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith II — and spent my weekends gliding down the country roads, windows open, opera blaring, screaming around the French countryside on my way to the next fabulous château. My original plan was to visit 20 châteaux in 20 weekends, but somehow managed to visit 37 before I realized I’d gone too far.

What was a big challenge you faced while making this film?

Twenty minutes is roughly the equivalent of 14,440 frames of animation, which is a lot of drawing. We based the look of the film on my illustration style, which takes a lot of reference from the luscious folds of fabric in Renaissance art, and I really wanted to capture this in Christopher’s sweater. Inspired by Nicholas Hoult’s sweater in A Single Man, I wanted it to have a certain feel to it, ethereal, almost floating — you can feel the slow melody of the air flowing through his sweater. When drawing it, if we had to choose between what was correct and fashion, we chose fashion. So each frame of the film is a totally unique drawing of the sweater, we used a large fluffy brush to color it and finally added a boiling paint texture that we also used in the sea so there was this visual link between the two.

Tell us why and how you got into filmmaking. Why do you do it?

When I was 16, I visited the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford in the UK, where they had an entire floor dedicated to animation. In there they had the sets and puppets from Barry Purves’ film Achilles, and I was totally enchanted. They screened the film on a tiny CRT monitor next to the set, and as I watched the beautifully animated stop-motion puppets, naked and in all their Adonis beauty wrestling and caressing each other, I decided in that moment that I wanted to be an animator. Decades later, I realize that my revelation in that moment should have been “I’m gay,” but then I wouldn’t be having brunch with Robert Redford.

Why is filmmaking important to you? Why is it important to the world?

Filmmaking gives me the opportunity and privilege to turn my imaginings and fantasies into reality and share them with the world. I don’t do it because I have to; I do it because I must. To give the world a peek into our individual experience and share our stories is how we can relate and emote with one another, and that is what the world needs.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what would you be doing?

Eccentric hotelier.

What is something that all filmmakers should keep in mind in order to become better cinematic storytellers?

Geography — if you can establish a clear geography within your film, everything else will fall into place.

What three things do you always have in your refrigerator?

Bananas, 24k gold snail eye gels, and a bottle of champagne just in case something good happens.

What’s the last book you read?

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

One thing people don’t know about me is ______.

I haven’t gotten any taller, they just forgot how tall I am.

Early bird or night owl?

90% of this film was created after sunset.

What’s your history with Sundance Institute?

My graduation film, t.o.m., played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007, and my second film, teeth, screened in 2015. Christopher at Sea at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival makes it 3/3.

What’s your favorite film that has come from the Sundance Institute or Festival?

Four Weddings and a Funeral

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