For composer Francois Byers and director Bishen Sen, the idea for their new short film “Clara” arose from an experience that would prove to be seeded in fraud.
“I thought I was being trolled at first,” Byers said, laughing as he recalled the story of how the original idea for “Clara” came to be. “I was just out of college and living in Portland around 2014 and I was unemployed, and I was having fun on Chat Roulette and met this girl from the Netherlands. And randomly, right off the bat, she told me that she had Stage 4 lung cancer.”
And after a few weeks of talking and connecting, a strange relationship was born.
“She told me she had this contract or something that said if she didn’t get better in a few months then they would pull the plug or whatever. So we continued talking and then one day I contacted her the day before they were going to pull the plug and didn’t get a response.”
A few days later, Byers received a Facebook message from the girl’s father, informing him that she had passed, but that she had left a letter saying how grateful she was to have someone to talk to and connect with at the end.
“Our conversations were really relaxed and I would ask her about her experience and if she was scared and all that,” Byers said. “She had this lack of fear because I was [a] stranger, you know, so we were really able to open up and it was really kind of bittersweet. So I told Bishen about it and that we should do a short film. And then we sort of just got to work on it.”
Nailing down the script and storylines over the past four years, Byers and Sen took glimpses of Byers’ experience and formed what was to become “Clara.” The film runs around 20 minutes and is about a jingle writer and suicide-attempter named Ross and a nurse named Clara. Grappling with the recent death of his child and the end of his marriage, Ross works and lives by himself in his garage. His numerous attempts at suicide land him in the hospital where he finds a companion in Clara, a cheerful and compassionate nurse who is recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The film focuses on the beginning of their journey together, exploring how one person with severe depression and another with cancer can provide grace to each other’s struggles.
“We worked hard on it but then the backstory sort of took a strange twist,” Byers said. “About five months ago, I was telling my girlfriend about all of it. And so we searched for the girl I met online, because she had taken her Facebook down, but then we found her and she had pictures and was still alive. I was like, what the f***, this whole time she was alive and totally trolled me for four years.”
Contribute to the Kickstarter for Clara.
“It was weird and so convincing — I really thought she was dead,” Byers said, laughing. “But it led me into writing songs and melodies for her, sort of in homage. And then it was shocking to find all of it out, that all of these feelings were just false. But despite all of that, we still wanted to continue the idea we had from all of it, and really get into the mental sickness next to physical sickness, this colliding of two worlds.”
A pianist and second half for Winston-Salem-based Delta-Gypsy-folk band Bjorn and Francois, Byers wrote the score for “Clara,” his first film score, something he is becoming fascinated with.
“I’m having to write a lullaby for one scene, and then this super dark theme for another,” Byers said. “Conventional scores work with orchestral sounds and Protools, but this is all piano. It’s similar to what Bjorn and I do, sort of bringing melodies to the table and seeing what works. But now I’m having to translate these pieces to Bishen who doesn’t know music at all. He’ll try and describe what he has in mind and I have to find ways of making sense and getting to that place. But a lot of it is starting from scratch, and so I’ll sort of drift while playing and imagine scenes from the script and put myself in that world. It’s almost like method-writing for me.”
“Clara” is set to be filmed in Charlotte and different locations around North Carolina this April, with a Kickstarter campaign up and running to raise the last portion of the production budget.
But even with deadlines looming and the final pieces still falling into place, Byers is focused on this new way of creating his music.
“Writing the score is an entirely new beast for me,” Byers said. “You have to keep the script and all of the scenes in mind, while also keeping it simple and meaningful. It’s been a weird road for it all, but it’s really amazing to see how it all is coming together finally.”